Crystal Lake Publishing's 'Dark Tide Vol. 8: Against The Clock' Offers Nail-Biting Suspense Fiction

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On the storytelling family tree, suspense and horror are shoots of the same literary branch, attached to a common trunk and rooted in our primitive collective reptilian brain. That sense of disquieting tension one feels when watching Clarice Starling wade through the murky pitch darkness of Buffalo Bill’s death house plucks a chord deep within our psyche, reminding us of a time when our distant, primal ancestors braved untamed wilds on a daily basis.

In comparison to our ancient forebearers, humankind presently exists in a time and place of relative comfort. The dangers to our existence are no longer a stalking saber-toothed tiger or once-incurable pathogens, but rather stem, mostly, from each other. Humanity’s inhumanity towards itself is an ever-present menace, one that can safely be explored and examined in fictional form. That such tales trigger a pleasant burst of palpitant adrenaline is a generous side-effect, and explains their enduring popularity. But what, exactly, is the difference between suspense and horror? Where does the line delineating one end and the other begin?

A subsidiary to their bread-and-butter mainstay of horror releases, Crystal Lake Publishing has ventured into the realms of suspense and mystery with their Dark Tide series, the eighth of which, arriving May 12th and entitled Against The Clock, consists of three novellas by different writers seeking to answer that very question with dread-inducing results.

Lucid author Mark Allan Gunnells’ ‘80’s-set nail-biter, ‘Septic’, opens the volume in taut fashion. It focuses on Carl, the only male teenager on his high school’s cheerleading squad, whose worsening stomachache inadvertently leads him to become trapped in one of the campus bathrooms after the door’s faulty lock breaks. Imprisoned alone, Carl’s plight turns desperate once he realizes his gastrointestinal distress is due not to food poisoning, but a burst appendix. Will his concerned friends be able to convince others that Carl’s absence is in need of investigating, or will he succumb to sepsis before help arrives?

The second entry, ‘Subscription Due’, Shane Nelson’s surreal, paranoia-drenched Kafka-esque labyrinth of conspiracies and otherworldly entities, is far afield from Gunnells’ reality-based thriller yet nonetheless ratchets up the anxiety with each passing page. When writer Rupert Seville receives a bill for a magazine he never subscribed to, it begins a journey into an abyss of living photographs, unearthly hitmen and an increasingly bizarre plot that reaches back through the generations of Rupert’s bloodline.

‘Pixelated’ by Brandon Ford, rounds out the trilogy with the genuinely unsettling slow-burn tale of Tanner, a man who inherits his late grandfather’s house in a shabby south Philly neighborhood. At first overwhelmed by a nostalgic wave from times spent there as a latch-key kid during his youth, Tanner soon becomes drawn into a nightmare when he discovers a cache of ancient VHS tapes that may prove his loving grandfather was secretly a stone-cold serial murderer.

All the novellas in Against The Clock are engrossing, superbly satisfying pressure-cookers of excitement, though each achieves that distressing state in decidedly diverse ways. Of the three, only author Gunnells creates what could be considered an authentic suspense yarn; utilizing the ‘countdown’ theme to full effect, he masterfully orchestrates Carl’s plight from the first line, then increasingly stacks the odds against him, with the teen’s appendicitis acting as a deadly timing device. That’s not to say the other two entries don’t succeed in their aim to perturb the audience—far from it. Nelson’s unconventional ‘Subscription Due’ channels Stephen King in the best of ways, as the progressively perplexing situation evolves into a violent fight for survival for Rupert and his wife; of particular note are the two Tommy Gun-toting assassins, Seven and Nine, incessantly creepy creatures who finish each other’s sentences and have a keen knack for torture. ‘Pixelated’, in contrast, fosters suspense in starkly subtle ways. The plot’s main thrust—the discovery of a collection of gruesome home-videos—is fondly reminiscent of the V/H/S film series, and builds its tension steadily, relying on mood and the memories of its lead to weave an inescapable cocoon of madness. The main strength here is Ford’s skillful characterization of his protagonist: Tanner is crafted with easily relatable detail, and once the revelation of his grandfather’s nature is unveiled his subsequent descent into darkness, while slightly predictable, is a sincerely disturbing experience.

Filled with twists, turns and terror, Against The Clock ticks down to zero hour with panache, class and suspenseful style, and deserves a space on the bookshelf of any respecting genre fan. Graded individually, Gunnells’ ‘Septic’ receives top-billing with the full 5 (out of 5) on my Fang Scale, with Ford’s ‘Pixelated’ meriting a close second with a 4.5 (out of 5). Last, but not remotely least, Nelson’s ‘Subscription Due’ earns itself a concrete 4 (out of 5), and Against The Clock as a whole garners a near-perfect 4.5 (out of 5). Recommended reading for a dark and stormy night. Just don’t forget to breathe.

4.5 / 5.0