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Friday April 5, 2013

Seal Team 666 offers thrilling yarn

The military and horror genres collide in a thrilling yarn featuring a hero who was once possessed by a Malaysian demon. Really.

Seal Team 666

Author: Weston Ochse

Publisher: St Martin’s Press, 310 pages

SO, we’ve all read and watched tales of the supernatural where the protagonists/victims find themselves thoroughly unprepared and under-equipped for encounters with anything more terrifying than a wet cat.

Why not a tale of horror featuring a group of highly-trained, well-armed warriors with the latest gear, surveillance and intel, kicking otherworldly butt even more effectively than the Ghostbusters?

That kind of thinking is probably what resulted in SEAL Team 666, by former US Army intelligence officer Weston Ochse. This chap has been writing professionally since 1997, more than a hundred short stories and several novels, mostly in the horror/dark fantasy genre, and I’m a little disappointed (with myself) that I never got wind of his work before.

Ochse’s inside knowledge of military and defence matters serves SEAL Team 666 well, and it also helps that he is quite skilled at crafting page-turning scenarios, making the book an engrossing and speedy read.

Like the book-cover quote says, this is like “The X-Files written by Tom Clancy” – a whimsical idea that the US government actually has a dedicated multi-agency initiative to combat supernatural threats, with its ground ops handled by the titular team of specially chosen SEALs.

The author doesn’t beat around the bush, with the first of SEAL Team 666’s unnatural opposition making an appearance just a few pages into the book – “It stepped forward. Glowing eyes. Taloned hands. Dark skin stretched tightly over elongated bones. Demon.”

Certainly not the kind of paragraph you’d expect after several pages describing a by-the-book night-time infiltration of a hostile-filled compound with silent insertion, sniper cover, silenced weapons and double-taps on unsuspecting sentries.

After one member of the unit is killed in action, green cadet John Walker is pulled out of the final stages of his own SEAL training to fill the vacancy.

He never bargained on being thrown feet-first into a war against supernatural forces, but then his new comrades never figured on getting him, either.

You see, Walker is not just any rookie. He is a survivor of a particularly nasty bout of demonic possession in his childhood, by – of all things – “a Malaysian hantu kubur, or grave demon”. Seems the entity was sent after him as punishment for some unforgivable crime perpetrated by his father, who used to run contraband around the Philippines black market. Uh, you read all that correctly, even the spelling. Hey, take it up with Ochse.

This somewhat liberal interpretation of the hantu kubur legend aside, the book does a good job of carefully feeding the reader glimpses of Walker’s suppressed childhood trauma, relating it to his experiences in the present. His possession has turned him into something of a “sensitive”, as such folks attuned to the supernatural are sometimes termed.

As the FNG (well, two of those letters stand for “new guy” – guess what the first stands for) in the unit, Walker and his uncanny ability have a hard time fitting in, earning him the ire of team leader Holmes. Yet, even with a past like his, Walker soon finds that the only normal day in his military service was yesterday.

The rapid pace of the story results in characterisation that is mostly superficial, with the exception of Walker. One or two of the other SEALs do have their moment, particularly their strategist, Laws, as he attempts to piece together the big picture behind their current batch of missions.

This big picture involves bizarre animated rag-dolls called homunculi; vicious demonic creatures that transform from stone into unnatural flesh when splashed with blood; and suits stitched out of human skin (someone call Clarice Starling!).

The book’s pace hardly slows down for more than a few pages before the team gets whisked off on yet another job, and sometimes this almost episodic structure works against it because the narrative just becomes one multi-part cycle of covert insertion, completing the mission, (sometimes hasty) exfiltration and wound-licking.

Ochse’s no-frills prose lends itself well to this fast-flowing tale because he just gets down to business without excessive situational analysis or long pauses while the characters examine their motives or engage in some pace-killing reflection. Maybe with the exception of Walker, but at least his interludes are mostly about that creepy hantu kubur possession episode.

There is a fair amount of discussion about hardware (as in military grade, not home DIY) put in and this could impede story flow for those who aren’t into guns and ammo. Given the genres mashed up in these pages, I figure that most people who’ve come to this party wouldn’t mind anyway.

There isn’t a whole lot of reading material in the “military horror” sub-genre (unlike military SF, which is so richly served) but SEAL Team 666 is kind of a crowd on its own. All told, a good effort that has been called Ochse’s breakout book, which should bring him a wider audience; going by what is on view here, that is well deserved.

Bring on a sequel, hopefully one with zombies or werewolves in it. And some pretty, glittering vampires too, just so the SEALs can shoot them in the head with projectiles made from frozen holy water.

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