What a belter! Hell’s Ditch is the first of a planned series of four novels from Liverpudlian horror writer Simon Bestwick. It tells the story of a group of rebels fighting an oppressive regime twenty years after the UK has been devastated in a nuclear war. The setting is an area around Manchester run by a military order who, in typically evil style, live rather well while everyone else subsists in grinding poverty. Meanwhile, out at a secret base in the countryside, a scientist straight out of 1970s Doctor Who, is working on a superweapon. How’s that going to work out for him?
Bad things happen to lots of people in this book, often in spectacularly unpleasant ways. It’s hard not to give examples without plot spoilers, but rest assured Mr. Bestwick is a grandmaster at killing people on the page. I’ve always loved Neal Asher’s approach to biological horror and Hell’s Ditch rips along in a similar vein, with blood, gore and body horror very much the order of the day.
The characters in Hell’s Ditch feel like real individuals with hopes, dreams and worries, and were one of the strongest elements of the book for me. They’re the sort of people you want to boo or cheer in a pantomime style every time they come onto the page, and yet they’re nuanced, complex and believable. The small central cast is strongly supported by a number of excellent minor characters who, thanks to careful use of flashbacks and internal narrative, really come to life. Wakefield, Flaps, Ashton, I salute you!
But this is no ordinary post-apocalyptic survival tale. There’s a strongly hopeful antifascist undercurrent here, alongside some extremely sensitive and very complex threads of love. I get the sense that Bestwick is digging deep into his own fears about modern politics, and wants to remind us that there is always hope to be found no matter how terrible things become. Of course, it always helps if you have a genetically engineered super-soldier on your side…!
Hell’s Ditch is a rollercoaster ride of a story that clatters along at a wonderful pace. The control exerted by the region’s leaders, surrounded by ungoverned wasteland and feral gangs, creates an awful sense of claustrophobia and really got me rooting for our band of plucky rebels and hoping for certain alliances. This is a fantastic start to what promises to be an very engaging and horrific series of novels. Bring on the next one!