Phoenix by Steve Byrne
Vietnam 1967. Something monstrous has risen from the ashes of war…
When the US marines enter the hidden village of Mau Giang, they unleash an ancient darkness from within its temple walls. A fearful secret kept for generations by the native Montagnard tribespeople. Abraham Curtis travels to Vietnam to visit his sister Jenny, an aid worker in Saigon. Together they join a humanitarian convoy into the Central Highlands, where Jenny is to adopt a child orphaned by the conflict. But the influence of the breached temple is spreading its contagion across the combat zones of Vietnam like gangrene through flesh, and soon it will destroy Bram’s world. Pursued by a bloodthirsty cult, he must search for his missing sister through the war-torn wastelands, his only companions deserters, rebel soldiers and a woman who may not be quite human. Across the world, protestors line the streets. The battle lines are drawn – war and peace, hawk or dove. Is this the apocalyptic coming of the Man of Blood, prophesied by Nostradamus?
Phoenix brings together elements from just about every Vietnam war movie you have ever watched, and adds of a healthy dose of supernatural horror into the mix. Byrne augments the already brutal reality of war with some primeval, shocking extremes. This is a proper old school horror novel, and very little is left to the reader’s imagination. If you choose to read Phoenix, and I would recommend that you do, be prepared for some genuinely vicious and gut-wrenchingly graphic moments.
Travelling from the sleazy war torn streets of Saigon, to the claustrophobic deep shadowy jungle ‘in country’, the evocative settings help add a sinister tone to proceedings. Abraham “Bram” Curtis finds himself, more by accident than by design, slap bang in the middle of a bloody conflict in a country that is almost entirely alien to him. He is unfamiliar with the language and doesn’t understand anything about the local customs, superstitions or rules. It’s genuinely interesting to watch him acclimatise and see how his attitudes change the longer he spends in the war zone. The book covers the period between 1968 up until 1975 and you get to see Bram’s western ideals slowly stripped away. He begins to comprehend that there is a second, far more fundamental, war taking place. The conflict between the American forces and the Viet Cong is masking something far more sinister. Vietnam at that time was a world-wide flashpoint for political and societal change, and the plot taps into this. Byrne takes the opportunity to expand upon this premise and you get the distinct impression that the events unfolding in Bram’s life are a mirror of what is happening everywhere else.
Bram is dragged through the physical and psychological ringer, the various traumas he is forced to endure are pretty damn nasty. The further his journey takes him from his old life the more fragile his grip on sanity becomes. Like Apocalypse Now, this story features a main character whose mental state is slowly picked apart the longer he travels. Other characters drift in and out of the plot, but Bram remains the single constant throughout. In some respects, this novel is as much a character study as it is a horror tale.
The sad fact of the matter is that the extremes of war do lend themselves as a backdrop when it comes to horror fiction. Dealing with conflict gives an author the opportunity to explore those blurred lines that exist between acts of valour or heroism, and pure unadulterated violence. Sometimes it’s only the interpretation of events by the survivors that determine which is which. Byrne treats what would still be considered by many, at least in part, to be a contentious subject delicately. Yes, there are undoubtedly many horrors on display, but they all work within the confines of the narrative.
I actually felt mentally drained by the time I got to the end of Phoenix. The author does such a good job of capturing the insidious nature of battle and the potential for evil deeds that lurks within us all. I found I had to step away from time to time just so I could take a breather. That said I always ended up coming back to the text, I needed to know just how things would eventually play out.
The book ends on a downbeat note, with a suitably damning indictment of modern society, and I rather liked that. Much of the horror explored in Phoenix is of the man-made variety and a schmaltzy, saccharin sweet ending would have undone everything that preceded it. This is harrowing, visceral fiction that is sometimes challenging and often shocking to explore. This novel is most definitely not for the faint of heart. There is something darkly engrossing, stark, and unrepentant about it. I couldn’t look away; it kept me hooked from beginning to end.
Phoenix is published by the author and is available now.