Since I was little I’ve always had a fascination with the Vietnam War, I don’t know why, it probably has something to do with my father and his influence on me at a young age. We used to sit and watch so many war films (probably when I shouldn’t have been, I remember watching Full Metal Jacket far too young) I’d lose count, but we’d watch them all; Hamburger Hill, Platoon, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Born of the Fourth of July and The Deer Hunter.
Whatever my fascination was with this, it was deep and rich and completely immersive – and that is what we get with Severed by Joshua Marsella. Not only has Marsella been able to craft a deeply disturbing story, woven with some truly creepy and horrific elements, he’s also been able to masterfully render the time, the place, the soldiers and the horrors that took place in this most brutal of wars.
The horror in Severed is complex and with many layers, each one adding to the next before the reader is smothered under its weight. You have the horrors of war, the horrors of what makes monsters of men, the horror that a small fishing village face from a predatory evil that has been tormenting them for a century, you have detailed injury detail which at times had me curling my toes with its brutality, and the gore, oh the gore is delightful (and if you know me, I love a bit of gore, in what I’m reading and writing) – but the underlying theme of the whole piece is the unique supernatural element that binds this story together, it is something that is deep, dark and insatiable and it will not stop until it’s achieved what it set out to do.
This is a sequel / prequel to Scratches (Marsella’s debut) but it is also a standalone book, if you’ve not read Scratches you could pick this book up and it would work as a standalone horror novella, full of scares and thrills and told with a breakneck pace that would have you finishing the book in one sitting – I almost did before I had to put it down and do some fatherly things with my girls, you see you can lose yourself in this book, in the jungle that Marsella has created, the world building in this novella transports you to the heat, humidity, terror and mosquito filled jungles of Vietnam – it’s a character in its own right.
But, back to the sequel / prequel stuff – in this book we find out how our main antagonist from Scratches became the evil sonofabitch that graces they pages of Marsella’s debut. I for one also love a great origin story (Michael Clark’s ‘Dead Woman Scorned’ is one of the best origin tales I’ve read – and this is up there with that in the birth of evil stakes) there is something quite brilliant about finding out the reasons for how the monster came to be and Marsella in Severed achieves this like a veteran writer, peeling back the layers on George Hanscott until we can’t help but stare in wonder at what he has concocted and the vile monster from Scratches is reveled in all his horrific glory.
The characterisations in this book are the glue that hold it all together, and his work around the soldiers is something to admire and I enjoyed a lot, the banter, the shit talking, the sense of brotherhood, it was all anchored in something real and tangible – and knowing Marsella, I also know that he is a veteran himself, he served in the Army and I feel that it is this valuable insight that Marsella has which has enabled him to craft these soldiers so well, it is his personal experience of War that has enabled these characters to jump from the page. I’ve never read a Vietnam Horror before, and I’m not sure if there are other books that deal with this theme, but if not Marsella has crafted a genre all by himself and I for one loved it.
But what I really loved were all the little nods to Scratches, things that ensured this book is connected in such a way that the true beauty of it shines through with these little references, as I said it’s not essential that you’ve read Scratches first, but I’d recommend it, but I can also see how if you read this book first you would also really enjoy seeing how this played out in Marsella’s debut Scratches, they work together beautifully, with great skill, craft and dedication shown at ensuring this binds wonderfully together. In all honesty I think I preferred this offering to Scratches, it seemed richer and you can really see the development of Marsella’s craft, he’s been putting in the hours to make his storytelling that much crisper and deeper and his prose was a delight – I know some people mentioned this with his debut, that it needed work (and he listened and then put out an updated version of the book), but here in Severed – boy what a treat!
The only issue I had with the book at it is a small one, is that some of the scenes of trekking through the jungle became a little repetitive, but I did read an early version of the novella and I am told by the author that he has headed some suggestions and changed this for the version that will be released. (I was a beta reader)
An unflinching journey into the depravity of war and the horrors that lurk beneath the surface, dark, horrific and masterfully brutal, I’d go as far to say we are witnessing the awakening of a fierce talent in the independent horror scene, prepare to be scared.
Severed is available here.
Joshua Marsella is the author of SCRATCHES which was self-published in May of 2020. He has also written several short stories that will be published in the near future in various anthologies. He currently works at his home in Maine as a stay-at-home dad with his two sons and wife Aryn.
Reviewed by Ross Jeffery
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