Hell’s Ditch is the new novel from Simon Bestwick and is published by Snowbooks Ltd. It’s the first in a planned series of four books and is set in post-apocalyptic Britain. The apocalypse in this case has nothing to do with zombies but is instead a result of nuclear war (something that was certainly a concern during my youth and therefore strangely, if not disturbingly, nostalgic) which has eradicated most of the human population and laid waste to huge swathes of the country.
The dominant force in this new Britain is a military dictatorship which has naturally led to the formation of a resistance and although both factions have their share of the narrative, it’s the latter who take precedence, with the narrative focussing mainly on the wonderfully named Helen Damnation, returned to the rebel fold after a closer than normal brush with death. There’s a hint of a resurrection theme to Helen’s story – or rather, backstory – which I’m guessing will be expanded upon in the follow up novels and which confers a messianic vibe to her.
As the first in a series, Hell’s Ditch has a lot of groundwork to do, introducing the new world but also a host of characters. There are plenty of them, operating in three different narrative strands but Simon does a great job of marshalling everything so that at no point do you feel lost, wondering what’s going on or who’s who.
Helen Damnation may be the main focus of the book but another of the characters is possibly the most memorable. He has a great name too – Gevaudan Shoal – which, if my suspicions are correct, nicely combines the two central themes of the book – nuclear warfare and err… wolves. (He could have been called Perigord Niblick but I think Simon chose the right combination). Much fun is to be had with many of the names in this book actually – the secret research programme which makes up one of the narrative strands is called Tindalos which will ring bells with students of Frank Belknap Long (and even Lovecraft) whilst the Styr – mutated creatures found deep underground – have a name which also provides a tenuous link to the consequences of radioactive fall-out.
Gevaudan is the last of the Grendelwolves (yes, I’m guessing – a reference to that Grendel) who becomes a powerful, lycanthropic ally to the rebels but also provides some of the more contemplative moments in the book. Death abounds here – much of it violent – but it’s Gevaudan’s own personal situation that provides some meditation on its true nature.
This is a book bursting with ideas. I particularly liked the idea of ghostlighting – the ability of characters to see the spirits of dead family - but all of them are good and bursting with imagination. The world Simon has created is entirely believable as are the characters who inhabit it. There’s even a little bit of politics – the naming of the military squads as Reapers seems too close to Drone terminology to be a coincidence and one character utters the immortal phrase “we’re all in this together” – and even a bit of ancient Celtic mythology thrown into the mix for good measure.
I loved the time I spent on the world of Hell’s Ditch and I look forward with much anticipation to the follow ups. It’s a book I recommend highly.