Below: Kev Harrison
Reviewed By Alyson Faye
I’ve been caving once in my life – and never again – crawling down what looked like Alice’s rabbit hole on my stomach, into vast caverns and dotted with tight climb throughs, yes, it was unforgettable but also nervewracking. However, in fiction, I am more than happy to dig in with an underground tale and live vicariously.
Kev Harrison’s novella, Below, from indie horror publisher, Silver Shamrock, is set mainly below ground, in a disused gold mine, abandoned since the 1950s after a horrific cave-in that killed many, and left some of the miners trapped underground. One of them is the protagonist, Nick’s grandfather, so this novella is a hybrid:- yes, a creature feature, a claustrophobic horror story, but also a journey of discovery for Nick into his family history and the myths he’s built up about his ‘hero’ grandfather, his namesake. It’s also action-packed, so it’s a full-on adventure yarn too, with hardly a quiet moment.
Nick and Jess are hired by Adventure Travel TV to front a reality-docu drama show, where they will re-enter the mine, (now re-opened and structurally strengthened) along with the third main character, Sofia, the camerawoman, who will film their underground journey. Down amidst the relics of the mining equipment, and the rocks, Nick is also hoping to find out what happened to his grandfather, perhaps even locate the body, and give himself closure on this family tragedy.
What the trio do find in the derelict mine is – I don’t want to give too many spoilers here – a lot more than they ever anticipated. Nick has to battle chronic claustrophobia, Jess and Sofia develop an emotional attachment to each other, they feel stalked and watched, they hear noises, glimpse moving shadows, whilst their equipment is mysteriously damaged, cave-ins happen when they shouldn’t, and they nearly die and have to be dug out by their back-up team, (represented by Al, their go-to Mr Fixit up on the surface).
Nick comes across a literal paper trail of clues from his late grandfather’s 1950’s journal, which tell the parallel story of what happened to the trapped miners – and it’s not a pretty story. In fact, it’s pretty gruesome. So be warned.
Below reminded me of one of my fave horror films, The Descent. Obviously, that’s a compliment and I think Harrison writes in a very filmic style. I really felt as though I was down there with the team.
Harrison’s very skilled too at building up the tension, scene by scene, cranking it up and ending each chapter on a cliffhanger. Talking of which, Jess and Sophia go-all Stallone, climbing up the cavern walls in the final third of the book whilst Nick, the academic, is not such an action man. Bit of genre gender inversion going on.
Obviously, as the reader, safely at home with the duvet, the dog and my cuppa, I’m shouting, ‘Don’t go back in the creepy, haunted mine guys!’ But then there wouldn’t be a story if our intrepid, but ever so likeable trio, didn’t keep going back down. If they all tossed in the towel, resigned the telly job and went to the nearest Costa, like in real life, then there’d be no fab finale in the huge cavern with the weird metal hooks, rocky ledges, nor the big reveal about the mine’s darkest and most terrible secret.
I loved this novella – it’s a pacy, fun ride, action-packed, rich with spooky tension, with clues scattered everywhere, (I love a mystery) and so smoothly written, with great confidence and dash.
I gobbled this up in two sittings, only pausing for my tea – I recommend you do the same – pick it up, power on through and get the buzz.
Kudos to Kealan Patrick Burke for the cover art – grabs the eye and, I assume, the black and white images which appear at the start of each chapter of Jess and Sofia in a tunnel – in comic strip style.
The Kendall Reviews Post Review Interview
Alyson Faye & Kev Harrison
Alyson Faye: As so much of Below is set underground, in a disused, newly reopened gold mine, I have to ask – have you ever been caving/potholing/or visited a mine? Are you claustrophobic, Kev? Like your protagonist, Nick?
Kev Harrison: Great question. I have, in fact, been into a mine. While working in Poland, I had a student who was a mining project manager and he kindly offered to take me to visit a mine in the next province over from where I lived at the end of the course. The persistent memories from that experience are how hot and humid it felt, how impenetrable the darkness was and how strong the smell was (it was a coal mine!).
As for claustrophobia, it’s not part of my natural make-up, but I once had a horrific work situation in London (had a department head who had it in for me and a couple of my other colleagues) and the anxiety from that manifested in claustrophobia. Very odd. Beyond that, never had a problem with it.
AF: How much research did you do on the disused mine setting, the equipment and the climbing scenes? (There was a lot of detail in these scenes.)
KH: The wonders of the net helped me to get the basics of these structures and pieces of equipment and my old student was kind enough to answer a couple of questions for me when I became too perplexed.
AF: You’ve written at least one other underground story, as I recall, Shaft in Tricksters Treats 4 – did that short story come first and did you feel drawn back to the underworld darkness?
KH: I’d actually written Below in its entirety when I sat down to think about that Coming, Buried or Not submission. I also wrote Warding way back in 2017, which is also set underground. I think subterranean environments are naturally something to be afraid of. They’re not our natural habitat and there are the obvious connotations with burial and death rituals, as well as that darkness. Ripe settings for horrors of all kinds.
AF: Did the idea for Below come fully-fledged? Or in pieces? Has it been a plot idea you’ve had for a while?
KH: I like this question a lot. When the idea for Below popped into my brain, it was very much the relationship between Nick and his grandfather. I think what the book is really about is the nature of our real-life heroes and villains, and the fact that it’s a very black and white lens we see these people through – while the reality is almost certainly something greyer. The other elements – how we’d come to understand the events in the original collapse, how I would deliver Nick to the mine, came later.
AF: Classic writer questions:-
AF: Planner or a pantser?
KH: Plantser these days. I chalk up milestones and let the words take me where they like on the way. I usually have 2 or 3 possible endings in mind and see which one sticks as things develop.
AF: Spreadsheets or sticky notes?
KH: Spreadsheets, I can barely write with a pen!
AF: Pen or pc?
KH: Always PC. I can even write faster on my phone than with a pen.
AF: Coffee or tea?
KH: Coffee in the morning and after meals, but otherwise tea. I drank a LOT of coffee when I first moved to Portugal but found it gave me massive energy spikes and crashes and, with me writing in the morning and working as a teacher in the afternoon/evening, I was finding myself fading badly by 10pm.
AF: Mornings or early hours for writing? Or anytime?
KH: New words in the morning, where possible. When I do my summer university gigs, I work in the morning and my writing routine is really hampered, both by the volume of work and trying to shift my creative brain to be alive at night.
AF: Below was a lot of fun to read, it raced along, with lots of action, never a dull moment – was it a fun one to write?
KH: It was pretty entertaining as I went along. The mixture of ‘live’ action and epistolary formats was an experiment for me and one which, I hope, paid off. One reason I love the novella format is that you can inject that pace and sustain it. Chop out anything that’s too slow – certainly after the initial character and location set-up – and just focus on moving the story forward.
AF: Of the three main characters, Nick, Jess and Sophia (the camerawoman) – which one (hypothetically) is the closest to you? And was it deliberate that Nick would be less of an action man, than the women?
KH: Before I started writing fiction in about 2016, I had been travel blogging for about 4 or 5 years. In that time, I made connections with a fair few other travel bloggers of all genders. What really struck me was the sheer volume of women who were out there doing the action-packed stuff we see Jess do. In my limited interactions with them, several expressed their frustration that, even though they did incredible things, like free climbing ancient temples in Central America a la Lara Croft, they still felt that they would lose followers or not pull in as many likes if they didn’t wear the short shorts or have perfect hair. I wanted Jess to come over initially as a bit of an airhead, but then later to show that she’s tough and understandably sick of those additional (unfair) pressures.
Jess was also a great counterweight to Nick, who I always saw as an academic. It enables him to be even more awed by his grandfather, the intrepid go-getter, who saved the lives of others. To him, those feats seem almost superhuman.
AF: I felt Below read like an indie horror film unspooling. And of course, Jess and Nick are being filmed for the fictional Adventure Travel TV show, so the links were there already. Are you a visual writer? Were you inspired by any horror films? (Hint, hint – like The Descent?)
KH: I am quite a visual writer. There was a time (whisper it) where reading took a bit of a back seat for me and I became really engrossed in film. I often sketch out scenes (badly) on a scrap of paper to make certain that my visual cues in my writing ‘work’. I don’t think it’s possible to write a subterranean horror without being influenced by The Descent, a film that’s only become a firmer favourite of mine as time has passed. I also had others in mind like the slightly more divisive As Above, So Below and even some segments of classic horror video games like Silent Hill 2.
AF: You write shorts, short stories, novellas – do you have a preferred length? Any plans to write a novel?
KH: I finished a draft of my first novel in the spring of this year. It’s set in the Middle East, involves a djinn, and begins with a scene that really occurred when I lived in Turkey (though one which I do not believe was supernatural in origin, even if my Turkish friend would say otherwise.)
I think I find the process of writing short stories easiest. Longer form pieces give me more satisfaction after the fact, but I have many more dark days where I question whether what I’m writing is fit for much more than decorative toilet paper. I suppose the protracted nature of the process allows these feelings to seep in.
The novel was a good experience in many ways, and I opened it this week for the first time to begin the second draft. I edit as I go, so it won’t be a full rewrite, more adding texture to scenery, more introspection from my MC and there are two scenes that need extending. I’m hoping to have it ready to shop towards the year’s end.
AF: You have a contract with Silver Shamrock, can you give us any tasters of what might be coming our way from you, fiction wise, in the next year?
KH: Silver Shamrock bought Below from me, but I don’t have a contract beyond that. Though the way they have handled the editing, marketing and delivery of Below (not to mention Kealan Patrick Burke’s utterly peerless cover art) means that I would very much like to work with them again in the future. I will certainly be sending my novel to Ken McKinley and we’ll see what he thinks.
As for things coming up from me, I have a story in Were Tales, the debut anthology from Brigid’s Gate. The lineup for that one is pretty incredible, so I’m honoured to have been asked to contribute. I also have a story in the A Silent Dystopia anthology set in Dave Jeffery’s A Quiet Apocalypse universe. Another honour that I still struggle to get my head around and I think (hope?) that tale is one of my best shorts to date.
There’s also another short in the Hex-Speriments anthology which Ross Jeffery and Keith Anthony Baird are assembling in the abbatoir with my favourite evil protagonist and I am part of this year’s Hawk and Cleaver linked short fiction podcast, called The Witching Hour, which airs every day in the week up to Halloween.
AF: Who were your fave horror authors growing up and whose work has influenced your writing?
KH: I grew up reading adult horror as a youngster – probably too young to fully understand it – but King’s Salem’s Lot, It and Pet Sematary, along with Herbert’s Rats trilogy were the first I found. I then read all of the teen Point Horror books in my early teens, before a hiatus away from horror for a long time. In my twenties, I dabbled in horror, as well as sci-fi, fantasy, and lots of other bits and pieces. I really stepped into indie horror reading later.
AF: Whose work do you read currently? And love?
KH: The blessing and curse of the indie horror scene is the sheer quantity of incredible voices available to us readers. I will surely miss out some people here, but a few I’ve enjoyed a lot over the past year or two include: Yourself, Alyson Faye, Stephanie Ellis, Ross Jeffery, Zachary Ashford, Dave Jeffery, Gabino Iglesias, Cina Pelayo, Hailey Piper, Israel Finn, Beverley Lee, Catherine McCarthy, Dan Howarth, Grant Longstaff, T C Parker, Michael David Wilson, Max Booth III, Dave Watkins, Donnie Goodman, Joshua Marsella, Laurel Hightower. I could go on (and on).
AF: Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions!
Nick has revered his grandfather his entire life. The absent hero, his namesake, buried alive in his final act of courage an ocean and thousands of miles away.
Jess has outgrown her status as an all-action social media celebrity and the endless demands that come with it. Adventure Travel TV has thrown this unlikely duo together, promising Jess the launchpad she craves and Nick the chance to tell his grandfather’s story first-hand, in the newly uncovered mine that still holds his remains from the twilight days of the gold rush.
Is it a dream come true or a nightmare as someone or something stirs…BELOW.
Kev Harrison is a British writer of horror and dark fiction living in Lisbon, Portugal. His debut collection, Paths Best Left Untrodden is out now through Northern Republic and his debut novella, The Balance, is also available now from Lycan Valley Press Publications. His latest novella, Below, is out now through Silver Shamrock Publishing.
You can find out more about Kev by visiting his official website www.kevharrisonfiction.com
You can follow Kev on Twitter @LisboetaIngles
Alyson lives in West Yorkshire, UK with her husband, teen son and four rescue animals. Her fiction has been published widely in print anthologies – DeadCades, Women in Horror Annual 2, Trembling with Fear 1 &2, Coffin Bell Journal 1, Stories from Stone, Ellipsis, Rejected ed. Erin Crocker) and in many ezines, but most often on the Horror Tree site, in Siren’s Call and The Casket of Fictional Delights.
Demain published her 1940’s set noir crime novella, Maggie of my Heart in 2019. (Her homage to film noir).
Currently she has stories in the Strange Girls anthology (ed. Azzurra Nox), Burning Love from Things in the Well, and in two Gypsum Sound Tales anthologies:- Amongst Friends and Colp: Black and Grey.
The NHS charity anthology, Diabolica Britannica, which is at the top of the Amazon bestseller horror charts contains a story by Alyson, set in Ilkley. She has a dark poem in the upcoming poetry anthology, Air, from Tyche Books.
Her work has been read on BBC Radio, local radio, on several podcasts (e.g. Ladies of Horror), posted on YouTube and placed in competitions.
More information about Black Angel Press will be announced shortly.
Her blog is at www.alysonfayewordpress.com
Her publications are listed on her Amazon author’s page: HERE