UK author Paul Finch has quietly built a solid body of work over the last decade, including three novels, seven collections, two British Fantasy awards and an International Horror Guild award, to say nothing of his work for the silver screen, which includes several optioned screenplays, and the recently released The Devil’s Rock (which I can attest is a fun flick). For his latest work, Finch has joined forces with chapbook publisher Spectral Publications to produce King Death, a picture-perfect period piece of historical horror set during the time of Europe’s Black Plague.
The story opens with an arresting scene, gazing upon a cavalcade of cadavers, a literal death-march carried on by the horses despite the condition of their riders and carriage-goers:
“…he had witnessed many horrors over the last year, yet there was something especially odious about this. The combination, perhaps, of rich awning, elaborate fashion, opulent garb – with the caked blood and seeping pus of a thousand plague sores, with the drone of feeding bluebottles.
How long had these dead folk been on the move, he wondered? Hours? Days? Where were they travelling from, and where to? No-one would ever know now. The stench was hideous – the stomach-turning fetor that hung over everything in these unhappy days, yet swam in waves from this grisly spectacle, this mobile feast for crows.”
There are only two characters in Finch’s tale: Rodric, a thief masquerading in a dead knight’s armor, who’s proven immune to the Plague and is now looting his way across a ravaged countryside; and the young boy he encounters in the wastelands, who has been orphaned by the death of his entire family and everyone else employed by his former Lord, and who is now gone in search of Death. When the boy comes upon Rodric, the petty criminal pompously announces that he is “King Death” — a proclamation that he will ultimately regret. To say much more would entail a spoiler, so I’ll refrain.
Even though King Death is only 14 pages in length, Finch manages to render a detailed, immersive venue, partially due to his liberal use of historically-accurate language and terminology, which serves to imbue the proceedings with a sense of verity. The only drawback is that the meaning of many of the words were unknown to me (and would be to most readers), and I was forced to infer or guess their meaning. Upon finishing the story, I discovered a handy glossary at the back of the chapbook, a reference which would have been better placed before the story, I believe.
Regardless, King Death is both atmospheric and authentic, a rewarding exercise in medieval madness.