I’ve read several novels by Stephen Kozeniewski and I can always rely on a different flavor of horror being explored in each. I know he has written some non-horror stuff, and I’d be curious if they have the same…edge to them, if that is the proper word. The author is fairly clinical with his precision in presenting a horrific idea and not being timid about seeing it through to its conclusion. All in all, The Hematophages fulfills that commitment, and should leave the reader disturbed and uncomfortable for quite some time after reading the last page.
I was able to read the prequel short story, Skinwrappers, before checking out this novel. While it gives a taste of the universe where The Hematophages takes place, it, for the most part, serves as a background piece, though the main character in the short earns a key role in the novel.
A few centuries down the line, the human race has expanded its reach to far distant planets. Paige Ambroziak is a grad student given the opportunity to go on a corporate funded expedition to explore an ancient seed ship humanity sent out in the early years of space exploration. Until recently, it was believed it was lost forever. It is outside charted space, hovering above what is called a flesh world, which is covered in an ocean of blood filled with strange monsters. This is a chance of a lifetime for Paige-promotions and prestige will follow this expedition, if she can manage to survive.
I don’t get exposed to a lot of space horror tales. Horror, yes. Science Fiction, yes. The combination doesn’t always come together in print for me, so the comparisons (done by other reviewers already) is mainly to Event Horizon, a movie that shares certain levels of intensity and some commonalities with this novel. Alien, or perhaps even Aliens, might share a tiny bit of DNA with this one as well, though in a more generic way. While I don’t get exposed to a lot of sci fi horror, I certainly enjoy the concept and this book does a pretty solid job of universe building to help set up the story. There are questions left unanswered about what has led the human race to its current status, though they aren’t necessarily critical to the story at hand. Getting to the meat of the story is what the author does, and we are presented with quite a few rather interesting characters besides the main one and get to understand their motivations fairly quickly. The horror elements are unpacked in pieces, though reading the description of the book provides some pretty strong hints as to what direction things are headed.
The author does a solid job, as he has done with other stories he’s written, in ratcheting up the tension and dropping the occasional shock bomb on the audience. It’s always good when an author manages to zig when you expect a zag. There were, unfortunately, a couple of zigs where I expected them, that didn’t necessarily lead to disappointment as much as a knowing nod. The end result is a fairly satisfying tale with a few minor frustrations as to where the story led.
The author does not scrimp on gore and horrific visual imagery, giving us some disturbing things to think about and digest. With a starting point of a world with oceans of blood, it should be clear to the reader that we are in for some pretty twisted things that I would guess came straight from one of Mr. Kozeniewski’s nightmares. The author does not disappoint in escalating the grotesqueries and terror from there.
While others have used the Event Horizon comparison, and it is an apt one, one I will use, but only partially, is Greg Bear’s Blood Music. I won’t play the spoiler by sharing details of that tale, but would encourage a look at it for anyone who enjoyed this story. The short story Mr. Bear wrote that was expanded into a full novel shares a few elements of fear and horror with this tale (alien creatures and the potential for body manipulation), though only toward the end of The Hematophages. Still, I couldn’t help wonder what Kozeniewski might do if he chose to carry things beyond this story and how he would approach it vs. what Mr. Bear did when he expanded his short story into a full novel. I would guess Kozeniewski’s would be end up being a bit more on the dark side…
The Hematophages can be found here: https://www.amazon.com/Hematophages-Stephen-Kozeniewski/dp/1944044558/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=