The Fens, August 1943.
Forced to seek medical attention, Corporal Ray Ward and his squad are warmly welcomed at Sinclair House, a rehabilitation unit dealing with solders suffering from shell-shock.
But Sinclair House isn’t what it appears to be. Out in the orchards, blood-chilling screams can be heard from the locked Nissen huts and the sheer volume of armed, clearly agitated military personnel around the property seems excessive. Ward and his men know something very wrong is happening at this isolated country estate and soon find themselves caught up in the middle of terrifying events…
Robin had never been in Sinclair House but it looked very posh from his vantage point, hidden behind a bush. It was old fashioned, stone-built, with fancy gargoyles on the roof and lots of windows, all X’d against bombing raids. There were even some windows in the attic! The wide expanse of lawn he could see wasn’t so posh though, it needed mowing. To his left, a gravel drive led from the gate to the front door, which you had to go up steps to. He’d seen some lorries drive up, dropping off and picking up whatever they were dropping off and picking up. To his right was where the grounds really opened up - about a hundred yards away was the large chicken run and beyond that were four Nissen huts, just inside the tree-line of the orchard that ran to the back of the property.
Prisoners, people said. Robin had never seen a German in real life, though he was sure he’d know one because they were snivelling cowards who shot you in the back, but the area was prepared for them and their attack, with several pill-boxes between here and the coast. He and his gang sometimes played around them, especially when the younger Home Guard were on, because they remembered being children. The older Home Guard were more serious and would quite happily chase off young boys, shouting threats and gesturing with rusty old bayonets strapped to their rifles.
Movement caught his eye and he ducked behind the bush as a lone soldier came from the drive, carrying a Sten gun. He stopped when he reached the lawn, slung the gun over his shoulder and took a crumpled pack of smokes from his breast pocket. Something made him twist around quickly and Robin watched him look this way and that, turning slowly, until he was seemingly satisfied enough to light his cigarette. The harsh, sweet smell drifted over to Robin who inhaled hopefully. A chicken squawked.
The soldier smoked his cigarette where he stood, finally stamping it out on the grass and throwing the tiny butt into the bush. He coughed, took one last look around then walked back to the drive and out of sight.
Robin took that as his cue and, with his back to the wall, edged along until he’d cleared the bush. The chicken coop was about fifty yards away and he could hear them, clucking at one another quietly. There were some shapes on the grass he couldn’t quite make out properly but thought they looked like eggs.
Robin slipped his knapsack off and, crouching low, duck-walked to the coop. He was halfway there when he heard someone shout - he couldn’t make out what they said, but it didn’t sound happy. He looked up towards the Nissen huts. People seemed to be moving about. There was another shout, louder this time and unmistakably angry. Running footsteps sounded on the gravel behind him. He was caught in the middle.
“Bollocks,” he said, feeling a terrible cold sweat on his forehead.
More footsteps on the gravel. It wouldn’t be long until they reached the lawn and saw him. There was an angry shout from the Nissen huts and something else, a sound like a crowd at a football match. Robin pushed away from the coop and its potential eggs, aiming for the bush.
“Stop!” someone yelled and he froze, his heart thudding in his chest and wrists. What would he say, what could he say? This was the cane, for sure and probably a proper leathering from Dad too.
“I said stop!” yelled the same voice. Robin hadn’t moved, which meant he hadn’t been seen so he quickly pushed himself back.
A single shot was fired, which filled the night with sound and made the silence that followed it even noisier. Nobody moved on the gravel but he could hear someone running, the heavy thud of their step indicating they were moving fast. A shape came towards him from the orchard, arms flailing as if trying to keep balance.
“I said stop!” yelled the voice, “or I’ll fire.”
The runner kept moving and the guns responded. There were several single shots, probably from Lee Enfield number fours. Robin knew his guns, he knew what they sounded like and prided himself on his knowledge.
The Sten guns rattled into life. Several 9mm bullets thudded into the wall behind Robin, showering him with stone dust. He flinched, covered his face.
The runner bumped his leg against the side of the chicken run, the limb flicking out at an odd angle and cartwheeling the man across the lawn. More bullets hit the lawn, ripping holes into the grass. Robin was three feet away from the bush and, it seemed, still in the firing line.
A searchlight burst into life from the roof, its beam quickly directed onto the lawn. Robin closed his eyes against the glare but the imprint of the man running towards him, his left leg moving at an impossible angle, stayed with him. There were more shouts, more gunshots, then someone yelled “There’s a child!”
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The Exercise began life in January 2015, when I was invited to contribute to a wartime anthology and - having never written a war story before - I readily agreed to contribute. I came up with the basic plot on an evening walk then sat down with Mum & Dad (he’s a real WW2 buff) to ask him some technical questions and throw around more ideas (my Mum came up with the concept of how they get to the house).
The characters in the squad took a while to gel in my head but, once they had, they fitted together well (and allowed for some nice little bits of comedy) and the writing was quite fast (for me) and generally good fun.
The anthology, Darker Battlefields, was eventually launched at Edge-Lit 5 in Derby in 2016 (I wrote about it here). Published by Terry Grimwood’s theEXAGGERATEDpress and edited by Adrian Chamberlin, it featured four other novellas and a cracking Ben Baldwin cover but, for whatever reason, didn’t gain much traction. I’ve always thought that was a real shame, which led me on the path to re-publishing this.
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Reviews & Interviews
West keeps the reader hooked during the first two-thirds of the novella thanks to a great sense of camaraderie between the squaddies, but it is the final third of the novella where West's writing really shines; he directs the action-heavy last act with a keen sense of pace and perfect delivery of set pieces leading up to a nail-biting finale, which he hits with the precision of a sniper.
Jim Mcleod at Ginger Nuts Of Horror (see the full review here)
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I am giving this 5 stars for a fast-paced, well-written, story that pulls no punches.
Candace Nola at Uncomfortably Dark (see the full review here)
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[An] absolute corker of a tale... West offers up a tightly-paced tale of madness leading to a spiralling descent into some properly explosive, high-adrenaline horror.
For a relatively short novella, West somehow manages to cram in plenty of nicely fleshed-out characterisation between the five comrades on the military exercise, as well as a handful of residents at Sinclair House. And the carefully concealed mystery surrounding the true objectives of Sinclair House is hinted at perfectly, but never truly revealed until the very end; purposefully drawing the reader into the tale with a snow-balling pull of intrigue and suspense.
Chris at DLS Reviews (see the full review here)
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It’s a well-plotted piece, with clues given as to what’s going on which builds to a chaotic ending. Lots to like about this one.
Benjamin Langley (see the full review here)
* Dan Howarth chatted to me about the novella on his website, which you can read here.
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The Exercise went up for pre-order a week before publication and thanks to everyone who RT'd my Tweets and shared my Facebook update (I really appreciate your support!), it had quite a good day for itself, gracing the upper half of the Amazon Best Sellers (Horror Short Stories) and hitting Number 1 in the Hot New Releases. Easily pleased, I was well chuffed!
The Exercise, published by PenMan Press
Universal book link - https://pge.me/TheExerciseMarkWest