Stephen Bywater’s debut is an intriguing if flawed read. Set in 1930, he tells the story of Great War veteran Harry Ward – a man physically and mentally scarred by his experiences, now working as a photographer in Mesopotamia.
If returning to his wartime battleground wasn’t unsettling enough, he reluctantly takes a job at an archaeological dig that could be the temple of Lilith – the first wife of Adam, cast out of Eden for refusing to submit.
Legend has it she and her demonic daughters visit men in the night to breed and feed. As as the dig progresses Harry begins to wonder what is lurking within this sinister shrine. The dread builds steadily, until at last something is unleashed and the body count begins to rise.
Bywater’s choice of narrator is apt: a former soldier, exploring the ruins of a once-mighty civilisation. This clash of the old world versus the new is an irresistible theme to explore, and the author weaves it in well.
And as you might gather from a story focused on a theological femme fatale, Bywater’s story touches on patriarchy’s fear of female sexuality. Harry’s affair with a married woman compounds his guilt, making him feel irrevocably tainted and easy prey for whatever is stalking men in the night.
Yet the problem with Harry is that he feels too much like a closed book. It’s hard to get under his skin, at least until the action kicks into gear. Flashbacks to his days in the trenches at times feel used to tick the character backstory box rather than build upon it, although the supporting cast is rather well drawn.
The Devil’s Ark is a rather uncomplicated read, with short chapters and a spine-tingling story you could devour in a weekend. The protagonist could have used a bit more meat on his bones but once it gets going, it’s a very gripping read.