Author: Mark Justice
Genre: Pulp Thriller
Publication Date: 5 March 2021
Available As: Paperback and e-book
1934. In the shadow of Haiti lies an island shrouded in mist and mystery. The natives call it Cauchemar. Nightmare. Voodoo curses. The dead won’t stay dead. Their unholy shambling fills all who see them with dread. Except one man. Death’s Head.
Maximilian Carlisle, heir to the global power that is Carlisle Enterprise Industries, journeys to Haiti to build a water purification plant as the first step in restoring good to his family’s name. The CEI chief in charge of construction of the plant is suddenly and mysteriously missing. Rumour says he returned as one of the voodoo-cursed undead. A zombie.
In Haiti, Maximilian discovers that voodoo is more than superstition, that curses are more than belief, and that the spirits known as Loa are very real, indeed. As is their power to possess. On Cauchemar, Maximilian faces a menacing, villainous presence that threatens not only his life but the lives of everyone on Earth
Death’s Head: The Eye of Samedi is a pulp thriller from noted horror and heavy metal enthusiastic Mark Justice. The book is comprised of twelve chapters, each sporting a title, and makes an immediate impression with its stunning cover art, courtesy of notable comic book artist Mike Gustovich. As a big fan of pulp characters like Kit Walker/The Phantom and Lamont Cranston/The Shadow, and the old-school pulp serials featuring the likes of Flash Gordon and Clark Savage Jr./Doc Savage, this cover alone really leapt out at me and had me eager to dive into this short, snappy tale of voodoo and action.
Death’s Head: The Eye of Samedi is the story of Maximilian Carlisle, heir to the Carlisle fortune and the industrious Carlisle Enterprises (CEI), a company that has somewhat lost its way thanks to the actions of Maximilian’s late father, Rudolph, who set up sugar plants and industrial factories across the world, upending the indigenous people of islands like Haiti and tarnishing CEI with the brush of corporate greed. Like those aforementioned pulp characters (and also their successor, Bruce Wayne/Batman), Maximilian starts the book returning from a decade-long sojourn travelling all across the world under the tutelage of his “Strongarm” (essentially a mentor and bodyguard), Anton Sufredes. During this time, Maximilian learned many strange and wonderous physical and mental tricks, alongside studying at the world’s foremost centres of education and under the tutelage of mystics and unconventional wise men, to become quite the adept fighter and intellectual. Having kept a close eye on CEI’s Board of Directors, Maximilian is determined to turn CEI’s reputation around and to undo the disruptive and inhumane actions of his father, whether the Board like it or not.
Maximilian’s first step is to dissolve the Board entirely, and then travel with Anton to Cauchemar in Haiti, an island ruled by superstition and voodoo and deeply distrustful of him, and CEI, thanks to the actions of his father. There, they’re stunned to find the island covered in a thick, ominous, almost living mist and their radio equipment disrupted by static. The natives perform nightly rituals to ward of the “Kochma”, an aggressive tribe who once slaughtered their people, and that the island is beset by mindless zombies. Death’s Head goes back to the origins of zombie lore, which I delved into as part of my PhD, to depict them not quite as the undead but more as human slaves driven to a mindless subservience by pufferfish venom, ancient rituals, and advanced technology that renders them relentless and animalistic minions. The zombies are set to remove all traces of CEI from the island, and soon target the two when they begin snooping around, and are command by the monstrous “Yaksha” using curious mechanical boxes. Additionally, Maximilian finds himself attacked by a mechanical spider, one that sports an acidic spit and bursts into flame upon being destroyed, and he and Anton quickly surmise that something far more malevolent is at work on the island.
However, during their investigation, they’re lured into a trap and poisoned by the Yaksha’s venom, entering a fugue state that renders them incapable of independent thought and compelled to literally dig their own graves. Lingering between the world of the living and the world of the dead, Maximilian encounters the devious, dirty-minded spirit of Baron Samedi in the underworld; rejected from death, Maximilian returns to life to find his soul now bound to that of Samedi, who remains a taunting, disruptive voice in the back of his mind and who demands a sacrifice of souls to make up for Maximilian not passing over into death. Changed by their near-death experiences, Maximilian and Anton arm themselves and don special outfits, the “Midnight Suits”, which render them functionally invisible in pure darkness. Maximilian paints a grinning visage on his hood to intimidate his foes and heads into the jungle referring to himself as “Death’s Head” and determined to find a way to either appease Samedi’s spiteful demands, shake him off entirely or at least wall him off from influencing him. Samedi is a very troublesome influence on Maximilian; constantly taunting the young businessman, referring to him as his “horse” and making lewd remarks about his shlong, Samedi delights in the torment and suffering of others and it’s only through his sheer force of will the Maximilian is able to keep Samedi from completely overtaking him and forcibly taking the souls he desires.
Death’s Head: The Eye of Samedi is a brisk, action-packed read that does a fantastic job of giving a taste of the lore and history of voodoo and Haitian zombies, which really are quite different to what we know zombies to be these days. Maximilian is an extremely capable and confidant character; he always has some kind of mental or physical training, or some obscure knowledge from around the world, which makes him very versatile and formidable. For all his mental and physical strength, though, he’s still a young man who can be hurt and caught off-guard, but his strong willpower and moral compass drive him to right injustice, even that brought about by his family name. Anton is equally capable; battle tested and highly trained, there isn’t much he hasn’t seen in the world, or taught to Maximilian, and seeing them putting together the pieces of this puzzle of superstition and intrigue is very engaging. There’s also a decent amount of gun-based action and high adventure, akin to that seen in old serials (or, for a more modern comparison, Batman comics or Indiana Jones films). The story builds towards a truly bonkers climax that takes more than a few cues from James Bond films and features the two battling fantastical creatures beyond even the zombies and gruesome Yaksha.
Overall, I found a great deal to enjoy here; chapters are just the right length and the story never outstays its welcome. This is a story that speaks to many of my likes and interests, so it gets extra points for me there, but I found the author’s crafting of this character and world to almost be like bringing a long-lost pulp hero to life after years of obscurity. The twist of Baron Samedi being bound to and influencing Maximilian, similar to the likes of Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider or Eddie Brock/Venom helped to veer the story into more fantastical realms. Samedi’s influence is as more of an annoyance, and Maximilian’s adoption of the Death’s Head guise is very much in its infancy here. this, as much as the tantalising cliff-hanger ending, really makes me want to see more from these characters to see just how Samedi comes to influence Maximilian and what’s next for the character in his quest to undo his father’s work. In the end, Death’s Head: The Eye of Samedi went down a road I didn’t quite expect for the finale, but it was entertaining throughout; the author does a brilliant job of detailing the actions and lore of the story and I think this is well worth checking out for a short, snappy, highly enjoyable action romp and I would definitely be up for reading a few follow-up stories that see the two exploring other supernatural avenues.
If you’re interested in checking out Death’s Head: The Eye of Samedi, and to learn more about Mark Justice and his journey as an author, visit the links at the top of the page.