by Kealan Patrick Burke
Background: This is the newest novel (published January 2012) by the Irish horror writer famous for short stories and his novella series, The Turtle Boy. Curiously, the tale is something of a southern gothic complete with Alabama hillbillies, though Burke himself was born in Ireland.
What it’s about: You know the story of a group of friends getting lost in some backwoods southern town and ending up hunted and tortured by an inbred clan of psychos. This novel takes a different spin on that scenario: instead of showing us the harrowing experience of the victims, it starts off right at the end of the kidnapping, exploring the effects of such violence and evil.
One girl has managed to escape the tortures of the family and wanders alone and naked on the road. She’s missing an eye, some fingers, and toes, and she’s covered in blood. I had assumed that we would follow her recovery and redemption through revenge, but there’s a whole host of other characters we meet along the way instead, and Burke stops to show us their stories. They’re interesting stories, but they disconnected me somewhat from the main girl, who I had assumed was the protagonist. As it is, I’m not sure there even is a protagonist of this tale.
We do see her desire for revenge rear its head (and we see this in a few other characters as well who want to rectify what happened). But rather than cheer on her self-empowerment, I ended up not knowing what to feel about the girl, since I didn’t feel I knew her that well. She doesn’t really find redemption though evil is defeated, but then none of the other characters seem to, either.
Why it will keep you up at night: There’s some really creepy stuff going on here. The killer family is the most intriguing part of the story. They are, as one might expect, hicks who have taken their religion a few steps too far and thus torture and eat outsiders as sacrifices to their god. The family is run by Papa-in-Grey, the tyrannical leader, and Mama-in-Bed, who is huge and disgusting, confined to her bed for years so that her rolls of fat are always dirty and writhing with maggots. Waste rots in the crevices of her skin and the sagging bed that has become a part of her, and grime coats the sealed windows of the putrid room.
Arguably the most gruesome part involves a “second birth” from the belly of a corpse. But the gore is really just a backdrop for the characters, most of whom are fully realized. The story is gripping and clips along at a good pace. However, the ending fell a little flat for me. Some of the storylines just sort of fizzle out; evil implodes on itself in a somewhat lackluster way; Claire doesn’t really do much on her journey for vengeance. I guess I was expecting some big confrontation between Claire and her attackers, but this was perhaps a more realistic way for things to go down.
Still, it was a great story and I’d recommend it to someone looking for a twisted and interesting read. It’ll definitely make you think twice about exploring the backwoods of some creepy little town.