Kin begins where many a horror movie has ended: with a lone survivor, battered and bloodied, staggering onto a back country road to be rescued by a passing stranger. Think Sally Hardesty in Texas Chainsaw Massacre, her young mind shattered in the wake of a brutal assault that took all her friends and very nearly took her as well. Except this time, there’s no fade to black and no credit roll. This time, the end is only the beginning.
In the past, Kealan Patrick Burke’s strongest work was found in his short stories and novellas. His longer works, including Master of the Moors and Currency of Souls, have been good but not great, often better in concept than actual execution. To really see why so many people, myself included, count Burke as one of the best writers working in the genre today, you’d have to look at his collection The Number 121 to Pennsylvania or his Timmy Quinn series.
Not any more. Now you look at Kin. Because with this novel, Burke has fully arrived as a novelist, his voice more assured, his hand steadier, and his talent running full throttle.
In Kin, Claire Lambert is our survivor, the only one of a group of friends overtaken by a family of backwoods cannibal lunatics in Elkwood, Alabama, who manages to get away. Her rescue is witnessed by Luke, a member of the Merrill clan who tracked her from his family’s ramshackle compound, toying with her just a bit too long and losing her in the process. It’s Luke’s job to return to his father, known as Papa-In-Gray, and his mother, Momma-In-Bed, and let them know that he’s failed to recapture their prey, a failure that has tremendous consequences for Luke and his family as a whole.
Those consequences – for Luke and the rest of the murderous Merrills; for Claire, her mother and her sister; for young Pete and his father Jack, the men who found Claire on that lonely road and snatched her, against Jack’s better judgement, from the edge of the abyss; and for Finch, a returning Iraq war veteran whose brother was among those in Claire’s group who died a grisly death – are what drives Kin forward. At one point, Claire compares the murders to “a stone dropped in a pond,” with the ripples from that one act radiating out to affect dozens of lives. Those consequences are something that are rarely touched on in the slasher films that are part of this book’s inspiration, but, as Burke proves here, they make for a compelling story.
It’s compelling because what Burke does here, which so many of those slasher movies fail to do, is give us characters we care about. Even the Merrill clan, which shares plenty of unsavory traits with their blood-spilling forefathers, are fleshed out. Yes, these are isolated, ignorant rednecks with their own skewed view of right and wrong, people who kill in the name of God (and do so cunningly and efficiently). But Burke gives us a closer look at at least some of their number, and in them we see doubt, fear and even regret, which more than sets them apart from empty-headed killers like Jason Voorhees and Michael Myers.
The middle portion of the book, falling between the tension-filled opening act and the climactic return to Elkwood, could easily have been the weak link here. This is where we get to know Claire, and Pete, and Finch; where we see how their lives are spiralling out of control and pushing some of them back to the place of their worst nightmares. While part of me was hoping for a quick return to Elkwood, these side trips into the lives of the characters made the wait worthwhile. By the time everyone reconvenes in Alabama, you’ve got a strong rooting interest in many of the characters – including one or two that might surprise you.
There’s hope here – not a lot, but that bit of light in the otherwise unrelenting bleakness is another thing that separates Kin from its origins. Burke invokes the tragedy of 9/11 many times in the book, seeing in our recovery from that dark day that people have the ability to live through the unimaginable and move forward. It’s an idea that’s reinforced in Kin. I don’t know that anyone gets what you’d call a “happy” ending, but there’s hope, and a chance to at least try and pick up the pieces and put them back together. Sometimes that’s the best we get.
Burke doesn’t skimp on the violence in this one, but he shows just enough restraint at just the right times to keep it from becoming a simple gorefest. There’s one scene in particular, which I won’t dare spoil, that could have been so over-the-top as to be funny. But Burke handles it with precision, giving it the full, horrible impact it deserves, drawing gasps instead of guffaws. Trust me, you’ll know it when you read it, and you’ll be amazed at how deftly the author pulls it off.
Kin ends a long period of silence from Burke, and has me quite excited to see what’s coming next. It’s due out this Fall from Cemetery Dance, and I urge you to get a copy. It gets my highest possible recommendation.