What makes a great horror novel? Well that question in itself deserves it’s own posting but for me there’s a few elements that are present in every horror novel that I end up really enjoying. For one, there’s originality. Does this mean that every aspect of a novel needs to be 100% original, redefining the genre on every page? No. Originality comes in many ways. Look at the recent string of zombie novels I’ve been reading lately. I’ve liked a lot of them. Have they all been completely original? Not by a long shot, but they all have original elements that add something new to the zombie genre. I also love horror novels where anything can happen; where the unexpected happens. Where main characters aren’t safe from a horrible demise, where just when you think the plot couldn’t get any more depraved it suddenly takes a grizzly downward turn, etc. A great horror novel, for me at least, always includes these elements. This brings us to the novel BLEED by Ed Kurtz. BLEED has a pretty basic setup but the way Kurtz develops it and progresses the story arc makes this one feel 100% original. Let’s see why.
The story begins with Walt Blackmore, who lives in a small Southern town, buying his first home. It’s a fixer-upper and Walt is really excited about both fixing up the house and his future in general. He’s about to start a new job teaching English literature in the local high school and he recently bought a ring and is planning on proposing to his girlfriend of three years, Amanda. Walt is a loner but his love for Amanda is true and he feels his life is finally falling into place. That is until he notices a fist-sized stain on the ceiling just outside his bedroom. He thinks nothing of it at first … just something else that needs to be addressed and fixed in his new home. But the more he tries to get rid of the stain the more it seems to grow and spread.
But as that mysterious stain grows, Walt’s behavior begins to change. He becomes extremely tired, begins sleeping 12-15 hours straight, losing track of the days, and starts having really disturbing nightmares. Amanda becomes worried as she notices Walt’s behavior changing. He’s getting grumpier and doesn’t seem interested in socializing or doing anything but staying in the house. The whole time the stain keeps getting larger and larger until it begins to drip onto the floor. It’s obvious to Amanda that there’s something really wrong with the stain but she can’t get through to Walt. Things keep going from bad to worse until Amanda realizes the situation has gotten out of control, but it might already be too late; Walt might already be too far gone.
For a first novel Ed Kurtz does a lot of thing right here. About ninety-five percent of the novel takes place in one location (the house) and there’s only a handful of characters he weaves in and out of the narrative. Kurtz’s writing style is really crisp and fast and from the opening line, “Papa comes back at night,” which takes place in 1923, the story grabbed me. I burned through this 390 page novel barely able to put it down. Kurtz’s ability to craft and develop three dimensional characters is second to none and you find yourself sympathizing and relating with both Walt and his victims. Walt slowly becomes a sociopathic monster but he never looses his humanity. Walt’s a fantastic character.
And let’s talk about that stain. I don’t wanna give away too much of what’s going on here, but the stain continues to grow as it feeds off of the roaches and rats in the house, bleeding them dry. As it grows, though, the stain begins demanding more than rats and roaches; it needs something with more substance, and Walt seems more than willing to oblige. Kurtz does a really phenomenal job here describing the various stages the “stain” goes through. What starts as a stain on the ceiling becomes … well it becomes something way more advanced. I couldn’t help but think of Clive Barker’s story “The Hellbound Heart,” the story that later became HELLRAISER. Kurtz’s attention to details as the “stain” grows is nothing short of horrifying. The stain, which eventually takes a human-like form, demands more and more from Walt. First blood, then small animals, and ultimately humans. The whole time Walt is torn by the ever-increasing demands of the monster, but he’s also compelled to satisfy it.
What I really love in BLEED is that no one is safe. Just when you think a character is out of harm’s way Kurtz throws us a curveball. Besides Amanda and Walt, there’s other characters that exist on the periphery of Walt’s life and get sucked into his ever increasing violent world. There’s Amanda’s best friend Nora, Walt’s sister Sarah, Walt’s closest neighbor Dudley Chapel and his wife Rose, and some kid’s from his class, Hershal, Brandon, and Alice. Alice is perhaps the most fleshed out character as we learn a lot about her home life and what really makes her tick. She’s a great character and Kurtz develops her beautifully.
What’s that? Wanna know about the gore? This novel is filled with disturbing passages, grizzly descriptions, and enough blood and gore that could fill four novels!! Check out this passage (I’m leaving out the names of the characters here so as not to spoil anything):
[Unnamed character] cried out with pain and horror as he watched the jagged glass fragment sink into [another unnamed character’s] face, scraping noisily over her teeth before exiting through the other cheek. The creature then gave the shard a sharp yank and it ripped through the flesh, meeting the ends of [unnamed character’s] mouth. Now it all formed a single gaping gash from one jawbone to the next. Blood gurgled up, flooding her mouth and spilling out on the bed. The cackled with mad glee.
Of course this isn’t a perfect novel. As characters start disappearing after they go visit Walt at his house it seems like it’s pretty obvious what’s happening. But Walt never gets a visit from the police or from the husband’s of other characters who were last known to be visiting Walt. And if you’re looking for a solid explanation as to what the hell the stain is and how it grew into … into that creature, well you might be disappointed. Personally I think the explanation was completely satisfying; it’s not spoon-fed to us. But I can see that some people may not be too thrilled about the explanation.
I really enjoyed this novel. Kurtz is no doubt a force to recon with on the horror scene and I can’t wait to read his future novels in the years to come. His crisp, fast-paced writing, excellent character development, and his ability to write some truly grizzly scenes will have you turning the pages at lightening speed. As you read BLEED you’ll at times be reminded of the works and minds of Clive Barker and David Cronenberg, and that’s some pretty damn good company. This is a fun, gory creature novel by a really fresh and original voice. Highly recommended.
Author: Ed Kurtz
Plot: 4 out of 5 stars
Gore: 8 out of 10 skulls
Zombie Mayhem: 0 out of 5 brains
Reviewed by Scott Shoyer