Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem
Looking back, I’ve been an obsessive reader for most of my life. In the idle moments before starting this review, I wondered what the source was. I suppose I could blame my mother who endlessly read to me until I was old enough to read for myself. It’s always good to blame the parents when they’re no longer around to defend themselves. Or it could be that the early choices happened to be the crack cocaine of books leaving me hopelessly addicted, doomed endlessly to read in the vain hope of recapturing the early highs. Who knows and, perhaps, who cares! It’s a relatively harmless compulsion — even though I may not be as communicative with my wife as she might sometimes like, I am nearly always in her presence albeit not socially engaged with her. Anyway, over the years, four categories of book have crystalised. There are the unreadable — no matter how great the compulsion to read, and the sense of respect I should hold for the author who’s taken the time and trouble to write all these words, there are always other books waiting to be read. Sometimes, I just have to put down the immediate book and start the next. At the other end of the scale are the very few that hit the sweet spot. These books are the reason I persevere — not that I ever reread them. Once is enough (there’s the lurking fear that if I revisit a loved book, I might not like it so much the second time and that would destroy happy memories).
In the middle ground, are the almost (very) good and the books I finish out of duty. Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem (Solaris, 2014) falls in the latter class, almost but not quite reaching the unreadable level. When I was growing up, I always regretted Henry Kuttner’s decision not to write more Baldy stories. They take the hillbilly mutant trope and have fun with the ideas. They carefully avoid the gothic horror idea that there are dangers lurking in the woods (apart from the teddy bears on their picnic) and nicely blur the line between fantasy and science fiction as the multigenerational family tries to live a quiet life. On the front cover of this book, there’s a supposedly encouraging quote from the Guardian, “A beautifully crafted novel.” The quote does not refer to this book, of course. No publisher sends prepublication copies to newspapers to get blurb quotes. But having finished this book, I can confirm the prose is professional (as we should expect from Tem whom I’ve previously enjoyed as a short story writer), and the plot does make sense in its own terms. So, at a craft level, this book engages the mind and I can appreciate the effort that went into writing it.
But when it comes to the plot and the lack of dynamic in the narrative, the book is virtually DOA. Here’s this youngish man who left the valley for a while but has now come back to look after granny. She may or may not be close to death — this tribe seems to live a long time — but before she goes, she’s determined to pass on the family lore. One of the traits we’re told about early on is the hyper-empathy, i.e. the ability to sense or feel what others are thinking or feeling. The way this old lady passes on her oral history is by enabling him to feel events as if he had been there. So the structure of the book yo-yos from 1934 with granny old enough to have her first period, and the modern day with granny and her thirtysomething relative living in a shack in the woods. And boy is there a lot of kudzu! Wow that stuff really does grow fast. Anyway, in the past, there’s this really dangerous guy, a relative who’s become a preacher and uses snakes during his services — it’s all terribly symbolic what with the devil having occasionally appeared as a snake. No-one likes him, many fear him, and the rest either avoid him or worship with him. So there you have it. The preacher has his snakes to keep his faith strong, and the kudzu grows like it’s a plant possessed. I’ll pause while you make the connection. And then the past catches up with the present, or those who live the longest triumph, or not as the case may be. I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Shame really. A great deal of thought has gone into the construction of this plot. It just has no tension or suspense as a thriller. It never gets off the ground as a horror novel. I suppose it could be classed as fantasy, or as science fiction if this is one of these evolutionary stories where a genetic mutation is passed down through the generations by careful interbreeding. Whatever the genre, I found it tedious and boring.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.