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Tuesday 22 April 2003

Righteous Blood

  • Righteous Blood, by Cliff Burns
    (PS Publishing, March 2003)

  • Reviewed by Claude Lalumière

Righteous Blood is a collection of two previously unpublished novellas by Canadian horror writer Cliff Burns. According to the jacket copy, Burns has been an active writer of fantastic fiction for the past twenty years or so, but, prior to my seeing this new book, I had been unaware of his work.

A bit of research turned up that most of his output has been in the small press and that his admirers include such luminaries as Kim Newman and Jeff VanderMeer.

This new collection highlights what seems to be Burns's trademark bizarre imagination. Both of these tales play courageous games with the fictional convention of having the reader identify and sympathize with the protagonist. Both are amoral fables fuelled by the strong ethics their respective protagonists — ethics that are not bound by consensus morality.

Behind the somewhat cheesy and generic title Righteous Blood hide two very quirky and strange tales, peopled with characters that are startlingly imagined. The collection is introduced by horror author Tim Lebbon, who closes with a challenge:

So I dare you to read Righteous Blood and not enjoy it. I dare you to be unmoved by Cliff Burns' audacious, beautiful and thrilling writing. Most of all, I dare you to read both novellas and guess what's coming next. If any of your guesses are right, I'd be as surprised as anyone.
Lebbon's introduction set my expectations somewhat higher than the novellas delivered, but that's not to say that these are not fine stories. In fact, they're both very good, although both end rather abruptly, leaving the reader wanting more, and not necessarily in a positive way.

"Living with the Foleys" tells of a homeless man who lives in a suburban family's garage (unbeknownst to the family). As the tale unfolds, we learn that our hero, Phil, has certain powers that allow him to keep his existence a secret from his hosts, the Foleys. But when the family threatens to break apart, Phil must intervene, lest he lose his cozy domicile.

"Living with the Foleys" is an ambitiously complex story. In addition to the main plot — Phil fighting to keep the Foleys functioning as a family unit — the novella also details the subculture of Phil's homeless comrades, who tend to congregate at a friendly diner, and deals with Phil's mysterious past and evolving sense of identity.

Everything about the Foleys and Phil's relationship to them is fascinating, bizarrely funny, and totally compelling, while the aspect of "Living with the Foleys" that deals with the homeless subculture is offbeat and moving. Where this novella is at its weakest is when it focuses on Phil's backstory.

For one thing, Burns teases and teases throughout the narrative about Phil's reasons for turning from teacher to homeless man. Burns is relentlessly coy on this subject, playing it up like a revelation that will deeply transform our understanding of Phil. Sadly, when the revelation finally hits, it is — for all that it is indeed tragic — almost banal; it utterly fails to integrate into the wider narrative or change our perspective on Phil or the story. It is not, narratively speaking, a moment of transformation. It's not that it's irrelevant, uninteresting, or unmoving — but the moment is not worth the wait. The manipulative coyness ends up feeling like a cheat. Burns would have been better off letting us know right off the bat — getting that detail out of the way — and then getting on with his otherwise grippingly unusual story.

The story's only other weakness is its ending. It doesn't so much end as stop, a very short while after we're finally told why Phil quit being a teacher. But because that revelation doesn't tie in with the story's other elements, it feels like a bogus conclusion.

I'm being a bit unfair here. If I'm harping on about where this story failed, it's because, overall, it's such a good piece: memorable, original, energetic. So good that, when it fails to live up to its own standards, it's jarring. It came so close to being great. "Living with the Foleys" is well worth reading, regardless of my nitpicking. But I wanted more — far more — about Phil's interaction with the Foleys.

The jacket copy informs us that the second novella, "Kept", is "a knowing homage to the work of David Cronenberg and David Lynch". The tone of the violence and the explicitly metacinematic narrative certainly mirror Cronenberg's films, but I can't fathom how "Kept" relates to Lynch. Its parade of freaks reminds me of Tim Burton, perhaps, but not of Lynch. That said, this a very strong piece.

The story opens with a man being mutilated and tortured for a woman's home video project. We quickly learn that this is a consequence of his attempt to pick up and seduce this woman in an airport bar. We also quickly learn that he is not the first man this woman has captured for this purpose.

The woman, Maxine, is the caretaker of a very peculiar building and its even more peculiar residents. Yes, she sadistically mutilates and tortures men. Is she evil? Well.... Quoting the jacket copy again, "Kept" is "a no-holds-barred assault on our conception of good guys and bad guys, justice, morality and retribution." And that's entirely true.

The violence and the paybacks just keep escalating, and the complex web of dependency, responsibility, victimization, and duty make the ethics of the story interestingly difficult to untangle. Maxine is set up as the tale's protagonist, as the one with whose situation we come to empathize most.

Maxine takes her commitment to her tenants very seriously. She's devoted to their welfare, above and beyond the call of duty. They look up to her, admire her, love her, even. They are aware of her activities as filmmaker-cum-torturer and eagerly ask about the progress of her project. And the more we learn about these cozy tenants, the more monstrous they appear.

And Maxine's latest victim, the man whose tongue she rips out? Well, he's difficult to like.

There's a lot that's left unrevealed about "Kept"'s spectacularly fascinating backstory and the history of the apartment building and its menacingly mysterious landlord. And that's fine — stimulating and exciting, in fact.

Nevertheless, again, the story ends rather abruptly and, in the wake of the cataclysmic violence, death, and carnage, nothing really seems to change. And that's a big disappointment. A lot of the story's urgency stems from Maxine's desire to keep the building safe at all cost. It is often implied that there will be a heavy price to pay should she fail in any way. When "normality" is restored at the end, it's all too easy and pat; it undermines the anxieties the fuelled the plot.

Still, this is such a startlingly bold and inventive piece. Despite my quibbles, I enjoyed it enormously.

From the evidence of these two novellas, Burns appears to be a writer who takes his readers on wild, fun, and dangerous journeys — without necessarily knowing himself where he's ultimately going, or where to stop.

To discuss this column, and genre fiction in general, visit Claude Lalumière's Critical Speculations on the TTA Press message boards.

Claude Lalumière is a columnist for Locus Online, Black Gate, and The Montreal Gazette.  His short fiction has most recently appeared in The Book of More Flesh, Interzone, and Fiction Inferno.  2003 will see the release of three anthologies he edited: Island Dreams: Montreal Writers of the Fantastic (Véhicule Press), Open Space: New Canadian Fantastic Fiction (Red Deer Press), and, in collaboration with Marty Halpern, Witpunk (4 Walls 8 Windows). See for news and links to his online publications. Publishers: please send review material to 4135 Coloniale, Montreal, QC, Canada, H2W

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