Books: Kin by Kealan Patrick Burke

Kealan Patrick Burke is an Irish author who won a Bram Stoker award for his novel The Turtle Boy, which came out in 2004; I’ve seen a few of his novellas—including Sour Candy and Blanky—being widely recommended as well. But the first book of his that I got around to reading was a 2011 novel that seemed to have the book reviewing community on YouTube all abuzz. This book is called Kin.

Now, I know that up to this point, my book reviews have focused more on psychological horror and mystery, so I haven’t yet had cause to do a content warning, but this book definitely needs one, so here goes. If you are not a fan of more extreme horror, then this is not the book for you. It contains excessive gore and violence, rape, cannibalism, vicious eviscerations, people being sewn inside other people, things of that nature. I wouldn’t necessarily call it torture porn, because there’s a deeper story going on behind the grotesqueries, but it is quite graphic, and has been compared to The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Deliverance, Hostel, and movies of that ilk. So more sensitive readers, beware.

That said, this is actually a fantastic book, and does something fairly original with the slasher or “hicksploitation” genre. While there are numerous novels and films in which a group of city folk run afoul of a gaggle of inbred, cannibalistic killers, this is the first story I’ve read that takes that premise and begins the story at the end, i.e. after all the people have been slaughtered and the final girl has escaped. This novel essentially tells the tale of, for example, what might have happened in the aftermath of Sally escaping from Leatherface, and all of the repercussions that followed in the wake of the wider world finding out about the family of cannibals in the woods. It’s a terrific angle to explore the genre from, and one I hadn’t really seen done before.

At the beginning of Kin, we meet our main protagonist, Claire Lambert. Although we don’t find out the exact details of her ordeal until later, we meet her just as she is making her harrowing escape from a family of murderous backwoods psychos. She has been raped and stabbed multiple times, has had one eye cut out, and several of her fingers and toes cut off. Clearly, she is in terrible shape.

Thankfully, she is picked up on the road by a kindly man named Jack and his twenty-something-year-old son Pete, who take her to the home of the local doctor in this tiny little town of Elkwood, Alabama.

As the story goes on, we discover that Claire was the last survivor of a group of friends who had randomly wandered into this area while on a road trip. The group included Claire’s boyfriend Danny and another couple, all of whom have been horribly tortured, slain, and eaten by a family of nutjobs known as the Merrills.

We find out more about the Merrills as the story goes on. The parents are named Papa-in-Gray and Momma-in-Bed; the latter so named, obviously, because she is so enormously fat that she can’t walk. The couple have several sons, and they also once had a daughter whose fate we learn later in the story. The Merrills, apart from being repugnant murderers and cannibals, are also religious freaks who genuinely believe that God has told them that they must kill what they refer to as “the men of the world” (in other words, regular people). I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that the Merrills don’t actually believe all the kidnapping, stealing, rape, torture, murder, and cannibalism is wrong; it’s more that they seem to believe it’s their duty, whether they actually want to do it or not. To this end, all of the Merrill children (the youngest of whom seems to be about twelve years old) have been trained from birth to be killers, and will do whatever their mother and father ask of them, as they don’t distinguish between the word of their parents and the word of God.

As we delve further into Claire’s experiences with the Merrills, we learn that Claire actually managed to kill one of the Merrill sons, Matt, during her escape. Matt was somewhat slow, and the family is furious, particularly with the oldest son, Luke, who Papa-in-Gray blames for allowing Claire to get away. Luke, as it happens, appears to be the only member of the Merrill clan with anything approaching a conscience, and has been questioning the morality of what the family has been doing, especially since his role in the death of the family’s only daughter. Because Papa-in-Gray senses Luke’s reluctance to continue with the family business, as it were, he decides to send Luke after Claire, and the family in general decide that they’re going to take horrible revenge on Claire and anyone who helped her escape, including Jack and Pete, as well as local physician Doctor Wellman.

I neglected to mention, you see, that everyone in the town is vaguely aware of what the Merrills have been up to, but it seems that no one is really willing to stand up to them for fear of putting a target on their own backs; there’s also the fact that the family owns most of the land in the county. It’s implied that the townsfolk, including law enforcement, were perfectly willing to look the other way at what the Merrills did as long as they preyed upon strangers. Now that locals have been targeted and the truth about the Merrills is going to be exposed to the world at large, various people in Elkwood have to decide if they are willing to put their lives on the line to finally do the right thing and bring this family to justice, final or otherwise.

A not-insignificant chunk of the book is actually told from the point of view of the Merrills, which was a very interesting, and compelling, choice. The limited focus on them doesn’t humanize them exactly, but it does give them more dimension, and provides some insight as to what the psychology of these batshit insane people is like. The character of Luke is the sole sympathetic member of the family; the rest are complex but clearly evil. While some readers may feel as though the author is trying to set up an equivalence between what the Merrills did and what the people who seek revenge on them do, I never got that impression at all; the story is a lot more nuanced than that, and the Merrills are never really portrayed as anything other than monstrous and deserving of being wiped off the earth.

The larger part of the narrative actually follows the tendrils that sprout forth from the victims of the massacre. For while the Kin of the title can refer to the Merrills, it also alludes to the friends and family members of Claire and the other people slaughtered by the Merrills. For example, Finch, the brother of Claire’s boyfriend Danny, is a veteran of the Iraq War and dealing with PTSD following his experiences at Abu Ghraib; after learning of his brother’s gruesome fate, he makes a plan to go to Elkwood and take out the entire family himself. Likewise, Pete, the son of the man who rescued Claire, has fallen in love with her, and hatches his own revenge plan as well. So the deeper theme of Kin, at least as I read it, was the sort of ever-widening ripple of tragedy that springs forth from one seemingly isolated incident, and the way this one incident can have enormous consequences for people who weren’t even present for the original event.

A few reviews of this that I read complained a bit that the story sagged in the middle, but I didn’t really find this to be the case, though I admit that after the grisly and fast-paced first act, it did take me a few pages to get into the swing of the second act, with its multiple new characters and plotlines. So keep in mind that while the opening of Kin is dynamite and just kind of gets you right into the action right away, once Claire is rescued and her story begins to come out, the narrative shifts focus somewhat onto other characters, including family and friends of the massacre victims, and Elkwood locals fearing retribution for their participation in Claire’s escape. Much of the second act involves plans for revenge being laid out by the characters, but that didn’t bother me in the slightest, because all the characters were interesting, and each of them had their own unique viewpoint on the tragedy and the way in which they wanted to address it.

As I mentioned earlier, this is not a book for people who don’t like gore; it’s not the goriest thing I’ve ever read, but it’s definitely not for the squeamish. In terms of the ick factor, I’d put it up there with some of the 90s splatter novels by Richard Laymon or Edward Lee. Personally, I wasn’t all that bothered by the blood and guts, but some of the very vivid descriptions of the Merrills’ homestead—and in particular the absolutely nauseating depiction of Momma-in-Bed and her daily ministrations—had me dry-heaving somewhat. I’m almost never grossed out by gore in books or movies, but start talking about anything to do with shit or vomit, and I’m reaching for the barf bag, especially when the author’s prose is so rich that I can literally smell what he’s describing.

If you are a fan of gore and slashers, though, and are looking for something with an original twist and a deeper examination of the mechanics behind the madness, then Kin should be right in your wheelhouse.

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