Books: The Rotting Within by Matt Kurtz

Because there are, sadly, way more worthwhile horror books out there than I will ever have time enough in my life to read, when I’m looking for something new to read and review, I rely a lot on recommendations from friends and other horror channels and sites. And because the book I was going to read for this week’s review wasn’t really holding my attention and I was struggling to finish it, I decided I needed something short and compelling that I could get through in a relatively brief time so I could get a review up in a timely fashion. So I did a Google search for “best horror novellas,” and hit upon The Lineup’s list of “7 Terrifying Horror Novellas,” published in late December of 2021. There were some familiar titles on there that I had been wanting to read, but none of them were available on Kindle Unlimited except for the last one: a 2020 novella that I hadn’t heard of called The Rotting Within by Matt Kurtz.

Kurtz started out as a filmmaker primarily, though it seems he pivoted into writing horror books a couple years back, publishing his first novel, Kinfolk, in 2018 (he’s also published three volumes of short stories). And I have to say, if all of those are as good as The Rotting Within, I’m going to have to check them out sooner rather than later. This one was a hell of a ride: fast-paced, action-packed, descriptively immersive, gory, cinematic, and actually scary, with an absolute gut punch of an ending. Everything we like about horror, all in one tight package that clocked in at about 200 pages. This is how you do it, folks. Also, somebody make a movie of this, like, yesterday.

The story begins with two brief prologues; the first concerns a woman named Shirley who abandons her child and her abusive husband in the dead of night to meet a mysterious stranger. The second jumps ahead fifteen years, and Shirley returns to her former home and her husband, but now she’s…different. Her dirtbag husband ends up torn to shreds by some kind of monster, then we get on with the main part of the tale.

Twenty-six years after that, we’re following a young woman named Kenzie, who seems like a good person, but has tragically bad taste in men. She has two children, nine-year-old Lilly and five-year-old Tim, by two different fathers, and lately has been in a disastrous relationship with yet another abusive dickhead named Paul. She’d been putting up with his shit for a while because she was poor and needed a roof over her head, but after she caught Paul leering at her daughter one morning, she decided she had to get the fuck out of Dodge ASAP. Desperate, she stole several hundred dollars from Paul’s hidden stash, packed her kids’ stuff into her truck, and hightailed it out of the state.

Not really having any close family or friends—her mother Victoria having died of cancer quite young many years before and her previous series of boyfriends having isolated her from her former friends—Kenzie decides her only recourse is to impose upon the only remaining family member she has: her grandmother, Shirley, who she’s actually never met. Through her mother, she knows that Shirley runs an out-of-the-way bed & breakfast in a small Texas town, and after speaking to her on the phone, she is relieved to find that Shirley seems lovely and more than welcoming. Kenzie also hopes that her creep of a boyfriend will not be able to find them all the way out there.

So she and the kids arrive at the Sunrise Bed and Breakfast, and at first everything seems idyllic. Shirley is exactly the kind of grandmother anyone could hope for, and she offers to let Kenzie and the children stay as long as they need to; she even puts Kenzie to work helping to run the inn, so she won’t feel as though she’s getting charity. The inn doesn’t see many visitors, Shirley tells her, but they do have people wandering in from time to time, and she likes to keep the place immaculate just in case.

It turns out, though, that the inn does have two very long-term residents: a pair of elderly ladies who live in the only two rooms on the third floor, and have lived there quietly for more than thirty years. The younger woman, Myrna, is a bit abrasive but otherwise seems decent enough, while Lucille is apparently bedridden and is never seen; Myrna takes care of the old woman, explaining that she’s a nurse. Kenzie and the kids are admonished not to disturb the old women, and keep to their own quarters on the lower floors unless absolutely necessary.

Kenzie is beginning to think that she’s finally getting her life back together: the inn is gorgeous, Shirley is sweet and supportive, and Paul evidently has no idea where she is. Shortly after arriving, a handsome new guest named Ben blows in, and Kenzie befriends him, though keeps things platonic because he seems to maybe be on the run from the law, and lord knows she doesn’t need to be going down that road again.

There are some weird things going on, though, as there usually are in this type of story: strange noises behind the walls and in the attic, doors being open when they should be closed, odd shadows and unexplained cold breaths on the back of the neck. Myrna, when she finally appears, seems helpful, but also very blunt and caustic, with bizarre mannerisms. Tim, after watching a scary movie one night, has what appears to be a nightmare about a naked old woman hovering over his sister’s bed. Things like that.

Only a few days into Kenzie’s residence at the B&B, Shirley is unexpectedly called away to stay with a sick friend, leaving Kenzie in charge of the place. This is stressful enough for someone as unsure of herself as Kenzie, but then it turns out that a line of horrible thunderstorms is also heading their way; both the children have fallen ill with some mysterious malady; Paul might actually have figured out where they are after all and is on his way to exact retribution; and oh, by the way, there might be some kind of supernatural thing creeping around in the house with them.

This was just about as perfect a horror story as you could possibly ask for. It’s riveting, it’s page-turning, it’s gross, it’s tense, it’s creepy, and the stakes just keep getting higher and higher the entire way through. It’s also beautifully written, plunging you into the story with succinct but still vivid depictions of the surroundings and situations. I also love that Matt Kurtz went all in with a truly wrenching ending, that had me going, “Oh no. OH NO,” as soon as I figured out what was happening. Weave all that together with a sprinkling of quick references to such horror classics as Rosemary’s Baby and Burnt Offerings, and you’ve got a damn good slice of deliciously nasty horror goodness that needs as many reader’s eyeballs on it as possible. Seriously, check it out; it’s great.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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