Today’s topic of discussion is another book that I just chose randomly from the offerings suggested to me on Kindle Unlimited; my only stipulations for the book I wanted to read were that it be generally highly rated, and be set in the winter (since that’s the season in which I read it). I picked this one because I liked the title. Sometimes it’s the little things that draw me in, you know?
Jeff Strand’s Autumn Bleeds Into Winter came out in 2020, and despite the author having written numerous novels, some of which were nominated for Bram Stoker Awards, I had somehow never heard of him. This was a grave error on my part, and I wholeheartedly apologize for my cluelessness. Though this is the first Jeff Strand novel I read, I got the impression from reviews and synopses of his many other books that he usually writes stuff that’s more overtly in the realm of horror comedy. Autumn Bleeds Into Winter has humor in it, for sure, but from what I could determine, it seems less patently comedic than most of his other stuff. The thing that the tone and story of this novel most reminded me of was the 2018 film Summer of 84, as a matter of fact. It’s billed as a coming-of-age thriller, which is a pretty fair description, though I don’t think anyone would quibble with labeling it a horror novel either.
It’s basically told from the point of view of our main protagonist, Curtis Black, in the present day; he’s recalling something terrible that happened to him when he was fourteen years old, back in 1979. The premise of the story is rather simple, but the execution is so good and I was so riveted that I literally got angry when I had to put the book down to go do something else. I got really into it, is what I’m saying.
So back in 1979, Curtis is just a chubby kid, living in Fairbanks, Alaska. He’s not a social outcast, exactly, but he’s not a real popular kid either; he’s a bit of a cut-up, but not so much that it gets him into any real trouble. He’s just one of those kids that sort of fades into the background, in other words.
Curtis’s best friend is named Todd, and the two boys are pretty much inseparable. The first part of the story sets up how the two boys met and became friends after Todd moved into town and into a house only a short distance from Curtis.
One night, the boys are having a sleepover, and they get into an argument. Apparently Curtis makes a joke about Todd’s mom that’s just a step too far, and Todd decides he’s going to walk back to his house, even though it’s the middle of the night and it’s freezing cold outside. After he leaves, Curtis starts to feel a little bit bad, and sets out after his friend. In true fourteen-year-old boy fashion, though, he isn’t going after Todd to apologize to him; he actually takes an off-brand Mickey Mouse mask with him so he can put it on, hide in the woods near where Todd’s path of travel is, and leap out to scare the shit out of him.
The first part of the plan goes off without a hitch, and Curtis is installed in the woods waiting when he sees Todd coming by. Just then, though, a silver car pulls up beside his friend. Todd starts crying and freaking out, then gets into the car. Curtis is confused, because the man driving the car isn’t really a friend of theirs or anything; Curtis recognizes him and knows his name, and even remembers what street he lives on, but he can’t imagine why Todd would have gotten into the car with him. He comes out of the woods for a better look, and he’s sure he knows who the man is, although the driver can’t see Curtis’s face because he has the mouse mask on.
Now, it should be noted that prior to this occurrence, a few kids have gone missing in Fairbanks, and Curtis surmises that his best friend has just been kidnapped by the man responsible for these disappearances: a man who he absolutely knows the identity of. Curtis then does exactly the right thing by going to the police and reporting what he saw. The police, to their credit, take him seriously, and go to the home of the driver of the car—a man named Gerald Martin—to investigate.
It seems, however, that if Gerald Martin is the kidnapper, he’s hidden his tracks very well. Investigators find absolutely no evidence to suggest that Mr. Martin kidnapped Todd or anyone else; even the silver car that Curtis saw him driving is nowhere to be seen. Though the police do believe that Curtis saw what he saw, there just isn’t enough evidence to justify an investigation.
At this point, fourteen-year-old Curtis decides that he’s going to have to take matters into his own hands, since he feels responsible for Todd getting abducted. If he hadn’t made that joke at the sleepover and Todd hadn’t gotten mad, he reasons, then Todd never would have been walking home and ended up in the clutches of a serial killer. So Curtis resolves to steal some money from his parents, buy a gun, and force Mr. Martin to confess his deeds to the police.
Obviously, because Curtis is fourteen and Mr. Martin is a very cunning adult, things don’t go exactly as planned. In fact, they go horribly, disastrously awry, and Curtis ends up endangering not only himself, but also his parents and his quasi-girlfriend Tina, who he gets to know because she is fascinated by his dogged pursuit of the serial killer who took his friend.
This novel snagged me from the first paragraph and never let up the entire time. As I said, the story is straightforward, but it’s fast-paced and nail-biting, as Curtis gets himself into deeper and deeper shit as the story goes on. Curtis himself is such a lovable, relatable character, and you really want to see him succeed, but at the same time, you’re painfully aware of his limitations and his hubris in thinking he can match wits with a murderer three times his age. I think what makes him so compelling as a character is that he’s actually not even going after the killer because of arrogance; he just feels so bad that he essentially got his friend kidnapped that he believes it’s his duty and his burden to bear, no matter which way it goes.
If you like your horror laced with a coming-of-age tale that also happens to feature a serial killer, then this is a great read. I enjoyed it a lot, and will definitely be seeking out more of Jeff Strand’s work in the future.