Daniel J. Volpe was a name I’d heard before, though I didn’t know much about him and had never read any of his prior works. It seems that he’s mostly known for extreme horror and splatterpunk, and while his 2021 novel Left To You is certainly gory and stomach-churning in places, it’s also a heart-wrenching tale centered around a real-life historical horror, as well as a savage examination of what some people will do in order to save the ones they love.
As with most books I discuss on this series, I will recommend going into Left To You knowing as little as possible about it, just as I did; that said, I’m going to be talking about certain plot points that you may not want revealed prior to reading, so there will be mild spoilers from this point forward.
The novel is divided into several sections, the first of which follows a twenty-something man named Robert, who lives with his mother in upstate New York. Robert is a decent guy, working hard at two thankless jobs—stocking shelves at an L-Mart and waiting tables at a greasy spoon—in order to support his household. His mother is dying of cancer, and it tears him up inside seeing his formerly vibrant mom wasting away and in constant pain. A home health aide named Esther comes in to help when Robert has to work, but the bills are piling up, and Robert knows that after his mother inevitably passes away, he’s not going to be able to afford to keep the house on his own.
Aside from that, Robert’s life is full of petty little joys and annoyances: his L-Mart manager Mike is a pain in the ass, but he has a friend/potential love interest in a co-worker named Sarah, who has a big crush on him, but who he’s keeping at arm’s length for now while he deals with his mother’s final illness.
Robert also has a casual friendship with a kind, older gentleman named Josef, who he started chatting with when Josef came into his store to shop. The two aren’t that close, but they talk for a few minutes here and there when Josef comes to the store, or pops into the diner where Robert works for some Polish stuffed cabbage.
Lately, though, Josef has been feeling particularly dire, and though Robert doesn’t know it, Josef’s body is also being ravaged by cancer, and he’s very aware that his remaining time is short. As he starts to get sicker, he gets increasingly desperate to stay alive for just a little bit longer, so he can tell Robert something really important. To this end, Josef goes to the Humane Society and adopts an older, very trusting and sweet dog, and you just know something awful is going to happen to the poor old girl, and indeed it does. You guys know how I feel about terrible things happening to animals in books, and this scene really made me want to cry, so you have been warned.
The next day, Josef, looking and feeling better, contacts Robert and asks him to come over for a chat. Josef already knows that Robert won’t have to work that day, and as it turns out, there’s some kind of plumbing problem at the diner and it can’t open, leaving Robert with time to kill. He shows up at Josef’s house, Josef pours them both some bourbon—telling Robert they’re both going to need it—and starts to tell Robert a story.
The next section of the book takes place in 1943. Josef, his wife Ola, and their twin sons have been rounded up by the Nazis, and are being transported to Auschwitz. The family is, of course, separated, and Josef never sees his wife or children again. He is put on a work detail, removing the dead bodies from the gas chambers and then hosing the chambers out for the next set of victims. He and his fellow inmates are starving and terrified, but soon learn to buckle down and work without complaint, lest they be put up against the wall and shot like some of the other prisoners.
Not long into Josef’s confinement, the director of the camp, Lt. Kollmer, learns that Josef is a professor of theology, and summons him into his office for a talk about religious topics. Josef is initially wary, especially after Kollmer tells him point-blank that he’s going to kill him once he’s no longer of interest, but over the next few months, Josef begins to almost enjoy his lunchtime chats with the evil camp commander. Kollmer allows him to have fresh, cold water to drink, instead of the warm, polluted stuff given to the other prisoners, and after a time, Kollmer even starts having somewhat lavish food brought for both of them. Josef is not only being fed and treated much better than anyone else at the camp, but he’s legitimately happy to be using his intellect once again; although he despises Kollmer, he has to admit that the man knows a great deal about theological matters, and asks very informed questions.
The other prisoners begin to become resentful, however, that Josef gets a break from the grueling work schedule and access to far better and more plentiful food than the stale bread and thin soup they’re afforded. His former friends in the camp turn their backs on him, calling him a “pet Jew” and insinuating that he’s allowing Kollmer to have sex with him in exchange for favors.
This tense situation culminates in a pretty horrific scene that I won’t spoil, but suffice it to say that Josef comes to realize the depths he will sink to in order to save his own skin.
Subsequently, the camp is liberated by the Soviets, and Josef eventually makes his way to New York City. The next part of the book follows Josef there in the 1950s, where he’s living a modest life in Yonkers, teaching at a local college and living alone in a small but decent apartment. One day, though, when he’s in Manhattan for a meeting, he happens to spot a familiar figure running an antique shop: Lt. Kollmer, his nemesis from back in the war. Gripped with a murderous rage—since in the ensuing years he discovered that his wife was raped and murdered, and his twin sons experimented on by Dr. Mengele—he decides he’s going to kill Kollmer, and one night he goes to Kollmer’s place to do exactly that.
However, before he can carry out his vengeance, Kollmer shows him something that changes the entire course of Josef’s life. Why do you think I kept you alive and asked all of those questions about angels and demons? Kollmer wants to know, and then reveals to Josef that through his occult studies, he has captured a demon that will do his bidding, provided he makes occasional sacrifices to it.
From that point forward, various circumstances conspire to get possession of the stone that houses the demon into Josef’s hands, and then we skip back ahead to the present, where Josef finally discloses that he’s planning to leave the demon in Robert’s care, since he doesn’t know anyone else, and since he doesn’t like the idea of simply leaving it to someone who doesn’t know what it is. Robert, of course, balks at this responsibility, but when he realizes that sacrificing animals (and people) to the demon will get you whatever you want, he has to decide whether saving his mother from death is worth the price that he’ll have to pay.
This was a gripping and very emotional novel, and I’m actually glad I had no idea what it was about before diving into it, as every new twist and turn was a surprise. I didn’t expect the story to go in a Holocaust direction, and though that part of the book was absolutely harrowing to read, it kept me locked onto the page all the way through, as every fresh atrocity unfolded. It was also quite a heartbreaking story, as both the men at its center—Josef and Robert—were clearly good people, but the circumstances they endured put them in a position where they were willing to do appalling things in order to survive or to free their loved ones from pain or death. It was one of those stories that definitely made you wonder what you yourself would resort to if you were in the same situation.
The book, as I mentioned earlier, is quite graphic and gory in places, and there is at least one animal sacrifice. But aside from all the blood and shit and bile, the true horror of the story mainly comes from the retelling of the monstrous cruelties inflicted on Josef and his fellow prisoners, and how their desperation caused them to lose their humanity by small increments. Robert’s story, while far less tragic and epic in scale, was also affecting in its own way, and that ending was a rather pitiless twist that I didn’t see coming.
If you like your horror nasty and savage with an emotional core that makes you feel as though you’ve been punched in the gut, then Left To You should definitely be on your wavelength. From what I could determine, the novel isn’t as “extreme” as some of Daniel Volpe’s other works, but it’s still pretty brutal, although it would probably appeal to a wider horror audience than his more splatterpunk titles. I particularly recommend it if you like historical horror, as about half of the story takes place during World War II, but fans of modern horror should dig it as well.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.