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Book Review: Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

“The best book Steve Tem has written!”

bloodkinMichael Gibson returns to the family home in the Southern Appalachian mountains to look after his ailing grandmother and recover from a bad patch in his life. While he is there, his grandmother begins to tell him stories from her childhood – tales that Michael feels as if he is part of, as if he were living them through the telling. Michael has inherited the family gift; just like his grandmother, he empathises with people on more than emotional level, inhabiting their heads and seeing things through their eyes.

The old woman spins tales of the community of Melungeons (a group of mixed-race mountain-dwellers) in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. As the story unfolds, and Michael learns of his ancestors, especially the Preacher and his dark ways, the story’s roots reach out from the past and into the present. Soon Michael must confront an old kudzu-covered shack and what it contains. What he finds there might just be the thing that’s been waiting for him his entire life.

The word “master” is absurdly overused in book reviews, but in this case it’s entirely appropriate. Steve Rasnic Tem is the kind of writer other writers want to be, and Blood Kin is a masterful example of his craft. The book begins as a Southern Gothic, taking on a coming-of-age spin. Then, during the later chapters, the horror lurking in the background comes to the fore. The last few chapters constitute one of the finest recent examples of modern horror fiction. There’s a creeping dread, a sense that evil is hiding beneath the surface, and then that evil comes crashing through to face us. The kudzu plant in the story is a brilliant metaphor for the ever-growing and stubborn nature of human malice. It grows and creeps and returns faster than it can be destroyed.

One of Tem’s pet themes – that of the importance of storytelling in human lives, how it shapes us and lets us create who we are – is prevalent here, but it’s integrated beautifully into the whole. The subtext never overshadows the main story, but it’s there if a reader wants to accept it.

The characters are brilliantly drawn: Michael, the damaged last in the line of the Melungeons, grandmother Sadie, and the Preacher. The latter is a potent villain whose snake-charming and bible-thumping will strike fear into readers’ hearts without reducing him to a crude caricature of simple evil.

The end result is a novel of incredible power and deep pathos; a compelling story that thrills as much as it terrifies. It’s the best book Steve Tem has written, and that’s saying a lot. Because he’s a master: a genuine one.

GARY MCMAHON

Publisher: Solaris
Paperback: (384pp)
Release Date: 13 March 2014

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