Book Review: At the Mercy of Beasts by Ed Kurtz

“Tethered by the monstrous yet wildly different in presentation and execution, Kurtz displays just how broad his skills are. His writing is clear and immersive without being fussy, and he builds his scenes with an expert eye. No word is wasted, no detail is extraneous.”

 

Ed Kurtz is a writer who, though perhaps not as well-known as some of his contemporaries, nevertheless attracts great acclaim from his fellow writers. His work has received accolades from the likes of Bracken Macleod, Lee Thomas, and Laird Barron, amongst others. And with several novels in print—including The Rib from Which I Remake the World, and Bleed—and numerous short stories in a variety of admired publications, it’s easy to see why. Kurtz seems to be one of those writers who simply gets on with the business of producing quality work, quietly, steadily. And now he has released—through Journalstone—a triptych of novellas, At the Mercy of Beasts.

The first entry, ‘Black’s Red Gold’, opens in the year of 1919, in the heat of a Texas oil-field. Here, the ruthless and unpleasant business-man Peter Black operates a fledgling drilling enterprise. In this he is aided by his partner Micah Wells, a slightly more measured gentleman, and various other colourful characters. But the field in which they drill does not yield them riches in black gold. Instead, they come across a strange red substance which seems to promise even more riches. Only snag is, it comes from the hide of a gargantuan creature hidden in a cavern beneath the earth. Yet Black will stop at nothing to obtain this potential “pot of gold”, including injury, deceit, and murder. Written in an omniscient voice, it follows a variety of individuals as each pushes the plot onwards. And what a concept. The intrusion of cosmic horror into this particular setting is wonderful, logically doing away with such things as smart-phones, the internet, and other such resources which might interfere with the secrecy needed by Black and the story. The dust-bowl environment, the early 20th Century low-technology arena lends itself well to an intimate, isolated event. This is aided by Kurtz’s writing, which reads almost like a dispassionate reporting of events, yet still manages to inject necessary emotion. It’s a wonderful story, highly original in many ways, and like the best horror, is more about the less virtuous aspects of humans than the horror itself. Thematically, Kurtz seems to be examining avarice, capitalism, the blinding lust for wealth and power. There is a real grimness here, an unforgiving eye for the worst of humanity; very little here shows our species in a good light. A great opener.

Next up is ‘Kennon Road’, which jumps back a few years and halfway across the globe to the Philippines. We follow Charles Houghton as he negotiates the sweltering heat of Baguio City and its environs. Once a soldier, he is now essentially a servant in the employ of the current governor-general. He spends his time hating the country and helping to keep some of the locals in line. And then the first body appears, horribly mutilated. One of the first to see it in-situ, it confirms for him that he is in a savage country. But when more bodies appear, and a local tells him it is the work of “aswang”, a “manananggal”, he is soon forced to accept the unacceptable. Another story with a strong, distinctive setting, this time Kurtz stays mostly with Houghton. Yet the same powerful writing is in evidence. It shows a versatility to Kurtz’s talents in that he can shift gears and change perspective yet still retain mastery of the tale. And what a tale it is. Perhaps the strongest of the three here—and that’s no mean feat—we are plunged deep into the jungle environment. We feel the fear, the horror, the dread. We feel the heat and the sweat, and smell the blood and gore. It’s a great piece of fiction, taking an unusual monster from another culture and breathing awful, fear-inducing life into it. It also still retains the literary aspirations of the first story, though manifests them in a different way. Colonialism, war, barbarity; all are there in some measure. Not to mention the very human qualities of Houghton. He is no hero, but neither is he one-dimensional. Rather, he is a flawed and well-drawn character, who feels real. Even the creature, the “aswang”, is given a tiny measure of sympathy—or at least she was in this reader’s eyes. But by the end, all that is swept away. Another great tale.

Finally, we are brought closer to present day, though still are a few years off. It is now 1977 and in ‘Deadheader’ we meet two very different people. The first is Pearlie Pearce, a trucker delivering a cargo she is not privy to a remote town in New Mexico (specifically Cuesta Verde, a little in-joke there for the avid horror fans). The second is Ernie Kinchen, a hitch-hiking ex-Vietnam veteran who feels adrift and near the end of a tether. Brought together through happenstance, they are soon locked in a life or death struggle against a swarm of ravenous monsters. Yes, the third story in this book is the closest to a traditional monster tale yet, though it still manages to ground it in humanity. Kinchen is haunted by his exploits in Vietnam, and Pearce also has her past issues. Yet both are more rounded and stronger for their respective experiences. And their individual trials stand them in good stead for the horror to come. Fast-paced, full of action and thrills, great set-pieces and world-building, yet still with that sharp prose and great characterisation that has informed the preceding works. And monsters, both human and other. It’s an excellent conclusion to a fine collection of novellas.

Tethered by the monstrous yet wildly different in presentation and execution, Kurtz displays just how broad his skills are. His writing is clear and immersive without being fussy, and he builds his scenes with an expert eye. No word is wasted, no detail is extraneous. Each story is complete and satisfying, yet also accomplishes what all good stories should; leave the reader begging for more. Each of the worlds in these three tales is so fully-realised, so tangible, it’s a wrench when they end. Even with the horrors they depict, the reader wishes for more. And that is the sign of a truly great storyteller. For this reader, it’s the first step into the wider world of Ed Kurtz’s fiction. Another must-buy.

PAUL MICHAELS

Publisher: JournalStone.
Paperback: 214 (pps)
Release Date: 13 April 2018.

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