Reading Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

An Interzone review from last year.

Blood Kin
Steve Rasnic Tem, Solaris Books, 267pp

Steve Rasnic Tem’s Deadfall Hotel (2012) was a remarkable novel. Set in a mysterious hotel with an unusual and often elusive clientele, it dealt with Richard’s attempt to begin a new life with his daughter, Serena, after his wife’s death. Tem’s delicate handling of Richard’s emotional rawness set against the downright weidnessness of the Deadfall Hotel prompted me to nominate it as one of my books of that year. Unsurprisingly, I came to Blood Kin with high hopes. Maybe too high, for while Blood Kin is a perfectly respectable horror novel with strong gothic overtones it seems to lack Deadfall Hotel’s edge. And yet, it’s not easy to determine precisely where it is that Blood Kin does stumble.

The narrative concerns another broken man, Michael Gibson, former drug addict and alcoholic, who has returned to the small town of Morrison, Virginia, to take care of his ailing grandmother, Sadie. Michael knows very little of his family’s history, and Sadie has a story she needs to tell him very urgently, for she knows she is dying, and it is vital that she passes on her story. Sadie also has certain powers – the ability to experience what people feeling, and the ability to pass these feelings to others through her storytelling – as a result of which Michael doesn’t so much hear the story as experience it in terrifying detail, something he finds very difficult to cope with. The story is long, and its telling slow, because of its emotional intensity for both Sadie and Michael.

And this is where I begin to have problems with the narrative. In part the story concerns an iron-bound crate, buried in a ditch somewhere out in the fields which are now swamped with kudzu, the rampant creeper which has become symbolic of the southern states of the USA. The reader quickly comes to see that it is associated with the presence of that mysterious crate whose presence so frightens everyone. However, the story’s telling seems to me to be very slow, constantly deferring the things Michael really needs to know. Within the story, Sadie is determined that Michael should learn everything in precisely the right order, so that he understands fully what is to happen. The reader, though, might begin to feel that Tem is dragging it out just a little too much.

Sadie’s story is that of a hardscrabble life in a remote part of Virginia. Most of the local inhabitants are related to one another to some degree or another; the Gibson family’s various strands seem to intertwine as tightly as the kudzu vines. The Gibsons are Melungeons, descendants of poor whites, escaped slaves and Native Americans who have intermarried over the centuries. Their ancestry is uncertain, they are often looked down on by the white inhabitants, and not unnaturally they tend to keep themselves to themselves. This much is historically true, even down to Gibson being a genuine Melungeon name, but Tem’s purpose in raising the matter seems unclear. It may be that he is suggesting that Sadie’s powers are a result of her being a Melungeon or else he is employing the stereotype of the small, remote community, with a completely different perception of what is socially acceptable, prey to unusual beliefs. The fact that Sadie’s uncle is a snake-handling fire-and-brimstone preacher of the old school, possessed of a deeply warped personal theology, really doesn’t help. Indeed, I don’t think it is any coincidence that Sadie’s cousin, Mickey-Gene, likes to read William Faulkner for there are strong overtones of both As I Lay Dying and Light in August about Blood Kin. Sadie and Mickey-Gene have both recognised very early the need for deception in order to survive the Preacher’s tyrannical rule unscathed but as children, their power to act against him is very limited.

What does save this novel from slipping into Faulkneresque parody is the novel’s contemporary strand. Here, Michael quietly comes to terms with the destiny that has been placed upon him by his family, caring for his grandmother reluctantly but with extraordinary tenderness. He is, perhaps, the classic fictional sacrifice, with addiction, alcoholism and a failed life behind him, but as he learns his family history there is a sense that Michael becomes grounded as a result of knowledge gained. It is not a family one can take much pride in but Michael can see the good in it as well as the bad and does what he can to atone for the past in his own low-key way. In many respects, the best parts of this novel are the most understated; the closer it moves towards the grand guignol the less persuasive it becomes.