The Novellas of Kealan Patrick Burke
Reviews by Tony Jones
Kealan Patrick Burke is one of those authors, that since he arrived on the horror scene in 2005, has regularly and successfully moved between the three major lengths of fiction; novels, novellas and short stories. This article will concentrate on his novellas, reviewing seven of my favourite novellas and a small selection of his shorter fiction. Although Kealan has other excellent examples I have deliberately concentrated upon stories which are available as standalone purchases on Amazon or are available on Kindle Unlimited.
If you return to Ink Heist in a few days we will have an exclusive interview with Kealan in which he discusses his novella length fiction and gives other thoughts.
If you’ve never tried Kealan Patrick Burke before exploring any of the selections outlined below should be a treat. He is a horror writer which is impossible to pigeon and has a body of work which demands exploration. Enjoy!
First up, Midlisters is really funny and it’s also a story about writing horror which is a topic I always enjoy. Who knows, there may even be a little bit of Kealan Patrick Burke lurking within these pages? Jason Tennant is a moderately successful horror writer with several novels under his belt, however, he’s never truly happy with his lot and is forever and rather cynically comparing himself to those more successful than himself. Early in the story he develops an unhealthy obsession, bordering on hatred, for another writer, Kent Gray, whom he sees his wife reading. Gray writes a blend of science fiction and erotica which is incredibly popular and Tennant secretly wishes he wrote the novel he finds his wife reading himself.
Before long Tennant is excited to be invited to a big convention, more science fiction than horror, and when he realises that Kent Gray is one of the guests of honour he obsesses about the opportunity of meeting an author he has come to hate. I love books about authors, writing and their insecurities and Midlisters truly nails it, down to the funny convention (90% SF 10% horror) where our beloved genre always plays second fiddle to the science fiction geeks. The odd relationship between fan and author was also spot on, Yes, Stephen King in the flesh, is ONLY a man and even he might get pissed off after signing a thousand autographs on the bounce. Overall though Midlisters is a cynically funny story, told by an unreliable narrator who will never truly be happy, even if he outsells George RR Martin himself! It also has a very cool introduction by the late great Jack Ketchum which should be read as part of the story. Absolutely excellent and a superb example of a horror writer writing about the insecurities of his art.
Blanky, the unsettling story of a haunted dead child’s blanket, is a tremendously effective novella you’ll devour in two to three hours. It horrifically details the destruction of a married relationship after a cot-death, which is shocking enough without any supernatural twist. The tale is narrated by Stephen, who is recently separated from his wife Lexi, as she is no longer able to live in a house full of memories of where she lost her nine-month-old child. Similarly, to Mislisters, Stephen might not be the most reliable or narrators.
Whilst drunk, Stephen hears a weird thumping noise coming from the upstairs bedroom, he finds himself in his dead daughter’s room and sees a blanket lying on the ground near the window. Realising it was Robin’s blanket, her favourite blanket, in his drunken stupor it gives him an excuse to phone his estranged wife. He tells her he has found “blanky” which she is certain was buried with their child… After reconnecting with his wife there are some terrific scenes of dread, some of which are particularly cinematic and particularly unsettling as they’re connected to the death of a baby. Once Blanky gets going, it really picks up pace and tension quickly, with a few gripping set pieces, which develop into a powerful character driven story motivated by grief. This is one of Kealan’s most recent releases and is a particularly strong introduction to his work.
Sour Candy (2015)
The deeply freaky Sour Candy will put you off looking down your nose at haggard mothers dragging their screaming kids around shops forever. Judge at your peril! Things can always get a lot worse as Phil Pendleton soon finds out in this rather tasty, but sour, psychological-supernatural horror novella which is top-heavy with truly memorable scenes. Sour Candy opens with Phil standing in a Walmart waiting to buy some stuff on a normal Saturday morning, there is a weird kid screaming really loudly in the queue with his mother, so loudly that other customers start to depart the shop and the manager does not know what to do. The mother looks in so much anguish Phil cannot help but feel sorry for her. Deep down he is pleased he does not have kids and looks forward to heading home and catching up with his girlfriend. I do not want to say too much more about the story, it’s best read knowing as little about it as possible. However, on the way home Phil’s car is rammed by another vehicle, the driver is the mother of the little boy from the Walmart shop. But the little boy is not in the car. From that moment on poor Phil’s life is about to change forever.
Sour Candy was such a cool story, the sort of thing Ray Bradbury might have written. The reader is never quite sure how the plot is going to play out, as things get weirder and weirder with some particularly unsettling scenes. If you’re a fan of sour candy sweets this story might put you off for life. You may well see the ending coming, but it was still a thrilling and very enjoyable ride. This is also one of those stories which would make a cool episode on one of those Twilight Zone or Tales From the Darkside style anthology shows.
Seldom Seen in August (2010)
Seldom Seen in August is typical of many Kealan Patrick Burke novellas in that initially it seems to be heading in one direction, but by the end the scenario is miles away from the beginning. Unpredictability is a strength throughout all his work. Seldon Seen in August may sound like an odd name for a story, but the reason for the name is revealed slowly as we get to know the central character, Wade Crawford. He is not a nice guy, and when the tale opens he is on the run from the police after a botched heist. He has also separated from his partner in the job, but remains in text message contact with, the disaster also included fatalities. Not that this bothered Wade too much, he has been in and out of prison all his life and will go to any length in avoiding a fresh stint in the joint.
Feeling the police closing in on him, Wade breaks into and hides in what looks like an empty house. However, soon odd things begins to happen, before long down-right freaky supernatural occurrences kick-off. And the old saying; “what goes around comes around” really comes home to roost in a rather unpleasant way. This bizarre story was an intriguing blend of the Stepford Wives and The Cabin in the Woods. Then throw in nanotechnology, ghosts from the past, a killer ending and you every ingredient necessary for a top-notch novella. Wade Crawford really is an unpleasant guy, but even the hardest nuts out there might feel a slight tad of sympathy when the end comes around.
The Turtle Boy: Timmy Quinn book 1 (2004)
The original The Turtle Boy novella won the prestigious Bram Stoker Award and brought Burke to the attention of a much wider horror audience and has since spawned a series of sequels. Set in a small Ohio town, the summer holiday has just begun for eleven-year-old Timmy Quinn and his best friend Pete Marshall. Together they explore, adventure, create fantasy worlds and do everything together, as boys that age do. On one level Turtle Boy can be read as a very convincing coming of age tale, until it takes a much more sinister and supernatural turn. The boy’s favourite location is the remote Meyers Pond, where they like to fish and fool around, ignoring the strange stories connected to the pond. One morning they encounter an unsettling looking young boy sitting on the bank of the pond and there is something scarily fascinating about him. But is he human at all?
Soon it becomes apparent that their small town has many dark secrets which Timmy and Pete are unwittingly sucked into. What should have been a summer of discovery and adventure descends into tragedy and murder with both of their lives changed forever. This is a great story which is well worthy of its exulted reputation, packing much into its eighty pages. Timmy is a terrific lead character and the way in which the supernatural is slowly integrated into the story is first class. Even if you do not fancy reading the sequels Turtle Boy can be thoroughly enjoyed as a standalone piece.
The Hides: Timmy Quinn book 2 (2005)
The Hides picks up Timmy’s story seven years later and I would strongly recommend you read Turtle Boy before picking this up. It is also a lot longer, coming in at over 150 pages. Since the conclusion of the events in book one Timmy has developed a gift in which he can see dead people. Usually those he see want something from him or are restless for a particular reason, perhaps a violent death or other unresolved issue. The local community are aware of Timmy’s ability and are forever knocking on his door wanting to know whether their loved one is truly at rest or not. Circumstances soon take Timmy and his father back to his home in the Republic or Ireland, where most of the story is set.
The small Irish town is Dungarvan, which is also the childhood home of author Kealan Patrick Burke. By chance I’ve visited this town and my brother’s wife is a native, so I was fascinated to see what the author would do with his childhood home. Initially Timmy’s supernatural power is hidden from his Irish family, especially his grandmother, whom they live with. But before long the dead come knocking once again and mixed in with family secrets it’s an entertaining read. The Hides of the title refers to an old factory which was once a place of great employment, so some Irish history is also thrown into the plot. The third novella in the series Vessels is mostly set in another part of Ireland.
Jack and Jill (2013)
Jack and Jill is a particularly powerful novella with a brutal and unexpected final third which plays out horribly. Much of its power comes from the fact that the reader never completely knows what is true and what lurks within the disturbed imagination of Gillian (Jill of the title). Gillian is a married mother of two who is having trouble sleeping because of recurring nightmares which take her back to her childhood. It is revealed early Gillian was abused by her father, who eventually ended up in prison after she outed him. However, for much of the tale you have a gut feeling Gillian is either twisting the facts or believes in a fantasy she has created. The dream sequences and flashbacks are skilfully handled, interspersed with Gillian’s fractured state of mind which does downhill rapidly at the story progresses.
Another major strength of Jack and Jill is the convincing breakdown of the family dynamics which escalate from her withdrawn state. Her husband feels she is not pulling her weight, she’s snappy with her young son and there are some terrific sequences with her sullen and withdrawn teenage daughter. This is another one of those novellas where it’s hard to tell in which direction it will take, but you’d be absolutely right in thinking the true horrors lie behind the curtains of the family home.
The remaining inclusions are too short to be classed as novellas but are good introductions to the shorter fiction of Burke. Offline and Offline: In the Flesh are two short stories which are not strictly connected to each other, but nevertheless follow the same pattern and have been written in the same literary style. They both also share the same theme; online stalking.
Both stories are told entirely in an online messaging format where a teenage boy befriends a similarly aged teenage girl and the majority of the story which follows is told via chat and banter. The reader, of course, knows nothing is what it seems and although these stories were written a few years ago they’re still relatively fresh. The youngsters of today are probably much more aware of stuff like ‘catfishing’ that they were when these stories were written and the author plays around with the dangers of the internet convincingly. One could argue both stories could have been longer as the dramatic endings come a bit too soon. I’m such a fan of Burke’s novella length fiction when I read his short stories I often, probably unfairly, reimagine them as novellas.
Underneath was another non-supernatural story which is amongst the most disturbing included on this list. A teenage boy is bullied into asking a girl with a badly deformed face out on a date. To begin with he is dreading the encounter but is more afraid of incurring the wrath of the bully and goes through with it. Initially the girl is suspicious but agrees. On the big night things start out much better than expected and he begins to see beyond her burned face and explores her great body, but soon things take a major downturn and go horribly wrong.
This was a particularly powerful story as it asked the question “who is the monster?” and when you get to the end of the tale there are no easy answers. Even though it was relatively short it still has some very good twists. There are some really unpleasant moments and ultimately Underneath is a very psychological story about damaged people with an outstanding and unexpected ending.
Peekers was a strange and disconcerting short story which was just too brief at fourteen pages. There was nothing wrong with the quality of the writing and I was begging to find out more. Larry has just retired and is enjoying his first day at home, however, he is also being bugged by noisy neighbours. Meantime, another friendly neighbour Zac knocks on his door, all stressed, asking him to come around to help him with something he is particularly vague about. Weirdly, Zac believes the woman in his house is not his wife, he knows this because his wife is on holiday and he just spoke to her on the telephone. So, who is she and can Zac help? As I said, it’s a fun story, but it had potential to be developed into a Sour Candy type of novella. But even at a brief fourteen pages there is something undeniably freaky in this ‘other’ wife peeking down the stairs at Larry