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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Blood Kin

Blood Kin, by Steve Rasnic Tem, is some Southern Gothic horror complete with runaway kudzu, a few ghosts, something mysterious buried underground, and mostly a villainous, snake-handling preacher. It takes a while to build up momentum, but has a bloody good ending.

We are in southeastern Virginia, far away from the D.C. area, and Mike Gibson, a troubled young man, is back in his home town to take care of his aged grandmother, Sadie, The story alternates between the present day and Sadie telling Mike the story of when she was a girl.

The Gibsons are Melungeons, a mixture of races (we knew them in northern New Jersey as Poor Jackson Whites): "No one ever uncovered the answers to their mystery, although the theories were many. Cousin Lillian preferred the one that said they were Raleigh’s Lost Colony. Cousin Ella liked to think they were descended from Ponce de León’s men. Neither cared to discuss the theories that they were descended from runaway slaves and halfbreed squaws." Also, "They were spirited, them Gibsons. Black nasty magical."

Sadie is a Gibson, and her uncle is the preacher, a domineering man who handles snakes. Snake handling is still practiced in a few churches in the U.S., and every time somebody dies from it we can all smugly chuckle about it, but Tam, in his description of Sadie's first time going to a service, is horrifyingly vivid: "His face came like a ghostly oval out of the blackest part of the night, rushing towards them like he had wings, the rest of him so dark that pale face was all she could see, like he was the moon or something, set loose from its heavenly tether and flying through the night sky." then later, "The preacher stood up straight then, like he could stretch every bone in his body to make himself taller, and he was already a tall man. His lips spread out like they were reaching for his ears. He made probably the widest smile she’d ever seen, but it was the way she imagined one of them African crocodiles in her geography book smiled, because his eyes weren’t smiling at all. They were like two black stones down at the bottom of the creek."

The preacher will be more than he seems, as bad as that already is, and will be part of the resolution set in modern times. But Tam's book hums along with all sorts of Southern mysticism, such as a pair of old people called the Grans--I'm not sure who they are grandparents to--who live deep in the woods and appear not to ever die, and an illiterate midwife who is a healer and aids Sadie in their battle against the preacher. There's also Mickey-Gene, thought to be stupid, but who is revealed to be quite the reader, and in the climactic moments quotes from Macbeth.

Some of the early parts of Blood Kin are slow, but it redeems itself in the end, when the kudzu can't be burned back and the dead rise. This is possibly not a book for some with ophidiophobia.

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