Kealan Patrick Burke is a winner of the Bram Stoker Prize (awarded by the Horror Writer’s Association) and has been called “One of the most clever and original talents in contemporary horror” by Booklist. But with Horror not really my genre-of-choice, I had not read any of his works before opening up my copy of his recent novella, The Tent, so I wasn’t quite sure of what to expect. Now, I see that the accolades are indeed apt.
Thankfully, it was a beautiful spring day when I decided to read The Tent. The sun was shining, a soft breeze was blowing, birds were singing… and that’s a really good thing, because this story scared the sh…, um, it was wonderfully dark and disturbing. I needed every bright shiny thing around me to keep from curling up in a ball, shivering – yet I was unable to stop reading. This novella was that compelling, that good.
What immediately struck me as I started reading was how quickly and effortlessly Burke was able to make his characters real; I was fully vested in their well-being from the onset (a very dangerous thing in a horror story). You genuinely like old man McCabe and his aging dog, Pepper, and you feel unease at their unease, but Burke is subtle in the way he sets the stage here – there is no need to bludgeon the reader from the first page; he has time to draw you in. Even though you know there is some kind of horror to come, you don’t have your hackles up quite yet, and the question is: should you? That’s a wonderful suspense to be immersed in.
Once you meet Mike, Emma and their son, Cody, you know something has gone horribly wrong; they not only are lost in the woods in the middle of the doozy of a storm, but their lives – at least between Mike and Emma – are disintegrating. What was meant to be a trip that would cement a floundering marriage was instead having the opposite effect. The woods and the storm become a manifestation of the shortcomings in their relationship, and the way fear and despair work on Mike (who has the POV in this section) is genuine and eminently relatable. Then, when their conflict hits a crisis point, they glimpse a tiny speck of hope: a light in the darkness, that leads to a tent in a clearing that may just keep them from disaster.
But then, this is a horror story, we know that. What we don’t know is when the true terror will unveil itself. Once it does, that’s it, there’s no turning back and there’s no way out. And once the monsters of this story are revealed… well, let’s just say they make a zombie apocalypse seem like a walk in the park. Honestly, they are the most original, the most frightening, the most viscerally horrifying monsters that I have encountered in a long time, and through Burke’s exacting imagery, I could picture them and their utterly terrifying effects in the brilliant technicolor workings of my imagination – whether I wanted to or not!
And Burke has a real knack for ratcheting up the action, and the suspense, and the tension through building the narrative. There are reprieves built into his story, but they are built on false euphoria, yet they are so welcome that we relax into them each time. He knows how to give the reader a rest, so that the unbelievable, the harrowing, the shock, does not turn into numbness – and then he scares you to death yet again. He really is that good.
If you like horror, you need to check out The Tent. If you enjoy well paced stories with gut wrenching action (umm, literally?) then you also should read The Tent. If you just plain appreciate superior writing of any genre, you owe yourself to experience The Tent. Just don’t do it if you plan on going camping in the near future. Honestly. Reading this by flashlight in the woods would not be a good idea. Take it from me – read it in the sunshine. In the middle of the day. When there is a cool breeze and birds singing, and you know exactly where you are.