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Righteous Blood

by Cliff Burns, introduction by Tim Lebbon

(PS Publishing, £8, 177 pages, signed, numbered, limited edition paperback, also available as signed, numbered, limited edition hardback priced £25, published December 2002.)

Not one, but two novellas are to be found in cover scanthis volume from PS Publishing. 'Living With The Foleys' charts the movements of Phil, a down-and-out ex-teacher who's taken up residence in the garage of the Foley household, as he commits felonies to protect his unwitting benefactors. In 'Kept', Maxine, the caretaker of an apartment block who likes to pick men up in bars, then torture and kill them in the privacy of her rooms, unleashes mayhem on her block's residents when her latest catch turns out to have murderous designs of his own.

Tim Lebbon's introduction tells us to expect surprises, and to me that suggested twist endings, so I was a bit miffed to find no last-minute shocks awaiting me. I was, however, pleasantly surprised by the quality of Cliff Burns' writing. No matter how low his protagonists stooped, I still found myself rooting for them by the end because they both, in their way, act to protect others from something far worse. These unusual killers exhibit genuine compassion in their self-assumed roles as guardians -- albeit not genuine altruism, since they're motivated just as much by their own interests -- and they exhibit it believably. The prose overall is lively, and the stories make for compelling reading.

'Living With The Foleys' comes across more as a 70-page vignette than a novella, skipping back and forth through key moments in Phil's life as a vagrant and leaving what at first appears to be the story's central crisis, the imminent rift within the Foley family, more or less unresolved. It's a series of confessional episodes and character sketches, and linearity is not one of its more prominent features, but thanks to that readability it all hangs together remarkably well. I do feel, however, that it's let down somewhat by its ending -- I was left expecting more. Fortunately, there's another one just a couple of pages away.

'Kept' is a rich, glutinous mix, part Misery, part Paul Verhoeven film. By night, Maxine tends to her captive; by day, she checks on the residents, a gallery of the physically deformed and the generally weird that put me strongly in mind of Total Recall. It's about halfway through the story that this weirdness and deformity reaches critical mass, and 'Kept' turns from dark urban tale to something approaching magic realism. Towards the end I was no longer sure just how literally I should be taking everything, which adds nicely to the atmosphere of an already off-kilter tale. It certainly didn't make for comfortable reading, but it did make 'Kept' very memorable.

Not for the faint of heart, this pair of novellas, but they will reward the bolder reader.

Review by John Toon.

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