In his latest novella Jack and Jill, Kealan Patrick Burke continues to demonstrate his mastery of compact horror, delivering a quick little tale that packs a lasting emotional punch.
Horror is a genre in which it is a given that artists are going to explore subject matter that's considered taboo under most circumstances. Child abuse certainly falls into the taboo category, but Burke handles the subject with a sensitivity that underscores its seriousness. Yes, he's writing a story that's meant to entertain and engage, but he's not looking to exploit. Instead, Jack and Jill is an invitation to explore an uncomfortable situation that is an unfortunate reality for many, and to witness the far-reaching, devastating consequences such actions can have.
"Jack and Jill" are really John and Gillian, brother and sister. John is dead by the time the story starts, but his memory hangs heavily over the proceedings. Gillian is a grown woman now, with a husband and kids of her own, but the recurring nightmares she suffers are proof that she's never really escaped her childhood. Burke offers only a broad sketch of what they endured at the hands of their father - just enough to know it was a scarring experience for them both. The truth of what happened to John is likewise kept vague. It seems that one thing Burke is playing with here is the way traumatic experiences resonate in the minds of those who live through them.
In the present time, Gillian's nightmares are forming a wedge between her and her family, particularly her husband and teenage daughter. In an attempt to confront the fears she's been running from she goes to meet her father, but the visit goes poorly and, soon enough, there's another tragedy for Gillian to deal with.
It's here that Burke really begins to blur the lines between what Gillian is seeing, dreaming and feeling, and what is actually happening. The whole novella has a surreal, dreamlike feel to it, mirroring the way Gillian is sleepwalking through her life. As the story progresses we become less sure of what has happened and more concerned about Gillian's state of mind, and by the time her husband unleashes a drunken confession of his own we're no longer sure who, or what, to trust.
Jack and Jill is filled with some of Burke's best imagery and atmosphere to date. There's a palpable tension running through the book from the very first page, and Burke is unrelenting in the way he tightens the screws on characters and readers alike. It's a story with an unhappy beginning and an ending that's tinged with hope, but bleak nonetheless.
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A digital edition of Jack and Jill by Kealan Patrick Burke will soon be available for preorder.
A limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance Publications has already sold out.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website (www.horrorworld.org). Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.