At the Mercy of Beasts, the latest from Ed Kurtz, collects three historical horror novellas that run the gamut of early to late 1900s. While each of the stories are unrelated, this temporal aspect binds them together along with heady doses of monstrous weirdness and crisp writing throughout.
"Black's Red Gold" kicks things off as Kurtz takes us to an early 1900s oil drilling platform situated on a prospected bit of land that promises to make a pair of Texas oilmen rich. What they find instead could prove to be far more lucrative, and far more limited, a natural resource than mere oil. This curious discovery inflames the men's natural greed and drives this novella into a gruesome work of body horror and creature feature fun. Fans of Kurtz's previous novel Bleed should find lots to enjoy here, particularly as the gore kicks into high gear and the blood starts flowing. "Black's Red Gold" is also the most thematically rich of the three stories, providing a bit of subtle commentary on mankind's abuse of the Earth in order to exploit resources, and it's a mighty fine start to the collection. It's also my favorite of the three stories here.
"Kennon Road" takes us to post-war Philippines where a pair of grisly murders drives a disillusioned soldier to seek out the inhuman killer. Kurtz turns toward local lore in this one, probing the legend of Manananggal - a vampire-like creature that appears human in the day, but at night separates from its torso to fly in search of its prey. I was first introduced to the legend of the Manananggal in a short story by Rio Youers in the Seize the Night Anthology and immediately fell in love with this peculiar take on vampire lore, so I was quite pleased to see Kurtz tackle it as well.
"Deadheader" is the most contemporary of the three, set in 1977 as truck driver Pearlie takes on a cargo shipment filled with far more than she had bargained for, and picks up hitchhiker Ernie. As the two hit the road to make her delivery, they find themselves almost immediately under siege by flying terrors chasing them through the desert roads on the way to Mexico. "Deadheader" is easily the pulpiest of the three, and reading like a B-movie grindhouse carsploitation feature with its focus on car chases and on-the-road mayhem. What really sells it, though, is the human element, particularly in the case of Ernie, a veteran suffering from post-war trauma who is reluctantly forced into action while trying to escape the ghosts of his recent past. "Deadheader" isn't quite as thematically rich as "Black's Red Gold" but it sure is a lot of fun, and Kurtz packs in plenty of action for the short page count to keep things humming.
At the Mercy of Beasts is brimming with a rich sense of time and place for each of the three novellas gathered here, overflowing with all kinds of monsters, human and otherwise, and plenty of gore to satisfy horror fans. This one will have you at Kurtz's mercy the whole way through, and probably for a long time after with a lot of his other books. Trust me, though, there's worse fates to have than that.
[Note: I received an advanced copy of this title from Journalstone for review.]
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