Kristopher Triana is well-represented at this year’s Splatterpunk Awards, with two novels and this collection on the ballot, and those who followed the award in previous years will remember his books Full Brutal and Toxic Love. A major theme throughout his work is that of utterly twisted relationships, and Blood Relations homes in on this: the volume contains story after story of family values gone horribly, horribly wrong.
The collection opens with “Thicker than Water”, about a father and daughter who are only able to see each other in brief periods during prison visiting hours. Parental angst builds up, with Triana’s florid prose bringing emotional weight to the macabre subject matter – the recurring image of a porcelain doll thrown from a Ferris wheel being particularly memorable.
“My Name is Chad” is another tale of a warped parent-child relationship, this time from the perspective of the younger party. While preparing for a move a man finds a box of old home movies shot by his father. Playing them, he sees footage of himself as a child, becoming embroiled in a disturbing situation that he no longer remembers, and which makes him question everything he knows about his family. The story has a steep emotional trajectory: the protagonist’s aching hope that the videos will contain footage of his sister, who died when they were children, turns into revulsion when he finds out what actually happened to her.
Where the first two stories are built around a steady, creeping unease, “Womb” heads straight for gross-out by focusing on the incestuous relationship between a serial killer and his necrophile sister. Triana’s knack for fleshing out the personalities of even his most grotesque characters is on show: the brother has no desire to kill people per se, he merely does it to ensure that his sister is aroused; the sister, resentful of her own facial disfigurement, takes particular delight in destroying the faces of attractive victims; and the two are (figuratively) haunted by their dead mother, even using their victims’ body parts to construct a giant womb in her memory.
While Triana gives the impression that he is most at home when exploring moral depravity within mundane society, a number of the collection’s stories use fantasy or science fiction elements. “Kin” is about a man whose daughter was murdered by his 22-year-old son, prompting him to hunt down and kill his homicidal offspring; accompanying him is a posse comprising what remains of his family, down to and including his little niece. Many would say that this is horrific enough as a premise, yet the story also finds room for a supernatural twist.
“Dog Years” takes us into post-apocalyptic territory: the world has been infected with a poison that kills people once they pass their teenage years. The main characters are a group of youngsters who live in a shelter built by the narrator’s survivalist father; their story has some tender moments between the bouts of brutality as the characters reminisce about better times. “Skyscraper” is also set in the future, this time one in which an attempt to manipulate the weather via satellites has gone badly wrong. The main character is a divorced father who gets caught in a tsunami with his daughter, an ordeal followed by a strange twist – and unusually for Triana, it takes the story in a more positive direction.
In some stories the fantastical element is what binds the families together. “The Solution” is about a teenage boy who gets sexual attention from an eccentric loner girl at high school, who shows a peculiar obsession with his semen. She later invites him to her home, where he meets the girl’s similarly voracious mother; bit by bit, he gets closer to the weird family’s darkest secret. “Jailbait Frankenstein” is narrated by a 47-year-old man sexually obsessed with teenage girls; after providing a long justification for his tastes, he launches into the story of his preoccupation with one girl in particular. His target is a 15-year-old with large breasts and a strangely distorted face, and he becomes determined to learn her story even if he crosses the line from lecher to felon in the process. Her story, as it happens, is strange indeed, although foreshadowed somewhat by the title.
Triana’s supernatural themes do not always quite pay off. “Nana’s Secret”, in which a woman learns from an old tube radio that her grandmother was in league with the Devil, is the weakest entry in the collection: it is not subtle enough to work as a ghost story, and also lacks the psychological insights that characterise Triana’s better work. Still, the story’s hellish climax is nothing if not ambitious.
The collection ends with “We All Scream”, in which a town is terrorised by a sinister ice cream van that periodically makes its rounds. The van offers its customers all manner of childish wish-fulfilment (being the strongest kid in the school, the prettiest girl, the best footballer or dancer et cetera) but most kids know to stay indoors when it drives by for fear of some unspecified fate. The story is told from the perspectives of various family members: a little girl who dreads the van; her elder brother, whose adolescent arrogance drives him to confront it; their divorced mother who has her own history with the van, and must now face up to her son having made a Faustian bargain.
Kristopher Triana is unafraid to explore taboo-breaking subject matter of the most hideous sort, but the same can be said of any extreme horror writer. What makes his work stand out is his ability to wed sickness with substance. Triana not only creates depraved characters, he understands their depravity well enough to build gipping stories from it: the stories of how these characters ended up the way they are, how they continue to justify themselves, and how they come to cross the final line. This quality is on show in Triana’s novels, and with Blood Relations he is able to demonstrate it with one bite-sized portion after the other.