Left to You by Daniel J. Volpe (2022 Splatterpunk Awards)


This is a novel divided into four parts, the first of which introduces the principal characters. Robert Sinclair is a young retail worker whose social life has collapsed: he and his girlfriend have broken up; his friends have left for college; his manager Mike is obnoxious; and, gravest of all, his mother is terminally ill. He has, however, at least found a new friend in an elderly man named Josef Lazerowitz. As the two bond, Robert learns that his new acquaintance is a Holocaust survivor.

The plot thread concerning Josef is where the story’s supernatural aspect comes into play. We learn that Josef survived not only the Holocaust but also colon cancer, his health having suddenly cleared up in a seeming miracle. Since then his cancer has returned with as much abruptness (a plot point established in a graphic scene in which Josef defecates blood). In an effort to prolong his life, Josef adopts a dog – and kills it in a sacrificial rite.

When Robert meets up with the newly-rejuvenated Josef, the old man has decided to reveal all of his secrets. This leads into the second and third parts of the novel, which comprise Josef’s life story, with the tone making a dramatic shift in the process. Gone are the background of retail grind and hints of demonic activity, replaced with a story of the Holocaust.

This extended flashback sees Josef and his family being railroaded to Auschwitz, where Josef is allowed to live longer than his wife and children by virtue of being a theology professor – a discipline that happens to make him useful to certain elements of Nazi officialdom. Kurtz, a camp guard, comes to see Josef as his “pet Jew” while fellow inmates become violently resentful of Josef’s seeming closeness to the Nazis. All of this is harrowingly well-released, with small, bleak details bringing the story to brutal life, as when the smell of Zyklon B reminds Josef of the traditional almond biscuits that his grandmother used to make.

The novel’s third part skips forwards to 1952, and this is where the story goes all-out in its supernatural aspect: Josef’s desire to get revenge on the Nazi occultist Kollmer eventually put him in contact with the demon Belphegor. Part four – which turns out to be the longest section, taking up nearly half the book – returns to the present day and to the original protagonist, Robert, who through Josef has his own encounter with Belphegor. Desperate to save his dying mother, Robert strikes a deal with the demon; but like any Faustian pact, this turns out to come at a grave price.

Left to You is a tricky novel to judge as a whole, as it comes to feel like two separate narratives mashed together. The Holocaust portion is reminiscent of the various Nazi-themed paperbacks that followed the success of Leo Kessler’s panzer novels, keeping an earnest tone while running the clear risk of outright exploitation. In the process, it makes an obvious effort to convey the sheer gruelling banality of the historical evils that it portrays:

Men were shot and killed for the most minor indiscretion. One man, Josef never learned his name, was suffering from a rather nasty urinary tract infection. While working one day, the man lost control of his bladder and urinated on himself. He completely ignored it, knowing the guards would have no sympathy. Sgt. Kurtz found the smell of the man’s urine to be offensive. He was shot and added to the pile of bodies.

This tone starts to fracture once we reach Josef’s postwar exploits. The novel explores the lingering trauma of war, sometimes well (as with the brief mention of men with shell shock being left adrift after the conflict) and sometimes more questionably. One scene, which teeters between the effective and the hackneyed, is a dream sequence where Josef is reunited with his wife and children, only for them to transform into oven-burnt ghosts pleading for help (“Why did you let us die? They did awful things to us, Daddy”). We then arrive in the realm of rubber-costume monster movies when Belphegor turns up:

The demon was short, much shorter than the average man. He had a pot belly, that oozed pus and was covered in boils and lesions. His skin was cracked and bleeding, looking like fissures of gore. He had a long face resembling a crescent moon and a pointed beard.

Depicting a topic like the Holocaust in fiction will always be a touchy business. Left to You appears sincere in its efforts to do the real-life atrocities justice; but there is room to ask exactly what was accomplished by telling a Holocaust story as an extended flashback in a pulp-horror yarn about a fat demon eating people.

This latter narrative strand – Robert’s deals with Belphegor – is at least consistent. Written in a trash-mouthed style, peppered with crude put-downs and talk of bodily functions, it is a world away from the story of Josef in Auschwitz and perhaps all the better for this. While Robert’s social circle is rendered in the broadest of strokes, the characters have enough life to make the story horrifyingly compelling once the lives start running out and the bodies begin piling up.

As demonological fiction, Left to You belongs to the more literal-minded end of the genre (“The legends and books I’ve read say the only way to truly kill a being of Hell is with a Seraph blade”). Crucially, though, it retains strong elements of both imagination and sardonic wit. In one scene a certain character is killed by Belphagor, after which their answer-phone message is supernaturally altered: “I can’t come to the phone right now as I’m being fucked and mutilated by hellish beasts. Leave your name and number and I’ll be sure to return your call. Wait for the beep.”

Left to You is a novel with its share of strengths, particularly its trashy energy, flare for gore and unflinching bleakness. But it is marred by its seeming inability to understand how its horror works. A more astute novel would have recognised that, for Belphegor to be scary, the reader can hardly be taken on a tour of Auschwitz before meeting him.

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