KIN, by Kealan Patrick Burke: The Story After the Story

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With some degree of variation, almost every slasher movie ends with the same scene.  It’s a scene that we’re all too familiar with.  A climactic moment that has been permanently etched upon our collective subconscious.  It’s a a common trope, a sequence that has become so familiar that even those who’ve never watched a horror movie know this scene by heart:

Once the carnage is done and all of her friends have been killed, the lone survivor – always a girl, usually a virgin, usually covered in blood and either sobbing or desensitized – stumbles away from the defeated killers, and she finally escapes from the horrific place she’s been trapped in.

That’s how all slasher stories end. It’s how they always end.  The basic formula has varied little since Tobe Hooper’s classic ending to the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and one of the more recent movies in that franchise – the 2006 prequel, Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning – pulled out a surprise ending by deliberately subverting the audience’s familiarity with this famous sequence.  Still, for the most part, slasher movies tend to follow a pretty steady formula.  Sure, sequels happen, but these sequels will usually repeat the same formula with little connection to the prior entry, and usually with a brand new cast of teenagers for the killer/s to slaughter.  Lather with blood, rinse, repeat.

There’s a lot to recommend about Kealan Patrick Burke’s excellent 2012 novel, Kin.  It’s terrifying, moving and uniquely put together, with masterfully-worded prose and a storyline that absorbs the reader’s full attention like a sponge.  But the immediate thing that sets Kin apart, from the very beginning of its opening paragraph, is its take on the famous bloody girl running away sequence.

Unlike most slasher films, which end on this sequence, Kin makes the intriguing choice of setting that sequence at the very beginning. 

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Burke’s novel opens up with Claire Lambert, the only survivor of her friends, who after being tortured by the Merrills – a psychopath family with cannibalistic tendencies, ala Texas Chainsaw‘s Sawyers – escapes from their clutches half-dead, naked and bloody. She stumbles into the road, where she is picked up by a boy and his father – a father all too aware of the potentially dangerous consequences of his actions, but unable not to help. Now, tensions are ramped up. The Merrills know they have to get out of town fast, but first they have to quickly kill anyone who could testify against them.

As all of this goes on, Kin also introduces two parallel storylines that eventually tie into the main narrative. In one, a waitress with a dark past is brought back to her old life by an unexpected visitor. At the same time, a soldier—fresh out of Iraq and plagued by PTSD—finds out this brother was one of the victims of the massacre that Claire escaped from, and he readies himself to engage in a vengeful war against the Merrill family.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kealan Patrick Burke, author of Kin.

Kin begins where other stories end—after the slaughter, after the war, after the pain has already been inflicted—and it tackles the questions that any such violent incident would undoubtedly raise.

Seriously, what happens after the girl gets away from the psychopaths? What happens to the homicidal, cannibalistic family that accidentally let her escape, now that she’s surely going to tell the cops? What happens to the girl, who would have to be pretty damn traumatized by this point? What happens to her family, who now has to take care of her? And what happens to the innocent people who picked her up and saved her? If the family wants to get rid of all the evidence, are the father and son also at risk?

By asking these questions and placing this post-slasher scenario inside what is essentially a Southern Gothic novel, Kin brings new depth to a tired genre. It shakes up the format, explores characters that could’ve been stereotypes, and brings a full scope of emotions to the proceedings; yes, this novel is scary and yes, it’s violent, but it’s also a novel that isn’t afraid to create characters that the reader deeply cares about. It’s a book that can both grab your heartstrings and then rip them out in the next moment.

At its core, Burke’s Kin is a novel about the pain, stress, anxiety and devastating grief that follows a traumatic event. It shows what happens after the scars are inflicted, and how the pain of trauma has a residual effect that trickles down through one’s life and impacts one’s loved ones. Every violent action has consequences, and Kin pulls back the curtain on the aftermath.

Hey, what’ve I been up to?

So, other than currently levitating somewhere between Mars and Earth while my astral projection explores Pluto, where have I been?  What have I been up to?  Quite a bit, actually.  I’ve spent a lot of time down in the Earth’s core, recently; in addition, I recently was bitten by a radioactive spider, struck by gamma rays and spent a weekend at some weird place called Crystal Lake, where hockey masks are apparently not too popular.

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The writing life is always a busy one.  As a writer, so much of one’s life is spent engaged in the most introspective activity imaginable – sitting alone in a room, reconstructing one’s most private thoughts – and somehow, while all of one’s writing projects are going on, the writer must also find time to experience life to the fullest – because that’s where writing inspiration comes from, of course! – and so one must regularly go out into the world, have new experiences, meet people, understand the fabric of society, the backbone of society, the guts of society, and all that other good stuff.  In addition, the writer must also go out and promote their work, although doing so is a challenge, since it requires a skill in extroversion that might initially be foreign to the introverted writer.  After a few runs, though, you slowly get the hang of it.  It’s actually pretty fun, and interacting with your readers is really one of the more amazing  experiences a writer can have.

So now, my friends, let me give you guys the update of what exactly I’m working on.

Since The Cage Legacy was finished, I’ve been privately slaving away here at the keyboard, actively developing multiple new novels.  I’m crazily enthusiastic to share these stories with you guys – when the right time comes.  I’m the sort of person who gets my work done way ahead of schedule.  I like getting a lot of work completed and packaged before I fully reveal my hand…so when it comes to writing, one might say I’m a bit of a workaholic.  This work ethic can get exhausting at times, but I do absolutely love writing, so it’s a very satisfying form of exhaustion.  Much better than other forms of exhaustion, anyway.

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So, without spilling too much, these are currently the three main projects that I’m actively developing:

Novel #2: Working on getting this one published. It’s insanely tempting to tell you guys all about this one – it’s an extremely exciting project, for me – but I’ll hold back, for now.

Novel #3: I’m currently editing this one, right now.  I can’t wait to share this one, as well.  It’s a pretty offbeat story, for sure.

Novel #4: First draft complete!  Looking forward to editing this one, sometime soon.

Since The Cage Legacy was released, I’ve often been asked – whether by emails from my readers, real life acquaintances and/or online contacts –  what I’m working on now, or if I have any other books coming out.  Ideally, this blog will explain things in a way that both answers the question, and more importantly, simplifies my often confusing and complicated answers.  From this point forward, I’ll try to use the above three “working titles” whenever I refer to one of my upcoming novels-in-progress.

Cheers!

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Confronting the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster

So, before we get to the main subject of this post, let’s do a quick update: my first experience at Necon this past weekend was amazing.  Immediately upon driving down to Rhode Island and entering the doors of the convention center, I was bombarded by a truly astounding amount of friendliness, lively conversation, interesting fiction and remarkable artwork. As far as fiction cons go, Necon truly is one of a kind.

I won’t go into too much detail right now, as another website has asked me to do a write-up about my Necon experience (probably later this week), so I’m going to save most of my thoughts and recollections for that. For now, though, let me just say that Necon truly is an exceptional gathering of creative minds, getting together and openly exchanging thoughts, ideas, ridiculous jokes–and, of course, plenty of coffee and booze.  I’m definitely planning on a return trip.

Photograph taken by Jason Harris.

Photograph from Necon 33, taken by Jason Harris.

Now, since we’re already on the topic of creative writers, writing, fiction and so on (which just goes to prove the unfortunate stereotype about us writers having this exhausting need to talk about that goddamn writing business all the time), let’s take a moment to discuss something that all writers are far too familiar with:

The writing process.

Okay, fellow writers, let’s get honest.  I’m going to make a horrible confession.  I hear a voice in my head.  A (usually) small voice, but a dark, morose, scathing one that pops up from time to time.  Tell me if this sounds familiar:

“Oh, oh, oh!  Hey, you so-called writer!  Let me tell you, dear fellow/madam, this story you’re currently working on, this story you’ve poured your blood, guts and other sensitive organs into…well, it sucks!  Forget all the great things people have told you about your talent, your story is a complete waste of time.  In fact, everything you’ve ever written sucks, and all those ‘amazing’ story ideas in your head…well, you’re simply not capable of writing them.  You might as well give up now.  Now that I, the voice of the truth, have spoken, it’s time to give up on writing and go ahead and get a new job as a desk clerk, a banker or something serious like that, ya old potatah!”

Ideally, one would imagine this voice sounding a great deal like Albert Finney in the classic 1970 version of Scrooge.

Ideally, one would imagine this voice sounding a great deal like Albert Finney’s version of Scrooge. 

I’m betting that we all know that voice, all too well—and not just the writers among us either, but also the artists, musicians and all other creative types.  That voice is the bane of all creative minds, the horrible curse of self-loathing that our muses have bestowed upon us; personally, for the sake of this article, I’m going to name that voice the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster.

The Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster is something that almost all creative minds struggle with, and it’s likely the cause of many, many failed careers; it’s a terrifying demon that has stalled many aspiring writers, breaking them down with anxiety, self-consciousness and/or the dreaded “writer’s block,” to the point where these would-be-creators give up on their dreams.

One of Kurt Vonnegut's many self-portraits.

One of Kurt Vonnegut’s many self-portraits.

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.”

– Kurt Vonnegut

While people may identity the Creative Monster by a myriad of different names, some more irreverent than others, familiarity with this demon is unanimous.  The topic of how a creative mind can possibly “get rid of” this voice is something that many fellow writers have discussed with me, especially those aspiring beginners who are just now considering writing their first novel.  In regards to that question, my answer is this:

No, you’ll never be free of your inner self-cannibal. But, with a little willpower, you can make it quiet down and mind its own business.

If not Scrooge, it's entirely possible that  your Creative Monster might more closely resemble this guy.

If not Scrooge, it’s entirely possible that your Creative Monster might have a closer resemblance to this guy.

That’s right.  There is no miracle cure.  The dreaded autocannibal will always be there, and it will always try to torture you; you can’t get rid of it.  But if you push forward anyway – if you block out the Creative Monster and refuse to listen to its mocking cries—you do, through sheer force of will, learn methods to deal with it, and you can overcome its influence.

First of all, in order to neutralize the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster’s power, we need to recognize that it’s not useful.  Now that we’ve identified that horrible voice in our head with a name, here’s the important thing to realize about that voice; even though our intuitive tendency is to believe that this voice is here to “help us,” or that it’s the “voice of reason” and that it exists only to make us better creators, that belief is in fact a complete misconception.  Yes, looking at one’s own work with a hard, critical eye is good, important and healthy…but in contrast, brutally decimating one’s own ego is NOT.  When we find ourselves doing the latter, it’s important that we recognize that this, right here, is the voice of the Creative Monster – and it’s even more important that we firmly recognize the fact that this monster never says anything worthwhile.  Nothing.  Nada.  In fact, its mocking voice really should be completely ignored, altogether.

This raises a dilemma, which we’ll now return to: isn’t self-criticism useful?  And how can we tell the difference between positive self-criticism and negative self-cannibalism? After all, if we, as writers (though again, this applies to any creative field) just thought everything we wrote was amazing and utterly flawless, we’d be delusional – and it’d make for some terrible terrible writing. We’d never improve our skills, never sharpen our tools, and never actually push ourselves to achieve the great writing we’re capable of.

Isn’t it important to see the flaws in one’s own work?   The answer is yes, but there’s an important difference here; positive self-criticism is constructive.  Unlike negative self-cannibalism, positive self-criticism builds towards improvement; it looks at the foundation of a work, takes what works, throws out the rest and then confidently seeks to improve what was there before.  Negative self-cannibalism, on the other hand, is deconstructive.  This self-cannibalism is like a person who simply blows up the entire building and then despairs over his or her supposed inability to ever create quality work.  Here, let me highlight the difference:

  • Negative self-cannibalism: “Okay, this isn’t working.  This piece has problems here, here…God, and here too! Damn it! I’ve totally failed at what I was trying to do.  It’s fucking terrible.  I need to give up, there’s no way I’ll ever be able to write this correctly.”
  • Positive self-criticism: “Okay, this piece isn’t working, it has too many problems, and I know I can do so, so much better.  I’m going to take another look at this, throw out the bad parts and further develop what DOES work. I need to refocus, reorient and keep trying until this piece really shines.”
That's the spirit!

That’s the spirit!

One of these voices is ambitious – but also quite honest.  It’s the voice of someone who’s not afraid to criticize his/her own work, but is determined to make it better.  In contrast, the other voice is ridiculously defeatist.  Both voices recognize the flaws in the writer’s work, but one of these is actually helping, and the other voice is simply a bully, kicking the writer when he/she is already down.

So really, the solution is as simple as this: as creators, we should ignore the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster.  It has nothing worthwhile to say, and nothing it ever does will actually help us.  Its only purpose is to destroy the creator’s hopes and dreams; it has no interest in making us better creators. Instead, we should passionately believe in our dreams, and we should use that passion to reconstruct our flawed works until they become as perfect as humanly possible.

Yes, one should be aware enough to see the flaws in one’s work, but one should also be honest enough to see the good qualities, as well.

Be ambitious enough to push through those flaws, correct them and move on.  Believe in the message of your story – believe in your ability to tell that story – because if you don’t believe in it, no one else will.

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Now, the reason I’ve named the entity/voice/demon described in this blog, the reason I’ve referred to it by a silly moniker like the “Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster,” is because doing so allows me to externalize that voice.  It allows me to think of that voice as a separate entity from myself, instead of deceptively believing that it’s “the real me,” or the “voice of truth.”  By doing this – by seeing the self-cannibalistic voice as another person – it allows one to see how ridiculous and unlikable the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster really is.  Really, when it comes down to it, the Creative Monster is a very small, solipsistic and irritating character; he’s certainly not someone I’d ever want to have a beer with.  I’m going to close here with a quote by Mark Twain – a quote that, once we’ve externalized the self-cannibalistic voice and decided to view it as a separate person, really gets to the heart of the matter:

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“Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great ones make you feel that you, too, can become great.”

-Mark Twain

And now, with that said, I’m going to finish this blog, drink another cup of steaming hot coffee and get to work on some damn writing.  And if the Self-Cannibalistic Creative Monster doesn’t like it, well…too bad.

-Nicholas Conley