Blister by Jeff Strand (Book Review)

From the oddly-angled mind of Jeff Strand, the crown prince of horror/comedy—okay, he’s really more of a court jester with tenure—comes Blister, a heartwarming tale filled with ugliness, human monsters, and (would you believe it?) laughter.

Meet Jason Tray, a successful cartoonist working from home, and his dog, Ignatz. When some neighborhood kids decide it’s fun to throw rocks at Ignatz, Jason asks them to cease. When they don’t stop, he talks to their parents—and when the parents don’t seem to care, Jason does what any rational adult would do, if only they’d thought of it and had the opportunity: the next time rocks fly at Ignatz, Jason bursts out of his house covered in fake blood, faux severed head in one hand, roaring imitation chainsaw in the other.

I have to say, I love Jason Tray.

The act is effective, leaving not a dry pair of pants on the street, but there is a downside: one of the fleeing future felons trips and falls, breaking his rock-throwing arm. Fearing legal retaliation, Jason’s agent lends him a lakeside cabin in the country, banishing him from the shores of civilization for the duration of the threat.

Therein lies the tale.

When Jason tries to ease some tension in a bar in town, some of the locals drunkenly suggest taking their new out-of-towner friend to see Blister. Jason drunkenly asks, “What’s Blister?” to which his youthful buddies drunkenly reply, “Let it be a surprise.” Did I mention they were drunk?

So the whole crew staggers out into the night, leading Jason to a house that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Then to the shed behind the house. Then to a window in the side of the shed. “Look in the window,” they say, and Jason does, more than half expecting to see someone’s John Deere, or maybe their big collection of tools. Instead, Jason Trey finds himself face-to-face with Rachel Kramer—Blister—a young woman so disfigured in an assault five years previous that she’s become the local boogeywoman: fodder for campfire stories and the stuff of children’s nightmares.

Jason’s reaction to the unexpected sight is visceral, and all that his pie-eyed peers could have hoped for . . . and something he feels quite guilty about the next day. Ashamed of his actions, wanting to apologize—and possibly even atone—Jason treks back to the Kramer residence. It is during this apology that Jason discovers, hidden away behind a plastic mask and beneath the scars and burns of her jigsaw countenance, a young woman of strength, grace, humor, and, quite possibly, beauty.

Thus begins Jason’s stumbling quest to show Rachel that looks aren’t as important as she thinks; that real beauty is much more than skin deep; that monsters aren’t the ones who look different, but those who fear and ridicule those who don’t look like themselves; and, most importantly, just what the hell happened on the night of her disfigurement.

In Blister, Jeff Strand points out a line of monstrousness in our society, and makes us question just which side of that line we, as individuals, stand upon.

Okay, this is the part of the review where I’m supposed to point out what I thought worked and what didn’t . . . but I honestly can’t think of a didn’t work here. This will all be horribly subjective—it’s a review so it’s supposed to be—but here goes:

Strand has given us a comedy/romance that’s so good I forgot it was supposed to be horror until the horror was happening—and then when it did, it was just that much more effective. His characters are likeable, even when we don’t like them, complex in a way that doesn’t hit you until you’re looking back on it later. Just as the people you know have more than one aspect, so do the people in Strand’s head, and the author seems to bring these multifaceted characters to the page with an ease that as a writer I find heartbreaking (I selfishly hope that Strand sweats blood for every word), but as a reader I can just sit back and enjoy.

The story itself is as serious and touching as can be—with the exception of a few scenes like the great chainsaw chase described above—the humor (and there is plenty) showing in the narrator and others’ reactions to what’s going on around them. Indeed, Strand uses scenes like the chainsaw chase to set up the humorous point of view for the rest of the story, demonstrating how the narrator’s mind works: Jason’s perceptions are just a bit off the norm, skewed more than a touch toward the funny. Is it any wonder most of the world seems at least a little risible to his eyes?

That, I think, helps us identify with the narrator as well: how many times have you been in a serious situation and had something completely humorous and inappropriate just pop into your head?

Jason Tray, patron saint of, “Did I say that out loud?”

Fiction only really works if you care about the characters, and that goes double for horror fiction. With these wonderful characters and dramatic storyline, Strand seems more like a master fisherman than writer. He plays out the line, showing us the flash, giving us just a bit of mystery, luring us into taking the bait and caring deeply about Jason and Rachel—and then things go wrong, and wham, he sets the horror hook in deep. It’s too late for us: we’ve swallowed the bait, and can’t even struggle as Strand, laughing somewhat maniacally, reels us in, the bells on his court jester’s cap ringing in time.

Blister was one of those times I finished a book and said, “Damn. That was good.”

Well played, Mr. Strand. Well played.

 

Rob Smales is the author of Dead of Winter, which won the Superior Achievement in Dark Fiction Award from Firbolg Publishing’s Gothic Library in 2014. His short stories have been published in two dozen anthologies and magazines. His story “Photo Finish” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and won the Preditors & Editors’ Readers Choice Award for Best Horror Short Story of 2012.
His latest work is a collection of short stories entitled Echoes of Darkness, published by Books & Boos Press (2016).
Most recently, his story “A Night at the Show” received an honorable mention on Ellen Datlow’s list of the Best Horror of 2014, and was also nominated as best short story by the eFestival of Words.
More about his work can be found at www.RobSmales.com, or you can look him up on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Robert.T.Smales.
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