William Brown reviews Picker’s Bleed, a tale of witchy curses, haunted houses, and demonic possession from Mark R. Faulkner...
Mark R. Faulkner’s Flux (2012) was a very promising debut novel, distinctive in voice and premise. The Dark Stone (2013) was even more striking: a gruesome werewolf horror set amongst the plague-ridden streets and monasteries of Middle Ages England. Picker’s Bleed, his latest, is comparatively conventional: a tale of witchy curses, haunted houses, and demonic possession that offers few surprises but thrills nonetheless.
The novel begins some five hundred years ago, with a supposed witch, Ella Jameson, being burned at the stake. It’s familiar horror territory, but Faulkner portrays it with compellingly horrific imagery:
‘Fat was dripping onto the fire, hissing and spitting while clouds of black, greasy smoke rose into the morning sky. The morning smelled more like a hog-roast than an execution. Her body whistled like a sausage as her skin blistered and split, before blackening to a crisp.’
The same can be said of Picker’s Bleed as a whole. Innovation and originality aren’t its forte, but strong writing and vivid horror definitely are.
The story is reminiscent of James Herbert’s The Magic Cottage (1986), as Jake and Hannah move into the eponymous Picker’s Bleed, a ‘ramshackle country cottage, complete with thatched roof and oak beams,’ on the outskirts of Marsham. Of course, the house is going for a song: ‘Somebody must have died in there or something for it to be so cheap,’ Jake comments, instantly letting us know that he is to be the designated wary half of the couple. And of course, Picker’s Bleed has a dark history befitting its ghastly name…
After diverse unusual goings-on in their new home, Hannah consults the locals about its history. Ella Jameson ‘opened up a portal to somewhere else and something came through,’ the refreshingly forthcoming Vincent Mandeville tells her. ‘Trouble is, only she could close it. It’s a curse which has blighted the village ever since.’ It turns out that Hannah is related to Jameson, and Vincent — who transpires to be a full-blown occultist, complete with a wardrobe filled with black robes — thinks Hannah might just be the solution to the curse: ‘I believe there’s enough of her DNA in you, enough of her spirit,’ he enthuses. But are Vincent’s motives as righteous as he claims?
What follows is pure, schlocky goodness, including a priest tormented by psychic powers, a haunted mirror, ghostly children, a devil dog, and demonic possessions aplenty.
The characterisation and dialogue are some of the novel’s weaker aspects, occasionally detracting from the atmosphere. Jake and Hannah are pretty sweary, it must be said. ‘Fuck me it’s in the middle of nowhere,’ Jake says of Picker’s Bleed when Hannah shows him the details; ‘Shit the bed!’ Hannah exclaims when a face appears at the kitchen window. But these flaws are forgivable in the same way that the cardboard characters and questionable acting of ‘80s horror films are; when the action starts, at around the halfway mark, the book evolves into an Evil Dead-esque thrill ride that frequently shocks but never takes itself too seriously.
Haunted houses are a mainstay of horror fiction. As much as I yearn for innovation and originality in the genre, there’s something about the traditional set-up — young family filled with hope, shadowy house filled with secrets — that snares my attention every time. Picker’s Bleed delivers on every level that really matters. It’s nostalgic, it’s funny, and it’s pleasingly dark and brutal.
Picker’s Bleed will be released in September 2021.