clouds under full moon

Blood Work (by Jeff Johnston) [Narrated by Edison McDaniels]

Reverend Blake Havesty has lived a life of great loss. As a child his parents had died in a house fire, and the aunt who took him in joined them a week before his graduation. Then, years later, his wife also met an untimely end when she visited their local bank moments before armed robbers entered the building. So when he is diagnosed with brain cancer it seemed nothing less than a confirmation of his cursed status. At least this is how his parishioners took it, making the final indignity the death of the very church he had served for so many years.

But then there is a call to a local woman who has taken a hostage, a woman who he knew well from his parish, and this encounter starts Reverend Blake Havesty on a voyage of discovery and horror that makes all of his previous pains pale into insignificance.

The first thing I did when finishing Blood Work was do an internet search for its author, Jeff Johnston. In recent years there have been a great many horror novels from the 70’s and 80’s reprinted, introducing me to many old authors I had missed even though I was a voracious reader of horror back then. So I did this search in order to confirm the absolute certainty I had that Jeff Johnston was one such author. I expected him to have a list of titles, probably printed in the mid eighties, perhaps maybe the nineties, but certainly no later.

Blood Work, I found out, was released in 2022. Not RE-released, no, but RELEASED.

Blood Work is far too good a book to be written by a modern horror author, and – as a writer myself – I say this with no small amount of annoyance (note to self: raise your game!). It is written by someone with a real understanding of the craft, with an intricate eye for detail and a surgeon’s hand for cutting what is unnecessary. The characters are fully formed, and surprisingly complex for a genre tale. In fact, I felt while reading Blood Work that this was one of those rare books that transcended the horror genre. It speaks of faith in God and faith in humanity, and how the one often strengthens or diminishes the other. It asks the question whether a man infected by a monster can still have any such faith, or whether someone intimately connected with the horrors that others perpetuate can cultivate either kind of faith.

None of this means that it shys away from the meat and bones of what gives horror its bite. There’s plenty of horror to be beheld in Blood Work. Blake Havesty may be a reverend, but inside him is a very real monster that is fighting to escape his body, but this isn’t the biggest monster in Blood Work. There is a gang of cannibals eating their way through families. They see themselves as modern vampires seeking their own connection with god, each night taking part in a perverse version of communion. Both this family and Havestry have a blood connection that draws them together, and the reader knows that when they meet they certainly will not become friends.

I read a considerable amount of horror, and I also try to write a significant amount as well, and I rarely find what I read genuinely horrific, often I could not even describe them as unsettling. Blood Work is, I think, both.

Throughout the book Havesty is aware of something inside him trying to take over, but he has no idea whether it is his brain cancer distorting the world around him or something more. He dreams of his dead wife, then he begins to see her in his waking hours. She takes the form of an angel, and acts as a barrier between him and the beast inside him, at least at first. As the story unfolds Havesty’s certainty is constantly challenged, as is his faith, not only by those strange occurrences in the world around him but also by those changes he feels within.

The ending is not entirely unexpected, but it feels fulfilling and complete, as well as having just enough surprise to keep you riveted to the end. What the reader is left with is a tale that has similarities to many they may have read or seen before, but with enough depth to make it unique. For this reader it was a riveting experience, and I hope to see more from the author in the future.

Finally, there is a “note about the author” at the end of the book. It explains that he had written many previous books, but all in genres that I would not be familiar with, not to mention genres very far removed from this one.

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