The synopsis and opening of this book would have the reader assume that Bryan Smith’s House of Blood is simply a throwback to the old trope that finds young people terrorized and slaughtered by an inbred cannibal family. The description for Smith’s authorized edition, which was released for Kindle by Bitter Ale Press in April, even ends with a statement that plays on the tagline from one of the most popular and well-known cannibal family films Texas Chainsaw Massacre – “Who among them, if any, will survive the night?” There is no doubt Bryan Smith would do justice to a cannibals-run-amok concept as a seasoned veteran of horror fiction, but as a twist on the old formula, House of Blood is actually more a dark fantasy novel than straight horror. Although certainly horrific, Smith offers a simple premise that proves complex as the reader peals away rotten layer upon rotten layer like a hellacious onion from the garden of an angry God.
At the center of this story are a group of five college kids who lose their way after a road trip turned disastrous. The individuals struggle with infighting, personal demons, and lingering bitterness that threatens to unravel their friendship. Dream, Alicia, Chad, Shane, and Karen are thoroughly exhausted and reduced to petty bickering by the time we catch up with them. Still over a hundred miles outside their home in Nashville, Tennessee all the way from Key West, Florida, the driver of the packed Honda Accord, Dream, takes an ill-fated turn leading them to the titular House of Blood. Each character has taken the gloves off, resorting to personal attacks and shocking revelations about each other at this point, so Smith is able to reveal a significant amount of back story for them. And because the reader has this intimate understanding, by the time they reach the house of horrors you have a vested interest in their survival. Well, some of them.
Smith exhibits strong character development in House of Blood for the most part. The tortuous experience in the house exposes strengths and weaknesses in each of them. While you start out booing and hissing at one, you will find yourself cheering them on as a hero later and vice versa. Of course, there are a few that were doomed to be fodder for the slaughter from the get go. The house is also populated by a number of sadistic weirdos and tragic victims outside our group of travelers that add to the complexity of this tale and solidify the deep history of the house. There is the sadistic Master of the household and his equally vicious Mistress, Ms. Wickman, who is likened to the beautiful and cruel Ilsa from the Nazi exploitation films. Joining them are the victims who have accumulated over time, some occupying torture chambers in the main house, others exist in the perverted underground city known as Below. There is a great deal of action and a suspenseful plot, but it wouldn’t be as engaging without Smith’s well-crafted characters. They are not always likable, but consistently entertaining and Smith is able to reveal details about them in an organic way. The reader feels like they’ve come to know these people without the novel being bogged down with back stories that upset the pacing.
In addition to the strong cast of absorbing characters, House of Blood delivers enough buckets of oozing, blood drenched viscera to live up to its name. House of Blood offers up a disgusting smorgasbord of torture, sexual violence, and shocking brutality. Smith really pushes the limits of cruelty in this book by subjecting his victims to Ms. Wickman’s sexual sadism and sacrificing their lives in cannibalistic blood rituals to the Gods. While excessive, it’s believable within the context of the world he has created which allows him to explore the darkest realms of perversion.
More inspiring than the cast and the despicable acts that play out in the pages of House of Blood is the surprising direction the story takes throughout. With his science fiction / fantasy angle, Smith has created a tale that isn’t just another book riffing off the psycho family device.
This is highly recommended for readers with a taste for extreme violence, a bit of graphic sex, and a penchant for the wild and strange.
You can pick up the authorized version of House of Blood released by Bitter Ale Press for the Kindle here for just a few bones.