The saying “short and sweet” couldn’t be more appropriate for novelist Kealan Patrick Burke’s new story. Distinguishing Features packs not one but several delightfully gruesome shocks into its 32 pages, at the same time delivering a fully-formed and well-thought-out narrative to get our teeth into.
Divorcee Joe Soames discovers a new lease of life after ending a short-lived, inharmonious relationship. So he’s single, again, with his faithful basset hound Jupiter by his side. Instead of following his first instinct and reaching for the bottle in self-pity, he takes up running. Soon enough he’s running regularly – miles, in fact – leaving little-leg Jupiter behind because the old dog can’t keep up the pace. In short, running becomes an escape. So far so good… until the morning of October 12th when, out running all alone, he spots something, and makes a startling and unnerving discovery.
Darkly comic in tone, Distinguishing Features reminded me of Inside No.9, the television comedy – a short, sharp and (figuratively speaking) enjoyable slap in the face. The prose is dotted with clever one-liners and vivid imagery that makes Burke’s prose sing; hardly surprising though, as Burke comes with pedigree. He is a Bram Stoker Award winner and has a list of works to his name, and the linguistic ability to see why. I admire short story writers because it takes skill to create a fully rounded world within such little space. It’s clearly no effort at all to Burke, who even finds the time to flesh out the most minor of roles, a police Deputy who lurches “out of his car with all the grace of a mattress falling from the back of a truck”. “Maybe,” Joe muses later, “at an ice-cream social or a hockey game, they’d have been better friends.” In fact, it’s Joe’s real-world conversations with his internal monologue that shine as a stroke of narrative smartness. We are with him all the way as he investigates what’s happening to him, and his constant tussle between reason and reality carries us along to a swift and abrupt end – with no comfort in sight for the poor bloke.
Our imaginations are given a helping hand by the perfectly edgy illustrations by Chicago-based horror comic artist Corinne Halbert. You can almost feel the tension in the angular brushstrokes. Halbert is a talented creator… once her images are seen, you won’t forget them.
In this instance, short is (horrifically) sweet and, appropriately, so is this review. Combined, Burke and Halbert plunge us into a disturbingly off-kilter series of events and, before you know it, you’re emerging from the story, blinking into the light, and just thankful that you’re not Joe…
Distinguishing Features by Kealan Patrick Burke is a limited edition signed and numbered chapbook from It Came From Beyond Pulp (Instagram @itcamefrombeyondpulp; itcamefrombeyondpulp.com)