Review by Darkeva
Bleed is not a book that one can summarize. The back cover copy says the story is about Walt, who moves to a fixer-upper with a ceiling stain he ignores at first until it expands, and starts eating animals. Walt feeds it, but it demands human blood to perfect its form. But that would oversimplify the story; it’s much more than its plot description.
Nevertheless, one has to start somewhere, and Kurtz begins his tale with a prologue set in 1923 where an abusive stepfather wants to molest one of his stepdaughters, Agnes. Although we’ve seen it a billion times, Kurtz writes the scene in a way that makes you care. We then move on to Walt in the modern day.
He seems like a nice enough chap – teacher, wants to propose to his girlfriend, Amanda – sounds ordinary until he notices the stain. They both do, and think nothing of it at first. Then Amanda witnesses the stain eat a cockroach. It’s a slow build, but the stain, rather than repelling Walt, as it does any normal person, attracts him. He doesn’t know why (although the stain attaches itself to him through every orifice in one scene), but he’s compelled to feed it and ignore everything else, including Amanda.
I would have liked more of a reason as to why he feeds it, and how it “activated” itself after being dormant for years – whether Walt’s presence or the smell of fresh blood did it – not to mention how the stain survived for so many years apart from the rats it fed on. Whatever the reason, it gets a taste of Walt’s blood and screams for more.
The stain grows a face, limbs, and a detached body. Amanda, who decides that Walt is worth fighting for, finds the stain has become competition for her and that she can’t win. Amanda’s friend and co-worker, Nora, tries to dissuade her from going back, but fails and eventually has to look for her when she goes missing.
Walt’s school sends an uptight, prudish schoolmarm, Margaret, to find out why he hasn’t answered their calls, and he finds his newest blood cow (not his last, sadly). Amanda soon shares the same fate and hurts herself trying to get out.
Although the Shakespearean references were fantastic, Kurtz’s incorporation of Victor Hugo’s novel, The Man Who Laughs, blew me away. Batman’s creators used the protagonist, Gwynplaine for the Joker (for those who haven’t read the book, gypsies surgically made Gwynplaine’s face always smiling). Because of the similarities of expression, Walt dubs his creature Gwynplaine.
Things keep getting worse for the victims forced to feed Gwyn. More people, including Walt’s estranged sister, Sarah, and Nora, fall in his web. What’s most painful in stories like this is how someone seemingly good like Walt could so rapidly deteriorate and become a hideous monster, worse than the creature he feeds.
Gwyn finds she can leave the house to get more blood, which she does, but she returns, drawn to Walt and his loyalty. He does go to school, and it’s not long before he thinks of feeding some troublesome students to Gwyn, to whom he is actually attracted.
I think more attention to describing Margaret and Amanda’s bodies would have been better; there’s no evidence Walt was feeding them (although he should have), and no mentions of them wasting away or what happened to their skin. Another gripe is why the author didn’t devote as much time to Amanda’s fate. It felt like she needed a stronger presence, especially toward the end, and didn’t get one.
But when the students make their way to Walt’s house, the suspense is heart-pounding. Here more than ever I wished Gwyn wouldn’t eat Sarah (despite Walt’s protests), that Sarah would survive, that someone would make it out of that attic, fight back, and leave.
The ending, although it came as no surprise, still played out interestingly although the book did leave me with many questions, including how the creature kept coming back from the dead (in the past and modern day; as well, there are multiple attempts to kill it, but none work). Another question is how Gwyn is fully formed in the end. Her past, including how this happened to her, is hinted at, and even the epilogue, which tries to explain which sister becomes the creature – Agnes or the other one – is vague, but deliberately so, and in a way that the reader can draw his or her own conclusions.
Joe McKinney sums it up best –
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