I was quite excited to have been offered a chance to review Kealan Patrick Burke’s forthcoming novella, Jack & Jill. I’ll admit up front that this was my first read of Mr. Burke’s; but I’m happy to say that this will certainly not be my last.
The odds are good that you know the nursery rhyme of Jack and Jill. This novella is a darksome meditation on that, with a contemporary glimpse into how such a metaphor could play out in a familial setting.
From the outset, it is clear that the narrator, Gillian, has gone through some tough times in her life, and they are taking their toll on her home life. She spends so much time sleeping that she’s less and less involved with her family; her husband Chris is growing weary of how tired and unfocused she’s been acting, her 9-year-old son Sam is often left neglected, and her teenage daughter Jenny ungraciously rebels by keeping herself isolated from everyone.
Meanwhile, it is in these times of sleep that Gillian dreams—and in these dreams, she is visited by her dead brother John—and by an unforgettably creepy image of her father, wearing a plastic bag around his decomposing head and with rusty coat hanger hooks for hands.
On the surface, Jack and Jill is a moody tale of a woman haunted by her past, with some particularly vivid and hallucinatory dream sequences, but it’s also about the horrors that can stem from too much introspective reflection and miscommunication. As an occasional “intronaut,” myself, I could easily identify with Gillian’s pneumatic outlook on the world around her, and how easily the imagination can play with perception. Mr. Burke perfectly captures this mindset in his portrait of Gillian, and with it created an edgy, dark, and melancholic tale.
There was something else particularly noteworthy about Mr. Burke’s narrative. A writer friend once told me to stay away from opening a tale with a dream sequence, because it’s a clichéd hook; I would argue, having read this, that it should be avoided unless you know how to do it just right—which he clearly did.
Jack & Jill isn’t all familial drama, however; make no mistake about it—this is a horror novella, period. The dream sequences were literally nightmarish, and done with such frightful detail that there were times where I actually exclaimed aloud at what I, the detached voyeur, was helplessly witnessing. It’s also worth mentioning that there was one sequence toward the middle that, while I won’t spoil it, I’ll just say has got to be one of the most disturbing scenes to take place in a bathroom (this side of the Overlook Hotel or the Bates Motel). This novella was creepy, through and through.
I wound up finishing Jack & Jill with my cheeks puffed out and my breath escaping slowly. I’d had no idea where it was headed, much less with any idea of how I wanted it to end; because of this that, I was a little mixed about its ultimate destination, but I was more than a little satisfied with the journey there. Jack & Jill was a harrowing read, riddled with emotion and elegantly told with dark beauty.
Jack & Jill will be published in e-book form this December. It was previously a print-to-order limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance.