Burden Kansas, by Alan Ryker
Burden Kansas is a novella, not a novel. For those who don’t know the difference, this is important. Some would say the defining feature of a novella is the amount of words it contains – usually between 15 and 40 thousand words. Which makes it a short novel or a long short story, if you reckon by word count. However, the defining element in a novella is that it is a concise work, that is punchy and to the point. It is a style of story writing that is both condensed and sleek. Like quicklime.
Burden Kansas fits this description very well. The story of a Kansas cattle rancher who is dealing with some heavy life burdens as his cattle are being mysteriously slaughtered by some wild animal that feeds and bleeds, yet appears to have opposable thumbs. The vampiric nature of the predator is dealt with quickly and cleanly, but the narrative really opens up in the characters and back stories of the small town that’s being hunted. Keith, the main protagonist, is a rancher who’s had a hard life, and has complications that are haunting him far more ruthlessly than what is feeding off the cattle. His story, and the vampire story, run head into each other, and he has to battle one out against the other. The vampires are revenants, happy to feed off cattle in the dark and hide under the soil when the sun is out. Into this animalistic lifestyle, an accident creates a vampire with intelligence. Keith’s life gets even more complicated.
It’s a bloody rip roaring tale that gallops past quickly. An easy accessible read, with enough characterisation to keep it interesting and realistic, and enough intelligence to lift it out of the stereotypes. The writing is as clean and smooth as the copy, and the storytelling cinematic in its structure. This could be a film or a two-part television drama with ease. For my tastes, it was slightly too clean, and I’ve have liked a little more detail, but that is entirely personal: there is nothing missing in terms of the structure or the style. At just over 30 000 words, it sketches out a whole community and deals with the narrative effectively, entirely as a novella should. I did like the transition elements of the vampire storyline, between animalistic and then onto intelligence, and the shorthand helps it all out here: you just go with the flow.
My only beef is a tiny one, in that you can’t have a huge herd of dairy cattle going without milking, and not have the entire county know about it within hours. For a narrative set in cow country, there were precious few cows. And if that’s the only quibble you have, then you know you are in for a good read. Highly recommended if you are looking for a light bite of horror, with a side dish of vampire. Excellent value at 71 pence! I look forward to more from the author.