RedEye has set itself a difficult task; produce horror that’s YA suitable but remains true to the needs of the genre. Lou Morgan’s Sleepless did an excellent job of showing how this could be done picking apart of teenage expectation and pressure with the twin scalpels of horror and insomnia. It’s a Hell of a book and, in Simon Cheshire’s Flesh and Blood, it’s got good company.
Flesh and Blood is told from the point of view of Sam Hunter, its lead. Sam is a smart, articulate, slightly depressed teenager who’s narrating the story from a point after it finishes. It’s a brave move and one Cheshire executes perfectly. In particular he gets to do some really fun stuff with Sam’s character, gradually revealing his interests, obsessions and weaknesses. That last one is vital and as the story goes on Cheshire pulls no punches. Sam is a hero only by dint of being in the story. He’s as flawed as the rest of us and the book’s most horrifying moment comes from those very flaws.
In fact, Cheshire hits some surprising and very subtle grace notes throughout the book. Sam’s parents are painfully recognizable and Cheshire shows us just enough of their relationship for us to understand why Sam is both so driven and so cautious. Nothing especially bad has ever happened to them but they’re lives are so constantly stressful that the three of them can only relate to each other through a baseline of tension. That’s poignant, accurate observational work and Cheshire uses it to highlight just how bad things have got. When the tension stops, that’s when things get really bad.
That sense of unease heightens as we follow Sam through the traditional teenage rites of passage as he settles into his new home and school. Cheshire weaponises the usual teenage concerns of fitting in, first love and embarrassing family to give Sam the absolute last thing he wanted; everything. Because he’s so used to not having it, he doesn’t believe it when it arrives and that drives his curiosity and growing unease. It’s intensely smart story design, character and plot wrapped around one another so tightly you can’t see where one ends and the other begins. It also allows Cheshire to explore some interesting issues of class and entitlement. The Greenhills are exquisitely tailored monsters, the British upper classes filtered through a broken lens of scientific innovation and moral account-balancing. They’re two steps to the right of a lot of the views expressed by the upper class right wing now and the class politics in the book are fascinating. Sam doesn’t feel comfortable with the new money the family have, the Greenhills view the poor as a resource and the entire town is revealed to be a watering hole, refusing to make eye contact with the lions surrounding it. It’s a heady combination, balancing John Wyndham with the Angry Young Men and classic YA character tropes and Cheshire makes all of it not just work but work in unsion.
In fact everything Sam sees and does pays off, and, because it’s being written from a point in the future, the tension only ever builds. The final string of payoffs are horrifying in multiple different ways and the tone of the book is, if anything, even bleaker than previous entries. There’s a sense of Cheshire having built an immaculate timepiece of horror, ticking down to the one moment where everything changes. You won’t be disappointed when you get there and, like Sam, you won’t see it coming. Another impressive entry in a series of strong new voices in YA horror.