Saturday, March 9, 2013

Damned Fine Writing: Book Review of "Priory of the Damned" by Kenneth Hursh

"Of several hundred nun's hospices coast to coast, Margaret had no doubt hers was the only one with a vampire on the payroll."

That sentence, coming on page 212 of Priory of the Damned: A Love Story pretty much sums up Kenneth Hursh's dry, quirky horror novel-with-a-sense-of-humor.

Full disclosure: Ken Hursh is a member of the Monday Night Writers Group, the august body of critique partners I've been privileged to facilitate  While reviewing a novel I've had a hand in critiquing may seem, in the words of a famous Vulcan, oddly self-serving, Priory of the Damned is worth reviewing because it shows how dedication, hard work, and feedback can help you bring your own goals to fruition.

 Of Nuns and Vampires

Margaret Georgescu, one of Priory's two protagonists, married young, but when her husband went off to war and was lost on a Romanian hillside, she turned her grief into a calling. She became a nun and spends her twilight years running a nun's hospice in Kansas.

But, two years ago, the husband she thought was dead re-entered her life. He didn't die, after all; he became undead. Vampires need fresh blood, and Margaret has all those dying nuns lying around . . .

If the premise alone doesn't strike your curiosity, check out the book for Hursh's quirky writing style, which somehow finds humor in the horrible and humanity in the sacred.

Take David, the vampire, for instance. Far from being an evil predator, he merely wants to satisfy his need for blood in the least harmful way possible. David has experienced his demonic side in the past, but he now keeps it in check, living out his existence as the groundskeeper of St. Anne's priory, just so he can be near the woman he still loves.

Then there's Margaret, now a prioress, who has aged while her husband remains eternally young. Torn between her vows to God and her love for the husband she once lost, she assists David in his nocturnal endeavors by leaving the windows open in the rooms where nuns are near death.

Margaret seesaws between rationalizing her choices and being convinced that God has a special punishment in store for her. Meanwhile, she conspires with David to keep his activities secret from the five other nuns who work at the hospice and from the meddling priest who comes by from time to time to deliver last rights and eat free food.

And when a world-famous "living saint" (a la Mother Teresa) is brought to St. Anne's to die, things get really complicated. Margaret must hide David's activities from her bishop and a private investigator and convince David to "go hungry" until the old woman dies.

The problem is, she refuses to die.

Seeing Is Believing?

This two-person story is told with an alternating point of view. It would be hard to imagine the story being as effective any other way, as David and Margaret's very different perspectives provide revealing insights into their relationship and how they perceive the crimes they are committing.

When David uses his special abilities to make one of the other nuns forget what she's seen, Margaret wonders how far he can go and how far is too far.

Perception is one of the underlying themes of the novel, and, through its lens, Hursh explores other themes such as sin and redemption, and love and evil.

Furthermore, he is a master at misdirection. Characters who at first seem important drop out of the story entirely. Other characters who are initially kept in the background become significant in surprising and inevitable ways.

Certain point of view shifts are jarring, but not to the point of throwing the reader out of the story. And while Hursh easily ramps up the tension throughout the novel, one scene goes unexplained and would be more in home in The Exorcist than here.
Priory of the Damned is about two people who face an impossible situation neither of them asked for, and who are caught between doing what their senses of decency tell them and survival.

The choices the characters make often lead to even worse situations, just like in real life. In real life, as in the novel, sometimes we have to take it one day at a time.

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