Til it Bleeds by Stephanie Burke – review

Rating: 1/10 ★☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆☆ Title: ‘Til it Bleeds
Author: Stephanie Burke
Genre: Paranormal, Action Adventure, Horror, Daemonum
URL: Changeling Press
Price: US $3.99
Warnings: Explicit sex including rimming, fisting and blood play. Violence

Summary (from the publisher): Darkness, demonic possession, the gates of hell threaten to open, and evil threatens to rise over the land… in Ohio.

The Hands of Fate, a pair of ancient relics with untold power, have gone missing, and it’s up to a special pair of operatives to recover them.

The Guild has assigned their best bonded fighting unit, Faith and Vice, to recover the legendary Hands from a scheming under-investigator seduced by their dark power. But with summoned demons, power hungry humans, and maybe even the Guild itself standing in the way, Faith and Vice have an unrelenting fight on their hands, a fight to save an undeserving humanity from itself, to protect the innocents they are sworn to save, and to uncover the dangerous truths hidden deep within the hearts of the Guild. All while holding their own inner demons under tight rein — demons driven by lust and blood hunger, and only satiated by each other.

To succeed, and to save the world, they may have to fight — ‘Til It Bleeds and beyond.

My Review: Before you read any further, I must advise that this review contains a significant amount of spoilers.  This is normally something I try to avoid, but in reviewing this piece it is not possible to avoid spoilers.  That having been said…

Have you ever watched a low-budget speculative television show–you know, some of the cheesier made-for-TV movies SciFi Network comes up with–and you just know they don’t have the budget to deliver the special effects spectacular the previews promise?  But you watch anyway, figuring this might just turn into one of those guilty pleasures…like Mommie Dearest but with bad green-screen? You grin knowingly when, right before the commercial break, they build up to the exciting battle you know they can’t afford. Sure enough, when they come back from the break, the battle is over, the landscape littered with fake bodies and blood too red to be believable. You sit there, mouth agape as the characters talk about how brutal the battle was. Of course, you didn’t see it, because they couldn’t afford it.

Well, in ‘Til it Bleeds, author Stephanie Burke manages to create the literary equivalent of those movies, but without the self-effacing humor or wit of some of the better offerings in the cinematic genre.  In the end, this short novella (56 pages, approximately 16,000 words), doesn’t amount to a guilty pleasure…it’s just guilty…and in all the wrong ways.

Now, whenever I review something, I always try to find at least one thing I like about the work even if the piece ultimately is not my cup of tea.  However this novella makes it very difficult to find any silk in this sow’s ear.  This should have been right up my alley.  While many reviewers run screaming from vampire/demon works, I must admit I love them! I always start each one with a mind that is not just open, but wide open toward liking a piece, and this case was no different.  And, given the publisher’s blurb, I thought, this will be great fun…evil threatens the land…in Ohio.  The author was going to be winking at us along the way.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t any of those things.

We open our piece at the site of a recent massacre, as our heroes Faith and Vice–covered in blood and gore–stand over the remains of their victims, a bunch of society ladies who were trying to raise demons.  We’re never sure why they’ve killed these ladies and it won’t be revealed until later in the novella that they had something to do with the plot. Vice is the more maniacal of the two–the author tells us he’s not in his right mind–and Faith is the more stable. They smoke cigarettes and revel in their power. In short they are bad-asses…and apparently engineered to be that way.  How do we know they’re engineered? The author tells us, but never really explains it beyond that.  They are the primo extermination unit for an organization called The Guild, similarly not explained beyond they have something to do with the control of demons. But, Faith and Vice, it seems, are more than that…they are also some sort of vampire/demon hybrid and they are lovers to boot, their banter peppered with sex talk that never even attempts to be innuendo. They are in-you-face with their sexuality. Not necessarily a bad thing, although the banter tends to be banal rather than revealing of the characters or their dynamic:  “You’ll spank me.” Vice smiled, licking his lips and tossing a wink at Faith’s back. “…I’ll not only spank you, I won’t fuck you afterwards.” They are bonded for life, each has branded the other, Vice’s brand being above the eye while Faith’s is carved into his back.

All in all this premise seems promising despite the apparent flaws, but as you work your way into the piece, it is really difficult to tell Faith and Vice apart, a fact not helped by the point-of-view shifting from one to the other at the beginning of nearly every paragraph.  I myself love “head-hopping” in point of view, but it needs to be done sparingly, otherwise it simply becomes difficult to tell whose eyes we happen to be seeing thing through.  In the end, both characters become little more than stock characters, more cardboard than flesh and blood, and the lead up tends to be rather confusing.

It is very clear the author loves these characters.  She tries nobly to give their dialog some wry humor and the banter of two men who have known each and loved each other a very long time.  But the dialog becomes so stilted that that the effect is comical. I found myself laughing at their exchanges rather than with them.

After 3 and 1/2 pages of prologue, we’re served up 5 pages of sex.  There is rimming and fisting and talk of inner beasts being let loose. The characters indulge in sex dialog I think I’ve only ever heard in straight porno films and the author seems to have a penchant for having them gasp each other’s names out in alternating paragraphs as their passion becomes quicker.  Throw in the use of the phrase anal walls and anal muscles repeatedly, and the expected feeding on one another’s blood, and you get sex that is supposed to be hot and sweaty and animalistic, but ends up being pedestrian and pedantic and, I’m sad to say, rather humorous in a completely unintentional way.

Chapter 2 gives us a post-coital pillow-talk–an info dump as to their search for The Hands of Fate and the legend behind them–and we learn that Faith is the alpha-male because the author tells us so through the eyes of Vice. We then get another 5 pages of sex with possibly the worst dialog (You taste divine.) and strangest euphemisms (Faith soon was making low growls and moans as Vice enthusiastically began to toss his salad.) I think I have ever read.  I think the author meant to imbue a comic tone, but it never works that way, becoming laughable.

The story moves on to a religious tent-revival meeting somewhere in Ohio where Faith and Vice confront the men who are somehow involved in the missing the Hands of Fate (though to be honest, I’m really not clear how).  These men are pretty much interchangeable, lacking any distinct personalities, and while our heroes do battle with their fanatical religious followers, one of these men uses an incantation to summon up a Master Demon to take on Faith and Vice. Not to be undone, Faith and Vice conjure up “organic” weapons from their own blood (an homage to the video game God of War?) to fight the beast. And as we brace ourselves for the battle, we cut away to a chapter break only to find when we return that the demon (who is now a Minor demon as opposed to a Master) has already been slain by our heroes.  We don’t get to see the battle. At all.

We move into more sex as the duo discusses the plot and tell us that one of the three revival men must be found.  As they get down and dirty with the sex, Faith reminds us that he is the alpha male (“I am your dominant!”) and three paragraphs later Vice reminds us that Faith is the dominant.  The sex is rather mechanical, the duo sex talking each other and reminding each other that they complete one another.  Had the dialog been better or more inventive, this might have come off sexy and arousing, but again their interaction becomes almost laughable.

The plot moves along fast then, with Faith and Vice teleporting themselves to the home of the man they are seeking.  There are hints in this exchange of the slightly comic tone the author wanted the piece to take on, but by this time it is too late and that humor is never played out in the final five pages.  In the end the entire chapter serves only as an info dump for the thin plot as they transport that man to The Guild and get ready to search out the true evil, the lead revival man, Vitelli, who conveniently appears.  We have some banter with Vice telling Vitelli how annoying he is and to shut up. Vitelli continues to prattle on how he refuses to be subservient to The Guild when his speech is interrupted “Prattle? You call the truth…omph!” Faith hauls off and hits him, but just as it is about to get good and deliver the climactic battle we’ve been waiting for and expecting, Faith and Vice are transported from the site and the piece comes to an abrupt end.  Again, we never see the promised Action in this action adventure piece.

I so very much wanted to like this piece. I was ready to be taken along on a great comic adventure people with some of my favorite genre staples.  But the stilted dialog, the sex which is laughable rather than titillating, characters which are terribly one-dimensional and the constant avoidance of the plot frustrated me to no end.  But what bothered me most was that everything (except the sex) was told to us.  The author never shows us the epic battles the blurb promises and the plot is reduced to exposition and info dumps between the sex scenes.  And there was no reason for this.  The author wasn’t confined by budgets.  There were no special effects to be paid for.  It is all in the words and the imagination and in the first rule of fiction:  show, don’t tell.  The author could have written those battles, showed our heroes as the witty masters they could have been. Instead, whenever action threatened to rear its head and deliver us a romp, she cuts away and all the action happens off-screen.  And that did more than frustrate me, it made me angry.

So, if you are looking for unending sex, this might be the story for you.  If you’re looking for what the blurb promises or any type of depth of character, I’m guessing you will be disappointed. And if you are looking for an indulgence, something that rises above its considerable flaws to be entertaining in a penny-dreadful kind of way, I fear you will find this lacking the pulp and witty repartee that make up truly guilty pleasures.  In the end, a rerun of “Frogs” on SciFi might be a better choice.