I first read J.A. Konrath’s writing in the gleefully splattery Draculas, a collaboration between four writers about a battle with vampiric creatures in a hospital. Given the collaborative nature of that book, it was hard to know who wrote what, but I got the vibe that Konrath (who writes as Jack Kilborn when he writes horror novels) has a taste for the ghoulish, with a willingness to go to extremes in his violence, and for the pitch black in his humor.
And having read Endurance, it turns out that both of those were true, in spades. The story of a little secluded hotel that lures in its customers for nefarious purposes, Endurance is two parts Psycho, one part Freaks, and about ten parts The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, turning into a blood-soaked, very violent, very horrific nightmare, as our various guests battle for survival against a ghoulish, inbred family who needs their guests’ blood – literally – to stay alive.
Konrath is a straightforward, pulpy author, and Endurance reflects that style, conveying its story and characters with a minimum of storytelling fat and a rapid pace that never really lets up. As a result, it’s a book for horror fans – more than that, even, it’s a book for slasher fans, for those who enjoy their horror with blood and gore to spare. Konrath has a love of the gross-out, it seems, and he fills his book with horrific deformities, maniacal torturers, disgusting villains, and grisly violence to spare.
And make no mistake – this is a rough read, yes, but it’s an undeniably effective one. Konrath’s villains are fascinatingly insane, motivated by an obsession with American Presidents. That’s a wholly unique idea, and one that gives the whole book a wonderfully black comic tone that can be viewed as either really entertaining or really sick, depending on your viewpoint. (By the time characters are trying to make jokes about the forced amputations they’ve undergone at the hands of these villains, you’ll either find yourself shutting the book in horror or laughing at how far Konrath is willing to go.) But it’s also a truly scary book, with Konrath knowing exactly how to work his audience over, savoring our discomfort and unease as we constantly question whether our heroes are being watched in their rooms or being hunted without them knowing. There are a slew of genuinely scary moments here (two of the best involve condensation on a car window and the final pages of a hotel guest log), and given how much horror I read, for me to find something truly scary is no small feat.
All that being said, it’s still pure pulp, and that can be a weakness as well as a strength. The characters ultimately feel pretty flat and generic, and several of their climactic moments are absurdly cheesy and scripted, feeling like staged Chekhov’s guns that don’t even quite fit the story. And while that black comedy can be really fun, the characters’ ability to make jokes about their horrific experiences sometimes feels like they’re healing from this stuff awfully quick – I’m not sure I could crack jokes about the mutilation I had suffered after about half an hour.
But if you can set aside some of that as just being a function of pulp, it’s hard not to have “fun” reading Endurance, if you’re a horror fan. It’s twisted and depraved, without a doubt, and your enjoyment of it will boil down to your willingness to let Konrath push the limits of taste and…well, endurance. There’s gore, there’s mind games, there’s graphic violence, there’s torture, and there’s Rob Zombie-film levels of depravity. And if that’s your thing, you’ll have some ghoulish, twisted fun here. I know I did.