REVIEW: “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

Review of Kelly Robson, “A Human Stain”, The Best Horror of the Year Volume Ten, edited by Ellen Datlow (Night Shade Books, 2018): 129—154. Purchase Here. Originally published at Tor.com on January 4th 2017. Read Here. Reviewed by Rob Francis.

A ‘family with a secret’ story that is well executed and unlike any I’ve come across before.

Helen is a penniless bohemian, brought to the Lambrecht family house at Meresee Lake in the Bavarian Alps by her friend Bärchen, with the intention that she can tutor Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter for the summer. Straight away it’s clear that things are amiss, with the servants uncommunicative and unhelpful, Peter vanishing every five minutes and the nursemaid Mimi, whom Helen immediately resolves to seduce, silent and frightened (and what the hell’s happened to her teeth?). The mystery builds to a chilling end through some very disturbing moments and lovely signposting.

Helen is an interesting, tough and level-headed protagonist so we’re rooting for her from the start. I also found it refreshing that Helen and Bärchen are both gay, so there’s no romantic element to their relationship, a simplicity that stands at odds with the mystery of the situation Helen finds herself in. All the half-truths and misdirection in the story work really well (especially on a re-read) and the ominous atmosphere created is excellent. I had quite a few questions at the end that I couldn’t satisfactorily resolve, and I really wanted to know more about the — without giving too much away — natural history of the family Helen has found herself among. Some readers will love the unknown and unknowable elements of the story but I found I wanted more, because there was such potential for mining the idea further. It’s a gripping read.

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