Butchers by Todd Sullivan: A Review

Set in Seoul and packed with supreme ultraviolence, this novella about a secret vampire organization packs a real punch.

Vampires. As a horror trope they’ve become familiar to the point of boring. After Twilight, True Blood, and Count Count, can vampires still evoke awe and horror? Todd Sullivan’s novella Butchers proves that they most definitely can. His vampires are not only undead, they also possess superhuman strength and speed, plus the ability to survive and commit extreme violence. They drink human blood, for sure, but they are not supposed to kill humans. In fact, they carefully groom selected humans to make them join their ranks. If this doesn’t sound intriguing enough, the story is also set in in Seoul, a city I have never visited and know embarrassingly little about. All in all, Butchers offers a fresh take on the vampire trope, spicing things up with echoes of K-horror and martial arts pop culture.

Unsurprisingly, Butchers does not hold back on the violence. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious here – after all, the title alone indicates the shape of things to come – but this novella is definitely not for the faint-hearted. I don’t want to give away any spoilers, for its sense of mystery is what makes the story work in my opinion, but some scenes really push the limits of what I’m personally comfortable with. If this sounds like criticism, it really isn’t, as I quite like my limits pushed. One particular scene, set in a coffee shop, completely omits the copious amounts of blood one might expect in a vampire story – though it includes generous helpings of other bodily fluids. For me, this scene works because it is not just about violence but about the power underlying violence.

If that sounds a bit vague, I recommend you get your hands on Butchers and see for yourself. I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading and was pleasantly surprised. Incidentally, Butchers is a novella, an underrepresented literary form I happen to have a soft spot for. I’ve come across a lot of cool ones being published recently, and I think it’s great that the form seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival. With more space for narrative depth than a short story, but without the occasional sluggishness of longer novels, the novella offers a lean and energetic story experience that is particularly well-suited to horror. Butchers is a case in point. It’s lean, mean, and really packs a punch in less than a hundred pages.

The story’s lack of length also means that it leaves a lot unexplained. Take the Gwanlyo, the secret vampire society most of the characters belong to. Who are they, where do they come from, and what’s their goal? What’s the exact nature of their intimate, often erotic, relationship with the human race? And after the story ends, with an extremely ambiguous scene, what on earth will happen next? Who knows. Again, if this sounds like criticism, it really isn’t. I’m tired of stories in which every loose end is neatly tied up, every character move clarified to death, every hint of ambiguity explained away. I like stories that make me wonder what the hell I just read. These are the ones that tend to stay with me long after I’ve finished reading them, fuelling my imagination and haunting my dreams.

The author’s bio mentions that he is currently working on a series of horror and fantasy novellas set in South Korea. It’ll be interesting to see how future books will tie in with Butchers, whether they’ll continue its story, or end up offering something completely new. For now, Butchers has left me hungry for more, just like the vampires that roam its pages.

Butchers is published by Nightmare Press

Cover art by Holly Wholahan

Graphic design by Rebecacovers

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