The Kelping: Jan Stinchcomb
Reviewed By Ben Walker
So, I searched “kelping” online before I settled into this book, and this was the first result:
“To have intercourse with a man, covered in kelp, to create the illusion of being a kelp monster. ”
Suffice to say, I went into Jan Stinchcomb’s The Kelping with a very strange image in the back of my mind, which was throwing imaginary tumblr posts featuring Sigmund and the Sea Monsters slashfic at me before I turned the first page. Luckily (or unluckily, depending on your preferences), this beach-front tale of body horror is a slightly different kettle of fish. Seaweed. Whatever.
First off, this has a very different feel to the other more B-movie inspired titles I’ve read so far in Unnerving’s Rewind or Die series (Cirque Beserk and Sole Survivor, both of which are great). There’s the obligatory side character being offed in the introduction, just like many a great late-night feature, but after this the story takes a more contemplative, character-driven approach. Here, we follow Dr Craig Bo after he receives a call from a mystery blackmailer who knows about his past, and more besides.
That call threatens the already fragile relationship he has with his wife, and the first half of the book mostly concentrates on that side of things with the odd dip into weirdness and family strife. We learn of Bo’s sordid past, his clumsy relationship with his kids, and his predilections for a certain kind of sexual encounter. It’s a slightly more mundane one than the kelping I found out about online, but the more you learn about his desires, the more you realise that this proud doctor doesn’t have a lot to be proud about. His desires play on his mind constantly, and because of that, his marriage is full of more lies than Jim Carrey in Liar Liar lying on a lilo. Dr Bo struggles with a lot of his feelings in a very genuine way, with his every worry and weakness laid bare to the reader. Whilst I never felt like I could sympathise with him, he’s not a one-note protagonist, and the level of depth he’s given makes his character a compelling study in guilt and regret.
As for the titular kelping, this actually turns out to be a yearly tradition for the residents of Beachside (which, as you may expect, is located on the side of a beach). They crown a couple as Sea King & Queen each year, and it’s Dr Bo’s turn for more than just some fancy headwear this time. Part of the festivities involve the new King being smothered in kelp, then made to wash it off in the ocean. Unfortunately for Dr Bo, the kelp proves as hard to rinse away as the lies he’s surrounded himself with, and this is where the book starts veering into more bizarre territory. Warnings go unheeded, one of his kids knows more than he’s letting on, and the townsfolk steadily start to reveal the truth behind the kelping. This lends the book an intriguing mix of folk horror alongside some uneasy body horror, with mysteries and folklore insinuating themselves into the plot bit by bit. You discover them with interest and dread just as much as Dr Bo, and while you do get a large burst of intriguing lore, you’re still left with an ending that both ties up the main arc in a satisfying way, and plants a few lingering questions in the back of your brain.
So while there’s a distinct lack of horny men wrapped up like badly-made sushi rolls, I can always find those online if I want. If you’re in the mood for a waterlogged version of The Wicker Man experience, or, if you prefer, a maritime Midsommar, I would definitely recommend slapping The Kelping onto your shelf.
Doctor Craig Bo has everything: a perfect wife and children, a thriving dermatology practice, and a house in a lovely coastal town. Nobody is surprised when he is chosen to be the Sea King of Beachside in his hometown’s annual festival.
But after the festival Craig’s world turns upside down. Something starts growing on his skin. His son tells him a story about a sinister mermaid who lives in the attic of the local history museum. And his beautiful wife, Penelope, can no longer hide her dark connection to the sea.
As Craig grapples with his own secrets and misdeeds, he finally understands the woman he married and the plans she has for him.
Ben got a taste for terror after sneaking downstairs to watch The Thing from behind the sofa at age 9. He’s a big fan of extreme & bizarre horror and well as more psychological frights, and most things in between. When he’s not reading, he’s writing, and when he’s not writing he’s on twitter @BensNotWriting or reviewing books on his YouTube channel, BLURB.