Vincent’s Myths, Legends, and Folktales professor is holding a semester’s worth of Vincent’s lackluster performance against him. He needs to ace this last paper if he wants to graduate on time. With words of support and encouragement from his boyfriend, James, Vincent manages to talk with his professor. But the outcome is just as bad as Vincent feared; now, all he wants to do is take a run to forget about it for a while.
James helpfully brings a change of clothes and, together, they start a short jog through one of their favorite parts in urban Pittsburgh. Halfway through, James begs for a break and that’s when they realize they’re being followed. Soon after, a homophobic mountain of a man accosts them and just when Vincent and James think they’ve managed to evade him, they discover that they’ve been herded into a trap. As if a beating with a crowbar weren’t bad enough, one of them pulls out a gun and their deadly intent could not be any clearer. Vincent is convinced it’s James who miraculously carries him to safety before he passes out.
Days later, Vincent wakes up in the hospital. Everything in his body burns with pain and no one will talk to him about James. Vincent knows something is very wrong and he fears the worst. But Vincent catches a glimpse of James at the hospital just as he and his friend Sam are pulling out of the parking lot, which only makes sense since Vincent knows it was James that helped him to safety in the park.
Now, Vincent is determined to get answers about what really happened to them that night. His investigation, however, leads him down an ever darker path. Everyone else is convinced James is dead and buried. But James himself suddenly reappears in Vincent’s life, intent on keeping Vincent safe. Vincent is elated to have James back. At the same time, James has noticeably changed since being attacked. At first, Vincent writes it off as trauma. As the days and weeks pass, it gets harder for Vincent to make excuses for his boyfriend. James is emotionally distant; he is far stronger than he–or any human–could ever be; he has a one-track mind. James is soon obsessed with finding their attackers and making them pay. Vincent struggles to reconcile the man he loved with the man who’s slowly taking over his life and is wondering if he can make it out alive.
Blood and Dirt is a darkly captivating suspense/horror story from author Corey Niles. It features Vincent and James, an established college-aged couple. The narration is third person omnicient from Vincent’s side. I think this works extremely well with the plot Niles has devised. As a reader, I was surrounded by Vincent’s actions and thought process. This helped me suspend my disbelief at James surviving the attack and, to a certain extent, root for Vincent’s theory that James was only acting weird as a trauma response. At first, it was so reasonable that Vincent would make excuses for why James wasn’t as social as he was before, why he wasn’t as attentive a partner as he was before (or attentive in a different way). I thought the evolution in the on-page relationship between Vincent and James was simply marvelous.
Personally, I thought it was wonderful to constantly wonder about how James is alive. From the very beginning, it seemed extremely unlikely he would have survived, but Niles bakes so much plausible deniability into the events, I couldn’t help but hope. The truth about James was a delightful McGuffin that I think rarely gets used and therein lies a lot of the enjoyment for me. Clearly, something is off about James, but it takes a good long while to build up to finding out exactly what that “something” is.
One of my favorite moments in the book was the scene where Vincent actually dug up James’ grave. I thought the scene showed how heartbreaking and validating it was for Vincent to go that far trying to find answers. This scene also served as a big pivot on the mood of the book, for me at least. After this scene, I was forced to give up hope for a happily ever after and dove into frenzied hope Vincent won’t get himself killed, either as a result of James’ scheme to find and kill their attackers or to become collateral damage in his own relationship if he tried to stand up against James.
My one gripe about the story is that sometimes the pacing felt a bit sluggish. In retrospect, I see that many times where it felt like Vincent and James were stuck in a rut served a few purposes: to show how deeply Vincent has been affected by the attack; to establish how much Vincent notices the changes to James’ behavior; and to foreshadow major events. As I read the book, however, it just felt like there were a lot of scenes where the only discernible thing happening was Vincent and James hiding out in their apartment, Vincent wondering how James survived and why he’s so different, and James mostly staring off into space unless asked a direct question.
Overall, this was an extremely interesting read. I loved how Niles jumps right in with only the briefest of introductions to our two MCs before they got attacked in the park. That kicked the story firmly into mystery territory for me, and when that pivotal scene comes and Vincent finds out what really happened to James, the story takes a hard right into being a thriller. Niles does an amazing job writing Vincent, all the hope he has of returning to a normal life, and the hopelessness he feels when he realizes that’s not possible. I loved being right there with Vincent, hoping against hope everything would turn out okay. And the paranormal twist was readily apparent, while still being a fun departure from the standard monsters. If you’re a fan of thrillers, horror, or stories that feature LGBTQ characters without centering the action on their romance (or stories that provide only a bittersweet happy for now), then I think you’ll really enjoy this book.