When Gabriel Holland’s beloved Helena vanishes from his life, he journeys to the home of disgraced artist Cristian Salazar, the man he holds responsible for her disappearance and the death of several friends. Once in the town of Carliton, Gabriel finds only malice and mystery in the tales told by the few brave enough to speak ill of Salazar and the sinister Cousin Beatriz. And within shadows, in the guise of night, walks Alatiel, the creature Helena has become. . . .
An unnamed narrator stands amidst bloodstained pages in a ruined house in Camden Town, reading the desperate tale of a woman named Helena Graham. Her opening paragraphs refer to a wretched woman who has forced upon her a “hateful gift.” Alatiel, as she calls this maligned force, appeared to Helen to be nothing more than a vulnerable young woman when Julian Paradine introduced her to their circle of wannabe English bohemians. Helena tells herself that the interest her brother’s friends have in the destitute beauties they share for a time before discarding is purely artistic, even while harboring darker, more realistic suspicions.
Two men in their circle react strangely when Julian presents his new muse. Callum Flynn, a dreadful poet, leaves immediately and without explanation. Helena’s boyfriend and mediocre painter, Gabriel Holland, feigns concern for Flynn and backs away from the table with such suddenness that he knocks his chair over. Helena remains behind with Julian and their friend Daniele Navarro, who is given the first turn with the girl. From the moment that Julian takes Alatiel by the arm and pushes her forward for inspection by his friends, life for everyone who has seen the frail mute descends steadily into a hellish nightmare.
But the narrator hasn’t come across Helena’s tale by accident. The curse did not start at the artists’ table, or even with Julian’s flaky association with occult painter Cristian Salazar, whom the narrator knows to be Alatiel’s father. The narrator is the one who angered the Salazar family, and he is the one upon whom the young demon is taking revenge.
Set in England, in the late 19th century, The Portrait of Alatiel Salazar is a gothic novella in the tradition of Edgar Allen Poe. The silent muse is creepy in the way only corruption masked by innocence can be. The men of the story are rounded out in tiny degrees as gentlemen, artists, monsters, fools, cowards, and perverts, each of them utterly human. Helena is none of these things, save human, but it doesn’t matter. The narrator cares about her; for Alatiel, that’s more than cause enough to punish her.
The author’s voice lends the prose an old feel, as if it were written a hundred years ago. Additionally, the writing is simple and clear. If Katriel has made any missteps with the Victorian setting or language, the flow will keep the casual reader (read: not students of period literature) from taking notice.
Additionally, the author chooses his words carefully, managing to convey gruesome scenes in ways that allow the reader to decide how disturbed they want to be by them. For instance, I avoid sexual violence in fiction. I don’t handle it well. The rape that takes place in Portrait is written in such a way that I was through it before put together that was in fact what had taken place. The gravity of the incident builds as aftermath, so it’s no less awful than it should be, but the rape itself is handled extremely delicately. I found that every disturbing scene of the story was handled with similar care.
Steven Katriel is a talented writer with a great future. I would recommend The Portrait of Alatiel Salazar to fans of Edgar Allen Poe and Alfred Hitchcock.
Genre: Horror, Gothic
Note: I was given an advanced copy by the publisher.