ALL THE BLOOD WE SHARE by Camilla Bruce (BOOK REVIEW)
“We take care of our own. The rest can fend for themselves.”
“It just will not do to let people see the maggots that crawl inside you.”
Camilla Bruce’s All The Blood We Share (2023) is a unique mix of horror, true crime, western and historical novel. Based on the real life story of the Bloody Benders, a family of serial killers who operated in Labette County, Kansas from May 1871 to December 1872, Bruce draws on the scanty recorded history and the larger than life folk legends that emerged once the family’s crimes were discovered to create a powerful and disturbing work of fiction. All The Blood We Share vividly evokes 19th century prairie life, and offers a frightening but nuanced portrayal of the Benders, particularly focusing on the female members of the family. Along with her previous novels, the dark fantasy You Let Me In (2020) and historical horror Triflers Need Not Apply (2021), All The Blood We Share confirms Bruce as an exciting and unique voice in both horror and historical fiction.
All The Blood We Share opens with daughter Kate and mother Elvira’s arrival in Labette County in 1871, on the run from their past and joining father William and Kate’s stepbrother John, who went on ahead to build a house for the whole Bender family, where they could set up an inn to serve travellers to the small town of Cherryvale. The Benders’ plan is to lay low and build a new life for themselves, far away from the clutches of the law after their crimes in New York and Pennsylvania have been discovered. But Kate believes she is destined for the stage, and starts setting herself up as a medium, impressing the local spiritualist circle and drawing more attention to herself and the family than Elvira is comfortable with. The loathing, misanthropy and bloodlust that runs in the Bender family line soon overflows, and the Benders discover that their murderous proclivities can earn them more by preying on unwary travellers instead of just serving them. The murders provide the family with an outlet, but it’s not long before the townsfolk of Cherryvale begin to notice the number of corpses turning up and people going missing, and soon the Benders fall again under suspicion. As the corpses pile up under the Bender estate, Kate and Elvira must both decide what lengths they will go to in order to protect their family and themselves.
The novel is told through the perspectives of Kate and Elvira Bender, plus Hanson, a young boy who is the Benders’ neighbour. Hanson is an innocent who befriends the Benders when they move to Labette County and only begins to suspect their dark secrets much later. His perspective gives us a view on the Bender family from someone outside their twisted and dysfunctional family unit, initially a reliable viewpoint on the Benders which becomes more unreliable as the boy begins to realise the heinousness of the Benders’ crimes and the extent to which his silence makes him complicit. Elvira is the most reluctant member of the Bender family, according to herself at least – Kate regularly points out her hypocrisy, and that for all her moralising and catastrophising she is as guilty of the murders as the rest of them. However her sardonic view of Kate provides a necessary commentary on the bulk of the novel, which is told from Kate’s perspective. Kate’s voice is wonderful; Bruce perfectly captures her charm, which was a huge part of how the Benders got away with murder for so long, whilst showing the unpleasant sociopathic urges that writhe just underneath her charismatic façade. We get to see Kate’s entitlement and utter disregard for others – she sees herself as deserving of fame and fortune, regardless of whether she gets there by murder or by hoodwinking gullible townsfolk who want to talk to their dead relatives. Yet her delusions also extend to herself – she seems to fervently believe that she can run away with widower Nicholas and his sweet daughters and lead a new, sinless life with them, something all the rest of the Benders see through immediately for the impossible dream it is. The novel never loses sight of how nasty she is, but she is never less than compelling.
In the fascinating Author’s Note at the end, Bruce informatively explains how much she was able to use the historical record for her story, how much she needed to make up, and how much she had to untangle from the myths and legends that sprung up around the Benders once their crimes were discovered. The novel deals with ideas around faith, belief and deception. Elvira deals in herbal and traditional medicine, something that, when the Bender family murders are discovered in Pennsylvania, leads to the whole family being accused of being witches. This ancient traditional fear is contrasted with Kate’s act as a medium, where she exploits contemporary beliefs and superstitions around spiritualism in order to make a living as a grifter, building on the training her mother gave her back in New York when the two of them had to survive on the streets before meeting William and John. Both the witch and the medium are traditionally feminine sources of magic and power, and tap into male fears of the untamed feminine. Thus, the fears around witchcraft become embroiled in fears around spiritualism and fears around how Kate uses her sexuality to get what she wants by flirting with men. In the afterword, Bruce notes how this has become entangled with the mythology around the Benders, with Kate’s imagined fate in legends about vigilantes capturing the Benders always being more vicariously violent than that of the other family members. In an era and culture when women were meant to be subservient to men and not draw attention to themselves in public, Kate flouted the societal rules, both in her openness about her sexuality and through her role as a medium, which allowed her to practice traditionally masculine roles like speaking in public and drinking alcohol through the guise of channelling spirits. Thus the mythology around the Benders seeks to punish her as much for her disregard for the rules of femininity as for her grisly murders. Bruce’s sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of Kate allows her to tackle all these complex ideas in her novel, critiquing the society of the time without making an apology for Kate’s brutal crimes.
In All The Blood We Share, Bruce has created a compelling portrait of a family of serial killers that engages thoughtfully with the culture and the times that spawned them, never letting them off the hook but always asking pertinent questions about the society they briefly flourished in, and the enduring appeal of their mythology. As disturbing as it is compelling, All The Blood We Share is a grisly triumph, and one that cements Bruce’s reputation as a must-read author.
All the Blood we Share is available now – order your copy HERE