Skip to main content Skip to search Skip to search

Fiction Small Town & Rural

The Bliss House

by (author) Jim Bartley

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Sep 2023
Small Town & Rural, Gothic, Gay
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Sep 2023
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Sep 2023
    List Price

Add it to your shelf

Where to buy it


Two young men bringing up a small child in the middle of nowhere. Everything could be fine, but strangers start to meddle.

For near a century the reclusive Bliss clan farmed the same land. Now it’s 1963 and everyone’s gone except teenage Cam, his older cousin Wes, and little Dorie. They buried Gran over a year ago. But Gramp is still with them, wrapped tight as a mummy in an old tarp in the cold room off the kitchen. Life’s better now without the old man’s rants and terrors.

There are problems with the land lease and the meddlesome, moralizing neighbours, and rumours are spreading in town that there’s something not quite right about Cam and Wes, but they’re taking care of it all as best they can. Then the local Children’s Aid drops by to say Dorie needs schooling and proper parents, and it’s clear they can’t hide their secrets any longer. They’re on the road, heading north, with a body in the trunk. Wes knows a place, a cabin deep in the woods …

No matter what they do, gruesome casualties seem to follow them. It could be funny if it wasn’t so nightmarish. And through it all, a tender secret love thrives, as they try to hold on to the family they’ve built together.


About the author

Jim Bartley is a novelist and playwright. He has written about books for The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Toronto Xtra and other publications. Makarska, and his first novel, Drina Bridge, grow out of his long interest in the lives and stories of people in Bosnia and former Yugoslavia. He lives in Toronto with his partner of 38 years and a large black poodle.

Jim Bartley's profile page

Excerpt: The Bliss House (by (author) Jim Bartley)

Wes still hates Gramp when he thinks of him out there with the worms crawling — must be on the way to compost by now. Best to just leave him there, keep the fan going and blowing out the poison gas until he’s rotted down to human fertilizer. Nobody’s missed him. People knew he drank so they’ll just write it off to that and forget him. Everyone around here wrote off the Bliss family years ago.
It’s good the booze killed the bugger because Wes nearly did it himself a few times. He should’ve smashed Gramp’s head that day with the same shovel that took a chunk out of his arm. He could’ve called it self-defence. Anyway, it’s all over. Never again does he have to see Gramp whipping Cam or passed out on the floor with the whisky fumes coming off him.
Gramp left Dorie alone, never touched her at all. Dorie was the only one Gramp ever said a good word to. Wes knows Cam never deserved the beatings, not for anything he ever did. Cam is smarter than anyone thinks. The school he went to was a joke and he’s better off now. The fact is they’re all better off now than they’ve been in living memory.
If the old man had made a proper will, who knows who he’d have left the farm to. Cam would maybe be set, but you can’t know that. So this is the situation. Gramp left no one to manage the place and Gran put Wes in charge of banking for the kids, so he’s it now. The whole place is his responsibility. He thinks maybe he should report Gramp missing. Someday, but not yet. He has to work that out but there’s no rush.
He doesn’t shop in the stores anywhere local. He gets their food at the new Dominion Store in Goderich, and any hardware or similar stuff there, too — far enough away so that no one will look at him and say, “You’re Wes, aren’t you, up the Bliss place? How the folks doing these days?” They might say it in Walkerton or Wingham, but he knows it’s only so he’ll say everything’s hunky-dory on the farm, so then they can think what a liar he is and what screw-ups the Blisses are, as if it’s their friggin’ business. The only stop in Wingham is the bank, and they don’t ask him anything most times. The younger tellers don’t know or care, anyway. If Cam’s in with him, the older ones look at him like, “Oh that’s the Bliss boy, the slow one.” But he’s sharper than they are.
If the kids get a toothache or sick or whatever, Wes thinks he’ll just take them to Goderich instead of their old doctor. There’s a clinic at the regional hospital. At home they’ve stopped answering the phone pretty much. The old man never answered unless it was expected and that’s the way they still have it. There’s no one to call them except some church charity wanting donations or just people being nosy, like the McKieran woman next door. There’s the land lease with the Johnstone brothers and Wes will have to deal with that somehow when it comes up. But Wes just pays the phone bill and electricity and there’s nothing else regular. The phone hardly rings.
Wes used to tell Cam that Gramp should have a forked tail. The man was Satan incarnate the last few years. When his face got boiling red in a rage, he even looked the part. Wes believes he had some sort of mind sickness. Now with Satan dead, the months since then don’t feel real. It’s like the yelling and crying are still in the walls, along with the crack of the leather belt.
Wes feels ashamed that he only stood by when Gramp got on a tear and beat Cam. He couldn’t watch. He just listened out on the porch or pacing around the yard and he tore himself up for being such a coward. He stood up to Gramp just a few times and backed down every time, too. He pretty much gave up after the shovel, and then the time Gramp knocked him down with a few blows that left blood pouring from his mouth and his head ringing. Wes is still half-deaf in one ear. The man had fists like hammers.
But there was no one, no one else to watch out for Cam. Gramp knew how far he could go. He never left a mark on Cam’s face. That might have pushed Wes to do something. His own father used a belt on him, so it seemed — well, not right exactly, never right, but a regular thing. He couldn’t stop it. That shame is still in the house with Wes.
Now they are just starting to believe that nothing bad can happen. The ghosts are still around but they can’t do any harm. Dorie said it one time when she found a booze bottle in behind the wood bin. There was about an inch of whisky left in it. She said what Gran said, “Devil water,” and Cam said, “It’s just no-good old whisky now.”
Wes took the bottle and he went out the door. He walked to the barn with Cam and Dorie tagging behind him. He went round the back of the barn to the dry well and kicked the wood cover off it and he held the bottle over the hole. He said, “This bottle’s going to Hell.” He dropped it into the well and after a little gap, there was a tinkling sound. They stared down the hole. Back in the house, they had ice cream.
Wes is not like a father or brother to Cam. It’s something different. Wes just turned twenty-eight but he’s never had a kid — never got married, either. He has a half-sister down in Brantford but he hasn’t seen her for a few years now. She never came to the farm, anyway. Dorie is sometimes a handful, but Wes accepts that he’s her guardian now. This job, taking care of the place and Cam and Dorie, just dropped into his lap. He could see what was coming and he thought about the part he would have. The old man was going to die and it was going to happen right here in the house. One day he just wouldn’t wake up. And that’s exactly what happened, only a lot messier.
A few weeks after Wes put the body in the cold room, he quit his rented basement in Hamilton. He was working only at a filling station by then and he quit that, too. No more work for him at Stelco since a new contract pushed the part-timers out. If they thought he was disposable, then screw them. He lives free now. He can sit on the porch with a beer and look at the fields and the sky and someone else driving a tractor back and forth to keep the money coming. He deserves it after all the bullshit and abuse. Dorie and Cam are his family. That’s how it turned out, like it was meant that way. He wouldn’t want any other life. Not without Cam, anyway.
Cam sits with him on the porch and reads. He reads quite a bit, books from the Walkerton Library. Wes takes him in and hops over to the diner in Mildmay for a bite, and he sometimes comes back with a hamburger for Cam. He took Cam up today to return some books and before Cam got out of the car he said he’d get a book for Wes, if he wanted. Wes hasn’t read a book since he failed grade eleven and his dad got him a grunt job at the foundry. So he told Cam thanks, but no. Cam looked at him like he wanted to say more but he got out of the car and crossed the street to the library. He went up the steps and inside and it made Wes remember the time he was in there on a school outing, before his dad got the Hamilton job and moved them away. He remembered the quiet, and the book smell.
When Wes picked up Cam after lunch, he had three more books. They came in the house and Cam put them on the wicker table on the porch and he said Wes was free to read any of them. Now Cam is in the kitchen making up some supper and Wes is on the porch looking at a book by Ray Bradbury. Cam’s real fond of this Bradbury fellow. Wes sets the book aside. The sun is blazing bright into the cornstalks to the east and Wes can see straight across the field to the neighbours’ barn and the back of their house.
Dorie is sitting in the dry dirt under the maples, pushing her naked Barbie doll around in a toy pickup truck. Dorie is naked as the doll except for her red plastic sandals and Wes is thinking she should have some pants on at least, only because the McKieran woman telephoned again saying she didn’t like her boys seeing that. Wes had to think, Seeing what? Have they got binoculars? The McKierans are only there since three or four years ago. They don’t run the farm operation, just rent the house. The two boys do some field work for the Johnstones. Wes stares at the house and imagines he can see her now, looking out the back window.
“Dorie, go put some clothes on.”
Dorie looks at him like he’s not making any sense and goes right back to her Barbie world. The doll’s hair is the same dirty tangle as Dorie’s. He stares at the McKieran house and finishes the last of his Black Horse Ale. One more with his supper and that’ll be it. Cam isn’t legal to drink and never wants it, anyway. As long as Wes is here, hard liquor will never get back into the house.
Dorie makes her Barbie sing and dance around the pickup truck: “I love to poo, I really do …” Then she throws Barbie down. “Noooo!” She rubs Barbie in the dirt and runs her over with the truck.
Wes goes into the house.
Cam has made a pot of beans with chopped wieners and Heinz 57, and some sliced-up tomato and cucumber on a plate. They grow their own, and squash and potatoes too. They had runner beans and cauliflower and more but not so much since Gran died. Wes calls Dorie in and fills a bowl from a fresh bag of Cheezies. He makes himself and Cam a couple tomato sandwiches with Miracle Whip. The bread is soft and fresh from the supermarket that morning.
Wes makes Dorie get some pants on and then hold out her hands so he can wipe them with the dishrag. He’s being like Gran when he does this, but he wonders why he bothers. Gran also said everyone’s got to eat a peck of dirt before they die. Dorie must be up to the full peck by now.
“I looked at that Bradbury book, Cam.”
“You read any yet?”
“I think I will later.”
The meal goes quick and mostly quiet except for Dorie gabbing away about nothing they need to listen to. She won’t eat cucumber or tomato but she loves beans and 57 and bread and butter. They all dip into the Cheezies. Wes has a beer and Dorie and Cam drink milk, sometimes chocolate for Dorie. That’s dinner. Maybe some ice cream after, on the porch. Now with the old guy dead, they can buy it anytime.

Other titles by Jim Bartley