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Read an Excerpt from The Bliss House, Jim Bartley's Atmospheric Dive into a Strange 1960s Family

Green banner image with text reading Excerpt from The Bliss House by Jim Bartley. Cover of The Bliss House on the right, Open Book logo on the left

Far from town, on a run-down farm, the Bliss family has kept to themselves for nearly 100 years. But something has changed and people are whispering about the strange happenings out at the Bliss place, where two cousins are raising a little girl who has never attended school. The terror that was the Bliss patriarch, the cousins' grandfather, hasn't been seen in months. 

Set in the early 60s, The Bliss House (Rare Machines/Dundurn Press) by celebrated playwright and novelist Jim Bartley is a darkly atmospheric story of secrets, family, fierce independence, and a changing world. When modern life intrudes on cousins Wes and Cam's doorstep, with Children's Aid saying little Dorie, their adopted ward, needs public school and a traditional family, and opportunistic neighbours saying their are questions about the Bliss land lease, Wes says he knows a place they can run to, even more remote, in the deepest woods.

Soon they set out, three misfits running from the truth with a body in their trunk. Their family, and their love, is unconventional—maybe even doomed—but Bartley weaves their story in a spellbinding way, riddled with mysteries and disasters, unexpected revelations, and coolly restrained prose, under which roils the complex emotions, fears, and hopes of each of the three main characters and a world in transition.  

We're excited to share an excerpt today, in which we see how Cam's life begins to change when his cousin Wes moves back onto the farm following their grandparents' deaths. 

Excerpt from The Bliss House by Jim Bartley:

August 1963

Cam Bliss shares a bedroom with Dorie on the second floor. Dorie needs someone to sleep with her or she spooks. The view is easterly. It’s summer and the days begin with sunlight beaming straight across the cornfields from the horizon. The first rays hit the underside of the eaves, like the sun is actually lower than the house. If Cam wakes up at the right time, he sees this orange light on the flaking white paint. He thinks it has to be impossible. But there it is. He remembers it from as far back as anything. Then the sun comes onto the rose wallpaper above the bed, making the pink pinker. If Dorie doesn’t wake up ahead of him and start her jabbering, he can lie quiet, watching the light and shadow move across the flowers.

Cam is seventeen now. He went to a special school in Hanover until he was fifteen. The school was in somebody’s house. Cam was more normal than the other kids and he always knew that. He talked funny and misbehaved and got bad grades, so they put him there. Then they let him try the regular high school but that was only for a year because Gran died, and Gramp took him out to help at home. He can read. That’s one good thing they taught him. Since he got out, he’s read a lot of books from the Walkerton Public Library.

Dorie is five and she’s never been to school yet. She came when she was just a baby almost. Gran and Gramp took her from some relatives in Hamilton because they couldn’t have a kid with them. Since January, Gramp has been in the cold room, a tin-roofed lean-to off the back of the old kitchen. When they found Gramp stiff on the sofa the morning after New Year’s, Cam phoned his cousin Wes Cody right away. He came and he said they had to find Gramp’s will. They looked all through the house and the pumphouse, too, where Gramp sometimes slept off his binges.

They even went through Gran’s old things and there was nothing.

A whole day searching and they found some hid whisky bottles but that was it. Wes put Gramp out in the cold room and that’s where he’s stayed, wrapped up tight in heavy plastic and covered with a tarp held down with bricks.

Wes is older, maybe ten years older than Cam. He had a parttime job in Hamilton, but with Gramp gone, he started staying most days at the farm again. Then one day he just called up his boss and quit. Wes is related to Dorie but he’s not her father. She’s a Price and Wes is a Cody. According to Wes, Dorie’s mother was a drug addict. She went to Toronto and never came back. The Codys and Prices aren’t Bliss family — they’re on Gran’s side. Wes was always around and worked on the farm from the time Cam was little.

banner image with background of old fashioned wallpaper and text reading: After Gramp died, they hardly ever went in the cold room. They just didn’t talk about what was in there. The Bliss House. Open Book logo bottom centre

After Gramp died, they hardly ever went in the cold room. They just didn’t talk about what was in there. In the spring Wes sealed the gaps around the inside door with tape, but that didn’t really solve the problem. What solved it was Cam’s own idea: a small electric fan. He installed it in the cold room window and left it permanently on, to blow out the stink. He planned how to do it for most of a sleepless night and he spent a whole day rigging it and it worked. Wes said it would do fine. He just put some caulking around the gaps. The decay smell gets back into the house during a strong north wind or a power outage, but they live with that.

Gran died first. She was sick for a few months and then she was gone. Gramp tried to cook on their big Happy Thoughts wood stove that’s as old as the house, but his cooking was terrible. Cam took over and did better, but not like Gran. He used the electric Moffat. Even Gran used the Moffat in summer, but she talked about the expense. Now Cam is in charge of supper. Wes is here all the time. He does the shopping for food and some beer just for himself. Things have changed. But it’s working out good. Gramp made their life hell.


Jim Bartley was a playwright before he took to prose. His first two novels were set mainly in Balkan war zones. The Bliss House breaks the mould, riffing on Jim’s powerful love of rural and wild landscapes. He lives in Toronto and Dufferin County, Ontario.

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The Bliss House

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.