"Blood and Other Cravings" Book Review
Edited by Ellen Datlow
2011, 320 pages, Fiction
Released on September 13th, 2011
Ellen Datlow is one of the leading editors in the horror game and after almost three decades collecting accolades, she's once again in fine form in Blood and Other Cravings, her latest release with Tor Books.
Although the title could be misleading, the book is not really about vampires, but about the plethora of ways in which humans can desire, crave and love; how they can be needed and, ultimately, how they can sometimes serve as a nothing more than that which satisfies a hunger. The volume contains eighteen tales and all the stories, while staying true to the cohesive element of the collection, are wide-ranging in subject matter, atmosphere and style.
Kaaron Warren's All You Can Do Is Breathe kicks off the book with a tale of survival that forces the reader to rethink luck, endurance and the magic of second chances. When Stuart finds himself trapped after the collapse of a cave, the thought of his family helps keep him alive until the rescuers get to him. While he represents the perfect survivor for a while, soon he's forced to rethink his luck when a figure starts draining his energy. Eventually, Stuart's survival turns into something that resembles death.
Needles, by Elizabeth Bear, is the first true vampire account in the book. With an ambiance reminiscent of a Quentin Tarantino film and characters that are as cool as they are ruthless, this one actually makes it hard to hate the bloodsuckers. Part drama, part road story, this is one places Mahasti and Billy inside a house where they get a tattoo, fight some vampire hunters and grab a snack before moving on.
Reggie Oliver's Baskerville's Midgets might have a title that makes you think of Arthur Conan Doyle, but the tale itself is more evocative of Edgar Allan Poe. A theatrical landlady welcomes a young actor into her home. While there, the man first learns about and then meets a troupe of performing midgets. The story explores the relationships the landlady has with the midgets and eventually leads to a great resolution that includes creepy laughter coming from under the bed. One of the best narratives in the collection.
Richard Bowes' Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow presents vampirism as a club and offers a look at how it might work. While the story is well written, it pales in comparison to the preceding three and its 15 pages are a tad unwarranted.
Steve Duffy's X For Demetrious is one of the most original works in the book and while the author has a foreword telling the reader that his piece is based on fact but not real, said foreword actually counteracts itself and lends a degree of veracity to the tale that is inescapable. This one is creepy and keeps the tension at a constant high.
Melanie Tem's Keeping Corky is one of the saddest tales you will ever read. A mentally challenged mother is obsessed with sending her monthly letter to the son she had to give away because of her condition. When the son starts to deal with the usual problems of being a teenager, the adoptive parents decide to sever all ties with the biological mother. The result is eerie, sad, hard to forget and makes for one of the top stories in the anthology.
Lisa Tuttle's Shelf-Life is strange and has a very open ending. The main character becomes infatuated by an artifact from her past that seems to take on a life of its own. While interesting and uncanny, it could have been written in much less than the 18 pages it takes up.
The ninth story in the anthology is Caius, a collaboration between Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg. Although the tale sticks to the norm and talks about co-dependency, the writing is a little tortuous and the end result fails to impress.
Barbara Roden's Sweet Sorrow is one of the longest and strongest stories in the collection. Part detective story, part coming of age narrative and part cautionary tale, this one spans a few decades and cities as it tells the story of a man who discovers that his neighbors are way more sinister than anything he could have ever imagined and what they feed on is as horrible as his own nightmares.
Nicole LeBoeuf's First Breath is ethereal and poetic, but it gets lost amidst better stories and is quickly forgotten.
Kathe Koja's Toujours also misses the mark. Basically a story about falling in love with the wrong person, the first person narration is obscure and the ending is so open it invites forth the idea that nothing will happen next and that nothing that happened before truly matters.
Steve Rasnic Tem's Miri is powerfully evocative of our inability to connect with a present moment and builds up in a way that leads to a lot of tension. The author uses color and the loss of it in a very cinematic way, which is not easy to do successfully in literature, and the result is an excellent change of atmospheres throughout the narrative. Loss and inaction make this one a tough read that's well worth your time.
Carol Emshwiller's Mrs. Jones also climbs to the top of the heap with the story of two older sisters that live together in a strange state of codependency. When the more courageous of the two ventures into the woods to find out what some strange lights are all about, she ends up with an injured winged creature tied up in her basement. What follows is the perfect mix of adventure, gore, dreams, love and sex. By the time it's all said and done, most readers will have come to understand the actions that brought forth the terrible conclusion.
Michael Cisco's Bread and Water presents a very innovative angle and looks at vampirism in a controlled environment. Seen as a disease, the need for blood here is secondary to the changes experienced by the narrator. A prose that moves along at a very nice pace, a few medical annotations that provide an original interlude and a poetic slant that goes hand in hand with gory descriptions grant this story a place as one of the best in the compilation.
Mulberry Boys, by Margo Lanagan, is entertaining and gory. Creatures used for profit in a certain way, a secluded group of people that live in the woods and a very curios narrator turn this one into a tale that reads like a hybrid between J.R.R. Tolkien and Edgar Allan Poe. A must-read.
John Langan's The Third Always Beside You is a powerful deconstruction of family life and infidelity with a very paranormal result. Backtracking the story of her fathers' affair with another woman, Gert learns everything, but is still in for a surprise she could never have seen coming. This narrative is one of the smartest in the anthology and the phantasmagorical resolution is pregnant with meanings that the reader is invited to explore.
Rounding out the compilation is Laird Barron's The Siphon. A tad overwritten, this one had a lot of potential to pack a punch but it becomes diluted in excessive descriptions. The story meanders towards the middle, which makes the 40 pages it occupies feel unwarranted.
Blood and Other Cravings has a few misses, but the good outweighs the bad and the top five stories alone are worth the price of the book. Besides offering a few chills, this anthology offers a wide array of looks into the weakest spots of the human psyche. Definitely worth a read.