Blood and other cravings edited by Ellen Datlow
It’s always a challenge to put together a themed anthology. Too many stories feeling the same can leave the reader with a jaded palate. In Blood and other cravings, we’re offered vampires, except Ellen Datlow challenged her authors to avoid the traditional while still providing something that would feed upon others.
It all begins beautifully with “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren. The question, of course, is what else a predator might want to take from its victim? This is a desperately sad story of what the trauma of being trapped underground for days can do to people. When first rescued, they can seem bouncy and glad to be alive. Later, depression overwhelms them. They seem empty, as empty as if something had sucked all the life out of them. “Needles” by Elizabeth Bear is somewhat more traditional with a couple of creatures moving from town to town, each finding relief and sustenance in their own ways. The nice thing about it is the essential tedium of the lifestyle. They run from and to each satisfying release only to have to do it all over again the next day and night. “Baskerville’s Midgets” by Reggie Oliver is the first of two reprints. It’s a beautifully judged atmospheric tale of seven midgets who come back for their Snow White. Who would have thought a game of hide-and-seek could make the bond so strong. “Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow” by Richard Boyd asserts there’s a cycle in fashions. Sometimes it’s in to be a vampire. The other times, you have to go cold turkey which has little blood and is unsatisfying. Once you’ve kicked the habit, the years may pass, but not the nostalgia for the excitement of it all. What would it be like if it could start all over again?
As an irrelevant note, it’s always fun when an author locates a story in a place you know. “X For Demetrious” by Steve Duffy picks on Penkull which really does have a vampire history. I should know. I used to drink in The Wellington just round the corner from The Villas. Based on the facts, this is a beautifully told story of a life-long obsession and torment. Sometimes people never can break out of the mould they are forced into at birth and by their upbringing. “Keeping Corky” by Melanie Tem is a fascinating and daring exercise in point of view with a mother struggling to remember her child and then finding she has lost him. This is an affecting and tragic story in which, despite the effort of those who believe they know better, the love and hope of reunion is never sucked out of her. “Shelf-life” by Lisa Tuttle is another highly inventive way of bending the vampire trope. The sense of family is particularly powerful as mothers intervene to protect their daughters. Who can say whether the potential danger can ever really be neutralised. “Cauis” by Bill Pronzini and Barry N Malzberg plays with the notion of emotional and ideological vampirism, suggesting a different form of manipulation and extraction routinely available in our everyday lives, if it’s to our taste, of course. “Sweet Sorrow” by Barbara Roden develops the theme of emotions as food in a stand-out story of loss and despair, first by parents and the neighbourhood, later by just one incautious individual who should have known better.
“First Breath” by Nicole J LeBeouf is one of those rather pleasing stories that blends the supernatural and the physical together. It’s entirely possible there are predatory spirits waiting to take possession of our bodies. The pertinent question is where they originate. “Toujours” by Kathe Koja is another of these beautifully judged stories in which a slight variation on the role of Éminence grise brings us the inside story on the power behind the throne: first buy the throne, then find someone to sit on it, and not be afraid if someone appears to take the “king” away — repeat as necessary. “Miri” by Steve Rasnic Tem is a story of mental disintegration as an artist finds his world losing its colour and slipping into an increasingly dislocated black and white. What is it, exactly, that encourages a man to give up on himself, his job and his family? Perhaps remembering someone he once knew could be a trigger. “Mrs Jones” by Carol Emshwiller, an old but delightfully weird story from 1993, sees one sister take her chance for a little affection when something obviously male appears in their orchard, albeit the other bits might give cause for concern. In “Bread and Water”, Michael Cisco teaches us that diseases may come in many different forms. If you are unlucky and catch one, you may surrender yourself to death only to find the end does not come as easily as you were expecting. Indeed, more startlingly, what if you began to recover although not quite as you were before?
“Mulberry Boys” by Margo Lanagan is a powerful story about the exploitation of a people thought inferior. It’s perhaps appropriate for this to be an Australian story given that the urbanised immigrants of that distant island continue to discriminate against and abuse the aborigines. This story matches others in which “people” are treated as a natural resource and either harvested directly or farmed for what natural product they produce inside their bodies. This is particularly creepy and makes us root for the possibility of them throwing off the yoke of oppression. “The Third Always Beside You” by John Langan is almost an old-fashioned story in which the nature of the supernatural occurrence may seem rather less threatening except, of course, the actual effect on the couple is plainly horrific in psychological terms assuming, of course, they are both aware of it. Perhaps it’s our uncertainty as to whether they are wholly aware of it that’s so unsettling. Finally, in “The Siphon” by Laird Barron we get to ask whether psychopaths are merely human or have connections to creatures living in the cracks between the worlds. In this case, a man with secrets is eventually recruited by the NSA and finds himself at the centre of an operation to track a spy who might want to “come in from the cold”. Unfortunately, this spy is also of interest to other people of power which leads to some tension between the different groups and the sense our hero’s secrets may no longer be safe.
Taken overall, Blood and other cravings shows Ellen Datlow at her best. Although the theme is set, the diversity of responses from the authors is remarkable. Indeed, it’s entirely possible that, if you picked up the book without the jacket (which is more slasher than vampire) and failed to read the introduction, you might not realise this was a themed anthology — which is the highest praise you can ever give the commissioning editor.
For reviews of other anthologies edited by Ellen Datlow, see:
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume One
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Two
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Three
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Four
The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
For the record, the Stoker Awards have been announced. The anthology was shortlisted for Superior Achievement in an Anthology, while “All You Can Do is Breathe” by Kaaron Warren was shortlisted for a Stoker for Superior Achievement in Short Fiction. Blood is also nominated as Best Edited Anthology in the 2011 Shirley Jackson Awards.