There are monsters … and then there are monsters.
The truly fun thing about Fresh Blood & Old Bones is the sheer number of monsters captured in the eighteen tales collected by Kasey Lansdale in this offering of short fiction by established and neophyte horror writers. At one extreme, one finds multiple award-winner Joe R. Lansdale’s riff on traditional “Black Car” lore, complete with murderous nuns (or anti-nuns) and an unstoppable monster that slaughters its way through a Halloween landscape. At another (and there are more than two extremes in this book), the totally unexpected and wonderfully comic appearance of Wanda and Earl in Rhonda Eudaly’s initially unassuming “Crocodile Rock,” a title that must be taken in at least two ways to do justice to the outré assumptions and rough-and-tumble actions that develop.
Some of the best reading doesn’t seem to entail actual ‘monsters’ — that is, until the stories begin to unfold, until characters reveal themselves more and more fully, and yet another definition of monster emerges. Perhaps the best example of this occurs in John Paul Allen’s “Little Miss.” At every key point in the story, readers must abruptly alter perceptions and understanding as what seems at first a censorious account of a metaphorical ‘monster’ mother and her long-suffering child pageant-contestant becomes increasingly pointed. Cast as an interview with the imprisoned mother (for what crime and for how long is only gradually explained), intercut with dialogues between parent and child just before various pageants, the story twists into increasingly disturbing byways as the true relationship between mother and daughter inexorably emerges.
Or, to take another example by a relative newcomer, Monica J. O’Rourke, “Celler” (an unfortunate typo there) seems in the beginning to be a straightforward tale about another kind of human ‘monster,’ an unnamed man who has abducted a child and kept her in the cellar, in a state of numbed fear and terror blended with something like perverted love. The child has no name but “Girl”; the man is simply “Him.” Nothing is said explicitly about what he has done to her, but the suggestions are manifold. Now she finds herself alone, starving, thirsting, and terrified to climb the steps to freedom. Somehow, she finds the courage to do so, and when she does … well, suffice it to say that child-abductors are not the only monsters little girls should fear.
And again, Stephen Mertz’s “The Lizard Men of Blood River” is an almost perfect pastiche of an Indiana Jones-style action-adventure romp, complete with — as the title tells us — Lizard Men … and a Lost City; a millennia-old evil magician; a swooning, scantily clad damsel in distress; and a doughty hero named, appropriately enough Speed McCoy. He works fast at resolving problems, such as a sudden attack by Amazonian headhunters, and at getting the girl. And all encapsulated into the space of a novelette.
I’m tempted to continue with an assessment of each story in Fresh Blood & Old Bones, since there is something interesting, intriguing, or just plain fascinating about each, but to do so would take too long and possibly deflate the power of the individual tales. Certainly, a piece titled “Jimmy and Me and the Nigger Man,” by Scott Cupp, or the errily haunting “Seven Devils,” by Nancy A. Collins, or the sheer insanity-in-the-making of “If Mama Ain’t Happy,” by Sam W. Anderson richly deserve additional discussion.
Instead, however, let me simply note that one of the most conspicuous strengths of Fresh Blood & Old Bones is that in spite of the title, which indicates that the stories were written by new as well as established writers, unless one is familiar with the authors’ names, it is almost impossible to tell which is a first appearance and which comes from the imagination of someone with decades of writing experience. All of the stories are strong, all invite readers into dark worlds — literally and metaphorically — in which monsters dwell, and all are a credit to their authors and to the genre.