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Blood and Other Cravings: Original Stories of Vampires and Vampirism by Today's Greatest Writers of Dark Fiction Hardcover – September 13, 2011
"Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress"
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“Watch your hackles when you read this book; Ms. Datlow and her horrormongers are out to raise them.” —Dallas Morning News on The Dark
“Inferno again proves Ellen Datlow worthy of her reputation as an acute judge of talent and an editor that attracts the best in horror and dark fantasy.” —Tim Lieder, Whispers of Wickedness
“Any anthology of stories edited by Ellen Datlow is a volume to savor.” —Cemetery Dance on The Dark
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I've given some consideration to the overall shape of multi-author anthologies, a subject which interests me to the extent it's similar to the way I've put together various-artists CD collections in the past. Generally it seems editors load the best stories end up at the beginning and the end, and this is no exception. Among the middle stories, the only one I found noteworthy was Melanie Tem's very odd "Keeping Corky," about an enigmatic female character, notable for her mental abnormalities including both strengths and deficiencies, misses the child she was forced to give up for adoption.
Of the early stories, Kaaron Warren's lead-off "All You Can Do is Breathe" is wonderfully creepy and understated. Elizabeth Bear's "Needles" is not so much a story as a well-drawn and entertaining "day in the (undead) life," vividly written but maybe in need of fleshing-out. And Reggie Oliver's amusing yet dark story of a theatrical hotel overrun by very small tenants convinced me to check out more of this writer's work.
The best of this collection comes later. "First Breath" by a new-ish writer, Nicole J. LeBoeuf, is an interesting exploration of a sort of transference of life through breath. And I always love Kathe Koja and Carol Emshwiller, whose contributions here (Emshwiller's is one of only two reprints) are good.
The final four stories alone justify the price of the anthology.
Michael Cisco's "Bread and Water" tells of a captive vampire trying to cope with his appetites, as well as an incapacity to consume what he desires. The creature's gradual transformation, told in Cisco's uniquely intense prose, evokes in the reader an effect like delirium. More than anything else in the book, "Bread and Water" inspired me to seek out more by this writer. That's not to say it was the best story overall, but the best by an author I've previously overlooked.
Margo Lanagan's "The Mulberry Boys" is told like a fable or second-world fantasy more than a horror story, but what's actually happening here has quite a nasty edge. Through some bizarre process of surgery and altered diet, humans or human-like creatures are transformed into passive silk factories. I love the way this story is told. Very effective.
"The Third Always Beside You" by John Langan reminds me a little of Peter Straub's recent novel A Dark Matter in its exploration of a male character trying to piece together disturbing past events. Here a brother and sister discuss their long-held perception that their father might have been unfaithful to their mother, and whether any truth might lie behind this. The fantastic elements along the way are of the subtle "thought I heard a sound, and looked, but nobody was there" variety, yet the story conveys a mysterious and even dreadful sense of secrecy. I own two of Langan's books which I haven't read yet, but this story convinced me to nudge these upward in my "must read soon" list.
The last contribution is by Laird Barron, recently the most consistently excellent writer of horror and dark fantasy novellas and novelettes. "The Siphon" includes elements which may seem familiar to readers of Barron's earlier stories, but this comes across not as repetition, but a fleshing-out of a fictional world which increasingly cross-connects between one story and another. None of the characters, so far as I can determine, appear in prior Barron tales, yet the template of bored, wealthy decadents tantalized by forbidden or occult knowledge is reminiscent of such stories as "Strappado" and "The Forest." Such is Barron's skill that even when he's not trying something entirely new for him (as I believe he did in "The Men From Porlock" and "Blackwood's Baby" which appear in other recent anthologies), the work nonetheless functions at such a high level as to stand clearly apart.
By the end of a relatively mixed collection, it's tempting to think mostly of the more satisfying later stories, but the quality dropped off enough in places that I'd give the collection four rather than five stars. At the same time, I'd recommend the book as worthy of purchase for the better stories at the beginning and especially the end.
The drinking of blood for sustenance features in only four stories, about a quarter of the total, and fittingly enough, none of the four has much in common with any of the others. Elizabeth Bear's "Needles" takes a familiar trope, the world-weary vampire, mixing in enough history and mythology to create something more suggestive and darkly melancholy than many a vampire novel. In "Blood Yesterday, Blood Tomorrow," Richard Bowes uses the knowledge of New York City's history demonstrated throughout his work for a decades-spanning story about flea markets, the seductive appeal of danger, and the cost of success. "Bread and Water" by Michael Cisco makes the suffering of an institutionalized vampire, craving blood but unable to stomach it, uncomfortably vivid by dint of Cisco's intense, almost hallucinatory language. And Laird Barron's "The Siphon," in which an NSA operative ordered to investigate a foreign-born anthropologist stumbles across something vast and ancient, features Barron's usual mix of sharp dialogue, decayed industrialism, and harsh natural landscapes in a tour de force of cosmic terror.
Other vampires feed on things less tangible than blood, but no less unsettling. Both Kaaron Warren's "All You Can Do is Breathe" and Barbara Roden's "Sweet Sorrow" deal with creatures who feed on the aftermath of particular types of disaster; Warren's story distinguishes itself by its portrayal of psychological despair, Roden's by her typical mastery of the form and structure of the classically subtle weird story. In "Keeping Corky" and "Miri," Melanie Tem and Steve Rasnic Tem use their signature styles of magical realism and surrealism to portray, respectively, the tragedy of a devoted but incapable mother with a strange power and the decline of a husband and father trapped by the memory of a former lover. The mostly-original anthology includes two reprints: from 2009, Reggie Oliver's "Baskerville's Midgets," a real chiller and a welcome wider exposure for a writer of strange stories who's mostly published by small presses; and Carol Emshwiller's "Mrs. Jones," in which the petty jealousies of two unmarried sisters are permanently disrupted by a mysterious light near their house, and the creature that comes with it.
Another standout is "X for Demetrious," in which Steve Duffy builds the fear of vampires into a masterpiece of paranoia, obsession, isolation, and regret, encapsulating an entire tragic life in less than 15 pages. But, as I always say because it's always true, the mark of an Ellen Datlow anthology is its consistency, and the primary cause of reader preference for one story over another will be the range of personal tastes to which this volume caters, rather than the variation in quality typical of most horror anthologies. Readers tired of the glut of overly familiar vampire fiction could hardly do better than to check out Blood and Other Cravings and its predecessors, and indeed, any horror fan will find something to enjoy.