Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Freedom of the Vampire: Blood and Other Cravings

More than twenty years ago, Ellen Datlow edited Blood is Not Enough, a mix of reprints and originals in which stories that offered novel twists on the blood-drinking vampire were combined with stories about vampires with even stranger needs. A few years later A Whisper of Blood struck a similar balance. And now there's Blood and Other Cravings, seventeen more tales of vampirism in all its forms. All three anthologies demonstrate that the vampire, far from being the used-up device its mass-market incarnations might imply, remains a frightening and a versatile creature. In fact, the stories in this latest volume are so diverse, and the theme of vampirism such a general one, that it feels more like a non-theme anthology of the first order. Ranging from psychological horror to ghost stories to dark fantasy to Lovecraftian cosmicism, Blood and Other Cravings has a first-rate story for readers of every taste.

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.

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