Book Review: I Can Taste the Blood edited by John F. D. Taff and Anthony Rivera

I Can Taste the Blood is a tour de force for Grey Matter Press and for the five outstanding dark fiction authors gathered here.”

Any time you see the name John F. D. Taff coupled with the words “short fiction” you can expect that you’re in for something special, and the same can be said of anything that Grey Matter Press puts their stamp on. So when the two forces join together, it’s probably safe to say that extraordinary things are going to happen, a statement that proves to be true in the new Rivera and Taff edited anthology of short fiction, I Can Taste the Blood. John finds his inspiration in strange and varied locations, often the last places you’d think of when asking an author the much hated question, “where do you get your ideas”. But he’d probably take great pleasure from telling you where this one came from, because it was in the men’s room of a dive pizza joint in St. Louis, Missouri. Specifically, the five words that make up the title scribbled on the wall at eye level if you were standing there—well, it’s a men’s room. You can fill in the blank.

John—having the kind of mind he does—didn’t just take this inspirational line and run home to write a story from it. He thought to take it one step further and create a completely different sort of anthology, one in which five different authors with very distinct voices and styles would each bring their own fresh vision to the same title. That’s it. Not a shared world or unifying theme sort of book. No guidelines for what type of content their tales should contain, just a title, a story prompt. But another thing about the collection of unique minds that are gathered in I Can Taste the Blood that should be mentioned is that they are all brilliantly creative wordsmiths and because of that, every offering in the book is exceptional.

In ‘Vision I’, Josh Malerman introduces us to Madmannah and family in a tale that begins with a toast to peace and quiet and ends in terror, as Rab, a stranger, recounts his tale of a mad dash across a biblical seeming desert with something, madman or monster, in hot pursuit. It starts out as a quiet, creeping horror story and quickly escalates to the stuff of nightmares, with disturbing, sometimes stomach-churning scenarios and dreadful allegories, all presented in Josh’s mesmerizing, frequently lyrical voice:

“To watch Harish dream was to gaze upon a child standing guard over a man. There were nights, under the stars, exhaustion claiming us both, in which I spent hours staring at that childish visage of his, that second layer of a face, and there were hours in which I believed that child looked back! Standing guard, indeed.”

But, like everything else Malerman writes, nothing is quite what it seems to be and the conclusion to this rocket fueled story is both shocking and horrifying.

Next up is ‘Vision II’, in which J. Daniel Stone applies his wickedly beautiful and poetic prose to a story that crackles with passion and nightmarish terror reminiscent of a Clive Barker fever dream. Stone’s characters are filled with love and rage, their emotions resonating off the page with the vibe of a heavy metal funeral dirge, and Daniel’s obvious love of language is showcased in stunning technicolor:

“The air was crisp and dark as soot. On the eastern horizon the moon was red as a candy apple, corrugated with a face that only a mother could love. Mother Earth, or maybe Mother Mars. New York City looked as if it was stapled against the sky, smeared heavily with silver and gold.”

It’s the story of Bok and Jared, two young lovers who find their fates intertwined with that of a monstrous filmmaker who tempts them with the promise of fulfillment. But everything comes with a price and what this hideous entity has to offer could lead them straight to hell.

Joe Schwartz offers up a completely different, straight-up pulp experience in ‘Vision III’, the tale of two fixers who work for a person known only as Caretaker. Schwartz has a noir voice that would do James M. Cain or Jim Thompson proud and he puts it to good use here as he tells us a story of a kidnapping that quickly goes south, as things have a tendency to do in stories like this:

 “The cars all had fictitious registrations that couldn’t be traced to anyone. It was a dead drop and anything from dope to a mutilated body could be in the trunk, which was none of your business. It was, however, your problem. Somebody had to do the time. Most guys did the runs for years and nothing ever happened. Other unlucky assholes got busted on their first delivery trying to beat a yellow light at four in the morning. Life was not fair.”

Schwartz’s tale is a unique and unexpected piece of dark crime fiction that, in addition to being excellent entertainment in and of itself, also serves to increase and intensify the pace and mood of an already wire-taut collection of the dark and horrific.

Eric T. Johnson is a master of weird fiction and he’s at top performance in ‘Vision IV’, which is by far the weirdest, most disturbing tale of the book. It takes a little bit of work and patience getting used to the form of his story, but once it gets rolling it’s impossible to walk away from without knowing where it is he’s taking the hapless and amoral protagonist, Canny. It’s a surreal, almost abstract vision of body horror and cosmic terror that almost ventures into the realm of bizarro fiction periodically without ever completely crossing the line. If you like unusual, disconcerting monsters and fiction that doesn’t play to any but its own rules, Johnson has precisely what you’re looking for.

When it comes to anthologies, the closing story can make or break the whole book. If it closes too weakly, you run the risk of undermining everything that has gone before it. But if your name is John F. D. Taff, that’s a moot point. Taff couldn’t write a bad story if he tried and he brings everything he’s got to this party. In ‘Vision V’ he introduces us to the town of Norton, Illinois and our protagonist, Merle. Merle is a forty something divorcee working a dead-end job in a nowhere town that he frequently thinks about leaving but never does because, he believes, of Melody, the young daughter he seldom sees. This is a different sort of story for Taff. Known in the horror community as the King of Pain, he brings a small amount of his familiar brand of heartache to the story, interspersed amongst a cornucopia of terrors as Merle begins to undergo a horrific physical and psychological transformation and learns of the insidious horror that holds the town of Norton together. Taff is a virtuoso of traditional horror with a modern edge and his vision of I Can Taste the Blood is a fine addition to his lexicon and a perfect ending to this incredible gathering of novellas from Grey Matter Press.

I Can Taste the Blood is a tour de force for Grey Matter Press and for the five outstanding dark fiction authors gathered here. If you’ve read their work before, then you’ll know what we’re talking about, and if you haven’t, you won’t find a better place to start than right here.


Publisher: Grey Matter Press
eBook: (290pp)
Release Date: 23 August, 2016

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