Nancy A. Collins, Knuckles and Tales (Biting Dog Publications, 2003)

I suggest going to the nearest bookstore, picking up this book, cover illustration by J. K. Potter, and flipping to page 221. There you will find the leading edge of Nancy Collins' razor-sharp dialogue, a two page piece titled "The Worst Thing There Is." Read it. Laugh. Then buy the book and take it home, because I doubt you'll be able to put it back on the shelf. Always borderline, always edgy, Nancy Collins is a stylist who handles psychological suspense as intelligently as she does supernatural.

Most horror fans, vampire buffs especially, are already familiar with Nancy Collins' work. The Sonja Blue novels she has written have her established as a major horror writer, winning a Bram Stoker Award in 1989 for Sunglasses After Dark, well before the "vampire turned vampire-slayer" themes of Forever Knight and Angel appeared on the small screen. Incorporating angels, demons, werewolves, ghosts and other supernatural beasties, the Sonja Blue books show just how much fun the dark fantasy genre can be in the hands of a skilled writer. So it was with a good deal of anticipation that I sat down to read Knuckles and Tales.

Nancy Collins' intrigues and private histories are as tangled as the bayous that run through her fictional Choctaw County and the town of Seven Devils. Her tales of Seven Devils and its residents have appeared in a few collections over the last few years, but this book is the first cohesive presentation of these stories grouped together, including two Seven Devils stories presented here for the first time, the eerie murder mystery "Junior Teeter and the Bad Shine," along with the much more involved and twisted karmic tale, "The Pumpkin Child."

Each story, from her gut-turning look at the return of a defeated confederate soldier in the poignant "Sunday Go-to-Meeting Jaw" right on up to modern day kink with "The Two-Headed Man," hits just the right blend of bizzare erotica, racial tension, and backwoods folklore without ever sacrificing narrative or character. The book's introduction, also by Ms. Collins, reveals the morbidly fascinating reality behind "Sunday Go-To-Meeting Jaw," along with the origins of many of the other stories, although I thought it might have been more fitting as an afterword (certainly a very minor quibble on my part). Each story is further introduced with black and white illustrations by Bonnie Jacobs, who also designed the book.

The other Seven Devils stories include "Seven Devils," which provides a look at the small town politics and secrets of Seven Devils' wealthiest landowner, "How it was with the Kraits," which explores a dysfunctional relationship between mother and son, and "Down in the Hole," which not only develops the setting of Seven Devils post-World War II, but works as both a coming-of-age tale and as a tale of mid-life crisis, all while maintaining suspense.

In addition to the Seven Devils stories, there are also stories set elsewhere and grouped collectively as "The Confederate States of Dread." "The Killer," where Nancy Collins speculates on what might have happened to Jerry Lee Lewis, were he to have never played the piano, falls into this section, along with "Big Easy," a peek behind the sideshow curtain at a genuine gator boy. "Catfish Girl Blues" flirts with the fickle nature of the freshwater mermaids of the Mississippi, and "Cancer Alley" is both effective and timely with its juxtaposition of real-world environmental concerns with supernatural vengeance.

"Billy Fearless," the final story, brings an unexpectedly lighthearted close to this remarkable collection. Written in a style that begs to be read aloud, this last story follows young Billy in his quest to learn to shudder. Fortunately, unlike her young protagonist Billy Fearless, Nancy Collins not only knows what a shudder is, but knows just how to provoke her readers into some exquisite shudders of their own.

[Wes Unruh]

The official Sonja Blue Web site includes a Nancy Collins bibliography.