KNUCKLES AND TALES

Nancy A. Collins

Cemetery Dance / 340 pages / (July 2002)

ISBN: 1587670151

With a slick, sexy creation like vampire hunter Sonja Blue it’s easy to fixate on the character and overlook the writing. It’s all too easy to forget just what a talented writer Nancy A. Collins is. Knuckles And Tales will bring you back to that realisation in a heartbeat. No one outdoes Collins on Southern Gothic; she’s practically made the sub-genre her very own.

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Knuckles And Tales takes you first on a tour of that quaint, queer town of Seven Devils, Arkansas, a place where anything could happen at any moment and probability doesn’t even enter into the discussion. Fresh from the word processor are two new installments in the Seven Devils Cycle: “The Pumpkin Child” and “Junior Teeter and The Bad Shine.” A young man returns from the war to find his life in ruins until he finds a unique way to turn his luck around in “The Pumpkin Child.” Too bad for everyone he ignores luck’s nasty tendency to turn around and bite you in the ass. The “shine” in the second installment refers to that old favourite, moonshine. But, if you think you’ve seen the worst a bad batch and a bad apple can do, you just might not have the stomach to finish Junior Teeter’s tale of sloth, greed, and murder.

One of the most astonishing elements of Collins’ Seven Devil stories is the truth that many are sprung from. What more gruesome memory of the Civil War is the injury that inspired “The Sunday-Go-To-Meeting Jaw”? Although, that is the feel-good story of the decade when compared to the escalating tragedy of a lobotomised child by the name of “Raymond.” Even the “shine” story has a basis in reality. Maybe that’s what makes these stories so chilling, and so irresistible. Or maybe it’s that none of us wants to end up in the hellish situation in “How It Was With The Kraits.” I wonder how many other readers will picture those other, less venomous kraits when faced with this family.

And then there are the McQuistion Sisters, another slice of reality, that wander in and out of these stories, infusing them with so much life and eccentricity. The horrifying tale that unraveled when Eunice McQuistion was a very young child is too close to many buried secrets that still haunt the South to be comfortable. Unlike many of the stories which carry a casual, unthinking brand of prejudice, “Seven Devils” embodies the kind of cruelty that often turns up when you stir up the past. Old Man Stackpole is a character so dead on, it makes your flesh crawl. Bullies like Stackpole and the loathsome Ray Burns of “Down In The Hole” have a way to passing along the tradition, no matter how thoroughly you stomp them out.

Under The Confederate States of Dread the territory becomes even more strange and strangely familiar. Only Collins’ could come up with the alternate history lesson of “The Killer” — not to mention carry it off so seamlessly. And, is it the mere mention of the “C” word in “Cancer Alley” that so disquiets, or the perfectly sensible solution Homer Marsalis comes up with to face the Alley’s tormentors? What about the mysterious Catfish Gal’s and Big Easy the Gator Boy? Where else but in The Confederate States of Dread would you meet up with such characters?

Nowhere. Only between the covers of Knuckles And Tales and in the fruitful and frightful imagination of Nancy A. Collins. And it’s well worth the trip down south… If you don’t value your life.