The Meaning of Blood is an exciting and original collection of stories. A walk on the wild side; dark, slightly cynical and sardonic. But these stories have a ring of truth to them, this is human nature writ large, writ dirty but writ honest. You may want to take a break between stories here to absorb the full effect of what you are reading because they pack a punch. I warn you if you’re looking for that happy endings, or even a break for one of the characters, forget about it. Redemption – not going to happen here. This is bleak territory, a world of dysfunctional characters and twisted stories. There are sixteen tales in this collection, from Shakespearean tragedy to Gothic nightmare, from neo-noir tales of the old west to blackly comic chance encounters in the near future. Caruso changes pace and style with ease, his prose expertly portrays the language of a bygone age or reflects more pithy modern tones.

The first story is The Confession of Jeremiah Heath, as related by Jeremiah to the Dickson County court house in November, 1830, pertaining to the events of 30th October previous. Worried for his eternal soul, unable to feel the spirit move his life, Jeremiah has hardened his heart to the mercy of God. He rows with Father Pierson on the steps of the church, shaming his forbearing wife. At home Jeremiah works the land ignoring the edict to “remember the Sabbath…” Later, searching for God, he kneels in supplication for hours until he witnesses a brilliant light and a host of celestial angels. The angels promise him the reward of God’s love in return for proof of his devotion. They ask a terrible price for saving his soul. It’s a tragic tale of religious fervour, madness, delusion and the search for meaning in life.

A Savage Smile is the story of Donkey Jack, a one-eyed half-breed pit-fighter. A round-house kick to the head has opened a wound above his good eye, his opponents are two giants; one black, one white. He has won many fights but this will tax all his skills and ingenuity to the limit. This is a fight to the death – no mercy asked or given. But even to win is a: “Slow tedious death for the victor”. Lincoln banished slavery more than a decade before but Donkey Jack’s owner is Gleason, a rich man, his opponents are Ortega’s men, there’s a lot of money riding on this fight. Donkey Jack is guided by the Comanche spirits. Exhausted he kills one man but the other is bigger, stronger, more of a challenge. Jack must do something he has never done before, appear to be a coward, if he is to survive this fight. Is life merely a question of survival?

Meet the Beetles is the tale of Roy Chubb. A man in the wrong place at the wrong time when he calls at the house of Sylvia Hutchinbeck. He misreads the situation, already planning a letter to Penthouse Forum: “I could tell she wanted me from the first moment her eyes moved up and down my body.” Roy may get lucky but he will also get more than he bargained for.

A Lady’s Pistol is the story of Dickie Sloane, teenager and would-be assassin, eager to prove himself to Mr McClain. So when McClain’s men, Briggs and Gillespie, come to Dickie with a plan to kill Mr Chan, the Chinese brothel owner who has dared to challenge the local trade, he goes along. To many those; “…half-price Szechuan rolls seem just as good as the real thing.” Dickie has a simple plan, buy one of the girls, complain about her service and get to the owner but nothing works out as planned. This tale is of manipulation and foolhardy ignorance, this is a world that Dickie doesn’t yet understand and bad people are prepared to manipulate and use him, just as the girls are used.

The Meaning of Blood is a Threepenny Opera out of the west. Ross Willis, fresh off the trail, has come to Oregon to marry his brother’s widow – do the right thing. He stops in a brothel on the way, picks the freshest faced young girl in the room and pays for the night. Ross abuses her all night long until a strange event next morning sees her flee. After his depraved night, Ross headed out to his sister-in-law’s ranch. Immensely sad but ringing with truth, this story has no happy ending, nor even a glimmer of hope.

Each story has its own kink, a little kicker that may sting but sometimes also wounds; they are modern, atmospheric, bleak, devastating and full of misfits, this is the darker side of human nature under the microscope. Flawed characters bring about their own downfall and destruction, often literally. Caruso is great on place, setting and language, (particularly of the nineteenth century, he clearly has a profound knowledge of the west). Themes include racism, slavery in all its forms, human frailty and ability to self destruct and occasion tragedy. Very real with no pat endings. If your taste in short stories is a bit vanilla this may not be for you, on the other hand if you’ve a craving for the exotic and the slightly weird this is for you.

Caruso is an English professor and an award-winning crime novelist. He is also an authority on nineteenth century America (an Americanist) and an Edgar Allan Poe scholar; it’s not hard to imagine that when reading these stories because there is something of the macabre spirit of Poe’s work in The Meaning of Blood. There’s an element of homage here that doesn’t taint the striking originality of the tales.

Paul Burke 5/3

The Meaning of Blood and Other Tales of Perversity by Chuck Caruso
Cloud Lodge Books 9781999587307 pbk Oct 2018