The publishing imprint Hard Case Crime (which originally released its titles under the Leisure Books banner and has long since moved to Titan Books) is not known for their traditional horror stories. Oh, they have plenty of tales about desperate folks behaving badly in their extensive backlist of reprints and original novels as well as a couple of works by master fright makers Robert Bloch and Stephen King; however, the crime story element is always the main thrust of the tale. Of course, that assumption that Hard Case Crime “only” does crime fiction is bupkis. The crime story has long been connected to other genres, including the horror tale. Poe delved into the both of them, after all, while he was creating whole cloth the kind of fiction that would later become the detective yarn. EC Comics had mags dedicated to the supernatural horror story (notably Tales from the Crypt) as well as lines dedicated to their less supernatural “SuspenStories” stories. Same style, same themes, same moodiness, different outlets. Going through all the linkage between crime fiction and horror fiction would be a piece all its own. However, in Hard Case Crime’s original two book release, the reprint from Lawrence Block (Grifters Game) delivered a finale that chilled me to the core as well as any tale Charles Birkin might have written. Authors like Cornell Woolrich, David J. Schow, Joe R. Lansdale and the aforementioned Robert Bloch can show readers crime is as fertile a ground for sowing unease and chills in a reader as any supernatural-laced tales of ghosts or grisly things.
Which brings us to Daniel Kraus’ latest release. It has a fetching cover from artist Paul Mann, featuring a sexy witch astride a broomstick, a picture from a fictitious pinup calendar’s October. Look a bit closer and you’ll see candies and razor blades laid on the cheeky image. As it turns out, the image is taken from the book’s contents.
Blood Sugar is an October story about a psychologically broken man called Robbie who, along with his juvenile delinquent friends, decides to kill trick-or-treating kids with rigged candy. What form will the lethality take? Razor blades, hard drugs, cleanser, something else? There are a few options available, of course. Things that can be found in the kitchen or picked up cheap from Walgreens. One might assume from the brief snippet I have given that this is an ice-cold tale of people behaving badly, but that’s not the case at all.
The novel is a first person narrative delivered (mostly) by one of Robbie’s street kid friends. A few letters from secondary characters (including Robbie hisownself) are also on display, but Jody is the primary source of information. That information comes through a narrative voice that is almost the perfect crystallization of the young, tough white boy who fancies himself street tough (who is also a diehard fanatic about the Lord of the Rings films, working allusions to that series throughout his narrative, often to great though unintentional comedic effect). The walls are defense mechanisms, of course. Check this opening for a bit of the immersive quality:
Fat boy says hes gonna put crack inside Fun Size Snickers. I guess he went ahead and lost his dang mind. News flash, Robbie, crack is rocks, and you cant squoosh rocks inside Fun Size Snickers without ruining the Fun Size shape. Thats some idiotical sharkweek right there so I go <Im jonesing man, Im jonesing, how about you hook a little man up with some sweet supermilk instead?> Robbie doesnt smile or nothing. Dudes trying to be some kind of hard ass Robocop. Says no poopypants baby that still skid marks his drawers oughta joke out loud about a grown mans personal stash.
The mightyduck is he grumping for? The chunky butts seen me hit a whole thing a Reddi Whip til I got crunk. Saw me get torched on a big bowl a dank too. Dang, I puked a whole bottle a stank ass apricot schnapps while he just sat there and laughed his fat ass off. I dont say none a that out loud though cuz what if Robbie thinks all that stuff is poopypants baby stuff? One thing I dont need is more teasing from Robbie cuz when he teases he does it real harmful. (11)
Jody has a reason to build some walls. He’s stuck in the foster care system, and though the home currently occupies was a decent one, the mother has broken from reality. Jody’s not a bad guy, but he’s lost in the image he has made of himself as a tough man. The care he uses to craft this image gives you a view into his character:
I style myself tight too. You dont need to worry about that. I thug a XXXL whitey so the hood rats know Im a hundred percent street. Havent laundered it for a few months but it dont smell too bad really. Then I super style it with a jean jacket I markered all over with the best lines from Fellowship of the Ring. The left arm says <DONT YOU LEAVE HIM SAMWISE GAMGEE> and the right arm says <THEY HAVE A CAVE TROLL> and the back say <I SWEAR TO YOU I WILL NOT LET THE WHITE CITY FALL, NOT OUR PEOPLE FAIL>. Lots of people make fun of my jacket, street people and school people and teacher people too. Theyre just jealous though cuz its the baddest ass jacket they ever witnessed and even if my markering isnt super neat I know I spelled everything correct cuz I checked the internet. (30)
The back matter compares the novel with Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, but aside from the juvenile delinquency aspect that’s not quite the case. Burgess manufactured a language (Nadsat) for his juvenile delinquents to speak, a pidgin of Russian and Cockney (e.g., the term “horrorshow” is a mangled version of khorosho, the Russian term for “good”). Nadsat allowed Burgess to show off his linguist passions and impressive skills. Instead of going that route, Kraus has taken pains to present a voice closer to modern youth culture slang. Sure, the worst of the swear words are replaced with terms derived from television shows in most cases, so readers will get mightyduck instead of fuck, sharkweek instead of shit, and robocop instead of … well, that would be spoiling things. Needless to say, the obvious ones are pretty obvious in context and the meaning of robocop comes into play through one scene in the early stretches. The effect is akin to reading Daniel Keyes’ “Flowers for Algernon,” giving us a front row seat in someone else’s unusual perspective.
The language is clever, the misspellings glorious, the lack of apostrophes, quotation marks and other punctuation is a bit annoying at first but easily overcome. This is a book with a clearly defined time stamp, and though that will undoubtedly brand it as “dated” (or whatever similar term will come into vogue) by future generations, it is a proud piece of this moment, a time capsule in the making. It’s also a clear way to show off its character’s internal workings particularly as this language shifts over the course of the book.
What’s more, the letters from other characters use different vernacular all together. One character relies on abbreviations or Overuse Of Capital Letters. Another is more traditional in her letters, showing a better education but no fewer anxieties . . .
Basically, this is a small solar system of characters. Robbie is the sun here (maybe a black hole is the better analogy), a gravity point that Jody had come into orbit around. Robbie is not the kind of man Jody really ever wants to be, in fact he enjoys making fun of the fat man’s taste in shirts as a way to make fun of the man himself:
What makes the shirt my favorite shirt is it promotes a music group nobodys ever heard of. The band has itself a fly name, though. Barenaked Ladies! But before you start downloading their songs, let me explain that Barenaked Ladies are the saddest ass group of ugly pussies I ever saw. Tow a these dicks have big ass glasses! One a them has dreads so bad its like a nightmare! And one a them is fat like Robbie! I bet even the whitest white dude in the world would look at these dudes and laugh his ass off. But if you criticize, Robbies face reds up and he defends them real hard, slobbering about how theyre underrated artistically and a bunch a other hilarious stuff. See why the shirt puts me in a positive mood? (68)
However, Robbie is nevertheless the glue here. Jody’s found his way into the big man’s orbit. He brought along his sister Midget, a quiet girl with some serious psychological damage stemming from abuses she suffered through the system before ending up in Jody’s home. She talks to flies more than she does people, and often recites the names of the damaged people she once knew. Fourth in the posse is a gal from the good side of the tracks, Dagmar or just Dag.
Dag is slumming, I suppose. Her sister tried to kill herself, and is now under constant care in a psychiatric clinic. Dag only communicates with that girl through regular letters (three of which get play in this story, each of them announcing a shift in the narrative). She’s here for drugs and for socializing. In some ways she is an instigator for bad behavior as well as foil for Jody. He is into her, but not really. She has no real care for his Lord of the Rings movies. She is embarrassed to invite him into her house, at one point. She is no stranger to big feelings, however, and her love for a local stray dog is a clue to her real role here. Although she comes from a seemingly normal, desirable home, Dag is just as broken inside as the others. Lonely, lost, and looking for something to do. If this were a teen rom com, we might expect her to morph into Jody’s love interest, maybe his redemption. However, Kraus’s narrative is not content to feed into such simplistic expectations. Dag’s role is much bigger, much less reassuring. Her inner truths come to light through her letters, though she is the book’s least reliable narrator, since it is difficult to say for certain just which persona she adopts through them is the real one. The loving sister? The coldly calculating girl capable of throwing out hurtful barbs? The lover of stray animals? In fact, she is some unholy melding of all of these. She is complex, that Dag is. Then again, so are Jody, Robbie, and Midget. The complexities are as often in the things left unsaid as in the quirky dialogue.
If there are one-dimensional characters in the book are the ones who show up only briefly, and they are only one-dimensional because they don’t have time to be much else. A Walgreens manager, a drug dealer, a Walgreens checkout guy called Dick Trickle, and an adult from Robbie’s past (Mrs. F) appear in the book as beacons of a sort, calling characters either back from the dark or further into it in the case of a drug dealer.
Kraus shows an affinity with a character’s language (dialogue and monologue) that easily stands alongside such powerhouses of voice as Elmore Leonard and John Steinbeck. His characters are individuals, all right. Quite unlike the sorts of characters I have encountered before.
From the start, the book is drop dead hilarious. Jody and his found family try to be badasses and bad guys (bless their hearts), but not a one of them is really capable. Oh, the poisoning plan chugs along in the background, and it’s hard to laugh about murdering strangers, but somehow Kraus makes the opening half of the book one a comedic tour de force on par with O’Toole’s Confederacy of Dunces. I had to stop reading, I was laughing so much, to share choice passages with Trista.
There is a turning point, however, when “sharkweek” gets real, and before long you realize the laughing has dwindled and the situational intensity has increased. This is not sudden. There is no wham, as Kraus shifts gears from a comedic crime tale to an examination of quiet, psychological terror. It’s a surprisingly subtle progression, completely organic and masterfully executed.
Blood Sugar is a feast for readers who are looking for the unusual, the difficult to nail down, and the surprising read. Is it a crime story? A comedy? A non-supernatural horror tale? Literary fiction? Why, yes it is all of these and more. Kraus’s book is a layered thing. In addition to the surface plotting, the novel presents a sobering glance at the effects of desperation, a tragic view of the lengths some people will go to lash out at perceived oppressors, the power of groupthink, a dissection of the long term psychological effects of contact sports, the challenge in finding a purpose when you are spiritually adrift, and the general difficulty surrounding the act of growing up. The text is not overt about these topics, per se. Jody’s narrative does not preach anything or find a soapbox. He is surprisingly naïve about such motives.
Kraus’s craft, however, is not at all naïve. He presents his points, does not linger overlong on them, and weaves a lot into his prose. He’s well read, knowledgeable in psychological fiction, and he even makes an allusion or two (to something other than Jody’s Lord of the Rings film fanboy dedication).
Case in point: we get a character named Ketchum who appears in the text. I suspect this is not at all coincidental. The book might not have much in common with the plot of Jack Ketchum’s neighborhood horror tale The Girl Next Door, but it does share a few themes. Chief among these is what happens to a kid being rushed to maturity by exposure to ultimately destructive systems/authority figures. Robbie is no role model, that’s for sure, but Jody’s been lost for a while thanks to the system he got plunked into. Watching him wrestle with what he knows, what he feels, how he reacts, and the instincts (itches, he calls them) that potentially manipulate him make for some fascinating reading.
Although the book clocks in at less than 250 pages, there is a lot of protein in these pages disguised as treacle. Kraus’s prose is never dense, never dull. Jody’s voice is cluttered, perhaps, but it’s nevertheless engaging. The narrative’s progression into the dark is slow and exquisite. Blood Sugar is one of those books that comes along too seldom. A literate novel that is not afraid to evoke laughter as well as stoke anxieties. This is an example of fiction of unease at its very best.
Next week, we venture back to the 1930s for J. B. Priestley’s Benighted, the ultimate Old Dark House novel (source, in fact, for James Whales’ film, The Old Dark House, as well as the loose source for the William Castle remake). The fine folks over at Valancourt Books have made the book available to readers in both paperback and eBook editions.
Kraus, Daniel. Blood Sugar. Hard Case Crime: 2019.
“Sweets to the Sweet: Daniel Kraus’ Blood Sugar” is copyright © 2019 by Daniel R. Robichaud. Cover and quotes taken from the Hard Case Crimes paperback edition.