Patrick McGrath,
Blood & Water & Other Tales
(Poseidon, 1988; Ballantine, 1989)

OK. Right now, I'm going to say something I probably won't say again for a very long time, if ever. I'm going to say that someone writes really original gothic horror, and that someone is Patrick McGrath.

Patrick McGrath, in his short-story collection Blood & Water & Other Tales, has written some really original gothic horror. There, I've said it. Now I'll proceed to try to defend it.

Blood & Water contains 13 short stories. There isn't a vampire, a werewolf or even a proper suicide in one of them, although there is an investigative reporter. There are, however, two stories featuring explorers and two featuring artists.

There's one about a murderer and one that seems like its going to have vampires in it, but doesn't. All of them are very good and all of them are sparklingly original in treatment, if not always in subject matter. He changes voices easily and never unintentionally, with the charm of a raconteur and a Goya-esque taste for the grotesque. The stories in this collection are never less than interesting, and often much, much more.

As a representative specimen, "The Angel," the first story in the collection, is as good as any other. It tells the story of a youngish writer living in New York above the apartment of a strange, shabbily dapper old man named Harry Talboys. The writer begins meeting with Talboys for drinks and slowly, a strange story of love during the 1920s emerges. It ends beautifully, in a wash of incense and light, shed on the darkest secret of one man's existence. And the rest of the collection is just as good, just as engaging and, finally, just as strangely frightening as this.

Blood & Water is a collection for the darkness in the human heart, for the gothic yearnings that too often have to be satisfied with hackneyed vampires and dull suicides. McGrath writes stories like you always hoped your elderly relatives could tell them, with elegance, wit and charm, masking a taste for the horrible and disturbing. He has said that he tries "to achieve an elegant weirdness" in his work. In my opinion, with Blood & Water, he has more than achieved it. He has mastered it.

by Theo deRoth
23 December 2006

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