Blood Mountain: Stories
By Brenda S. Tolian
Raw Dog Screaming Press — June 2022
ISBN: 9781947879416 — Paperback — 212 pp.
With this collection of interlinked short fiction, Brenda S. Tolian should immediately go onto the noteworthy list of top authors for horror fans out there. The depth, intensity, and compelling voice of her writing would make these stories stand out in the leading horror/dark fantasy market magazines or a Datlow best-of anthology/themed collection. The only explanation I have for my not having come across Tolian’s name yet is that she is new enough to have not yet submitted to larger outlets. Tremendous gratitude should go to Raw Dog Screaming Press for making this available. Their taste and eye for talent is impressive, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’d be responsible for unleashing this unflinching, macabre brilliance of Tolian on readers like me – and hopefully you.
The cover of Blood Mountain (featuring the usual stunning art by Daniele Serra) describes the book as ‘stories’. Indeed, this is a collection of short fiction. However, interlacing threads of character and setting make the book equally definable as an episodic novel. Tolian further connects the twelve chapters with another story, divided into thirteen short ‘vignettes’ to bookend and bridge each tale. Such a structure very effectively provides readers of Blood Mountain fulfillment both in its fragments and as an overall reading experience.
Tolian’s stories are fully grounded in their setting: the Sangre de Cristo Mountains that extend through Southern Colorado and Northern New Mexico. Tolian personifies this setting into a character itself, a primordial Goddess whose essence reflects in the landscape, whose will transcends normal realities, and whose hunger for revenge manifests through grisly manipulation of mortal transgression.
The citizens who live in the region defined by these mountains know that something is darkly off here, but remain helplessly drawn to its ethereal call of the inexplicable, the strange, the spiritual. New Age cults spring up around the potential for power the mountains seem to promise; others flock to it in search of the economic power of gold that vein beneath its surface. But, the bloodthirsty land will extract its price and enact penance, creating monsters and taking lives.
No one appreciates and fears the nature of the area more than Undersheriff Blackwood, a man reflects brokenly in his later years on the horrors he has witnessed, the old legends passed on from his grandfather, and the despair over his complete lack of power over the terrors that have consumed his life and home.
A moment during a lonesome, contemplative night in Blackwood’s squad car comprises the vignettes interspersed through Blood Mountain. They’re written uniquely in the second person to contrast with the third- and first-person voices that populate the twelve main stories of the book. Those who’ve read many of my reviews may know that text in the second person really drives me nuts. While I didn’t enjoy its use in Blood Mountain, I did manage to get through it. The fact that each Blackwood fragment is only a page or two helped in that immensely. Moreover, I see why Tolian chose to write these this way, set uniquely from the other perspectives. I still would’ve preferred them in the first person.
What most impressed me about Blood Mountain has to be Tolian’s ability to precisely conjure the most appropriate voice for each story. For example, the eponymously titled opening story is one of murder, and cannibalism in the 19th century, spurred by the possession of a greedy prospector by the Goddess of the mountains. It’s a modern day rendition of cosmic horror whose plot would fit perfectly in the contemporary weird fiction genre. Tolian uses relatively complex and ornate language to paint a poetic and uncanny portrait for the landscape and its supernatural bedrock heart. The stylistic flourishes and evocative bursts of gory horror map squarely to the formidable, primal force that shapes the land and its people.
Later stories set in the more modern to present day have reduced flowery affect and an increase in gritty realism, again with tone to match the protagonist’s perspective and experiences. Stories with the educated or higher class of society feature more vocabulary to contrast with the short sentences and slang in stories featuring a criminal lower class, such as a seller of illegal rattlesnakes. Everywhere, Tolian imbues the characters of her tales with text to match: the shadowy Red Women with esoteric vibes, perverted killers with crime fiction twists, monsters with bursts of language conveying the inexplicable and insane.
On its whole, Blood Mountain reminded me of Welcome to Nightvale, a premise based on a location warping time, space, and all of its inhabitants in baffling and frightening ways. However, whereas Welcome to Nightvale runs on the more light-hearted side of weird, Blood Mountain goes right for the jugular. There is no ironic humor or paranormal fun here, this is uncompromising horror, with no one spared.
Though dubbed Southwestern Gothic Horror, I found this closer to Folk Horror than anything Gothic. Tolian’s overarching theme to her horror seems to be that pain and darkness are unavoidable, yet must be lived through. Several of the stories also show a focus on feminist themes of power and the body, but Tolian clearly doesn’t need to limit herself within the collection, or even a single story, to just one subject or inspiration. Beyond entertaining, frightening, or stunning in their horror and dark beauty, the stories also easily could evoke reflection and ranges of interpretations.
Blood Mountain exceeded my expectations, even with second person perspective and less of the Gothic atmosphere in the vein I’m a sucker for. It wasn’t exactly what I expected, but it so effectively and unabashedly does what it actually is, despite first expectations. Like the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, it transforms those who enter its valleys and approach its slopes, according to its desires.
I fully expect to see Brenda S. Tolian’s name shoot through the horror community with success – if not for this book then for her future work and evolution as a writer. I’ll be very eager to read whatever comes next. Similarly, Raw Dog Screaming Press, you continue to rock it.