The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

I didn’t know about the legends of Raw Head and Bloody Bones before reading this story, but here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it: Bloody Bonesis a bogeymanfeared by children, and is sometimes called Rawhead and Bloody-Bones, Tommy Rawhead, or Rawhead. The term was used "to awe children, and keep them in subjection", as recorded by John Locke in 1693.[1] The stories originated in Great Britainwhere they were particularly common in Lancashireand Yorkshire,[2] and spread to North America, where the stories were common in the Southern USA.[3] The Oxford English Dictionary cites 1550 as the earliest written appearance as "Hobgoblin, Rawhed, and Bloody-bone". Bloody-Bones is usually said to live near ponds, but according to Ruth Tongue in Somerset Folklore, "lived in a dark cupboard, usually under the stairs. If you were heroic enough to peep through a crack you would get a glimpse of the dreadful, crouching creature, with blood running down his face, seated waiting on a pile of raw bones that had belonged to children who told lies or said bad words.” [4]

They say never judge a book by its cover, but the cover is exactly what got my attention. I saw it on the shelf at my local Kroger and was immediately drawn to it. The jacket cover blurb was enough to get me to try out what was on the inside, too, although after finishing it, I have to disagree with some of its summarizations.

Meet Tristan Hart, a brilliant young man of means. The year is 1751 and at the age of twenty he leaves home to study medicine at the great hospital of St. Thomas in London. It will be a momentous year for the intellectually ambitions Mr. Hart, who, as well as being a student of Locke and Descartes and a promising young physician, is also, alas, psychotic. He is obsessed with the nature of pain and medically preventing it, but his equally strong and much harder to control obsession is with causing it. Desperate to understand his deviant desires before they are his undoing, he uses the new tools of the age – reason and science and skepticism – to plumb the depths of his own dark mind.”

While I agree that he is obsessed with the nature of pain, I don’t think he’s as concerned with medically preventing it as he is concerned with treating it and understanding its origins, whether it is something manifested by the mind or the body. And whether the mind and the body (and the soul) are separate things or the various expressions of the same thing, like how water can also be ice and steam. He’s also not worried about his deviant desires being his undoing. In fact, he embraces his darker cravings and is quite honest with himself and others about them. He is a sadist and he makes no real apologies about it.

I’ve heard critics say, when critiquing a novel, that whatever book they’re talking about is a “writer’s book”. Well, Tristan is a writer’s character. He is deeply flawed and almost despicable, yet he has redeeming qualities that ultimately make him sympathetic. I think he’s the kind of character creative writing teachers strive to evoke from their students. Tristan is a sadist with a sometimes nasty temper. He’s spoiled, stubborn, and selfish. He’s also passionate, extremely smart, and deeply devoted to those he loves and respects. He’s a psychotic subject to fits of detailed delusions (which is where the Raw Head and Bloody Bones bit comes in) so that it becomes difficult, at times, to tell if the events of the story or real or just Tristan’s imagination. I’ll give you a hint: don’t waste time trying to determine what is real or not, but embrace Tristan’s strange psyche and the way his delusions become the vehicle by which he eventually finds redemption.

I initially struggled to maintain interest during the first few chapters, but once Tristan discovers and explores his passion for anatomy, he becomes a lot more interesting and the pace of the story picks up. The medical side of the book was interesting, but being a lover of the fantastic and strange, it was Tristan’s delusions that ultimately made me a fan. Jack Wolf wove in the fantastical like the weft to the medical warp. One without the other would have made for a weakly structured final product.

There’s also a lovely romance in the book that reminds me very much of the relationship between Maggie Gyllenhall and James Spader in Secretary, which was dark and disturbing yet somehow transcended all that to make a beautiful love story. Yeah, this book does that, too.

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