Bears don’t scare easily. However, their intimidating appearance and ferocity is no match for the supernatural, which is what makes R. Jackson’s Tales from the Den: Wild and Weird Stories for Bears work so well. This stellar collection from Bear Bones Books is the latest—and possibly the most intriguing—of Jackson’s anthologies under this imprint.
The first tale, Larry C. Faulkner’s “Daddy’s Gift,” sets up the traditional vampire myth but goes conventions one better with a neatly turned ending that sees our bloodsucking hero not only sparing his prey an untimely end but giving him some sage advice as well. Indeed, many of these stories will knock your expectations askew. Jeff Mann’s “Saving Tobias,” for example, also takes on vampirism but has an added political element as a conservative, homophobic senator’s fundamentalist chickens come home to roost. We might well revel in his fate were it not for the knowledge that there are many more just like him. His comeuppance makes us squirm as well as cheer—just the sort of thing Mann does so well.
Similarly, Karl von Uhl’s “Hide from the World” brings us a love story between an Afghanistan war vet and…well, a seal. A seal named—wait for it—Finn, who morphs into human form once he takes off his removable skin. This wonderfully odd piece blends love story and wildlife conservation in a satisfying blend of fantasy and harsh reality. Jackson, however, balances his table of contents with some well-done conventional ghost stories (Hank Edwards’ fully-realized “Laid to Rest,” Nicolas Mann’s “The Ghost of Dark Oak Cottage,” and the Grand Guignol gothic of Jay Neal’s “The Lighthouse Keep”) as well as wizard-and-warlock inspired tales (“Champion of the Cross” by Jay Starre and the kinked-out master and apprentice of Cynthia Ward’s “The Dragon-Bone Tower”).
The three pieces which have stayed with me the longest, however, are anything but balanced. Randy Wyatt’s “render,” explores a tense, creepy love affair between a bear and his secretive cub and details what obsessive jealousy can lead to. Styled as a series of Tweets and blog posts, Wyatt’s story is both modern and ancient and will have you shuddering in broad daylight. Not as scary but even creepier is Daniel M. Jaffe’s “Confessions of a Naughty Dreamer,” whose ending shocks you open-mouthed even though you can guess what’s coming.
Finally, Lee Thomas weighs in with “The House by the Park,” dedicated “in deference to the Italian masters.” More properly, this tale of love, human sacrifice and a big, black stain should defer to the singular H.P. Lovecraft, whose creeping molds and dark blots kept popping into my head as I read this. The wickedly prosaic suburban setting only adds to the fun.
Jackson has rounded up a perfectly marvelous collection of bear-scares sure to curl the fur of any ursine acquaintances. I sincerely hope there’s a second volume.
© 2011, Jerry L. Wheeler