Teeth: Vampire Tales is the newest Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling anthology for young adults—which really means for everyone with a taste for the dark and dire—and it’s a little over 400 pages of vampire stories. One would think that this would get old fast, but as the introduction to the book explains, there are many, many more kinds of “vampires” than just your Anne Rice-style sexy vamps. There are vampires from non-Western cultures, for example. There are historical vampires, who owe more to myth than popular fiction. There are options.
I get the feeling that Datlow & Windling were aiming to make a point with this anthology—vampires aren’t silly romantic plot devices to be used solely as dark and brooding male love interests. That’s much too narrow. They’re a myth that’s had hold in cultures all over the world for potentially thousands of years. Surely, that gives a writer plenty to work with.
As a whole, Teeth is an enjoyable, fairly balanced, fun anthology. It traverses a great deal of world-building ground with its stories, from the Chinese vampires of Genevieve Valentine’s opening story to the mirror-shard trapped vampire woman of Lucius Shepard’s “Slice of Life.” It’s also queer-inclusive, which always thrills me, even though I generally expect it from Datlow & Windling. For a book to fill the time, Teeth is great, and the variety makes it easy to read in a long stretch in a way that some themed anthologies aren’t.
However, the collection isn’t going to rock your world—there are no stories in it which stole my breath with something genius and brilliant. There are two which I found particularly engaging and beautiful in their own ways (“Flying” by Delia Sherman and “Slice of Life” by Lucius Shepard), and several which I deeply enjoyed such as Steve Berman’s “All Smiles,” Valentine’s “Things to Know About Being Dead,” and “Sunbleached” by Nathan Ballingrud. It’s a good anthology, but it’s not amazing. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with that. Fun books are as necessary for reading enjoyment as deeply challenging books; this one is definitely fun. I would recommend picking it up. It was a relaxing and often creepy read that walked just the right edge between fright and flirtation.
Story by story reviews:
“Things to Know About Being Dead” by Genevieve Valentine – An excellent opening story about a young Chinese woman who makes a bad decision and ends up dead in a drunk-driving accident—but not dead-dead; undead. It’s an emotionally rich story with a lot of attention spent on bonding between Suyin and her immigrant grandmother, the only one who knows about jiang-shi and what has become of her. The study of “counting” throughout, from the rice grains to the “things to know about being dead” of the title, is a fine world-building detail. The ending is tough but perfect. It’s a loss and a discovery, all at once. (Plus, Suyin’s relationship with the boy’s ghost whom she brought back with her is sweet and equally touching. Bonus points for having a queer character in the first story!)
“All Smiles” by Steve Berman – A story about a boy finding his way in the most dangerous of circumstances: hitchhiking with vampires. The violence in this story is well-handled. Saul isn’t all that competent in a fight, he just tries what’s instinctual and what he’s seen in the movies, with middling success. The world-building here is fun, too; Saul’s Jewish tattoo repels the vampires before he’s figured out quite what they are. I like the coming-of-age-story self discovery, as well as the exploration of Saul’s sexuality—by the second story in the anthology we have a gay protagonist. Thumbs up.
“Gap Year” by Christopher Barzak – A strange little story; less effective than the last Barzak I read (“Map of Seventeen”). Loretta is not the most sympathetic or engaging character, but her decision at the end does work for me, if nothing else. Perhaps it’s the lack of concrete detail about the characters that leaves the story feeling somehow flat/surreal, or a lack of development, but it’s never quite believable. It’s well-written, of course; it’s just not a perfect story.
“Bloody Sunrise” by Neil Gaiman – I normally adore Gaiman’s poetry, but this wasn’t my cup of tea. It’s a bit like something a goth poem-generator would come up with, lacking much heft or rhythm. Not a keeper.
“Flying” by Delia Sherman – A beautiful story, built carefully and with a sharp edge—there’s just enough detail to keep it dark and dangerous without giving too much away. These vampires are more traditional, also, with the shapeshifting and the static quality of some undead. Sherman’s prose is liquid and smooth, pulling the reader into the emotional eddies between Lenka, her parents, and the vampire circus. Lenka’s relationship with her disease is also well-wrought. “Flying” is a fantastic story, gorgeous and layered.
“Vampire Weather” by Garth Nix – Dark and with some very intriguing hints at the world; vaccines against vampires, for example. Setting the story in a closed-off religious community adds to the claustrophobia incited by the image of the rolling fog as the titular “vampire weather,” cutting everyone and everything off in a dense cloud. The prose is lean but the imagery comes across with perfect clarity.
“Late Bloomer” by Suzy McKee Charnas – This story caught me less than I was hoping it would; instead, it fell flat. The ending was a good one, but my lack of investment in the characters prior to that stole some of the emotional heft. The realization at the end is a bit overwrought, also. Still a fun story, but not of the astounding quality I would expect from the same Charnas who wrote The Vampire Tapestry.
“The List of Definite Endings” by Kaaron Warren – Not a favorite of mine. Warren’s story takes an old idea and trots it out for a new audience without much change. There’s a lack of believable characterization or gripping emotional development. The “mercy kill of friend who’s grown old by vampire” story isn’t a new idea, and it needs something more to make it jump off the page. Instead, this story flounders.
“Best Friends Forever” by Cecil Castellucci – Again, bland characters and lack of direction sink this story, combined with slightly awkward prose that limps along in places. The ending is trite, not even because of the decision the girls make but because of the prior blandness of their characters—I think even an outburst of murderous mayhem would have been weak.
“Sit the Dead” by Jeffrey Ford – Ford’s offering is another mediocre story; it’s goofy and it wanders. Things that I think I was supposed to be engaged by just made me raise an eyebrow. The world-building hints at things that could have been interesting were the story constructed or written better. In the end, it was simply disjointed.
“Sunbleached” by Nathan Ballingrud – “Sunbleached” is a significant improvement over the last few stories. It’s dark, unhappy, inevitable and ends in gruesome, upsetting death. It’s a “play with fire and you’ll get burned” sort of story, where the main character reaps the rewards for his curiosity and his belief that he could control something much more dangerous than himself. It’s also very well written; the post-storm Gulf world is wrought in a few bold and effective brush-strokes. Joshua’s situation is easy to sympathize with though his decisions are not, which provides an excellent narrative tension. The sensual mixed with the grotesque, too, results in a tug-of-war for the readers’ perceptions. Thumbs up for “Sunbleached,” especially for its unexpectedly horrific ending—I don’t see enough YA where there are disastrous consequences to teenage impulses.
“Baby” by Kathe Koja – Koja’s story is another creepy stunner. The voice is strong and tightly written, both childish and adult, between grown-up and not, with all the imbalances that implies between sex and emotion, longing and isolation. The hints of what’s behind this story are the best part; nothing is quite answered, not the “Santeria toy” or what her mother does for a living, but Koja gives us a rich enough set of hints that an astute reader can piece things together. “Baby” touches on issues of race, poverty, sexuality and adolescence; it’s a very different kind of vampire story compared to the rest.
“In the Future When All’s Well” by Catherynne M. Valente – A vaguely SFnal world where vampirism is the developing future strain of humanity. The story is told by a young woman whose friends have all changed and who studies biology, which is a nice touch. It’s a slow starter, but once the story reaches its stride, it’s just right—and the ending has such a striking final image, I had to go back and read the paragraph again to imprint it a little more fully on my mind. Good stuff.
“Transition” by Melissa Marr – On the first pass I was drawn into “Transition,” but then I went back to re-read it because of the strange narrative construction. The story begins with a page out of the middle, which is then repeated when the story actually hits that point. That’s a fine technique when it serves a purpose—but so far as I can tell, the only reason to have done so with this story was to say, “hey, vampires!” On the second re-read, I read from the “Today” point onward and the story was much tighter. The choice to throw that extra page into the beginning removed tension from the story that would have built well otherwise. There are also some “as you know, Bob” dialogue moments which I could have done without. “Transition” leaves me on the fence; it’s a bloody and sexual story where no-one is redeemable, and that’s my deal, but there were narrative missteps that took away from that enjoyment. Not a great story, but readable.
“History” by Ellen Kushner – This is possibly the least “young adult” story in the bunch as it’s about a woman in her later years of university, but it’s great in an understated way. It starts a bit clunky but rapidly unfolds into a rich and emotionally poignant tale. The hunger for historical knowledge the lead character exhibits adds spice to the relationship-story and the focus on forgetting/memory. I also like the sharp needling comments between the two characters in their relationship; not something you see a lot of in vampire romances, generally.
“The Perfect Dinner Party” by Cassandra Clare & Holly Black – Though coauthored, this story is smooth as can be. The tricky second-person-in-a-letter POV is handled well and drives the story along at a swift pace. The story is creepy in the best way, contrasting the narrator’s cold-hearted Machiavellianism with her brother’s more human motivations and directing it all at a human or used-to-be-human girl. The narrative structure worked for me for the same reason—it contrasts the frightful reality of both implied and explicit murder and torture with the cutesy etiquette guidelines for throwing a good dinner party. It’s an old but effective technique; Clare & Black put it to good use in this story.
“Slice of Life” by Lucius Shepard – Shepard’s story is one of those that grew on me after I finished it. It’s gritty, harsh, and southern in a particular way that doesn’t show up in speculative fiction much. The world-building is top notch; poverty, again, is a major theme in this story, but the vampires and their natural enemies are a tantalizing hint about a bigger world outside. The capture of Sandrine in the mirror-shards, so that the vampire is more a ghost, is a fascinating bit of magic. I was also grabbed by the relationship between Louie/Elle and the shadow-woman with its implicit developing sexuality, claustrophobia, and possibilities for manipulation and deceit—that’s strong, heady stuff. The reader knows by the end that there’s no safety and no happy ending; there are only decisions to be made and things to survive. Bleak, dark, dense and delicious, “Slice of Life” is intense. The fracturing of Louie/Elle’s self-image and life are excellently developed, too. Overall, it seems like a simple story: girl falls for vampire-ghost-woman, is supposed to bring her humans to eat to regain her power, has a moral dilemma—but it’s the opposite of simple, and nothing is quite what it looks like at first glance. Kudos to Shepard for such a multi-layered and dangerous story.
“My Generation” by Emma Bull – Maybe it’s just vampire poetry as a whole, but this one didn’t catch me, either. The beginning is strong, but the ending is predictable at best and weak at worst. (I think it might be vampire poetry as a whole; at least vampire poetry as conventional as this and Gaiman’s offering.)
“Why Light” by Tanith Lee – Lee’s story is the only gothic-romance of the whole bunch. It’s got a whole set of tropes young readers might not be familiar with yet, but they made the story painfully predictable. Lee’s prose is stunning as usual—some of the images are so poetic and gorgeous the lines are worth reading three or four times—but the plot drags that prose down. That gothic-romance twist was obvious from the beginning; “oh, turns out the brooding scary husband is actually the good guy and appearances can’t be trusted!” It’s just too damn obvious. Not the best ending note for the anthology; it’s one of my least favorites of the entire collection, probably because the prose has such beautiful moments that the story itself was more of a let-down.
So, there you have it. Teeth: Vampire Tales is readable and fun for the most part, with a few let-downs. It’s well worth the cover price for the more than four hundred pages of short fiction. For folks who don’t generally pick up YA, or who are put off by the cover, don’t be: it’s a good collection that’ll provide you plenty of entertainment.