The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones

Written by Jack Wolf
Review by Bethany Latham

Tristan Hart is a product of his time (the mid-18th century): conversant in Enlightenment philosophy but puzzled by the mechanics of the human body. Dissatisfied with animal vivisection, Tristan moves from his father’s pastoral estate to study medicine in London. A scalpel-sharp mind helps him excel, but soon proves a hindrance – Tristan finds his true passion is pain, and when stressors become acute, the fragile connection to reality snaps. Using the only tools at his disposal, a sadistically demented mind and the scientific method, Tristan confronts the Biblical conundrum: physician heal thyself – or, at least, function despite thy insanity.

Written in first-person period language (compleat with capitalized Nouns and idiosyncratic Spelnygs), it’s hard to believe this is Wolf’s debut novel. The 18th-century pastiche is skillfully executed and wholly absorbing; imagination abounds and the imagery is high-def vivid. Since the reader must view the world through Tristan’s perception, his struggles allow him duality as human and monster, adding suspense as the reader teases Tristan’s fantasies from the strands of reality. His fascinating delusions manifest as childhood folktales used to promote good behavior – faeries, goblins, gnomes, and over all, the terrifying bogeyman Raw Head (who shares a connection with Tristan’s childhood friend, Nathaniel) and Raw Head’s nemesis, Bloody Bones (with whom Tristan identifies). In addition to everything else, there’s humor and a love story of sorts: a platonic bromance between Tristan and Nathaniel, and a perfect meeting of complementary deviancies in the persons of Tristan and his lady-love (think an even darker and disconcertingly younger Lee Holloway and E. Edward Grey in Secretary).

This is a dark work, but for those with the fortitude to brave it, a completely engrossing one. Highly recommended.