"The Devil You Know" Book Review
Written by Stuart D. Monroe
Published by Critical Blast
Edited by R.J. Carter
2020, 372 pages, Fiction
Published on July 1st, 2020
The Picture of Dorian Gray, Memnoch the Devil, Faust, "That Hell-Bound Train"…no matter the era or style, tales of deals with the devil are as old as mankind and just as varied. There’s a reason for that, too – who doesn’t want the quick answer, the easy fix? We all do. The reason these tales stand the test of time is the same reason we can’t get enough of them – literally everyone has something in their life they’d make a deal to change. I’ll die on that hill.
An anthology dedicated to that very thing was a lure that I couldn’t resist, you might say, so I spent a few evenings in bed (the accustomed reading place, for the record) with the twenty short stories in R.J. Carter’s themed anthology, The Devil You Know. It’s a classic anthology where the highs are almost ludicrously high and the lows equally low, so that also produced a first for me – a D.N.F. (DID NOT FINISH) on a short story. (I’m not trying to trash someone’s work, but it simply didn’t work for me despite the clear skill of the writer.)
The tales run the gamut from the classic bargain with Old Scratch (“The Drinkin’ Contest” by Sarah Cannavo) to multilayered tales that make you ponder the true nature of Lucifer (“What the Heart Desires” by Joseph Rubas) and all the way to full-on, batshit crazy apocalyptic conquest (“A Night at Satan’s Palace” by Damascus Mincemeyer). There are tales that make you say, “Are they really going that dark?” (“Give Me Your Soul, and I’ll Give You a Pepperoni” by Evan Purcell). There are stories you’d like to see expanded into novella/novel territory (“Love and the Forever Machine” by Troy Riser, “Devices of Justice” by Andra Dill).
Some are high-minded and ambitious as hell but also wander a bit in the lofty verbiage (“When the Dark and Light Are One” by Erika Ciko Campbell). Others left me cold despite the nasty twist at the end (“The Pact” by Hannah Trusty). One has perhaps the greatest title ever, but I simply couldn’t connect with it (“I Don’t Eat Children” by Michael W. Clark).
There are also some true gems in The Devil You Know, so let’s break those down a little further:
- “Service With A Smile” by Daryl Marcus: The tale of a man who’s just killed his wife and the cop who pulls him over before Satan arrives to offer assistance; it sports a wicked smile while assuring you that yes, that actually just happened. A sublime finish with a twist you probably should see coming (but you won’t).
- “Give Me Your Soul, and I’ll Give You A Pepperoni” by Evan Purcell: Is it appropriate to mix elementary children and Satan? Some would say no; Evan Purcell tells those people to properly fuck right off. Also, that bizarro title is quite relevant to the tale. If you’re not curious now, then I don’t know how to feel about you. Describe this story in a word? Fun.
- “The Stranger’s Choice” by Kevin Kangas: A writer is losing his wife after his meteoric rise to fame takes a sharp turn. It’s one of those stories that reminds you that something that’s too good to be true is never what you think it is. Filmmaker and author Kevin Kangas writes from a very real place all writers know, and the true horror lies in the truth at its core. One of the most uplifting and yet vein-freezingly horrific endings I’ve ever read. The aftertaste of sadness is palpable when you’re done.
- “Not A Saint” by Jared Baker: The premise is a simple one – a child stays up to “catch” Santa, unaware that Saint Nick isn’t the benevolent fat man that everyone wishes him to be. Santa has a serious backstory that’ll leave Christmas lovers truly shaken. This mythology is now my go-to vision of Santa. The strongest story in the whole collection.
- “All to Play For” by Wondra Vanian: A teenage girl plays a game of poker with the Lord of Gambling, a.k.a. Satan. She can’t lose, and she whips the Devil’s ass. End of the story? Hardly. The poker chips are souls, and now she utterly understands the nature of winning and losing. There are many layers to this moral tale, and they’re all supremely vicious. I literally yelled out, “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” at the end.
- “The Devil His Due” by Gerald A. Jennings: I’m not a religious man…like, not at all. This story made me tear up. I say that with zero shame. I didn’t expect anything as heartbreaking and beautiful as this. It’s a true stunner and worth the price of admission alone.
- “A Night at Satan’s Palace” by Damascus Mincemeyer: Satan operates a strip club in Las Vegas called (you guessed it) Satan’s Palace. You can see where this is going. What sets it aside and elevates it, however, is the sheer energy and insanity it’s written with. Mincemeyer spins a tale that pays homage to From Dusk ‘Til Dawn while feeling like a cheesy ‘80s action flick, complete with overly intense dialogue. The descriptive writing on the demon’s appearance is straight out of Dungeons and Dragons, and that’s never a bad thing. This tale REALLY needs to be made into a film.
In other words, The Devil You Know is the mixed bag that you get 99.9% of the time with an anthology, be it on the page or in film. It’s still an extremely entertaining anthology that I’m glad to add to my collection, warts and all. It’s well paced from an editorial standpoint, and that helps immensely. The strongest stories come in bursts of two or three in a row at regular intervals, giving it the highs and lows you want from an anthology. The overall skill of the writers is another big plus; there are no slouches here, so even the “weaker” stories are still quality reads.
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