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Book 60: The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf

Book 60: The Tale of Raw Head & Bloody Bones.
Author: Jack Wolf, 2013.
Genre: Historical Fiction. 18th Century England. Gothic Horror. Faerie. Myth, Legends, Folklore. Mental Illness.
Other Details: Hardback. 547 pages.

The year is 1750. Tristan Hart, precociously talented student of medicine practising under the legendary Dr William Hunter. His obsession is the nature of pain and preventing it; the relationship between mind and matter and the existence of God. A product of the Age of Enlightenment, he is a rational man on a quest to cut through darkness and superstition with the brilliant blade of science.

Tristan Hart, madman and deviant. His obsession is the nature of pain, and causing it. A product of an age of faeries and goblins, gnomes and shape-shifting gypsies, he is on a quest to arouse the perfect scream and slay the daemon Raw Head who torments his dark days and long nights.

Troubled visionary, twisted genius, loving sadist. What is real and what imagined in Tristan Hart’s brutal, beautiful, complex world?
- synopsis from UK publisher's website.

This was an astonishing novel; one my best for the year. It depicts the clash in one man's mind between reason and superstition and the best depiction of Faerie that I have read since Susanna Clarke's 'Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell'. This is the second book that I have read based on a bogeyman figure in English folklore, though unlike Long Lankin I had not previously heard of Rawhead and Bloody Bones. It is also a chilling tale of madness interwoven with musings on science, philosophy and the nature of God and the soul.

The novel is quite cleverly written in the style of the mid-18th Century, which may not suit all modern readers. This equates to quite a formal narrative voice with 18th Century spellings and a tendency to capitalise willy-nilly. Once I realised what Wolf was doing I settled in nicely to what proved a fascinating story. A few historical figures feature as supporting characters including Henry and John Fielding. The town and country settings are well realised. Shirelands, Tristan's country home, is located near to the Vale of the White Horse in Oxfordshire, one of the most magical places I know, and this contrasts well with the depiction of Georgian London.

As the synopsis indicates, the novel does deal with some quite disturbing themes as Tristan Hart is a sadist, though a conflicted one. These scenes of dissection and surgery and the development of Tristan's sadism in the brothels of Covent Garden may prove too strong for some tastes. I found that the narrative style did serve to render these episodes less graphic than they might have been if written in contemporary prose.

This is one of those rare books that I fell completely in love with. I found Tristan a fascinating character despite his flaws though it was Tristan's best friend Nathaniel Ravenscroft, errant son of the local rector, who captured my heart.

Jack Wolf on myths and legends behind 'The Tale of Raw head and Bloody Bones' - the sidebar contains links to other short blog articles by Jack Wolf on subjects that inform his début novel: the Goblin Knight or Faerie King, Goblins, Werewolves in Folklore and Fiction, Madness, Conception and Pregnancy in 18th Century and Historical Figures in Fiction.

The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones - a thrilling and bloody début about the battle between 18th-century science and superstition. - glowing review in The Guardian.

Tags: british, gothic novels, historical fiction, horror, literary, mental health, myth and legend, sexual violence

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