Depending on your reading habits, you may be familiar with Hard Case Crime in a couple of different ways. If you read horror exclusively, you may know Hard Case Crime as the publisher of two Stephen King novels: The Colorado Kid and Joyland (neither of which are horror, although Joyland does incorporate some supernatural elements). If you’re the kind of reader who makes room for more than one genre on your bookshelves, you may know Hard Case Crime as a publisher specializing in a mix of original and reprint pulp crime novels. I’m a Hard Case Crime fan from way back, so when I read they were combining my love of crime fiction and Halloween stories in a novel called Blood Sugar, I was all in.
A quick peek at an early synopsis of the novel, written by Daniel Kraus (co-author of The Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro) set up certain expectations; the synopsis told me it was a Halloween story featuring a deranged outcast intent on bringing the old cautionary tale of “razor blades and poison in trick-or-treat candy” to life; the synopsis also told me that a kid recruited to fulfill the plan might, instead, work to defeat it. With this in mind, I pictured a fairly formulaic book filled with descriptions of suburban streets crawling with kids in costumes, and full autumn moons, and a cackling old man living in the “haunted house” at the end of the lane.
That’s not what I got. What I got was so different, and so good. If you give this book a shot, and I sincerely hope you do, you’re going to see just how different it is from my expectations on the very first page.
First, let me get this out of the way: if a Cormac McCarthy-like disregard for punctuation hurts your feelings, well, brace yourself. We get periods, but it’s a no-go when it comes to apostrophes and quotation marks. That’s never bothered me with McCarthy, and it didn’t bother me here.
Another aspect that might be a bit jarring at first is the voice of the narrator, a street-smart child named Jody. Kraus is writing from Jody’s point-of-view for most of the book, so there’s ample time to fall into his rhythm, which is full of cocksure slang and the occasional bits of phonetic spelling (“cuz” for “because,” for example). It took me a chapter or two to get into it, but as the story progressed I realized this was the best way to tell it. It’s very much like having Jody sit next to you and tell you what he saw, the way he saw it. Kraus breaks things up with a couple of sections told from the point-of-view of other characters, each very distinct and effective in their own way.
Finally, the major difference: where I was expecting an atmospheric campfire tale about kids versus an adult out to ruin their Halloween, I instead got a heartbreaking story about the ways family can ruin a person. Some of these characters have family, but that family twists and undermines them in fundamental ways; some of these characters are forced to make a family where none exists, and their poor choices leave you wondering if they’d be better off alone.
Blood Sugar is itself both a trick and a treat. Kraus’s trick is in hiding a deeply emotional novel in the festive trappings of a Halloween story; the treat, of course, is the reward of reading something so gripping and, ultimately, rewarding.