What if the scariest childhood stories you ever read were real? What if the horrors that haunted those pages stepped into your adult world and threatened to destroy your home and family – everything you’ve ever loved?
Would you have the courage to face your fears and find a way to conquer your fears and save the world?
I can imagine this being the driving concept behind Molly Tanzer’s Creatures of Want and Ruin. The story is told in three main parts; Susan’s, Ellie’s and Fin’s. While we start off with a snapshot of Susan discovering what’s happened to her friend, Ms. Depth, we’re soon brought into Ellie’s world. The enterprising bootlegger is independent, resourceful and soon forced to fight for her life when she tries to help a man who appears injured, who then tries to kill her.
Saying too much about the specifics of the women’s roles would risk spoilers. At it’s core this is a story about the high price of selling your soul to a demon, and the unintended horrors that ensue when people embrace evil. It isn’t just the horrific elements and supernatural aspects of the story that wreak havoc; embracing evil threatens families and relationships with tragedies that are all too real.
Creatures of Want and Ruin is a horror story about battling ancient evils. Tanzer takes her time to develop her characters and their dynamics as the plot unfolds, and the pace and intensity build to bring us to the climax. Tanzer blends the fantastical and horrific with the real world in a way that make you feel as though you could turn a corner and find one of those oily mushroomy things growing in the woods behind your home, threatening to erupt with demonic force or swallow you whole.
That alone is an accomplishment. Tanzer goes deeper, though. Like the strange growths networked beneath the earth on Long Island that she writes about, there are threads of other stories and themes that are also being told. Fin and Ellie are both strong women who must take heroic actions. I think one of the crucial things of note is that, although this story is set during Prohibition, it centers on strong women who are not inclined to run to a man to solve their problems for them. These women are learning to stand up for themselves and others and are not willing to be pushed around by the people who try to coddle or control them. They are characters that resonate in the wake of the #metoo movement.
There are other timely themes at work. Those who have embraced the demons are anti-immigrant and are responsible for assaulting anyone they don’t feel has an acceptable bloodline. Even those born in America are attacked if their parents are foreigners.
Fin’s husband and his entourage are also used to convey a message. They are the idle rich. Indulged. Unaware and unconcerned about anything other than their own entertainment.
There are a lot of important truths Tanzer’s story highlights. The real genius is that it never does this at the expense of the story. At no point did I ever feel like a character got on a soap box and preached to the reader (although there was a sermon, but it was part of the story). In fact, it was the forward thinking of these women that was a key part in addressing the threat the demons posed. Like all great stories, the core of the characters informed their choices, which had a direct bearing on the plot and its resolution.