Taking its name from the mythical bogeyman used by parents to frighten children into doing what they’re told, Jack Wolf’s debut novel, The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones, is a story about the nature of pain and the link between the body and the mind, set in the 18th century.
The story concerns Tristan Hart, a genius student of medicine, sent to London to continue his studies and generally make his way in the world. Hart is, however, mad. Obsessed with faeries and the spirit world and hell-bent on discovering the interface between body and soul, he ‘experiments’ on women he picks up on the streets of London.
The intrigue at the centre of Wolf’s story lies in the duality of his protagonist. Hart is a brilliant physician in the making and a devout rationalist. He is also a fully paid-up sadist and, by his own admission, insane. He is to the reader, not exactly likable, but intensely compelling and possessed of the necessary kind of relentless intellectual curiosity to propel the novel forward even when the destination seems bleak or grotesque.
The novel's language revels in the visceral and graphic descriptions of the components of the human body and their reactions to pain, sex and stimulation. These descriptions are made vivid by Wolf’s highly florid style reminiscent of Middle English or The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. It's an approach that could be seen as being a little contrived in the hands of a lesser writer, but one that Wolf uses incredibly well, both in beauty and in horror.
The Tale of Raw Head and Bloody Bones is Jack Wolf’s first novel and it was in the running for our 2013 First Book Award.