Blood Fire Vapor Smoke
Named a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of the Year, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke reveals the shadow of global toxic masculinity and the long mercy of our most intimate relationships. A cycle akin to the seasons of a life, this deep-hearted collection asks questions of the ancient struggle between life and death amidst landscapes new and old. Does ultimate forgiveness answer to ultimate violence? What is the nature of personal freedom? Who determines the fates that move us? With narratives opening upon the inner world with the gravity and abandon involved in personal and collective responsibility, the book responds to the present age of enragement, and the collapsing binary of two hungers: love and power. Blood Fire Vapor Smoke considers the human myth of regeneration through violence, and the aftermath of loneliness, yearning, and hope found in a more compassionate expression of human existence. Violence is caught by love, and changed, transcended, and transformed into a yearning for restoration and atonement. The characters in each of the four sections of this collection of stories and one long poem, pass through thresholds of knowledge and doubt. Asking not what life owes them, but what they may receive from life, and in the end, just how they are accountable to life, those who people this collection cross into unforeseen places of mystery, beauty, and grace.
“In this collection of short stories, characters seek vengeance or strive for forgiveness. Ray aptly establishes characters who boast distinctive personalities and complex family ties. Incisive and riveting tales with a diverse cast courtesy of a skillful, expressive author. ” –Kirkus (starred review)
In Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, beyond our inevitable compulsions toward violent ends, healing calls, beckoning us toward a crossroads where we turn and face one another, finding the strength to serve and love one another again.
STARRED REVIEW FROM KIRKUS REVIEWS
BLOOD FIRE VAPOR SMOKE
In this collection of short stories, characters seek vengeance or strive for forgiveness.
Ray’s (Sweetclover, 2019, etc.) tale “Black Kettle” follows the titular, real-life Cheyenne chief, who fights to protect his people. Despite the tribe’s irrefutable surrender, Col. John Chivington leads a massacre at Black Kettle’s village. But the story, notwithstanding the chief’s never-ending pursuit of peace, centers on revenge against Chivington. Characters in several of the tales yearn for retribution. In “Republic of Fear,” a grandfather sends his grandson to avenge the boy’s dead father; in “The World Clean and Bright,” a young tribe member tracks down those responsible for the death of a loved one’s parents. At the same time, individuals are also forgiving. The unnamed woman of the heartrending “The Current Kings,” for example, seems willing to forgive the men who seize her with unmistakably malicious intent. And “The Debt Men” features two characters, Zach Harrelson and Phil Silven, with turmoil in their marriages. Absolution may be in the cards for both, even if only one man is truly deserving. Most of the tales unfold in Montana, including the unorthodox and curious “Love is Blindness.” In it, an affair threatens to separate a married couple, Michael White and Kristina Rosamonde, but a sudden injury will either split them apart or reunite them. A few historical figures, in addition to Black Kettle, make appearances. The protagonists of the collection’s sole poem, “City on the Threshold of Stars,” are Jan Kubiš and Jozef Gabčík, Czech soldiers who played a part in the assassination of the Butcher of Prague, Reinhard Heydrich.
The author, a clinical psychologist who “spent part of his childhood on the Northern Cheyenne reservation,” tackles race in intelligent and sundry ways. It’s blunt in “Black Kettle,” as, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Cheyenne wish to kill Chivington while the colonel brazenly displays Native American scalps next to the United States flag. But “The Diplomat” is from the perspective of an American at an embassy in Africa; his own country’s racism sparks white guilt and a desire to help someone in need. And “Spirit of the Animal” is essentially a love story between a Cheyenne woman, Bird In Ground, and Jeroen, a white man she aids after he narrowly survives a wolverine attack. Ray aptly establishes characters who boast distinctive personalities and complex family ties. In “The Hunger, the Light,” Jakob hates his abusive parents, who, in turn, despise each other while in “Fourteen Types of Belief,” gifted college basketball player Everett Highwalker takes inspiration from his dead half-Cheyenne father. While the stories have their share of hatred and death, the book doesn’t succumb to despondency. Myriad characters are steadfast in their beliefs, a stance that promotes strength. This is further exemplified by the author’s prose, which is poetic even when describing the harsh elements some Cheyenne families face in “Black Wound”: “Northward still, flurries of snow placed white ledges on the limbs of trees and as the band progressed the sky turned dense until land and sky were one and the edges of the world had smoothed into a blanket under which their dreams and desires slept like animals of a forgotten country, like bears under the dark of den and breath.”
Incisive and riveting tales with a diverse cast courtesy of a skillful, expressive author.
“The beauty of the language, the collection’s historical range, and Ray’s reach for—sometimes prayer for—mercy and compassion in the face of horrific violence, his insistence on the solace of beauty, make this a brave and worthy book of stories. It feels restless, not just because it moves among different physical settings, but because it moves from what can read as historical fiction to an intimate and contemporary mode, and because Ray works to see a driving masculinity prismatically. This restlessness, the unwillingness to conceive of a singular answer to the question of what nourishes the appetite for violence—in the kitchen, in theatres of war, in alleyways in ravaged cities—across the centuries and across continents, is true and inventive. The collection feels like a genuine inquiry in which salvation and damnation, wickedness and blessedness merge—a hard book to write, hard-won, and risky.”
– from the foreword by Noy Holland, author of Bird
“Riveting and inventive, Shann Ray’s BLOOD FIRE VAPOR SMOKE is dark and unprecedented. I was whipsawed and lifted up, dazzled and crushed by turns. The collection is a remarkable assembly of language and spirit, difficult to face at times but so important, so powerful in witness. High marks to Shann Ray for the courage and risk and spirit of this book. Blood Fire Vapor Smoke is not a “traditional” set of stories in prose. It’s more like a song cycle or an “installation” of language that spins you into the vortex of great and timeless themes (war, violence, gender, forgiveness) while also requiring you to bear witness to human crimes that are difficult to contemplate. It’s not easy to be on the front row during atrocity. I approached the book as I tend to approach poetry–slowly, intentionally, reading only when I wasn’t likely to be interrupted. My patience paid off. I feel as though Ray has cleaved the comfort of traditional forms asunder and reassembled lyric and narrative in new, urgent ways. I love the “triptych” form, for instance. And I deeply admire how he interrogates the mythology of both European and indigenous cultures. Ray doesn’t pull his punches in this unique volume. Again, he takes risks, perhaps especially with the pieces rooted in the culture of the Northern Cheyenne people. There are moments of wretched cruelty and despair here. And beautiful evocations of redemption. An exercise of imagination and soul like no other I’ve read. Yes the book is dark. So are facets of our world. We need to be aware of what we are capable of in order to become our better selves.”
– Alyson Hagy, author of Scribe
“In his story collection BLOOD FIRE VAPOR SMOKE, Shann Ray once again proves he is a master at depicting the darkness and light that reside in every human soul. These stories range across time and place, exploring the generational violence that is passed down from grandfather to father to son in a never-ending cycle of violence and revenge. We are dropped in the middle of the killing fields of the Sand Creek Massacre, the bombed-out lands of a war-torn African nation, and the broken homes of families shattered by betrayal and hardened hearts. The overarching question Ray asks is how, among the rubble of human cruelty and violence, do we find the hope and strength to go on? How do we forgive the unforgivable? Is it possible to love someone who gouged out your last good eye? Someone who killed your son? Someone who killed all your people? These stories are relentless in not looking away from the horrors of humanity. There are no easy answers here, but in the bleak theater of blood and despair, we see glimmers of hope in the beauty of blue sky over a battlefield, in the flight of a flamingo rising from the devastated land, in the tender touch of those we thought we hated. Ultimately, Ray suggests redemption is found in forgiveness and love, and perhaps we would never be able to see the light if we had never known the darkness. These stories will burn you, but you will come out renewed.”
– Elise Atchison, contributing author of Unearthing Paradise
“Author Shann Ray moves from brutality to beauty in his latest work. In his new book, Blood Fire Vapor Smoke, he takes readers into the depths of human depravity with vivid, brutal scenes from the genocide otherwise known as the Native American wars. The book is a collection of short stories — fiction, but the battle scenes and other grim settings are based on history’s brutal facts.
The stories range from Indian battlefields to Gaddafi in his last days; from a dispirited diplomat in a war-torn country in Africa to two men living on the fringes of life in Spokane. Ray writes across time and landscapes with insight and occasional tenderness, as in a story of a boy who “loved basketball like he loved family.”
Read these stories for their power and their beauty. Ray is also a poet and brings a poet’s sensitivity and language to descriptions of landscapes and, in more intimate details, to human relationships. Here’s a passage after a battle: “A lantern moon, full and dirty, hung low in the early dark and touched the land with opaque light. Over the battlefield, winds sent a flock of black swifts swerving.” Writing like this gives the reader a restful moment after the ugliness of killing and taking body parts.
Readers who pore over book jackets will also know that Ray is a clinical psychologist who specializes in the psychology of men. No surprise then, that men are front and center in these stories, often in relation to strong women. The two men in Spokane, Ray writes, were “growing progressively more ugly, fulfilling want by whatever means necessary.” Both emerged years later, “broken and better,” salvaged by a rebirth of love.
In the story of an American diplomat, an African boy, perhaps 18, is the object of the diplomat’s obsession. He sees the boy and does not forget him as time passes and the country becomes more dangerous; Americans are evacuated, but the diplomat stays, looking, remembering “the collar bones, the eyes, the voice.” Here again Ray weaves fact with fiction. This chapter is straight out of the headlines as the diplomat follows news of “white-sponsored terror” in the U.S. and reckons with events like the killings at the Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, S.C. The diplomat recalls his reading of Carl Jung and his knowledge of the U.S. Cavalry who massacred the Cheyenne. Ray has something important to say here about men, honor, love, and human despair.
Ray is a versatile writer, delving into a deeply personal drama in a foreign setting and returning home to Montana, to write about the intimacy of love and marriage. A man of the rugged landscape marries a ballerina and experiences mutual love for the first time. It’s a story of the heartbreak of infidelity, complex emotions and healing. Literature is full of similar stories. What’s special here is the precision of the writing, the pain on the page. “Before her, he’d loved women, but they had not loved him… he’d always walked with his head bowed, his massive shoulders bent inward as if to protect and shield his heart.”
Finally, with Everett, the boy who loves basketball, Ray treats the reader to a story with a lighter touch. Though Everett Highwalker’s young life is filled with dreams and disappointments, VP (the vice principal) looks after him and nurtures his basketball dreams. A sweet story about the power of a mentor in a boy’s life.
An important motif throughout this collection that features men in central roles is the respect accorded women — especially in the Native tribes portrayed here. Ray quotes a Cheyenne proverb: “A nation is not conquered until the hearts of its women are on the ground.” The book cover provides a clue with this note about Ray: “Because of his wife and three daughters, he believes in love.”
Ray demonstrates that belief in a book of poetry, Sweetclover, also published this year. It is dedicated to his wife and can be read as a series of love poems to her, about her, about his love for her. It is wild and earthy, sensual and spiritual. He pays homage to married love in all its dimensions. For readers attuned to the luscious landscapes of our region, find further delight with acts of love amid the mountains, rivers, prairies, flowers and boundless skies.
Sweetclover is a welcome endnote to the intense and often dark Blood Fire Vapor Smoke.
– Mindy Cameron, The Pacific Northwest Inlander
Shann Ray’s work is both grounded and spiritual. He has an eye for minute detail, and while he’s describing an act of love or violence or just panning through a scene to render river and mountain range, he’s also trying to understand how we respond to the often generational brutality of existence without forgetting its beauty. How is it that a single life can hold so many disparate things — love, hatred, trauma, healing, destruction, forgiveness, redemption — without tearing apart? In Blood Fire Vapor Smoke people are often in conflict with nature, but never separate from it. Love is a salve for violence, but also sometimes a kind of violence itself. In Ray’s work, good and evil aren’t moral poles set apart from each other, they’re aspects of a whole held in tension, whether in a single person, in all of humanity, or in the mystery of God. Ray’s leanings will remind readers of Hemmingway, but given the yin and yang oneness of his work, I believe his sensibility is maybe more precisely like Japanese watercolorists: who put just enough paint on the page to render what they want you to see, leaving white space that the viewer is forced to either fill in with her imagination or sit with, contemplating the void. For those watercolorists, who come from cultures rooted in Buddhism and Taoism, the unpainted areas aren’t just a stylistic choice, they’re a recognition that emptiness is not nothingness. In some ways, it is the most powerful form of somethingness: it is potential not yet realized. In painting, as with writing, such potential can manifest in as many ways as there are eyes reading and minds dreaming. The more of Shann Ray’s work you read the more it feels like he’s working to develop a vernacular for describing existence in ways that are both intensely personal and specific but also manifestations of the universal. Not just the nature of humans, but the nature of humanity, and further our oneness with nature. And then, with those gaps he leaves, he invites his readers — all of us — to not just paint with our own emotions, memories, and imaginings. He invites us to join our personal journey to the universal, understanding something new about everything in the process.
– Luke Baumgarten, Terrain, & Treatment/Creative