“Nazis, and Devils, and Mobsters, Oh My”
Review by Joey Madia
Comprising 13 stories written over 26 years, The Devils You Know is a fun—and at times deeply moving and enlightening—collection of a who’s who of literary monsters, human and otherwise. From vampires to werewolves, mobsters to Nazis, braggadocio writers to Old Nick himself, Miles Watson serves up a cast of memorable villains who at times don’t seem all that different than you or me.
The first story, “Road Trip,” is a ready reminder that the worst of the vampires (aside from the shiny ones) are psychic vampires, which doesn’t mean they won’t also drain your blood. This particular set of fang-bangers are like a modern-era Fitzgerald cast mashing up with bloodsuckers. With names like Victor, Tasha, and Diabolique, dressed in Bohemian clothing and John Lennon sunglasses and zipping around in a convertible, these #firstworldproblems phonies say things like, “I feel the need! The need….TO FEED!” (cue the eye roll). Trust-fund Paris Hiltons, they also travel with a werewolf, which is admittedly progressive of them.
Next is “Nosferatu,” thought to be Romanian for vampire. Most people know it because it was German Expressionist filmmaker F.W. Murnau’s workaround title when he couldn’t get the rights to Dracula from Stoker’s widow. This is our introduction to the Nazis. At the opening, we meet a wounded officer named Raus delirious from blood loss. His unit has just had a losing encounter with the Russians. In what is a recurring theme in the volume, Raus intermittently reflects on the past through complementary scenes throughout his timeline that paint a 3D picture of a usually 2D trope. This technique, coupled with Watson’s talent for writing about war, allows him to show these “devils” as almost mundanely human. It’s rare to read or watch a story about a Nazi and find ourselves identifying with them.
Making it to a field hospital, Raus struggles with conflicting feelings as he wonders if he’ll die. As blood transfusions begin, a subtle change to otherworldly horror occurs, although, like with any solid vampire story, the metaphors are layered and complex—including the God-ordained struggle of the Christians to stem the tide of barbarism. For Western Europeans, that means the Eastern Europeans and Germans and for those people, it means Asians. Restless and unwell, Raus leaves his bed and wanders into a field operation that reminds us all that not all Nazis are created equal… some are more evil than others.
Some of the most powerful writing I’ve found in the more than 300 books I’ve read in the past four years has been about a person of faith enduring a loss so great that they enter a place of worship and rant and rail against God—and sometimes at Him (I use the male pronoun purposefully here). “The Adversarial Process” is just such a piece, and it does not disappoint. Embracing Big Questions, such as why the Jews were so quick to forgive Yahweh after 400 years slavery or why Lazarus and Jesus were resurrected, but other folks aren’t, the story dances from these Big Questions to the minutiae of everyday life, such as an umbrella offered with love on a stormy day.
Without saying too much (touches fingers to ear and nose), I know a lot about the Mafia from my childhood in Northern New Jersey, where my father worked in trucking. Between the Godfather films, Scorsese/De Niro/Pesci collaborations, and The Sopranos, it’s clear that people love a good Mafia tale. If you’re one of them, you’ll love “Pleas and Thank Yous.” Why? It takes place in a sound-proofed basement, someone’s tied up and tortured, there’s a feisty mob wife who perceives little slights as big slights, and it has a beautifully cartoony cast of malcontent, wise-cracking characters that would feel at home in films like Suicide Kings, Two Days in the Valley, and Seven Psychopaths. And, if you like a twist to your mob tale, this one’s got a doozy.
“D.S.A.” is an apocalyptic tale of soldiers in America, notable because this is the one story where I clearly saw homages to Stephen King, whom the author acknowledges as having his “fingerprints … on every piece of horror I write.” I mention this because, in most of the horror I review, there are abundant unacknowledged homages to King, which are far more evident than what I encountered in this collection, which is a credit to Watson being able to learn from masters and still have a voice all his own.
The next story, “Shadows and Glory,” returns to Nazis, but with a different tone. Perhaps my favorite in the collection, the story is one of a son whose father is a U-boat captain during World War II. The son, as sons do, deifies his enigmatic father, who’s rarely home. He also emulates him, making fleets of paper boats and joining the Hitler Youth against his mother’s wishes. They have a beautiful moment of bonding, when his father initiates him into his practice of getting drunk and riding his old motorcycle in the rain, knowing they’ll eventually fall. As the story unfolds, familial secrets and accusations abound, the truths of war’s horrors and lack of honor are exposed, and the boy realizes that, in his heart, his father’s true passion is not serving the Reich, but being a photographer and artist. In a literary world where Nazis are reduced to well-dressed, heartless tropes, this story shows that many of them were has fundamentally human as the rest of us.
If there is one thing to which almost anyone these days can relate, it’s the sharpened stress of the 21st century, which is ratcheting up further as I write this (mid March 2022). The Ukraine invasion, the political effects of the pandemic, rising credit card debt (the result of rampant inflation, and its effect on food, fuel, and housing), and an America losing its moral compass (though it never knew Truth North), has a good part of the population choking down ill will and seething anger. “A Fever in the Blood” is a story of a simple incident involving the destruction of a rude person’s cell phone that leads, within hours, to the total deconstruction of society. At least for a time… It’s violent, energized, and covers a lot of territory concerning who is to blame for what in this injustice carnival we call modern life.
Another favorite is “A Story Never Told,” which, without ever naming him, recounts an encounter that Hemingway had with a soldier in Paris shortly after it was liberated during World War II. Hemingway, the larger-than-life novelist, fisherman, journalist, and freedom fighter, traded stories with the best of them, always with a goal to one-up them. The ultimate tragedy that is the end of his life is a testament to his man’s man persona hiding a serious unease. For those interested, his often biting competitiveness is clear in his letters with Thomas Wolfe, F Scott Fitzgerald, and their editor Maxwell Perkins. As he relates his wounding as an ambulance driver and uses boxing metaphors to make his case, Watson gives us a glimpse into the minds of the soldiers to whom he speaks, who have seen serious carnage in their years in Europe, and an ending honoring them and unmasking Hemingway exactly like he had done to others.
There are more stories about mobsters and soldiers before the story “Identity Crisis.” If origin stories of people who become killers fascinate you (think Falling Down with Michael Douglas) then you’ll love this chilling tale of how dominoes fall and darkness overtakes us in an age of avatars and rampant bullying.
As a longtime student of the U.S. Civil War, as a scale-modeler, historical educator, and Chautauquan, I was impressed with the research and authenticity in “The Shroud,” a story of a wounded Southern cavalry officer returning home to his family’s plantation.
The collection ends with “The Devil You Know.” I’ll leave it to you to find out which one.
For those interested in where writers get their inspiration, Watson lists some of his in the Acknowledgements. I wouldn’t be surprised if, after reading this impressive collection of shorts, future writers someday list Watson as an inspiration for the works that they will write.
TITLE: The Devils You Know
AUTHOR: Miles Watson
PUBLISHER: 566 Media, 2016