Grimdark fiction with a paranormal focus can settle like oil underwater when blended with action and gunplay, but Pulling Teeth and Other Stories by Jessa Forest has a balanced blend. Each corner of stark weird or science fiction here is softened by the wolves. Sterile laboratory prison landscapes are brightened somehow with childlike wonder. Bounding through these forests untethered, we find stories of the bond between father and daughter, master and apprentice, trust and honor.
As a collection of novellas and short stories, Pulling Teeth is the beginning of a series about a young hybrid werewolf, Regina Slaughter. Maintaining a similar tone and following in chronological order, each story hits extremes of tension, horror, and the unknown with ease and alacrity.
Regina’s tragic upbringing to the age of nine and the fate of her family unfolds as we follow her from being an imprisoned test subject to her freedom after being taken in by another faction, more of her kind, mercenary werewolves. Considering this is a world where werewolves, magic, parallel dimensions, and vampires exist, in the relatively small space these stories provide, we also delve into friendships, family, loss, and lunacy which is no small feat for a world with such complexity.
Regina was test subject 33 at the HADES facility. After two years of their attempts to control the powers of werewolves with torture and restraint, her rescue comes in a bloody and unexpected ally. Atlas, a werewolf mercenary from a nearby stronghold, becomes her protector and unlikely substitute for her father, who was taken away too soon. Her new pack leader, Thane, who dresses in the hides of mysterious creatures formed into a plague mask, is cold and strict. But, when he unexpectedly takes the feral Regina under his wing, her animal strength and desire to serve her new pack with honor seem to have finally found a place. There are many factions at war or with tenuous alliances in the world that Jessa Forest has created. The world can seem quite complex.
Luckily, we have an introductory short story, Welcome to HADES, that outlines the differences between the organization’s different departments that hunt werewolves, vampires, mages, and other Void creatures in the form of an employee manual. The stories of these animals’ hunters and the hunted unfold in three novellas and two short stories mainly from the werewolf point-of-view. Regina’s Guide to Monster Hunting, later on in the book, serves as a bookend to the first chapter and creatively adds to the readers’ arsenal. Many of our questions are answered as we read on, exploring the world between these two chapters.
The characters of Regina, Thane, and Atlas are broadened expertly in the titular short story, Pulling Teeth. It is somewhat visceral; it reminds us that Regina is the scrappy orphan we envision as a budding werewolf warrior or typical young teen. However, the unexpected change of pace with Demon Tooth reveals that the humans here are largely oblivious to the dark world at their doorstep. Werewolves, understandably, stay within the shadows hiding in the darker recesses of humanity. Inevitably they will cross with this story of bored suburban human teens taunting forces they barely understand, but that Regina knows all too well.
Although we get to know a lot about her past captivity, abuse, and perhaps stunted personality, Regina sometimes comes across as a lot younger than she is. This could also speak to her animalistic and simplistic nature, which may naturally read as a younger girl than 11 years old. This is the only fault in the dialogue or how others treat her; at times, a child is a trusted member of the team. Her attitude vacillating from studious apprentice and bratty teen reads as unstable at times. Ultimately, it is refreshing to see some of the childlike phrases from Regina and see the world through her eyes guide our reactions to those around her to a certain extent.
As with much science fiction or weird tales, it takes a little getting used to the typology, the taxonomy, and jargon. One tactic Forest uses is likening Regina’s situations into contemporary, classic horror, and science fiction films. Without being a casual name-drop, this helps ground readers into the world through Regina’s eyes because she’s watched many films that fans of this literature are likely to have seen.
If anything, we want to find out more about Regina. Although we’ve had a great insight into her past, her future is a mystery. From the human threat to the Void itself, there is peril in our imaginations. The more we understand how she fits within this world, the more we want to see her adapt. As this is the beginning of a series, fans of this first set of stories will eagerly expect the next installment.
Our world of mythology and science blends here as naturally as fur and fang. Definitely a great fit for fans of a strong character storyline, the politics of warring factions, and following guns for hire. And, of course, those who love a new take on monster stories, specifically werewolves and origin stories for all that is dark, occult, and macabre.
Pulling Teeth and Other Stories is a riveting combination of grimdark, science fiction, fantasy, and horror. This collection of short stories will take readers on an unforgettable journey.