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Itsy Bitsy Spider

Gifts of Blood

By Susan C. Petrey 

17 Jan, 2023

The End of History


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1990’s Gifts of Blood is Susan C. Petrey’s sole collection of short stories. Most (but not all) of them focus on the Varkela, a hominin species closely related to Homo Sapiens Sapiens. These aren’t the usual vampires. Petrey’s vampires are a bit different.

Despite its brevity, the collection is complete: if ISFDB is to be trusted, Petrey’s short career saw only nine works published, all short pieces, six posthumously. All nine can be found in this slender volume.

The edition in hand is the Oregon Science Fiction Conventions, Inc. (OSFCI) hardcover. I made a point of tracking the hardcover down because it includes three essays not found in the mass market paperback (well, and also because of which company published the MMPB). I received a lesson in expectations: the three essays, by Le Guin, McIntyre, and Wilhelm, are not additional pieces about Petrey. Instead, they expound on the Clarion writing workshop, which Petrey wished to attend but for financial reasons could not. The Susan C. Petrey Clarion Scholarship Fund was established in Petrey’s memory.

To quote:

This scholarship is a memorial to Susan, a friend of ours, and a member of the Portland Science Fiction Society. Since her death in 1980, we have raised money to annually send aspiring writers to the Clarion Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop. This was an event she had hoped to attend herself but was unable to do so because of financial reasons. At the present time, the fund annually awards scholarships to both the Clarion & Clarion West workshops and also supports an instructor at Clarion West as a Petrey Fellow. 

The three essays are all well and good, but I would have enjoyed them more if my purpose had been to learn about Clarion, rather than Petrey.

As to the stories themselves …

Most focus on the blood-drinking Varkela, a subspecies of human that arose in the Altai region. While most still live in Central Asia, some migrated with Atilla’s horde as far west as Hungary, where they inspired legends of vampires. Despite such ferocious legends, Varkela are primarily doctors, trading treatment for blood. They are forever faced with the possibility of extinction, female Varkela being rare and short-lived. While Varkela can sometimes interbreed with humans, this presents the danger that they will simply be absorbed into the human masses, their unique characteristics diluted away.

Most of the Varkela stories feature protagonist Spareen, a young Varkela who is prone to abdicate responsibility in favour of immediate pleasures like drinking alcohol and bewitching human women to sleep with him. Such a disposition provides the less-than-admirable Spareen with many opportunities for adventure.

The standout story in the collection is the one that was also my introduction to Petrey. 1980’s Spidersong,” reviewed here at Young People Read Old SFF, is a touching story of a small spider living in a lute and the relationship the spider enjoys with the lute’s owner. If the other stories in the collection don’t live up to Spidersong,” it is because Spidersong” sets a very high bar.

Gifts of Blood is out of print. Used copies seem common. I’d recommend the hardcover over the mass market only for people who want particularly durable copies or if they had a burning curiosity about Clarion circa 1990. Spidersong” is available here in Issue 54 of Light Speed Magazine.

In detail:

Introduction (Gifts of Blood) • (1990) • essay by Debbie Cross and Paul M. Wrigley

A short introduction to the collection, this essay may be read in its entirely in Issue 54 of Light Speed Magazine.

Prides • (1990) • essay by Ursula K. Le Guin

Le Guin expounds on the strengths and weaknesses of Clarion-style workshops.

The bits about the potential pitfalls would be even funnier if they were not drawn from real life.

Getting the Block and Tackle on the Gargoyle • (1990) • essay by Vonda N. McIntyre

McIntyre muses about Clarion.

What Did You Do at Clarion, Mommy? • (1990) • essay by Kate Wilhelm

As readers may guess, this too is about Clarion.

Spareen Among the Tartars” • [Varkela / Spareen] • (1979) • short story by Susan C. Petrey

Spareen looks for sex and sustenance amongst the Tatars.

Spareen can talk to horses, a gift he will happily use to defraud Tatars who otherwise don’t seem to require his services.

Fleas” • [Varkela / Spareen] (1980) • short story by Susan C. Petrey

Spareen finds a noble purpose in the humble flea.

This is a short-short, thus very slight.

The Healer’s Touch • [Varkela / Spareen] • (1982) • novelette by Susan C. Petrey

Desperate to save their ailing sister, Spareen’s responsible brother Vaylance undertakes a quest to search for a cure for malaria. His journey leads him to some Russians, whose possession of a cure — cinchona-bark-derived quinine — may be more than balanced by the fact that the superstitious Russians would immediately stake Vaylance had they any idea that he was a vampire.

Spareen Among the Cossacks • [Varkela / Spareen] • (1981) • novelette by Susan C. Petrey

Despite the danger posed by Spareen’s poor judgement and lack of self control, he manages through great effort and dumb luck to provide Vaylance with valuable assistance treating ailing Cossacks.

Leechcraft • [Varkela / Spareen] • (1982) • novelette by Susan C. Petrey

Ever on the search for a suitable wife, Vaylance finds happiness with Myrna despite the notable impediment posed by the century between Vaylance’s home time and Myrna’s.

Small Changes” • [Varkela / Spareen] • (1983) • short story by Susan C. Petrey

Captured by Christians determined to stake him, Spareen’s only hope for survival is to prove his healing prowess before the priest arrives.

Spareen and Old Turk” • [Varkela / Spareen] • (1983) • short story by Susan C. Petrey

Determined to save a stallion from capture, Spareen must settle for gifting the stallion with a very bitter form of freedom.

The Neisserian Invasion” • (1990) • short story by Susan C. Petrey

Unable to resist telepathic seduction, humanity’s freedom from aliens depends on that reliable standby, extremely contagious STDs.

Spidersong” • (1980) • short story by Susan C. Petrey

A small spider makes its home in a lute, becoming the lute’s owner’s unnoticed accompanist.