FAIRY TALES TURNED VERY DARK

It seems appropriate that, so soon after I put up the display, lists, and post about the adult fairy tale category for this year’s Reading Challenge, The Field Library acquired The Merry Spinster, by Mallory Ortberg, which is a collection of very dark short stories based on various famous or less famous fairy tales (and children’s stories, which I’ll get to in a minute).  It’s a quick read, but be warned: all of the stories are warped, and some of them are quite disturbing.

Do you need to know the original stories in order to appreciate The Merry Spinster? No, though you probably are at least generally aware of the outlines of such stories as The Little Mermaid (here told as “The Daughter Cells”), The Wind in the Willows (here “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad”), or “The Frog Princess” (here “The Frog’s Princess”).  As with any retellings of famous stories, you are of course better able to appreciate the new version if you’re familiar with the original, but you can read these stories without a lot of knowledge of their source material.

And what stories they are!  Some of them, like “The Daughter Cells,” just take the original story and look at it through a completely different lens: consider what a mermaid would really be like and exactly how she might view humankind, keeping in mind that creatures that live underwater might not have such a human-oriented point of view.  “Fear Not: An Incident Log,” told by an angel who had various tasks to fulfill in the time of the Bible, seems perfectly reasonable until you get to the end (the angel’s encounter with Jacob), and think about the twist in the story and what it means for the future.

Though these stories are creepy, they’re not really “horror” as I see them. Some of them, though, are genuinely scary and even haunting.  For instance, The Velveteen Rabbit was one of my favorite books as a child, and Ortberg’s version, “The Rabbit,” follows the original fairly closely and then diverges to absolutely ruin my memory of the original, turning it into something nightmarishly chilling. Similarly, I always had a soft spot in my heart for Mr. Toad from The Wind in the Willows, and “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Mr. Toad” here would make anyone scared of Rat and Mole and Badger and horribly sympathetic to poor Toad.

If you don’t mind having some really creepy dreams, and you enjoy looking at famous stories from different angles, and you have a dark sensibility, then by all means give The Merry Spinster a read.  Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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NEW TWISTS ON OLD TALES: THE EMERALD CIRCUS

A collection of short stories all written by one person is a bit of a risky endeavor.  If the writer isn’t really good, after a while all the stories start to sound the same, or share the same themes or the same flaws.  It takes a good writer, like Jane Yolen, to take a collection of stories written over a period of years and turn it into a delight like The Emerald Circus.  When you consider how many of the stories in this book are based on famous works of literature we’re all fairly familiar with, her achievement is all the more impressive.

It does help if you’re a fan of Alice in Wonderland, or the stories of King Arthur, because she takes several stories from those worlds.  If you’re a fan of The Wizard of Oz or of Peter Pan, or even if you aren’t, you’ll find her takes on those works to be interesting and quirky.

I personally loved “Lost Girls,” a story set in the world of Peter Pan in which Darla, a modern girl whose mother is a lawyer and who doesn’t take any nonsense from anyone, leads the other Wendys to assert their own rights to adventure and to have the Lost Boys clean up their own messes (one of the things I liked about this story, other than the pirates, who were wonderful, was the vision of Peter Pan himself; I’m kind of partial to versions of Peter Pan which don’t see him as a wonderful innocent).

In my opinion, the best of the Alice in Wonderland themed stories was “Tough Alice”.  Here, Alice frequently finds herself in Wonderland, but always has to deal with the dangerous Jabberwock, until this particular time when she figures out how to defeat the monster.  Clearly Jane Yolen has a feel for the characters of Wonderland, including the Beamish Boy (from the poem “Jabberwocky”) and the various queens, and her sly sense of humor really works here.

Poignantly, she portrays Lancelot of King Arthur’s Camelot as a monk seeking Guinevere’s bones to ask her forgiveness for the way he treated her (and Arthur) in the story “The Quiet Monk.”  She incorporates a real archaeological discovery in Glastonbury into the story, and allows a younger monk (who idolizes Lancelot even before he realizes who this new monk actually is) to be the point of view character.

One of the longer stories in the collection is called “Evian Steel,” and it’s a sort of prequel to the Arthurian legend, explaining (in a way) the creation of the famous Excalibur and how the Lady of the Lake came to have it for him.  While I was personally delighted to recognize some of the characters from the legends (not that I particularly liked all the portrayals, especially not her concept of Morgan le Fay), the best thing about the story is the world she creates, an island where women live and men are forbidden, and the swords they make are made powerful by the blood of their creators.

Her version of The Wizard of Oz is called “Blown Away,” and is told by one of the men working on Uncle Henry’s farm.  It’s both realistic and fantastic, and while there’s no Oz per se, Dorothy does get blown away into another life, another world, and discovers her true self there, returning to the farm only long enough to illuminate the lives of the people she left behind.

She also takes on real life characters, mostly writers, in her stories, starting with Hans Christian Andersen and continuing with Edgar Allan Poe (not her best story in the collection, in my opinion), and Emily Dickinson (in an award winning story that manages to capture not only Dickinson’s unique vision of the world but even the way she used language), and putting them in different settings to imagine what might have made them what they were.

Of course, not all the stories work or are equally good. I could have done without the Beauty and the Beast/Gift of the Magi mashup, and a take on Red Riding Hood just didn’t do much for me, but this is to be expected in a collection of stories.  Some will work better than others, some will be more fun than others, and even the ones I wasn’t thrilled with were well-written.

If you don’t have a lot of time to devote to a book, if you’re a fan of short stories in general, or if you’ve got a taste for fantasy with a feminist twist, then by all means check out The Emerald Circus.

ENTER THE DARK FAIRY TALE: DOWN AMONG THE STICKS AND BONES

There are so many classic children’s stories about an ordinary child or two (or three or four) leaving the ordinary world through some extraordinary means (Alice down the rabbit hole or through the looking glass, the Pevensies through the back of an ordinary seeming closet) and entering a strange and wonderful (or strange and frightening) place. Add to that collection Seanan McGuire’s new novella, Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is sort of a prequel to her Nebula Award winning, Every Heart a Doorway.  Don’t worry, though: you don’t need to have read Every Heart a Doorway in order to appreciate and enjoy the story of Jacqueline and Jillian and their sojourn in The Moors in this book.

down among the sticks and bones

It reads like a dark fairy tale, one in which the narrator inserts herself (a little) into the narrative, commenting dryly about the events she’s describing, and while that’s not always a technique that works for me personally, in this case the narrator’s wry observations add depth to the events and the characters.

 

The fairy tale begins with classic bad fairy tale parents, the sort who don’t deserve any children.  They see their twin daughters as extensions of themselves, accessories to be paraded around before other couples in their social set, but not as human beings with their own needs and desires and thoughts.  They’d originally decided they wanted a boy (for the father) and a girl (for the mother) but when the babies were born identical twin girls, they solved the “problem” by the father’s treating Jillian as a tomboy, making her, as much as he could, like the son he wished he had, and the mother’s turning Jacqueline into the little princess she saw as the ideal daughter. Jacqueline and Jillian managed to reach the age of five without permanent damage because their paternal grandmother, Louise, came to take care of them and give them all the nurturing their cold parents couldn’t or wouldn’t, but then, of course (in classic fairy tale bad parent fashion), the parents sent Louise away in the middle of the night, telling the girls she didn’t love them anymore.

 

Imprisoned in their rigid roles and not allowed to try any other aspects of their personalities, the twins drift apart, set up as competitors rather than companions, until the rainy day when Jillian entices Jacqueline to go upstairs and explore their grandmother’s former room in the attic, and the two of them (now twelve years old) find themselves going down a stairway inside their grandmother’s trunk, ending up in the strange and dangerous world of the Moors.  There the two of them meet up with the Master, an impressive vampire who runs most of that part of the world, and Dr. Blast, a mad scientist type who’s able to bring the dead back to life, sometimes, and the girls make their choices of which one of them they want to apprentice themselves to for the rest of their time in the Moors (until the door reopens to allow them back into their world).  Their choices are surprising, based on their prior lives and what you think their personalities are, but they come to embrace their new roles, as would-be daughter to the Master and as apprentice to Dr. Blast, to the point where neither one of them really wants to return to the “real world.”  Until they are forced out, and I’m not going to tell you how they’re forced out of the Moors, except to say that it feels perfectly sensible, given what we’ve seen of the two characters and their world.

 

As a sort of fairy tale, there’s not a lot of in depth character development, but the charm of the book is in the world it creates and the people who populate it and how the fateful decisions and their consequences are depicted.  It’s a dark and sad book in its way, and now I want to read Every Heart a Doorway to see what happened next to Jack and Jill.

 

Of course, if you’re doing the 2017 Reading Challenge, this (short!) book counts as a fantasy book for one of the categories.  Just in case you couldn’t find another fantasy book (ha!).  It’s well worth reading even if you’re not doing the challenge, of course.