Fearie Tales is an anthology of short stories by various horror writers giving an updated twist to some of the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. I’ve only read the first few so far, but have been very impressed by the quality and imagination – I’ll review it fully once I’ve finished it. Each of the new stories is preceded by the folk tale that inspired it. Like the originals, the new stories are more dark fantasies than straight horror, but none the less interesting for that. And that’s the case with the one I’ve chosen for this week’s…
Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman is a take on the traditional tale of The Singing Bone. In the original, a king offers to give his daughter in marriage to any man who kills the wild boar that is terrorising his forest. Two brothers set off, and one is helped to kill the boar by a ‘little man’ who recognises his goodness. The other brother then kills the good one, buries him, and steals the boar, thus gaining the Princess. But the murder is discovered when one of the murdered brother’s bones is turned into a mouthpiece for a horn, and each time the horn is blown, it plays a song telling the truth of the crime. The evil brother is punished by being sewn up in a sack and drowned…and quite right too!
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The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.
Gaiman’s take on the story is quite different, and in many ways much darker. A woman wanders the Rotherhithe docks ‘as she has done for years, for decades.’ No-one knows her story, until during a deluge you take shelter under a canvas awning and find the woman there. Without prompting, she tells you the story of her young son who ran away to sea and signed on with a stormcrow ship – one cursed by ill luck. And as the ship made its way home from his first voyage, disaster struck and the crew abandoned ship – finding themselves adrift in a lifeboat with food supplies running low…
‘I told him not to go to sea. “I’m your mother,” I said. “The sea won’t love you like I love you; she’s cruel.” But he said, “Oh Mother, I need to see the world. I need to see the sun rise in the tropics, and watch the Northern Lights dance in the Arctic sky, and most of all I need to make my fortune and then, when it’s made, I will come back to you, and build you a house, and you will have servants, and we will dance, Mother, oh how we will dance…”
I may well be the only person on the planet who has never read anything by Neil Gaiman – an omission I intend to rectify. The writing in this story is quite superb, building atmosphere with the lightest touch. The story is very short, just a few pages, but leaves the reader with images of horror, sorrow and a touch of madness. Every word adds something – nothing is wasted. The use of the second person puts the reader right into the story, under the awning with this woman who is frightening in the intensity of her grief. The connection to the original only comes at the end and would be a major spoiler, but it becomes very clear how Gaiman has used the Grimm tale as inspiration for his own, and the theme of family betrayal is present here too, though in a much different form.
To be honest, if this was the only good story in the book (which it isn’t), it would be worth it for this one alone. Not terrifying, but chilling, with emotional depth, and mesmerising in the way it is done, this is a rare example of how effective the short story format can be.
Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯
Overall story rating 😀 😀 😀 😀 😀