Not just for horror fans…
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Stephen Jones is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of horror stories and anthologies. For this one, he has asked some of the best of today’s horror writers to come up with a modern spin on some old folk and fairy tales – most but not all are taken from the Grimms’ collections. These are not in the main re-writings of the old stories but instead are imaginatively inspired by some aspect of them. Some are in traditional fairy tale settings and some in the modern day. The stories range from only a few pages up to almost novella-length, and a short author bio is given at the end of each.
Each new story is preceded by a version of the original story that inspired it and, although I can’t find anything in the book to confirm this, I assume these original stories have been re-written or at least re-edited specially for this book, probably by Jones himself, since no-one else is credited for it. And very well re-written they are too, in standard modern language but without the intrusion of anachronistic modern slang. Although they’re really only there as a taster and prompt for the new stories, I found these versions of the originals a pleasure to read in themselves.
The meat of the book however is in the new stories. As with any anthology, both approach and standard varies a little from story to story, but overall I found all of the stories to be above average for the genre and some are really excellent. Regular visitors will know that I have already raved about Neil Gaiman’s entry, Down to a Sunless Sea – not a supernatural story as such, but spun very imaginatively from the old tale of The Singing Bone. But there were several other stories that I enjoyed just as much. Here’s a brief flavour of just a few of them…
Look Inside by Michael Marshall Smith is a modern-day take on the story of The Three Little Men in the Wood. Marshall Smith has also appeared before in “Tuesday Terror!” and this story shows all the same humour that made that one so enjoyable. Told by our first-person female narrator, Marshall Smith has a lot of fun being cheekily rude about feminism in a way that wouldn’t have worked at all with a male narrator, and while this story is pretty unscary it’s clever and amusing.
Brian Lumley’s The Changeling is a very well written story of an aeons-old alien encountered by our unsuspecting narrator on a deserted beach. This is so in the style of HP Lovecraft that even I noticed it, and the blurb at the end confirms that Lumley has indeed specialised in that particular sub-genre. But – and Lovecraft fans will hate me for this – this is so much better written than HPL’s stories! It has a beginning, a middle and an end and does not involve pages and pages of unnecessary descriptions of tunnels, ruins etc. He brings out all the imagination of the world Lovecraft created without sending the reader (OK, this reader) off to sleep in quite the same way.
Angela Slatter’s story By the Weeping Gate is based on The Robber Bridegroom. It tells the tale of a brothel-keeper and her daughters, all but one of whom are forced into the life of the brothel. However Madame Dalita is keeping her fairest daughter pure – she is destined for better things. But girls in the town are turning up murdered…and no-one knows why. I thought this was a fantastic story – Slatter built up a brilliantly scary atmosphere with some great language and really effective story-telling, and again showed huge imagination in how she spun this story from the original. And introduced me to a lovely new word – ensorcelled – meaning enchanted or fascinated.
I’ve only highlighted these three, but could easily have picked another half-dozen or so that I also greatly enjoyed. And amongst the names that might only be familiar to horror fans, there are some that are known much more widely – Gaiman, of course, Christopher Fowler of Bryant and May fame, and Joanne Harris, best known perhaps for Chocolat.
Yes, there are a few less good stories in the book, or at least that appealed less to me, but I thoroughly enjoyed the collection as a whole. Some are scary, but there’s no gore-fest or chainsaw massacre in here – the horror is in the atmosphere created by some fine writing and a lot of inventiveness. A word of caution – Jones makes it clear that this book is aimed at adults, not children, and I would endorse that. But I certainly don’t think they’re only for dedicated horror fans either – this quality of writing and imagination deserves a wider audience than that. Highly recommended.
NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.