Snow White and Other Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm

Happily ever after…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a new entry in Oxford World’s Classics gorgeous hardback series, which so far seems to be concentrating on classic collections of short stories. Like most people, I know some of the Grimms’ stories from childhood, though in a bowdlerised version, and from Disney, pantomimes, ballets, etc. However, I’ve only tried to read the originals once before, in Philip Pullman’s version. He’d modernised the language horribly and tried to put in some archly knowing little jokes, and I disliked it all so much I only got about a third of the way through. So when I saw that this collection is a modern translation too, I was a bit apprehensive. Of course, I needn’t have worried – as always the OWC have treated the stories with respect and the translator, Joyce Crick, has done an excellent job of using standard modern English, making the stories easily approachable and enjoyable, while still retaining the sense of antiquity which gives them part of their charm. She tells us she has striven to return the stories as far as possible to the Grimms, by stripping out the layers that some later translations and adaptations have added over the years.

Rumpelstiltskin
by Anne Anderson

The book includes the Grimms’ Preface to the Second Edition where they explain how the stories were collected, from where, and that the point was to preserve the stories before the custom of oral storytelling died out. However the interesting main introduction, also by Joyce Crick, reveals that some at least of the stories were not collected from peasants but from friends of the Grimms from their own social class, recounting tales they had been told in their childhoods. Crick uses the introduction to supply some historical context to the stories, an insight into the then-contemporary drive to collect folklore, and to give some background about the brothers’ lives, while also looking more academically at the relevance of the stories to their own time and place.

Rapunzel
by Walter Crane

While many of the stories could be shared with children, either to read themselves or to have read aloud to them, others may be less suitable, either because of some fairly strong images of horror or simply because of the more adult themes they contain. This volume is clearly aimed primarily at the adult reader, with the introductions, appendices and notes, and also because it lacks illustrations. Crick explains: “The present edition has no pictures, though its conversations have certainly invited them, taking place as ever between a princess and a frog, or a wolf and a girl in a red bonnet, or two frightened children in the forest, but also between a disgruntled fiddler and a Jew, and between a boy-giant and an officious bailiff. So this selection finds itself aimed at readers who once read these tales in their childhood, or had them read to them, and are returning to them late, apple bitten, naivety lost, in history. It was Jacob Grimm who spoke of a ‘lost Paradise of poesy’.”

The Brothers Grimm

There are 82 stories in the collection, including all the best known ones, like Rapunzel, Snow White, Cinderella, although sometimes not going by those names – here we have the originals rather than the versions that have developed over time. So Cinderella appears here as Ashypet, and we have the spirit of her dead mother sending her aid rather than a wand-wielding fairy godmother. But there are also lots that I either didn’t know or hadn’t heard for many years, so I found it an excellent mix of the familiar and the new. There’s humour, horror, lots of poor girls finding their Princes and even some poor men finding their Princesses, animal fables, morality tales, supernatural intervention and human goodness and evil. There are quite a lot of stories that repeat or echo other ones, but each time with enough of a different take to allow them to stand as individual.

The Devil with the Three Golden Hairs
by Maurice Sendak

I loved the retellings of all the stories I already loved – Rapunzel, The Singing Bone, The Tale of the Boy Who Set Out to Learn Fear (some great horror imagery and lots of humour in that one), The Tale of the Fisherman, etc. But I found lots of new favourites too, including Cat and Mouse as Partners (a timely warning of the perfidy of our beloved felines), Faithful John (horrific in parts, but they all live happily ever after, even the beheaded children!), The Three Little Men in the Forest (which I’m sure I’ve come across before but for some reason particularly enjoyed the way it’s told here), Clever Hans (lots of humour enhanced by some lovely repetition). And on and on… too many to list. There were very few I didn’t enjoy – a couple that felt unnecessarily cruel, like Sensible Elsie whose fate seemed rather worse than she deserved, and a couple which had rather ugly depictions of Jews – of their time, but didn’t sit comfortably with me in today’s world.

Hansel and Gretel
by Arthur Rackham

Overall, I loved this collection, and will undoubtedly dip into it again often. I heartily recommend it to anyone who doesn’t know the stories and would like to, or to people who are already familiar with them but would have their appreciation enhanced by the great extras always found in OWC editions.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Oxford World’s Classics.

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Pearls on a Branch edited by Najla Jraissaty Khoury

It happened, or maybe it didn’t…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This collection of Lebanese and Syrian folk tales begins with an introduction from the author explaining how she came to record them. During the Lebanese civil war, Khoury travelled with a theatre group that put on shows for those dispossessed or marginalised by the conflict. As she travelled, she began to ask local women to tell her the stories they were told as children so that she could adapt them for the theatre company. She speaks very interestingly of how she went about the task of collecting the stories, sometimes from individuals, more often from groups of women, and sometimes having to find a time when their children were otherwise occupied to allow the women to relate the more bawdy tales! As with most oral traditions, she found the stories varied from telling to telling, with regional differences and also different emphases on humour and darkness. Then she discusses how she decided which stories to include, firstly in the collection of a hundred stories originally published in Arabic, and then for the thirty stories in this English translation.

This is followed by a second introduction, equally interesting, from the translator, herself a folklorist. Inea Bushnaq explains the storytelling conventions of the region, pointing out the similarities and differences to our own. She talks about the patriarchal society that has only recently begun to change. These stories are ones told by women to their daughters or amongst themselves, so they’re often about girls outsmarting men, but they also show clearly the restrictions under which women lived. Bushnaq also explains the “farsheh” – a kind of nonsense rhyme or humorous story, often involving word play, that the storyteller would use to introduce herself and get the attention of her audience before beginning the telling of the main story. Where we would begin a story “once upon a time”, the Arab convention is to begin with the less definite “there was, or maybe there was not” or “it happened, or maybe it didn’t”…

Najla Jraissaty Khoury

I’m not the world’s biggest fan of folk tales, so I expected to find this interesting rather than enjoyable. But I’m delighted to say I was wrong! I loved these – they’re fun, or moving, or occasionally horrifying, they’re very well written, the translation is excellent, and there’s a wide range so that they don’t begin to feel repetitive. Also, they shed a huge amount of light on a society and way of life that is so different from my own, and which is slowly passing; so that there’s an importance and even urgency to the act of gathering and recording these oral traditions before they are lost. Some are fables, like the story of the fox who turns vegetarian and goes on the Hajj, while many are stories of love and marriage, two things not always connected in a world where girls have no say over who they marry.

There are loads that got five stars from me, so here’s just a brief flavour to tempt you…

The Farsheh – in traditional fashion, the book kicks off with a farsheh, on this occasion part rhyme part prose. A deliciously wicked story about a young man who falls in love with a beautiful girl and decides he must have her for his own. But the girl isn’t quite as docile as he perhaps hoped. A great little starter, very well told with good language and rhythm and lots of humour.

A House Without Worries – a rather horrifying story (to western eyes) about a woman whose husband beats her every night for no good reason. (Not that I’m suggesting there’s ever a good reason!) But as with so many of these stories, the man gets his comeuppance in the end and the woman escapes to a better life. While these stories are quite uplifting with the happy-ever-after endings, they really show the grimmer side of a life where women have no rights. I loved the idea, though, of the kind of subversiveness of women sharing these stories as a form of mutual support.

Lady Tanaqueesh and the Eggs of the Tawawees – tawawees being peacock eggs, the eating of which makes you pregnant apparently! (There are lots of stories where women get pregnant through strange means – I’m sure there was an underlying meaning to this that I couldn’t quite grasp…) In this one, Lady Tanaqueesh has two jealous sisters who trick her into eating the eggs and the resulting pregnancy leads her father to expel her. There’s lots of rather nasty stuff in this one, including the brutal revenge Lady T considers for her sisters. But it’s very well done, with lots of rhyming and repetition – a real feat of translation, I think.

The Fly – a little kind of repetitive question and answer thing that reminded me of the style of “Who Killed Cock Robin”. The fly lands on a series of creatures, praising each, but each replies to the effect that yes, but I can be hurt by another creature or thing, so the fly then goes off to that creature or thing, praises it, etc., until eventually… well, that would be a spoiler, but I love the end of this – quite dark.

O Palace Beautiful! O Fancy Friend! – First off, what a great title! I’ve included this one because it has many elements of Snow White in it, which made me realise how much crossover there is in traditional tales – it made me feel closer to the culture than some of the other tales. Plus, it has Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves in it! Jealous mother, beautiful girl, poisoned apple – what’s not to love?

Oh, I want to tell you about the woman who farts in front of the cow, and the chiffchaff who wants to be Queen of the Birds, and the donkey who ate the wheat, and… but I’ve run out of room! So loads of variety, lots of interest and hugely enjoyable. Great stuff – highly recommended, and not just to folk tale fans!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Archipelago.

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The Shapeshifters by Stefan Spjut

the shapeshiftersWeirdly wonderful…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

In 1978, a small boy and his mother are staying in a holiday cabin in the forests near Falun, in Sweden. All seems well until the mother accidentally kills a bat that was flying around her. She throws it into the undergrowth, but the next day, when she goes to the fridge, there is the dead bat lying crumpled on a shelf. Now some of the forest animals begin to behave strangely, sitting motionless staring at the house. The mother tells the boy to stay in but he wants to see them, so he runs out of the house into the forest – and is never seen again. His distraught mother claims that she saw him being taken by a giant…

In the present day, Susso visits an elderly woman who claims she has seen a strange little man watching her house and her grandson. Susso believes in trolls and is on a personal mission to prove that they still exist. Most of the reports she receives via her website are obviously false or hoaxes, but something about this woman convinces her to investigate further. Elsewhere, Seved is busily clearing up the havoc caused by the Old Ones who live in the barn – a sure sign they are getting restless…

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

This is one of the weirdest books I’ve read in a long time – weirdly wonderful, that is. The world it is set in is undeniably the Sweden of today, but in some isolated places the creatures of myth and folklore still exist. It’s essential that the reader can accept this, because there’s no ambiguity about it, but Spjut’s matter-of-fact way of writing about them somehow makes the whole thing feel completely credible. But although their existence is established he leaves them beautifully undefined – the reader is never quite sure what exactly they are or whether they are fundamentally good or evil or perhaps, like humanity, a bit of both. They’re not all the same, either in appearance or behaviour, and there seems to be a kind of hierarchy amongst them. Although most humans remain unaware of them, some are very closely involved with them. And every now and then, a child goes missing.

Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914
Scandinavian Fairy Tale illustration by Theodore Kittlesen 1857-1914

It’s the writing that makes it work. Spjut builds up a chilling atmosphere, largely by never quite telling the reader exactly what’s going on. Normally that would frustrate me wildly, but it works here because the reader is put in the same position of uncertainty as the humans. There’s a folk-tale feel about the whole thing as if the fables of the old days have somehow strayed back into the real world. But despite that, fundamentally this is a crime novel with all the usual elements of an investigation into a missing child. As with so much Nordic fiction, the weather and landscape plays a huge role in creating an atmosphere of isolation – all those trees, and the snow, and the freezing cold.

Stefan Spjut
Stefan Spjut

There’s a real air of horror running beneath the surface, though in fact there’s not too much in the way of explicit gruesomeness – it’s more the fear of not knowing what might happen. The beginning is decidedly creepy and sets up the tone for the rest of the book brilliantly. It takes a while to get to grips with who everyone is and how the various strands link, but gradually it all comes together. I admit there were bits in the middle that dragged slightly and felt a little repetitive at times, but the bulk of it kept me totally absorbed. And the last part is full of action building up to a really great ending that satisfies even though everything is far from being tied up neatly and tidily. So much is left unexplained, not in the way of careless loose ends, but more as if some things just are as they are and must be accepted.

If you can cope with the basic idea, then I highly recommend this as something very different from the normal run of things. 4 stars for the writing, plus one for being one of the most original books I’ve read in a while – I do hope there’s going to be a sequel…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

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Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood

stone mattressTelling tales…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In her afterword, Margaret Atwood describes this book as a collection of nine ‘tales’, evoking “the world of the folk tale, the wonder tale, and the long-ago teller of tales”. She suggests that while the word ‘story’ can cover true life or realism, ‘tales’ can only be seen as fiction. Hmm…this seems like a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card to allow the author to make her characters dance to the puppeteer’s strings rather than attempting to invest them with a feeling of emotional truth, but then I’m not a huge fan of the trend towards mimicry of folk tales in general. Certainly the tales that worked best for me in this book were the ones where, regardless of the fantastical elements of the plots, the characters’ thoughts and reactions came over as ‘real’.

There’s a general theme through most of the tales, not so much of ageing itself, but of elderly people reviewing episodes in their youth and of the reader seeing how their lives were affected by them. Most of the time those episodes involve failed romantic or sexual relationships and, while as individual stories they are for the most part interesting, I found, as I often do with collections with such a strong theme running through, that it became a little repetitive and tedious after a while.

But she doesn’t care what he thinks about her legs as much as she used to. She says the clogs are comfortable, and that comfort trumps fashion as far as she’s concerned. Gavin has tried quoting Yeats to the effect that women must labour to be beautiful, but Reynolds – who used to be a passionate Yeats fan – is now of the opinion that Yeats is entitled to his point of view, but that was then and social attitudes were different, and in actual fact Yeats is dead.

The quality of the prose, however, is excellent and, taken alone, some of the stories are highly entertaining. Perhaps in line with Atwood’s desire for these to read like folk tales, there’s something of a detached feeling about the narrative voice in many of them – a glibness that takes on an almost sneering tone at times, leading, I found, to a distance between reader and character which effectively prevented me from feeling much emotional investment in their fates. To compensate, many of them are clever and imaginative, and some of the characterisation is excellent even when the emotional response to them is absent.

The collection kicks off with three linked tales, telling of a long-ago broken love affair from the perspective of the woman, the man and the ‘other woman’ respectively. The first of these, Alphinland, is one of the most successful in the book, with a beautifully-drawn picture of an elderly woman struggling to recover from the grief of losing her husband by a kind of active retreat into the world she creates in her own fantasy novels. Despite the fantastical elements to this tale, there is genuine warmth here as the central character faces up to the necessity of taking on tasks that had always been seen as the responsibility of her husband. Although there’s a lot of humour in them, the other two tales in the trio don’t work quite so well, as the fantastical elements that were done with a lot of subtlety in the first are handled more crudely, and what was left ambiguous is made a little too clear.

“Now I’m going to get the tea ready. If you don’t behave yourself when Naveena comes, you won’t get a cookie.” The cookie ploy is a joke, her attempt to lighten things up, but it’s faintly horrifying to him that the threat of being deprived of such a cookie hits home. No cookie! A wave of desolation sweeps through him. Also he’s drooling. Christ. Has it come down to this? Sitting up to beg for treats?

Other stories include a kind of mini-Frankenstein story told from the perspective of the youthful monster; a tale of a horror writer who resents sharing the royalties of his most successful story with friends from his youth, who have held him to a contract he signed long before he had ever published anything; a crooked furniture dealer who finds more than he bargained for when he buys a job-lot of storage units; and a black widow out for revenge on the man who raped her in her youth.

And two that I particularly enjoyed are:

I Dream of Zenia with the Bright Red Teeth – another tale of elderly women looking back, this time at the woman Zenia who stole a man from each of them in their youth, but this one stood out because of its sympathetic portrayal of the friendship between the three women, supporting each other as age takes its toll on them.

Torching the Dusties is the last story in the book. The premise is that young people, maddened by the economic mess left them by their elders, decide those elders should no longer be allowed to live on, eating up scarce resources. It’s told from the perspective of Wilma, a woman living in a retirement home, who is almost blind from macular degeneration and has the visual hallucinations that sometimes go with it. Despite its unlikeliness, Atwood manages to make the premise chillingly believable and as the story plays out, she doesn’t pull any punches. It’s always wise to leave the best to last, and this story went a long way to improving my opinion of the collection overall.

Margaret Atwood
Margaret Atwood

I’m increasingly convinced that collections often detract from, rather than enhancing, the individual stories within them – it’s a rare writer who can produce enough originality to maintain a consistent standard and avoid repetition. I’m pretty sure I’d have been impressed by any of these stories had I come across them in an anthology of different authors but, collected as they are here, I found myself sighing a bit as the basic premise was recycled again and again. I admired the book more than I liked it in the end – the tales are skilfully told, but on the whole didn’t engage me emotionally, and I fear I haven’t been left with a burning desire to seek out more of Atwood’s work.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Bloomsbury Publishing.

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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman illustrated by Eddie Campbell

“…and that way is treacherous and hard”

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the truth is a cave

You ask me if I can forgive myself?

I can forgive myself for many things. For where I left him. For what I did. But I will not forgive myself for the year that I hated my daughter…

So starts this dark tale of a journey, a quest into the Black Mountains to find a cave – to find the truth. Our narrator is a small man, a dwarf, but he’s strong and he’s driven; by what, we don’t yet know but we feel a slow anger in him, an undiminished determination despite his ten year search for the object of his obsession. As we meet him, he is about to hire a guide, Calum MacInnes, to take him to a cave on the Misty Isle which is reputed to be filled with gold…

DSCN0535

This book is nothing less than stunning. Gaiman’s wonderfully dark story is equalled and enhanced by the amazingly atmospheric illustrations of Eddie Campbell. The two elements – words and pictures – are completely entwined. There’s no feeling of the one being an addition to the other – each is essential and together they form something magical. The story is by turns moving, mystical, dramatic, frightening; and the illustrations, many of them done in very dark colours, create a sense of mirky gloom and growing apprehension. To avoid spoilers the pages I have shown are all from the beginning of the book, but as the story darkens, some of the later pictures are truly macabre and unforgettable.

DSCN0543

I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I’ve seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery-red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things.

I say that, but my time on the Misty Isle, that is also called, by the wise, the Winged Isle, reminds me of nothing but itself.

DSCN0538

Gaiman was apparently inspired to write the story by his visits to the Isle of Skye and the legends of the Hebrides. While the pictures quite clearly place the story in the Highlands – the kilts, the purples and greens, the blackness of the mountains – Gaiman has very wisely steered clear of any attempt to ‘do’ dialect. The book is written in standard English, but with the lush layering of traditional legends and with a rhythm in the words that really calls for it to be read aloud. Perhaps this isn’t surprising since the story was originally devised to be read by Gaiman himself at the Sydney Opera House with Campbell’s illustrations projected as a backdrop. I was the lucky, lucky recipient of a hardback copy of the book, but apparently the Kindle Fire edition has audio and video links, though to what I don’t know. However, the book is so beautiful that, devoted though I am to my Kindle, this is one where I would strongly recommend the paper version.

DSCN0539

All the way through, the story is foreshadowing the eventual end as if to suggest that all things are fore-ordained. It’s well worth reading the book twice in fact (it’s only 73 pages) – the first reading has all the tension of not knowing how it ends, while the second reading allows the reader to see how carefully Gaiman fits everything together to create the folk-tale feeling of inevitability. And then read it again a third time, just because it’s wonderful. I end where I began – stunning!

DSCN0545

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Headline.

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Tuesday Terror! The Shadow Tree by Angela Slatter

sourdoughThe teller of tales…

 

I first came across Angela Slatter as one of the contributors to Stephen Jones’ great anthology Fearie Tales and was highly impressed both by her use of language and her story-telling skills. So I acquired her own short story collection Sourdough and Other Stories. The stories in the book are all in the style of traditional fairy tales – in fact some of them refer explicitly to well-known tales, such as Rapunzel. Whether writing an original story or deriving an original angle on a traditional one, there’s a consistency of approach and location that means that these stories work as individual tales but also gradually build together to create a linked world with recurring themes. I’ve only read about a quarter of the book so far but will review the full collection once I finish it. Meantime I have selected the first one as this week’s…

TUESDAY TERROR!

Baldur is fourteen and equals his sister in unpleasantness, occasionally surpassing her. Platinum blonde hair and violet-blue eyes, they are shining, flawed metal, the worst that a royal house can offer: cruel, spiteful, selfish, beautiful, utterly confident of their position in life.

The Shadow Tree tells the tale of Ella, servant to the King and Queen and entrusted with the care of their two deeply unpleasant and cruel children. The story is told to us by Ella herself, so we are immediately aware that Ella is much more than a simple servant – she has a mysterious past and is living as an exile from her home. She is a skilled maker of potions and uses these to manipulate the family so that she has become almost indispensable to each of them in different ways. To the Queen she is someone to confide in; to the King she is a bedmate when the Queen is indisposed. And to the children she is a storyteller, and tonight she will tell them the story of the shadow tree…

‘Where is your milk? Have you had your milk?’ They shake their heads and I take the jug of lukewarm liquid from the bedside stand and pour each a cup, dripping in mandrake juice from the vial in my pocket. Not enough to kill, but enough to make them sleepy and suggestible. They drink it down as I settle back in my spot.

As with all of Slatter’s stories (at least the few I’ve read so far), this is a dark tale. The use of the first-person, the moral ambiguity of the narrator and the deliberate obscuring of the lines between ‘woman’ and ‘witch’ seem to be common themes throughout the collection. In this tale, we come to know that Ella has visited other realms and will do so again in the future. She has a task that she must fulfil if she wishes to be allowed to return to her father’s land. And that task is to judge the characters of the children of the Kings of the realms and then to decide their fate. Ella is cold, chillingly single-minded and dedicated to her task. And she has good reason to have judged these cruel children harshly.

I tell him it is best found in moonlight, when it will gleam like an angel’s wings and, lo and behold, tonight is a full moon. I will not take them there, I tell them, and in this I am adamant. They will, I know, go without me. I tuck them into their beds, make them swear they will not go into the woods tonight and look for the tree. They promise me with lying lips. They will stray, like so many before them, and find the shadow tree…

Angela Slatter
Angela Slatter

The thing I love about Slatter, apart from just the sheer quality and imagination of the stories, is the way she puts in a little phrase or twist almost in passing that can darken the whole story or give insight into a character. In this one, as Ella sends the children to the shadow tree, we suddenly discover that their mother has seen the fateful moment…and chosen not to intervene. A sentence or two and the story is plunged into something unexpected and deeply disturbing. Whether original or derived, each story has that same quality of almost casual cruelty that pervades the original fairy tales. And yet the stories are emotional – the women, the witches, may not always be good but they are real people who love, hate, and feel anger and hurt. And this story is a fine start to what’s shaping up to be an excellent collection.

Fretful porpentine rating: 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating:          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

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Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome ed. Stephen Jones

Not just for horror fans…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

fearie talesStephen 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.

Stephen Jones
Stephen Jones

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.

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The Coming of the Fairies by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

the coming of the fairies“If you believe in fairies, clap your hands…”

🙂 🙂 🙂

In this short book, Conan Doyle tells the story of the famous ‘Cottingley Fairies’ – 5 photographs taken over a three-year period purporting to show fairies and gnomes sporting in a valley in Yorkshire. The photos were taken by two young girls, but it was only when Conan Doyle got his hands on them that they became a cause célèbre.

By the time the first photos surfaced in 1917, Conan Doyle had already become a firm supporter of spiritualism and, while he makes it clear that he doesn’t consider the existence of fairies to be directly related to people communicating from beyond the grave, he expresses his hope that this ‘proof’ of one thing thought to be a myth might open people’s minds to considering the truth of the other. In short, he was motivated to accept the photos as genuine and to dismiss any other explanation. And sadly, that’s exactly what he does.

cot fairies 1

‘Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.’

Unlike the revered Mr Holmes, Conan Doyle decided to believe the improbable by assuming that it was impossible for the girls to fake the photos. Fortunately, by the time the girls admitted that the fairies were copied from a magazine, cut out from cardboard and held in place by hatpins, Conan Doyle had long since died – though of course one of his medium friends may have passed on the shock news.

cot fairies 4

“We received [psychic] communications from a fairy named Bebel several times, one of them lasting nearly an hour. The communication was as decided and swift as from the most powerful spirit. He told us that he was a Leprechaun (male), but that in a ruined fort near us dwelt the Pixies. Our demesne had been the habitation of Leprechauns always, and they with their Queen Picel, mounted on her gorgeous dragon-fly, found all they required in our grounds.”

Extract of a letter from one of Conan Doyle’s ‘witnesses’.

cot fairies 2

The book itself is less interesting than I hoped. Conan Doyle includes his own magazine article and copies of the correspondence between himself and Edward Gardner, the man who carried out the investigation. But he also includes copies of lots of correspondence he received from other people also claiming to have seen fairies and his acceptance of even the tallest of these tales becomes somewhat uncomfortable after a time. There’s also a long chapter in the form of a report from a clairvoyant who sees so many fairies, goblins and gnomes cavorting in the valley that it’s hard to understand how a man of Conan Doyle’s undoubted intelligence couldn’t see it for the sham it so clearly was. Unless, of course, you believe in fairies…

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(It’s OK, Lady Fancifull – I’ve finished. You can stop clapping now… 😉 )

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Color Master by Aimee Bender

A touch of magic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the color masterThe best description I can come up with for this collection of fifteen short stories is ‘modern folk tales’. Ranging from more traditional tales of magic and monsters to very modern stories of sex and technology, if there is a common theme, it is of alienation and loneliness. Some of the stories are short and quirky, others longer and better developed. Sometimes humorous, sometimes moving, occasionally creepy, the stories are extremely well written and compellingly readable.

While the quality of the writing never wavers, I found the quality of the stories themselves to be somewhat variable. There were some that I felt hinted at a depth that didn’t in fact exist, and others that seemed rather pointless and occasionally a little gratuitously distasteful. For instance, the first story Appleless is a beautifully written tale glossed over with an air of magic and mysticism, which in the end fails to disguise that it is fundamentally a rather unpleasant description of a rape. There are undertones in it of Eve and the fall from grace, but the story is too short to have developed these well.

Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender

However, to offset against the stories that don’t quite work, there are a few that really stand out as very fine examples of the short story form. Here are a couple that I think would make this an enjoyable book for most fiction readers, and an essential read for those with a love of folk, faerie and magical realism…

The title story, The Color Master, is a prequel to Perrault’s Donkeyskin, in which a king wishes to marry his daughter and orders three dresses for her, one the colour of the moon, one the colour of the sun and lastly one the colour of the sky. Bender’s story takes us to the store where the dresses are made. The old Color Master is fading and has picked our narrator to succeed her. We see how the colours are selected and mixed, how the narrator learns to see the hidden colours within and how she gradually learns to put not just colour but emotions into the dresses she makes. It is a beautiful piece of writing, full of imagery and feeling, with a touch of humour, and complete within itself.

“…I did what the Color Master had asked, and went for blue, then black, and I was incredibly slow, but for one moment I felt something as I hovered over the bins of blue. Just a tug of guidance from the white of the dress that led my hand to the middle blue. It felt, for a second, like harmonizing in a choir, the moment when the voice sinks into the chord structure and the sound grows, becomes more layered and full than before. So that was the right choice.”

donkeyskin

The Devourings is a very traditional seeming tale of a human woman who marries a troll. When the troll accidentally eats their children, the woman must come to terms with her grief and decide whether she can stay with the troll. This is the most traditionally ‘folk’ of all the stories and has the most overt magic in it. Again the writing is wonderful, the fantastical nature of the story never being allowed to overwhelm the love at the heart of it. I found the ending of this tale (which is also the ending of the book) very special, but ‘twould be a major spoiler to describe it.

“As she unlaced her blouse, he touched fingertips to her trembling bare shoulders and explained in his low gravel that he only ate human beings he did not know. I know your name now, he murmured. I know your travels. You’re safe.”

The variability of the stories has made me swither over a rating for this book, but in the end the good stories are so good that they outweigh the weaker ones, and even these weaker ones are so well written that they can’t fail to bring some pleasure. Hence, five stars and highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Grimm Tales: For Young and Old by Philip Pullman

Fine, but who is this book for?

😐 😐 😐

UK Version
UK Version
Pullman’s versions of some of the Grimms’ folk stories are well enough written and his little summaries at the end of each tale give a bit of background to where each story originated and the different versions that have been told in the past. But from the moment I received the book and discovered that, to my amazement, there are no illustrations, I couldn’t help but wonder – who exactly is this book for?

Pullman has updated the language but not the stories, so we have dreadful clashes like princesses in mediaeval castles talking about weapons of mass destruction or giants saying ‘Respect!’. This kind of pantomime humour made me think the books must be aimed at a young audience but then where are those missing illustrations? I also couldn’t help feeling that with language like this Pullman’s versions will date much more quickly than those I read in my childhood. Also Pullman has deliberately gone back to the unbowdlerised versions of many of the stories and I’m not sure that I’d be happy to be reading some of these to my (mythical) young children. Rapunzel getting pregnant without really understanding what was happening to her? Houses described as being as filthy as ‘pisspots’? Must be for a teenage or adult audience then? But if so, what do these versions add to the ones we all read when we were young? For me, the answer to that question was nothing much, I’m afraid.

Rackham's Hansel and Gretel - an example of what this book DOESN'T have...
Rackham’s Hansel and Gretel – an example of what this book DOESN’T have…

In the end I came to the conclusion that the book is in fact aimed at a very specific target audience – Pullman fans. I doubt this will gain him many new ones, nor is it intriguing or different enough to draw in many fans of folk tales. Not a bad book, exactly, but I doubt if, in the long run, it will challenge the classic versions of Grimms’ that are already out there.

The US version
The US version
An interesting note – when first published in the UK this book was titled ‘Grimm Tales: For Young and Old’. I see that the title has been changed for the US version to ‘Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version’. I wonder if perhaps that’s been a response to the somewhat lukewarm reception the lack of illustrations and unbowdlerised language caused this book to have amongst many reviewers in Britain?

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link