Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Black Thorn, White Rose

Ellen Datlow is one of those people whose elephantine output simply blows my mind. For twenty-one years she co-edited (for sixteen years with Terri Windling and for five with Kelly Link & Gavin Grant) the phone book sized and always great Year's Best Fantasy and Horror anthology. Each year she has also edited numerous other anthologies and has won more World Fantasy Awards than anyone else (she's tied with frequent collaborator Terri Windling). In 2009 and the first half of 2010 alone she has edited eleven anthologies. It's mind boggling. Just sitting on the adjudication panel for one measly gigantic theater festival for seven years nearly sucked me dry (rewarding as it was in many, many ways).

So, needless to say, I'm a little behind in catching up with the tomes she's put together. Like, decades behind. Seriously. I will be happily reading her anthologies until the day I die without ever running out even if through the miracles of modern science my disembodied head in a jar is reading her books 300 years from now. Among the series she has co-edited with Terri Windling is one with modern authors doing their own take on fairy tales which began in 1993 with Snow White, Blood Red. I just got around to reading the second entry in the series, Black Thorn, White Rose which was originally released in 1995 (we are nothing if not up to date here at the cabinet).

As with every anthology I've read, it's mixed bag, but with no real clunkers and with numerous standouts. The following are the stories I found to be of particular interest for one reason or another.

"Somnus's Fair Maid" by Ann Downer: This Regency-era romance adaptation of Sleeping Beauty was the first in the collection that really popped. She makes no attempt to infuse the tale with a dreamy, fairy-tale tone, which I always think is a good way to go. Downer is really comfortable in the period. As Datlow and Windling say in their (excellent) introduction:
"The literary fairy tale, like the music of jazz, is an improvisation on a theme. It eschews our modern obsession with novelty, our insistence on plots that surprise on every page and ideas that have never been uttered before. Like jazz, it is best appreciated by those with an ear for the original melody on which it is based. The pleasure lies in savoring the writer's skill as she or he transforms a familiar story."
"Ogre" by Michael Kandel is just a really good time. Kandel is one of the few writers in the anthology I had never heard of before, likely because he mostly writes science fiction, which I very rarely read. He also, however, serves as Ursula K. LeGuin's editor at Harcourt. So, like, wow. Even Datlow in her introduction seems skeptical about its fairy tale origins, though. It's about an amateur theatrical production in which an ogre (named Dennis) is cast. It's pretty much charm personified. Dennis accidentally eats one of the actresses hands and no one knows their lines and the director is a nightmare. You know. The usual.

The Goose Girl is an excellent fairy tale that is less well known to modern readers. It's about a young princess who is on her way to marry a prince sight unseen, and on the journey there, her servant effects a switch. So, for a short time, the servant winds up married to the prince and the princess works as a humble goose girl. When the false bride is found out, she is put naked into a barrel lined with sharp nails that is drawn through the streets by horses until she is dead. Tim Wynn-Jones's version is told from the point of view of the prince who in his telling, mixes the tale as he remembers it, with the version commonly told by an old story telling crone. All the narration is unreliable. It's such an interesting take because the actual events are precisely as they were laid out by the Grimms. The difference is in what the characters are like, and it changes the story completely.

In terms of Fairy Tale retellings, Jane Yolen is one of the best and one of the people most responsible for the genre being taken seriously. Most famously, she's the author of the Mythopoetic Award winning (and Nebula short listed) Briar Rose, a loose retelling of Sleeping Beauty set during the Holocaust. "Granny Rumple", the story included here, is a version of Rumpelstiltskin set in a Jewish ghetto in the Ukraine. Yolen demonstrates her rare ability to tap into history and myth while telling an entertaining and heartbreaking story with deftly drawn characters. She says at the top that the story is true, but the Yolens are notorious liars. And as for it's marked similarity to the famous Grimm tale:
"If Granny Rumple's story sounds a bit like another you have heard, I am not surprised. My father's father used to entertain customers at his wife's inn with a rendition of Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish, passing it off as a story of his own invention. And what is folklore, after all, but the recounting of old tales. We Yolens have always borrowed from the best."
Jane Yolen is always, always worth reading. If you come across a story of hers in an anthology or a magazine, or find a book of hers just sitting around: read it.

I've been hearing about Storm Constantine for a long, long time, but I'd always found her name to be a little pretentious and contrived so I discounted her (honestly, I have no idea if it's her given name or not). Fie on me, I say! Her offering here, "Sweet Bruising Skin" is a revelation. I've always thought The Princess and the Pea was a stupid fairy tale. I mean, who wants to have someone that finicky around the house? That's a good thing? This version of the tale is told by a wicked, Machiavellian queen. The pea business is just part of the queen's efforts to grab and maintain power via alchemy, drugs, poison, the law, or by any means necessary. It's completely entertaining, chilling, beautifully written and deeply strange.

Peter Straub and Roger Zelazny also have wonderful stories included. Black Thorn came out the year Zelazny died, so it was likely one of the last things he wrote: "Godson", a nice take on meeting the Devil on the crossroads is both funny and suspenseful. Straub, of course, has that terrific horror writer's ability to gnaw his way into the same ugly realities that fairy tales also dwell on. His take on the Grimm's "Ashputtle" (the German Cinderella) is desperately sad. His obese and lonely Mrs. Asch is filled with rage partially engendered from a complicated relationship with her stepmother. It's chilling from top to bottom and full of smart insights about how we treat people who are broken or grotesque in some way and the assumptions we make about them. Mrs. Asch is both a downtrodden step-daughter (in her telling of it, which seems far from reliable) and fairy tale ogre in the guise of a kindergarten techer. If you have a small child in school, this story will give you nightmares.

Those are just the highlights. I briefly met Ellen Datlow at a Terri Windling reading she was hosting at KGB Bar a couple of years ago. I am way to shy to be any good at meeting people I am that impressed by, though I told her a bit about "Antarctica" as I would walk across glass to have something included in one of her books.

I've said this elsewhere, but people tell fairy tales over and over again because they're true. They're resilient monsters that can hold up to anything, be set in pretty much any milieu and thrive. They've been denigrated, relegated to the children's section of the library and cheapened and simplified. But they are real.

(photo: copyright Ellen Datlow)

1 comment:

n said...

just completely yes. may I request a post on Angela Carter and fairy tales?

and I do recommend putting 'Wraeththu" on your reading list if you're over the name now.