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I saw him watching me in the gilded mirrors with the assessing eye of a connoisseur inspecting horseflesh, or even of a house-wife in the market, inspecting cuts on the slab. I’d never seen, or else had never acknowledged, that regard of his before, the sheer carnal avarice of it; and it was strangely magnified by the monocle lodged in his left eye. When I saw him look at me with lust, I dropped my eyes but, glancing away from him, I caught sight of myself in the mirror. And I saw myself, suddenly, as he saw me, my pale face, the way the muscles in my neck stuck out like thin wire. I saw how much that cruel necklace became me. And, for the first time in my innocent and confined life, I sensed in myself a potentiality for corruption that took my breath away.
The next day, we were married.
I found myself in the unusual position of being scolded by this book’s introduction, written by Helen Simpson. “The Bloody Chamber is often wrongly described as a group of traditional fairy tales given a subversive feminist twist. In fact, these are new stories, not re-tellings.” Well shut my mouth! I have been going around for years saying, oh, I really want to read this book by Angela Carter. It’s like a feminist retelling of fairy tales. Sounds amazing.
Apparently I was wrong.
Well I am happy to take those lumps, but I might argue that bringing to the fore the sexuality of these heroines in Carter’s fairy tales is feminist insofar as it presents their sexuality as relevant to the text.
Consider the title story, which opens with a young woman travelling to meet her fiancé, with due attention paid to the ‘pounding’ of her heart and the ‘thrusting’ pistons of the train bearing her ‘away from girlhood, away from the white, enclosed quietude of my mother’s apartment, into the unguessable country of marriage.’ The story continues in this elegiac style, risking accusations of being overwritten, but Carter is obviously having wicked fun with this tale of a woman who discovers her new husband carries a dark secret. The Bloody Chamber flirts with the divide between sex and death, the marital consummation equated with ritual murder, the narrator unquestioningly pulled this way and that as if by tidal forces between her mother and her husband.
The following stories, The Courtship of Mr Lyon and The Tiger’s Bride both address the same source material, a recurring technique within this collection, namely Beauty and the Beast. The first story appeals to the high romance of the tale, especially in its numeroues retellings. The second riffs on a cruder sense of humour and explores the venality of ‘Belle’s’ father in losing his daughter to the Beast, not to mention her own knowing mockery of his intentions towards her.
The Company of Wolves, most famously adapted by Neil Jordan, The Werewolf and Wolf-Alice, the last story in this collection, are all riffs on different aspects of the Little Red Riding Hood story. A similar separation, as with the previous stories depicting different aspects of Belle, is attempted here. The young heroine appears either as an innocent, a woman who uses the desire of the wolf to survive, or a more lupine creature herself.
Puss-in-Boots is transformed into a bawdy farce about a young lover and his feline valet. ‘So all went right as ninepence and you never saw such boon companions as Puss and his master; until the man must needs go fall in love.’ A rich vein of cynicism is explored in this story, with romance simply another scam, another challenge for the wicked pair.
My favourite of the bunch has to be The Lady of the House of Love. This is an extremely funny take on the traditional vampire myth, with a lonely undead Countess feeding on young men who pass through the abandoned village beneath her castle. Until one day, a cyclist on leave from the war arrives to drink from the fountain and is directed by the castle’s maid to visit. Instead of being seduced by the grandeur and ostentation of the abode, he sees nothing but mould and decaying furniture. Completely devoid of imagination he is immune to the charms of the vampire. I learned on the weekend that this young hero was apparently based on an artist neighbour of Carter’s. Quite the poison pen she had.
Deliciously wicked and very funny.
“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”
“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.
“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”
“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.
Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.
I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.
The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels traditional and surprisingly unique.
Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.
Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.
What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.
The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.
Gently told with rich storytelling.
She had been prepared to love it, but there was not very much to love. She had never seen a baby so thin and wizened. Its face was just creases, thick with down. It had the finest, darkest, sourest lips, disapproving anciently, godlikely, distantly. It had the look of a lamb born badly, of a baby bird fallen from the nest – that doomed look, holy and lifeless, swollen-eyed, retreated too far into itself to be awakened.
I have a confession to make. I have been running scared of this book for years now. Neil Gaiman’s jacket quote – “One of my favourite books in ages…powerful and moving”, – screamed at me from the shop shelves, but I kept on walking. See when Tender Morsels was first published, I read a review which described the opening chapters of this book. Margo Lanagan is a fearless writer, who does not shy away from disturbing material, in this instance rape and incest.
I cannot remember the newspaper in question, but I recall putting it down shuddering and making myself a promise never to read this book. I have said it here before, but as a child I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which left me deeply distressed. Even as an adult I did not want to revisit such matters in my reading.
My confession is that I was very wrong to avoid this book for so long.
Ever since Liga’s mother died, she has been trapped in a small hut with her drunken abusive father. Terrorised and humiliated by him, made to think that she is worthless, stupid and wanton, her father’s cruel taunting breaks her will as he repeatedly rapes her, convincing the teenage girl that his actions are her fault entirely. Longfield keeps his child in ignorance even of the children he begets on her, employing local witch Muddy Annie to supply different kinds of potions and treatments designed to abort them. When her father abruptly dies, Liga is left alone and vulnerable, delivering the one child he failed to kill. She continues to live in the family home, tries to keep to herself, but isolated in the forest she soon falls victim to more brutal outrages.
At her lowest hour, Liga is visited by a strange being, who transports her to another world that in appearance is not that different, and yet those whom she hates are not party to this private heaven. There is plenty of food to eat and comfort to be had. Liga raises two daughters, Branza and Urdda, in this realm where innocence is not punished and childhood is preserved in a permanent state of grace.
As the years pass, others find their way into Liga’s world. The borders between the real world – cruel, callous and full of pain – and this lifelike fantasy realm – where kindness is everywhere and the welfare of Liga’s family prized by both people and animals alike – erode. These strangers seek to exploit the fairy-tale world and threaten the innocence of Branza and Urdda. The two girls react differently to the temptations offered by the ‘real world’, and it is left to Liga to decide whether she will let her daughters return, or whether she will face the horrors buried in her past.
I cannot state this strongly enough – this book is marvellous. Lanagan’s Grimm Fairy Tale is a masterpiece of repressed sexuality and symbolism. Magic is shown to be a means not only to escape the pain of this world, but a tool to be employed to improve it. There are even conniving dwarves and bear-men, although they are quite different from the standards of fairy tales.
Reminiscent of Angela Carter‘s equally revisionist The Bloody Chamber, Tender Morsels is no mere parody. The dialogue is delivered in an unusual pidgin English, that can seem at times childlike, yet at other points deeply threatening. Time and space are rendered fluid by the border between the two worlds and some who cross over assume their actions in Liga’s world are little more than drunken visions, excusing them of any responsibility. Lovers parted by the divide age at different speeds.
For me though the most beautiful scene is Liga refusing the fantasy offered to her by the entity, insisting that she does not deserve it, only to realize that her daughter does and more.
Rich in symbolism and incisive psychological detail, a modern day fairy tale with incredible punch from a visionary Australian author.
I have read Bruno Bettelheim on fairy tales, as well as Sigmund Freud’s take on E.T.A. Hoffmann, Jung on mythical archetypes – do you ever suspect that they are missing the point? That on a basic level these are stories to be enjoyed by an audience looking for a little magic and whimsy in their lives, not psychoanalytic metaphors for our unconscious desires. If you ever have the chance, read the original French version of Le Petit Chaperon Rouge. It is a horror story really, taking an almost malicious delight in the tragic fate of Little Red Riding Hood. That feeling of dismay evoked by the final line of the story ‘and gobbled her up’, is the goal of the story. As entertainment it holds greater meaning than a desiccated moral imperative.
This is something that Linda Medley understands. Castle Waiting mixes and matches different fairy tales into a large jumble, a story containing many other stories, without pausing to consider the metaphorical meaning of each symbol, or archetype employed. What I find most interesting is that the title actually identifies the main character of the series (this large and beautifully presented collection is only volume one of an ongoing comic book) – the enchanted castle itself from the Sleeping Beauty story. Characters come and go, but it is the castle itself that remains constant.
Originally the king and queen of the castle ruled over a town known as Putney. They were both wise and fair and the inhabitants of the town were content. Unfortunately no royal heir had yet been produced and so the king travelled to visit a wise woman, who was in fact a white witch. Promising to help the royal couple conceive, the good witch Mother Medora and her dozen or so sisters (who all have names beginning with ‘m’, alliteration is a recurring theme in this book) set about making the necessary arrangements.
Medora had yet another sister, an evil black witch named Mald, who was insulted by the king’s slight. Accompanied by her demon familiar Leeds she sets about avenging herself on the royal family and so the tale of Sleeping Beauty plays out as in the familiar way. The castle of Putney is surrounded by impenetrable vines for a hundred years and the people of the town eventually leave. An handsome prince arrives at the appointed time, wakes the slumbering princess and then, to the dismay of the castle’s surviving inhabitants, she just takes off with her handsome lover!
Bereft of king or queen, the people of the castle try to go about their affairs as best they can. As the years pass they are joined by other adventurers and wanderers, such as Adjutant Rackham (who resembles a stork in a suit), Sir Chess (a well-built knight with the head of a horse), Sister Peace of the Order Solicitine (a most unique nunnery, whose history occupies the latter half of this volume), the plague-obsessed Dr Fell and finally Jain, who escapes from a loveless marriage seeking out the legendary Castle Waiting, known as a place of refuge.
Jain identifies herself as the Countess of Carabas and much of her past remains a mystery, including the parentage of the green-skinned infant she gives birth to at the castle. While the story of a pregnant lady travelling alone across the countryside looking for a place of legend might be thought to have an inevitable bad ending, Medley acknowledges the dangers faced by Jain on the road, while also relating her adventures with gentle humour. This has been described as a feminist retelling of fairy tales, which it obviously is, but it is also quite an affectionate and loving one. The principal characters are mostly women who have faced hard times, yet still laugh at their lot in life.
Slowly but surely Sister Peace becomes the centre of attention, with her stories of life with travelling performers, religious orders of bearded ladies and her flirtatious rivalry with the demon Leeds confirming her as a vivacious and bemused woman of God.
Medley’s art resembles the style of Jeff Smith, whose book Bone is a particular favourite of mine, perfectly accompanying the warm storytelling. Castle Waiting is also comparable to that series due to its use of contemporary dialogue, but Medley goes even further, introducing many aspects of our world into her fantasy concoction. Jain is even shown reading a copy of The Wonderful World of Oz at one point.
A beautifully captured fantasy world.
Once upon a time, a middle-aged associate professor called Knight, armoured only by his self-esteem, which was considerable, journeyed into a mountain wilderness to investigate rumours that a dragon was terrorising farmers, small shopkeepers and eco-tourists in the area.
I remember my dad trying to convince me that fantasy and superheroes were things one had to leave behind with childhood. What about the man who invented the telephone, he asked rhetorically. There was a real hero. Your writers of Tarzan and so forth were probably just lowly shoe salesmen who got lucky with selling their daydreams. This was a very dispiriting notion for me as a kid. Now thirty-something’s continue to indulge themselves in childish pursuits and primetime television schedules have been occupied by sf/fantasy extravagances. It seems the daydreamers won, but I suspect we have gone from one extreme to another.
Australian writer Jennifer Rowe’s collection of short ‘adult’, fairy tales straddles the balance between fantasy and reality. Each short tale describes lonely or foolish adults who maybe need a little magic in their lives. In this world stage magicians have actual magical powers that far outstrip sleight of hand trickery and handsome princes struggle with their sexuality.
My pick of the bunch is Curly Locks, a parable about how ignorance is bliss. A young woman, orphaned by a misdirected letter bomb, spends her days working and caring for her mysteriously disabled boyfriend. Then one day an act of kindness witnessed by a powerful mage causes her fortune to improve, although she never really questions it. The Magic Fish features, well, a magic goldfish and unfortunately a very forgetful one at that. Justin and the Troll shows how vitally important it is to listen carefully. Sadly ‘troll bridge’, sounds an awful lot like ‘toll bridge’.
Rowe carries off the conceit of sour adult lives requiring a small electric thrill to put them on the right path quite well. Known as a crime writer, she has written fairy tales for children under pseudonyms, including the popular Deltora Quest series as Emily Rodda. Fairy Tales for Grown Ups strikes a balance between her parallel careers, grim fairy tales with a jaunty sense of whimsy.
For Rowe the story begins after the ‘happily ever after’, when divorce and bitterness have set in. Several of the tales feature divorcees muddling their way through middle age. The stories are even set in the same world and some of the characters introduced to us in the preceding entries in this collection meet in the final short, Angela’s Mandrake. The hero of The Lonely Prince reminded me a little of Herbert, the effete son of the ambitious lord in Monty Python’s Quest for the Holy Grail. A sensitive romantic maneuvered into a marriage that befits his father’s intentions instead of his own need for a partner. Rowe’s take on the situation is an amusing inversion of the traditional fairy tale, once again introducing a sense of farcical modernity into the proceedings. The Fat Wife has the abandoned first wife character trope meet a gentle, yet sexually rapacious genie, who knows just how to appreciate a woman scorned by a world that favours ‘size 8 models’.
As befits the best fairy tales, each of Rowe’s stories is written in a light and breezy, enjoyable yet also pleasantly forgettable. I mean that as a compliment. All the problems and ailments of these characters are rooted in issues of low self-esteem and the broad theme of the book seems to be that we should believe in ourselves a little more. Maybe allow a little bit of magic into our lives every now and then.
This is a pleasant treat to read on a slow Sunday afternoon.
Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.
The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.
With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.
Hunters send in
Still, we’ve lost
A dozen there
My crazy hair.
Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.
Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues – McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.
In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article –
“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”
What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.
In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.