The Blue Fairy Book-A Creative Project

blue coverTo kick off the new year, I’ve started a project revolving around Andrew Lang‘s  The Blue Fairy Book (1889), which was the first of twelve “coloured” fairy tale collections published through 1910. There are 37 tales in The Blue Fairy Book, which includes seven tales from the Brothers Grimm, five from Madame d’Aulnoy, three from the Arabian Nights, and four Norwegian fairytales, among other sources. Every eight to ten days, I will be posting one of the fairy tales along with my notes of potential links, mash-ups, and outside sources on Patreon. Other posts will include commentary on the original authors and collectors of these tales, links to contemporary retellings, and classic fairy tale illustrations. It’s going to be a fun ride, and I hope you will join me on this adventure.

The Blue Fairy Book (1889) Table of Contents

  1. The Bronze Ring
  2. Prince Hyacinth and the Dear Little Princess
  3. East of the Sun and West of the Moon
  4. The Yellow Dwarf
  5. Little Red Riding Hood
  6. The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood
  7. Cinderella or the Little Glass Slipper
  8. Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp
  9. The Tale of a Youth Who Set Out to Learn What Fear Was
  10. Rumpelstiltskin
  11. Beauty and the Beast
  12. The Master Maid
  13. Why the Sea Is Salt
  14. The Master Cat or Puss in Boots
  15. Felicia and the Pot of Pinks
  16. The White Cat
  17. The Water-lily. The Gold-spinners
  18. The Terrible Head
  19. The Story of Pretty Goldilocks
  20. The History of Whittington
  21. The Wonderful Sheep
  22. Little Thumb
  23. The Forty Thieves
  24. Hansel and Gretel
  25. Snow-White and Rose-Red
  26. The Goose-girl
  27. Toads and Diamonds
  28. Prince Darling
  29. Blue Beard
  30. Trusty John
  31. The Brave Little Tailor
  32. A Voyage to Lilliput
  33. The Princess on the Glass Hill
  34. The Story of Prince Ahmed and the Fairy Paribanou
  35. The History of Jack the Giant-killer
  36. The Black Bull of Norroway
  37. The Red Etin

Event Announcement

I will be emceeing HWA Colorado’s Annual Red Tinsel Event from 7-9 pm on December 8 at the BookBar (4280 Tennyson St.) in Denver. Readers in attendance will include yours truly,  Steve Rasnic Tem, Stephen Graham Jones, Mario Acevedo, Angie Hodapp, Warren Hammond, Josh Viola, Sean Eads, Hillary Raque Dodge, Larry Berry, Dean Wyant, and Carter Wilson.  In addition to the readings and signings, there will also be several giveaways. I know it’s a drive, but it should be fun.

In other news, Hillary Raque Dodge and I are looking at event options to celebrate Women in Horror Month (February). Together, we are working on the preliminary development of the Colorado Springs satellite of the Colorado HWA chapter. Future moves include plans to meet with core HWA members in the southern region, raise awareness of HWA membership opportunities for potential recruits, and to schedule future satellite meetings and activities at central Colorado Springs locations. Stay tuned!

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November News

It’s been a crazy and wonderful Fall, and I’m ready for the cold quiet that comes with winter. It’s always been my favorite season to write. I have projects planned and stories to finish. Time to get back to business!

HWA ShowcaseOverall, October was a fun month. I received my author copy of the HWA Poetry Showcase Vol. V, edited by Stephanie Wytovich. My story “Blood Works” appears in this wonderful collection featuring some of my favorite poets currently working in the speculative realm. There are some truly lovely works in this powerful and haunting journal. Among my favorites are “The Joy of Seeing” by Christina Sng, “The Temptation of the Moon to Shadow” by C. R. Langille, and the featured poem “Amalgamation” by Sara Tantlinger. The Horror Writers Association has showcased dark poetry for the last five years. It’s been such a lovely experience, I hope I’ll be able to submit again next year.

Also in October, I received my author copy of Birthing Monsters: Frankenstein’s Cabinet of Curiosities and Cruelties, a stunning grimoire collected by Firbolg Publishing. Opening this package was one of the most wonderful experiences I’ve had as an author. Not only was my story marked in the hardcover edition by a goose quill, but the box was brimming with treasures galore–all of which were unique and marvelous in their own way. The book itself is meant to be explored as an adventure; in fact, it doesn’t even have a table of contents. My essay, “Mapping the Collective Body of Frankenstein’s Bride,” can be found about halfway through and is bookended by an eerie piece of short fiction by Bruce Boston and a selection of strange images ranging from a black-and-white still from the movie Bride of Frankenstein to an excerpt from a criticism of the original publication of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus (The London Literary Gazette; November 19, 1831). The line-up of authors, poets, scholars, composers, playwrights, and artists featured in this quirky compendium includes Michael Bailey, Adam Bolivar, Jason V. Brock, Cecile Grimm Cabeen, Robert Payne Cabeen, Scott Edelman, Brian Evenson, Eric J. Guignard, Anne Jackson, Thierry Jandrock, Erik T. Johnson, S. T. Joshi, Lisa Morton. Gene O’Neill, E. F. Schraeder, Darrell Schweitzer, Doktor Alex Scully, B. E. Scully, Mary Shelley, Marge Simon, and Darren Speegle. The result is a stitched narrative that celebrates one of the most influential novels ever penned. It’s an experiment unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, and I hope I will have the opportunity to work with Firbolg Publishing again.

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MFA Graduation

A month ago, I graduated with my MFA in Creative Writing from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine. It still seems somewhat surreal, and I’m working out the kinks of adjusting to a life without the idea of school deadlines looming. In addition to my personal writing pursuits and running workshops at The Storied Imaginarium, I will also be teaching a couple of English classes at Pikes Peak Community College. And, just to stay on top of my own goals of being a life-long learner, I will be taking Advanced Creative Writing with Richard Thomas. It’s going to be a busy Fall!

Commencement Speech (Stonecoast, Popular Fiction, S’18)

Stonecoast graduationJust as I expect was the case with many of you here today, I discovered the magic of books at young age and by the time I hit grade school, I realized I could not only read other people’s stories, but that I could write my own. Although the map of my life reveals haphazard progress hindered by numerous wrong turns, dead ends, and detours, my desire to write never waned. When I received my acceptance to the creative writing program at Stonecoast, I thought my path had finally straightened out. I could clearly see my destination, and I thought there was nothing that could slow me down. I was wrong.

Three weeks before my first residency, I was speeding down a hill when the front tire of my bike caught gravel. When I fully regained consciousness 18 hours later, I slowly began to process the damage. The trauma doctors had done their best to put me back together, but I was never going to look the same as I had before the accident. Worse, the traumatic brain injury meant I’d never think the same either. The first flower arrangement to show up in my hospital room was from Stonecoast, which added to my determination to be a part of this community despite my injuries. I received the offer to wait, to push my start date back, but I was terrified that if I didn’t press forward, the opportunity would slip through my fingers. I stuck to the plan, and limped onto a plane with a bag full of medications two weeks after being released from the hospital. This was not my best idea.

There’s a saying that first impressions are everything. So I knew I was in trouble when Robin and Justin staged an intervention in the middle of my first residency. I was a walking physical and emotional disaster. I tried to persevere, without the greatest success. Intervention, remember? Those of you graduating tonight are the last class to remember my disastrous first residency. You are also the ones who helped me to continue forward to this moment.

Although it has been a difficult two years, it’s been rewarding also—in ways I never would have expected. I still suffer from chronic pain and impaired cognition, but upon reflection I think the accident served to make me a better writer; it definitely made me a better person. All of my protective shields were shattered, my pride and arrogance stripped away. Without this having happened, I might not have been in the position to learn the lessons Stonecoast has to offer. For instance, I learned that you can be self-reliant, yet still be able to ask for help when you need it. I learned that you can be an outsider yet still belong to this vibrant community of writers and mentors. And above all, I learned that earning my MFA is just one of the signposts along the ever-evolving journey in becoming a writer.

I urge you all to keep moving despite the obstacles that will invariably come your way. Slow down. Take advantage of unexpected side trips. Explore the roads off the beaten path. And remember to stay connected to the Stonecoast community: if you reach out and stay involved, your time here will never come to an end. There’s a quote by E. L. Doctorow that kept me moving forward even in the darkest times, and I’d like to share it with you now: “[Writing is] like driving a car at night: you never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Even though we are all travelling in different directions, I will keep my eyes open in hopes our paths will cross again soon. I know from experience, my life will be better for it. Thank you.

StokerConStonecoasters2017

Publication News

The HungerI’ve had several pieces published recently, so I figured it was time to share the news. Today, my story “The Landscape of Lacrimation” came out at The Hunger. It’s a strange swirly tale written as an experimental piece. I often feel as though I don’t quite fit in, and I wanted to attempt to recreate that feeling in this story. The lyricism is over the top, and it’s written in second person. Both of these things are meant to keep the reading left feeling a little unmoored. It also contains dozens of slur words, which I’ve used outside of context, another technique meant to increase the sense of unease. As you might imagine, it’s not easy to place a story meant to make the reader uncomfortable, so I’m especially pleased that the editors at The Hunger took a chance on it.

The publication of Hath No Fury, which features my weird, futuristic mash-up of “Jack and the Beanstalk” and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Rappaccini Daughter,” has been pushed back again. It’s now listed with a July release date. However, I have seen the epub of the anthology and it’s a thing of beauty. Worth the wait, I promise.

Another piece scheduled to come out soon is my poem “C8 : A Tessellation of Faces, Wings, and other Obscure Things,” which will be featured in Alphanumeric, the online portion of the NonBinary Review Issue 17: A Wrinkle in Time.  I also have a poem, “The Savory Taste of Temptation,” in The Necro-Om-Nom-Nom-Icon, which was released in April. My contribution to this Lovecraftian-inspired collection came in the form of an amuse-bouche.

I have several other stories and poems currently out on submission, so I hope I will have more good news to share soon. In the meantime, I’m working on the final stages of my thesis, a short story collection titled The Anatomy of Melancholy.  Graduation is right around the corner, and I should have my MFA in hand July 16th. Stay tuned!

Big Poetry Giveaway

In the Forest of Forgettingpoisoned applesI’m giving away two poetry volumes for Big Poetry Month at The Storied Imaginarium. The first book up for grabs is In the Forest of Forgetting Paperback by Theodora Goss, and the second book is Poisoned Apples: Poems for You, My Pretty Hardcover by Christine Heppermann. Check out the link at The Storied Imaginarium for details.

Note: The giveaway ends on April 30th at midnight, so make sure to sign up soon.

The Art of Cameos in a Fictional World

a feast of shadowsMy introduction to the work of the Australian writer Angela Slatter occurred when I stumbled across the Tor.com reprint of “St. Dymphna’s School of Poison Girls” in May 2015. The story unfolded in slow waves, and it lulled me with its seductive beauty. My initial interest in this story aligned with the title as I had been reading about St. Dymphna through an extension of my research on the origins of “Allerleirauh.” The fairy tale elements appeared in Slatter’s story, but they appeared in unfamiliar ways. Interest stoked, I obsessively sought out Slatter’s stories, and soon discovered a whole new world of fairy tales to explore. I was hooked.

Allerleirauh_by_Henry_Justice_Ford_(1892)_02
Allerleirauh by Henry Justice Ford (1892).

In 2016, the U.S. publication of Slatter’s short story collection A Feast of Sorrows made her work more accessible; her other publications were released as limited editions in the UK. (A Feast of Sorrows includes the first three stories in The Tallow-Wife, which was recently released by FableCroft as a limited edition hardcover.) After a couple of readings, I discovered patterns that tied the characters together in a world of the author’s own making. In addition to cameo character appearances, Slatter also utilized subverted fairy tale references as a means of creating familiarity with the unfamiliar—a technique I would like to duplicate in my own work.

About halfway through my first reading of A Feast of Shadows, I noticed the repetition of a character from an earlier story. I stopped for a moment, thought about it, and then decided it must have been a mistake. Another of these moments came about two-thirds of the way through the collection. I recognized another character and sorted back through the stories to find her. That was when I realized that Slatter had deliberately seeded her stories with bits from other narratives. And, not only did her characters show up again and again, but settings made repeat appearances as well. The effect was a growing sense of familiarity even though the stories are all set in a secondary world.

tallow wifeBellsholm, which “sprawls along the banks of the wide Bell River, loose-limbed as a sleeping giant,” is featured prominently in “By My Voice I Shall Be Known” and is linked to Ballantyne’s Coffin Emporium in “The Coffin-maker’s Daughter” (143). Downstream from Bellsholm is Breakwater, the location of “the Weeping Gate” and the refuge of the criminal mastermind Bethany Lawrence from “The Tallow-Wife” series. And, far off in distant Lodellan, sits the Cathedral with its ghostly guard of six wolfhounds. Slatter takes her readers on a tour of Lodellan’s quarters in “Sourdough” and then into the Cathedral’s secret passageways to the palace in “Sister, Sister” and “What Shines Brightest.”

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Rusalka by Ivan Bilibin, 1934

At first glance, the mention of these places in various stories might appear to be an after-thought. However, the subtle hints strengthen the underlying network of commerce and immigration that add complexity to the stories’ common world. For instance, even though “By My Voice I Shall Be Known” takes place in Bellsholm, the protagonist is gifted with a promise in the shape of a silver thimble “all the way from Lodellan” (149). She is, however, betrayed by her lover, who returns from Breakwater with a pretty bride-to-be on a clipper named Revenant: “…it plied the seas then crept up rivers like ours, to dispatch passengers and some cargo—mostly high end, expensive and small, cargo and passengers both…” (150).

Several characters, including Mother Magnus and Emmaline make cameo appearances, but the one who first made me conscious of these repetitions was Hepsibah Ballantyne, the independent, murderous protagonist in “The Coffin-maker’s Daughter.” An older Hepsibah makes an appearance as a guest teacher in “St. Dymphna’s School for Poison Girls;” Ballantyne’s Coffin Emporium is mentioned in “By My Voice I Shall Be Known;” and a weathered headstone reveals the trace of the name ‘Hepsi…tyne’ in “The Tallow-Wife.”

bitterwood-bibleOnce I saw the threads, I began to wonder what other stories existed with these characters in them. In my hunt for hidden treasure, I reached out to the author through social media. According to Slatter, A Feast of Sorrows was a U.S. collection primarily cobbled together from reprints, including pieces from The Bitterwood Bible and Other Encounters and Sourdough and Other Stories. Over the last year, Slatter’s work has become more and more available to U.S. audiences. With every story I read, I search for more connections tied to the cohesive worlds Slatter builds, worlds that exist long after the reader has finished the last page. If nothing else, I’m eager to learn more about the fates of the people inhabiting the ocean harbor of Breakwater, the ruslka singing from the riverbank near Bellsholm, and the ghostly wolfhounds guarding the Cathedral in Lodellan. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Dr-Angela-Slatter
Dr Angela Slatter (Photo by David Pollitt, June 2010)

Author website: Angela Slatter

Select short fiction online:

Short fiction collections:

Novels:

 

Legends & Myths: Immortality in a Butterfly’s Wing

Butterflies have always fascinated me, which is just one of the reasons I wrote this article for a regional magazine years ago. With “puddle parties” right around the corner, I decided to share this piece on the legends and myths found in the Southwest. Enjoy!

buttery_To Serve BrookeShadenOne bright summer day, the Creator sat under a tree watching a group of laughing children at play. A brown pup romped through a riot of wildflowers. The sun lit a bright blue sky dotted with wispy, white clouds. A songbird landed in the branches overhead, loosing a shower of pine needles.

The Creator watched the play of shadow and sunlight and fallen yellow leaves fluttering here and there in the late summer breeze and as he watched these things he grew sad.

“Soon these children will grow old,” he thought. “And that puppy will become a tired, mangy dog. And the flowers will die and snow will cover the land.”

The Creator became so sad at these thoughts that he vowed to preserve the afternoon for the months ahead. “All these colors should be caught forever,” he said to the songbird that watched him overhead. “I will make something to gladden my heart, something for these children to enjoy.”

He took out his magic bag and in it he put the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the brown of the pup’s floppy ears, the yellow of the fluttering leaves, a bit of blue sky and a touch of white from a cloud passing by. He added green from the pine tree and the orange, purple and red from the flowers all around. Overhead, the songbird sang her merry tune and with a smile, the Creator tossed a bit of her melody into the mix.

butterfly_Passage MarcoMazzoniBrimming with happiness, he walked to the children and offered them the bulging sack. The beautiful girl with black hair opened the magic bag and out flew thousands and thousands of butterflies in every color ever created. Enchanted, the girl said she had never seen anything so beautiful. The children agreed and the Creator was glad.

And the children danced with joy under the fluttering wings of these new, fanciful creatures. Then one, with wings the color of a summer sky, landed on the Creator’s head and began to sing a beautiful song. The other butterflies joined in and the children stopped to listen to the chirping melody.

The songbird flew down to perch on the Creator’s shoulder. “When you created the birds you gave us each our own song. Now you have passed mine around to these new playthings of yours,” she scolded. “Isn’t it enough that they have all of the colors of the rainbow?”

The Creator thought a moment and said, “You are right. I should not have taken what was yours.”

And he took away the song from the butterflies, which continued to dance over the children’s heads.

“The are beautiful even so,” the Creator said.

And that is why butterflies are silent today.

This delightful Papago version of the creation of butterflies is only one of a fluttering myriad of butterfly tales told throughout the Southwest and far beyond. The butterfly has symbolized the human soul since antiquity. The Russian name for these colorful creatures is babochka and the Ancient Greeks called them psyche – both words for the soul. The common name of the butterfly comes from the Anglo Saxon word buterfleoge for “butter” and “flying creature,” which linguists believe was the way of identifying Europe’s common yellow brimstone butterfly.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 1BrookeShaden

Of course, butterflies actually flitted onto the scene long before people started making up myths to account for them. Butterflies emerged at least 38 million years ago with the earliest known fossil discovered in Colorado’s Green River Shale. Today, there are nearly 18,500 known species of butterflies ranging in size from Queen Alexandria’s Birdwing with a wingspan of 11 inches to the diminutive Western Pygmy, which spreads out to less than half an inch. Butterflies can be found on nearly every part of the globe with the exception of Antarctica and the world’s oceans. They grace flowery fields, meadows, hillsides, stream banks, forest glades, deserts and alpine tundra. They play a crucial role in the ecosystem as pollinators and in the human imagination as symbols of creativity, joy and rebirth.

Nearly 400 species of butterflies – more than half of the total number found in the entire North American continent live in Arizona. The Tohono O’odham, once known as the Papago, focused on the sheer beauty of these insects, as some 240 species flutter through their southern Arizona homeland. The southeastern portion of the state has biological links to the Sierra Madre range and the tropics in Mexico and its varied plantlife and climate account for the region’s diverse butterfly population.

The Yaqui, another southwestern desert tribe, believe that butterflies portend the coming of rain. When they spot approaching butterflies, the Yaqui sing a rain song and throw white corn kernels or dried leaves in the air.

butterfly_Funny how secrets travel Federico BebberWhite butterflies, they say,in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

Over there, I, where the flower-covered sun comes out,

they are emerging, all through the wilderness world,

in a row they are flying.

White butterflies, they say, in a row are flying.

As this song would suggest, the best time to search out butterflies in the Southwest is in the rainy season between the months of July in September, which is when the adults are breeding and laying their eggs. The highest concentration of species in Arizona reside in the southeastern portion of the state – specifically in Santa Cruz, Cochise and Pima counties. Chances of finding butterflies increases when two habitats overlap. Some of the best, easily accessible butterfly watching areas include Sabino Canyon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Madera and Florida Canyons in the Santa Rita Mountains, and Ramsey and Garden Canyons in the diverse Huachuca Mountain range. Along with discovering them near their favorite flowers, butterflies might also be found congregating in “puddle parties,” depressed wet spots where the insects gather to replace vital trace elements.

But you don’t have to venture south — butterflies and their stories can be found throughout the Southwest. In eastern Arizona, the Chemehuevi, also known as the Southern Paiute, often represent insects in the designs of their highly prized baskets. The popular pattern of the butterfly shows up in these coiled baskets, which are woven out of such raw materials as willow, devil’s claw and juncus.

butterfly_A View from a Hole MarcoMazzoniLike many ancient Southwestern cultures, the Hopi often utilize the symbolism of butterflies. Prehistoric Hopi pottery shows this affinity as does the three Hopi kachina with butterfly origins — Poli Sio Hemis Kachina (Zuni Hemis Butterfly Kachina), Poli Taka (Butterfly Man) and Poli Mana (Butterfly Girl). However, the butterfly assumed a more menacing aspect to the Aztecs in Mexico. The goddess Itzpapálotl, or Obsidian Butterfly, was represented as a strong ferocious goddess with butterfly wings and big claws on her hands and feet. In Mexico, many people still believe that a black butterfly at the door portends an impending death.

Several Arizona-based cultures drew similar, disquieting morals from the butterflies fluttering, zigzag, seemingly demented flight. The Zuni sacred butterfly, lahacoma, is believed to make people crazy, especially young girls who will follow the yellow butterfly wherever it may lead. This belief is similar to the story of the Apache Bear Dance, in which butterflies entice girls from the underworld. The Tewa of Arizona also warn against the temptation represented by this colorful insect in “Transforming Bath: Butterfly Seducer” — a tale where a girl ignores her work to follow a beautiful butterfly up a mountain. Once at the top, the butterfly turns into a wicked boy who then tosses the girl down to her death.

The Navajo use the symbolism of butterflies to warn against vanity, temptation and foolishness. The Navajo story of “The Two Maidens and the White Butterfly” furthers the folly of butterflies. When the hero of the tale catches the wicked White Butterfly, he splits open the enemy’s head with an ax and thousands of butterflies escape from the mortal wound. The wise hero pulls one of the butterflies out of the air and insists that it tell the others they can no longer enter the brain of man. “You will be of little use to the people,” he says. “Only when they catch you and put pollen on their legs and arms and say – ‘May I run swiftly, may my days be long, may I be strong in arm.’” Even so, the Navajo consider the perishable dust of the butterflies’ wings a subtle warning on the fragility of beauty.

In the spring, the Apache sing the sorrowful song of the Flower Maiden, which also details the creation of the butterfly:

butterfly_Restlessness Federico BebberIn the first days of the people, many warriors sought the favor of the beautiful Flower Maiden. But of them all, she loved only two – Hidden Love and Iron Courage. They each contended for her love, but not even the Sky Father could help her make the choice. Then fate stepped in and both warriors were called to a great battle against invaders coming from the north. Flower Maiden bid them each good-bye with a heavy heart. Many months passed as she waited for her warriors to return, but when the war party rode back into camp, neither of her loved ones returned with the victorious.

Flower Maiden, who had lost any chance of happiness, took her tears and set out to find the bodies of the warriors she still loved even in death. She searched the hills and plains for years, sundered from herself in her grief.  When she could find neither of her beloved warriors, she pleaded with the Sky Father. “Please help me find their resting place,” she cried. “Please help me find their lost souls.”

“It was not my wish that your promised ones should die,” said the Sky Father. “But with them I also touched many others and in sorrow, I covered all of their bloodied bodies with soil and grass.”

The Flower Maiden lamented. “Then I shall never find them.”

Her sorrow grieved the Sky Father so, he ordered the ground to yield flowers in the colors and patterns of each fallen warrior’s shield to aid Flower Maiden in her lonely search. And when he realized she could not find the battlefield on which her beloved warriors had died in a single lifetime, he turned her into a beautiful butterfly so that each spring her spirit could wander among the flowers in search of her loved ones. And perhaps one day she will find them.

In the meantime, the Creator has given us the butterflies — ephemeral as the powdered memory of love lost, the black from a laughing girl’s hair, the yellow of falling leaves or the halcyon blue of a summer sky.

butterfly_the sound of flying souls, part 2 BrookeShaden

Images: To Serve by Brooke ShadenPassage by Marco Mazzoni, The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 1 by Brooke Shaden, Funny How Secrets Travel by Federico Bebber, A View from a Hole by Marco Mazzoni, Restlessness by Federico Bebber, and The Sound of Flying Souls, pt. 2 by Brooke Shaden. All Rights Reserved by the artists.

 

 

Disenchanted: Contemporary Issues Revealed with a Fairy Tale Twist

A Wild Swan_Little Man_Zohar Lazar_The New YorkerIn the fall of 2015, I happened across the short story “Little Man” by Michael Cunningham in The New Yorker.  As a collector of fairy tales, both old and new, I immediately recognized this strange and surprisingly modern twist on “Rumpelstiltskin.” Cunningham revisited this and several other well-known fairy tales in his collection A Wild Swan and Other Tales. With the popular surge in fairy tale retellings, I have often wondered why Cunningham’s take achieved publication in such a prestigious magazine. A close, in-depth reading of his collection revealed elements I seldom see in popular fairy tale renditions. Cunningham utilizes a variety of clever techniques in his stories, but the ones I was most drawn to the most as a writer were his use of sarcastic commentary on modern issues and the juxtaposition of classic fairy tales with contemporary parables.

Of all the stories in the collection, “Jacked”—a contemporary take on “Jack and the Beanstalk”—was the one that captured my interest the most as a deft and detailed commentary on the single parent, only child plight so prevalent among middle-class Americans. Cunningham creates a solid foundation with Jack’s character in the opening lines: “This is not a smart boy we’re talking about. This is not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains” (23). Forgetting a chemo appointment is a long cry from forgetting to close the windows on a rainy afternoon, yet it perfectly captures the entitled privilege we’ve come to expect from today’s youth.

Cunningham stays faithful to the original plot in “Jack and the Beanstalk,” but then modernizes it with a series of witticisms of a sarcastic nature: “The mist-girl tells Jack that everything the giant owns belongs rightfully to him. Jack, however, being Jack, had assumed already that everything the giant owns—everything everybody owns—rightfully belongs to him” (26). Personally, I’ve never been particularly fond of “Jack and the Beanstalk.” And, after reading the story, I was left with the feeling that Cunningham wasn’t in love with the original fairy tale either, which is why he pushes the unlikeable character to even further extremes. A “shockingly expensive haircut” and “200-dollar-jeans” can’t hide Jack’s self-entitled nature as a petty criminal. Cunningham makes the story relevant. He makes it his.

A Wild Swan Yuko Shimizu

All of the stories in A Wild Swan and Other Tales have roots in classic fairy tales with the exception of “A Monkey’s Paw,” which reimagines the supernatural short story “The Monkey’s Paw” written by W. W. Jacobs in 1902, and the opening and ending stories, which offer broad commentary on people at large. I especially loved Cunningham’s snarky wit in the opening pages of “Dis. Enchant.”: “Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn’t want to fuck these people up?” (3). Cunningham continues his observation of human foibles, allowing the reader the opportunity to connect with an array of fairy tale characters. He offers the opportunity to fantasize and to relate to even the most mundane and petty complaints.

A WIld Swan Yuko Shimizu illustrationThe evil stepmother in “A Wild Swan” is given sympathy after she turns her 12 stepsons into swans and commands them to fly away: “Do we blame her? Do we, really?” (5). The witch from “Hansel and Gretel,” finds her voice in “Crazy Old Lady”: “Were you relieved, maybe just a little, when they lifted you up (you weighed almost nothing by then) and shoved you in to the oven?” (20). In addition to identity, Cunningham plays with sexual themes; Rapunzel keeps her shorn hair so her blinded prince can make love to the piece of her that was lost in “Her Hair,” a boy marries the first girl who doesn’t treat him differently just because he has a prosthetic leg in “Steadfast; Tin,” and a girl agrees to play dead for exactly twelve minutes so her Prince Charming can play out his necrophiliac obsession in “Poisoned.”

Cunningham creates a cast of characters that we know intimately: the people who were only partly cured of their curses gathering in bars, the aging women with no families who become easy targets in their old age, the couple who plays out kinky sex fantasies behind closed doors, the single men who would give anything to have a child without the entanglements of a partner, the couple who finds their love renewed after tasting separation, the girls who wonder if their only choices for a companion are the asshole and the fool, and the men who prefer to forget their losses at the cost of the ones they love. These characters are fragments of ourselves and others, fragments many of us prefer not to face.

A Wild Swan_Beasts_Yuko Shimizu

As I pondered Cunningham’s treatment of old material in a new light, I realized that I tend to shy away from the very thing he embraces. There are opportunities there, but they can only be broached if I am willing to write from the hard places. Cunningham uses sarcasm to separate himself from his material. He allows the reader to make the obvious connections and then to bear the burden of the revelations mirrored from familiar tales retold in a contemporary setting. I think it’s a fine line to walk, but I also think that this is why Cunningham’s work rises above the multitude of other fairy tale retellings flooding the market. As a writer drawn to similar subject material, I am of the belief that fairy tale retellings work because there is such a breadth of material available to mine. However, I’ve also learned that it isn’t just the more obscure tales that need to be told; it’s the true tales. It’s up to the writers to find new ways to reflect the deepest, darkest parts of themselves through the comforts of the familiar.

 

A Wild Swan CoverWork Cited

Cunningham, Michael. A Wild Swan and Other Tales. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015.

Images: “Little Man” by Zohar Lazar, The New Yorker; “A Wild Swan,” “Poisoned,” and “Beasts” by Yuko Shimizu. All rights retained by the artists.