I loved the title Fearie Tales straight away, but the subtitle sealed the deal. Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome sounds too good to pass up. It’s hard to know where to start though; Fearie Tales has so many stories from so many talented writers, not to mention the Grimm tales interspersed throughout. I don’t always find it that easy to read short stories. I’m never sure whether to read them one after the other in a gluttonous binge, or to take my time biting off one story at a time. The trouble is I’ve never been very good at moderation, so I tend to gorge, which can mean the stories become less distinct from each other. This time, I tried a bit of both technique and went in for some re-reading of the stories that most caught my attention.
The first story in the book is a Brothers Grimm tale. The Wilful Child is as short as can be; it’s the sparsest of tales illustrating what happens to naughty girls who don’t obey their mothers. It’s a macabre story to scare the rebellion out of God-fearing youngsters, but it also makes me laugh – there is something so comical about the little arm popping up over and over, and don’t even get me started on the mother bashing it with a rod. It set me to thinking about why we find humour in the darkest of places. There are some lovely examples of gallows humour in this Wikipedia article. I think The Wilful Child qualifies as such only in as much as the reader (me) finds humour in the hopeless situation of the girl; I don’t think there’s any written in. It lacks the knowingness or cynicism of a witty scaffold aside.
Perhaps The Story of a Youth Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was better qualifies. This Grimm tale is followed by Fräulein Fearnot by Markus Heitz. Both have protagonists that know no fear so react rationally to the most horrific of situations. They demonstrate a level of self-confidence and practicality in the face of danger where others would have run away or fainted. Heitz takes the original tale and ramps it up, turning it into a blood and guts gore-fest. And, in the first two parts of the tale I found humour. It is Asa’s (the ‘fearnot’) reactions that contain darkly comic strands; she acts with overwhelming practicality in one extreme situation and with disproportionate violence in another. But the story changes as the boundaries between the natural and supernatural world collapse. Asa’s tasks begin in earnest and a love story starts to emerge.
Love is the driving force in Find My Name by Ramsey Campbell, a play on Rumplestiltskin. Along with Neil Gaiman’s Down to a Sunless Sea and Garth Nix’s Crossing the Line it talks about the power and depth of maternal love. Campbell’s story has monsters both real and other, but is written in a very straightforward tone that I enjoyed. Gaiman’s story is imbued with melancholy, and a touch of the Ancient Mariner perhaps? Nix takes us to the Wild West, but with maybe just a flavour of the Australian outback in the otherworld just out of reach.
It’s hard to pick out absolute favourites because there are so many different styles and tones, but I did enjoy three re-workings very much. Christopher Fowler’s The Ash-Boy is gorgeous, with a wicked final paragraph. Open Your Window, Golden Hair by Tanith Lee is a most deliciously sinister interpretation of Rapunzel. And Brian Hodge’s Anything to Me is Sweeter, Than to Cross Shock-Headed Peter is the most glorious re-working of the Struwwelpeter cautionary tales, that put me in mind of Roald Dahl. There’s a free access online version of Struwwelpeter from Project Gutenberg complete with illustrations.
I must mention one last story: The Silken People by Joanne Harris. It features The Lacewing King, who will be a familiar figure to anyone who follows @joannechocolat’s Twitter #storytime. It was so good to read this tale of curiosity and fatal love; I for one would be thrilled if the #storytime tales become a physical book one day.
I have to mention the illustrations in the book too. Alan Lee’s eerie drawings complement the text, my only complaint it that I would like more of them! I really did enjoy Fearie Tales, as a whole collection. I’ve dipped in and out, read half the book in one go, re-read, and mulled over. The stories are tense, creepy, twisted, sad, and horrible in varying proportions.
Fearie Tales is published by Jo Fletcher Books. My thanks to them for sending me a copy for review.