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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Fearie Tales

3rd May, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Published by Jo Fletcher Books in hardback in 2013 and edited by Stephen Jones, Faerie Tales comes with the subtitle 'Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome'. And if from that you infer that it's something to do with certain German brothers who collected folk tales, then award yourself a no-prize. In his introduction editor Jones discusses the work of the Brothers Grimm and how it has been sanitised in the years since their first collection saw print. For this anthology he invited authors to put their own spin on classic fairy stories, with the proviso that 'this was first and foremost a horror anthology'. Each modern story is prefaced by the text of the work that inspired it and there are some wonderful illustrations by award winning artist Alan Lee to complement the prose.

We open with "Find My Name" by Ramsey Campbell in which a woman has to protect her grandchild from the supernatural entity that made a deal with the boy's mother. It's an engaging story inspired by Rumpelstiltskin, with modern technology taking a central role and a different slant on the reasons for the 'demonic' deal, but all the same it didn't feel like there was much new brought to the table, just a case of picking up and dusting down the original. In Neil Gaiman's Down to a Sunless Sea" a grieving woman tells her tale, one that involves death at sea and cannibalism. The detached manner of the telling is highly effective, with the author's economy of expression capturing perfectly the downbeat mood and sense of mounting horror.

A traveller is beguiled by the mystery of an isolated tower in "Open Your Window, Golden Hair" by Tanith Lee. The story has about it the air of something that might have been produced by M. R. James, a piece in which curiosity is punished, with a truly macabre monster lurking at the story's end. Garth Nix blends the western and the fairy story to telling effect, with an account of a rancher's widow "Crossing the Line" when her daughter is taken by a Carver. Nix gives us a dazzling creation, a world where monsters and men co-exist, but a tin badge still stands for something. It's a fun and frothy concoction, one that instils both a feeling of horror and a sense of wonder with its array of invention.

In "Peckish" by Robert Shearman, Sieglinde learns her grandmother's history when she decides to turn her back on her rigidly respectable family. There's horror aplenty in this reworking of Hansel and Gretel, but at the same time the dark aspects of the story seem to hold the key to personal freedom. Beautifully written it is a story that challenges our expectations. In Michael Marshall Smith's "Look Inside" a woman is disturbed by signs of an intruder in her house, but as she looks into the history of the area in which she lives she begins to suspect that the agency involved may be more than human. It's a tongue in cheek piece, one in which terror and madness are kept on a tight rein, with a gradual accumulation of telling details until the final reveal and its gratifying reversal of fortunes.

There's all the fun of the fear in the gloriously over the top "Fräulein Fearnot" by Markus Heitz in which the fearless Asa runs the gamut of serial killers, ghosts, and demonic entities. This is all so absurd that it is impossible to take seriously, but at the same time wonderfully entertaining, like one of the horror attractions Asa is running when the story opens. The second longest piece in the book and a genuine contender for the best. Christopher Fowler gives us a modern rendition of Cinderella in "The Ash-Boy", though past a certain point in the story he goes full on splatterpunk much to my delight. It's a tale that sells the reader a dummy and then buries an axe between the eyes.

Set on an isolated beach in Greece at twilight, "The Changeling" by Brian Lumley has a man encounter a strange intruder and learn his history, which has implications for the man's own existence. While the plot here is somewhat transparent, the sense of place and arch-weirdness of the visitor make the story work, with a steadily mounting atmosphere of menace and feel of the numinous. Reggie Oliver's story I reviewed previously when it appeared in his 2017 collection Holidays from Hell and I had this to say - 'The narrator of "The Silken Drum" rents a cottage to a strange Japanese woman and her son, with the clues gradually building up and a resolution that mirrors the events in an obscure Japanese No drama. The story is a masterful exercise in creating tension and unease through the use of suggestion, with a powerful undercurrent of eroticism, a lust tainted by unnaturalness.'

Angela Slatter's offering is set in the world of her Sourdough stories and I discussed it when reviewing her 2014 collection The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. I had this to say - '"By the Weeping Gate" is a Cinderella variant, with a brothel madam determined to marry the most beautiful of her daughters to the new Viceroy, but he is not at all the great catch that he seems to be and the proverbial fate worse than death awaits his bride. It is up to the valiant Nel to save her sister Asha if she can.' And with hindsight that doesn't appear to be much more than plot summation, so I'll add it's a story rich in invention, with characters that are fully rounded and totally convincing, while the feel of wrongness that permeates the text is cleverly conveyed. And it's nothing to do with Cinderella either. Brian Hodge's "Anything to Me is Sweeter, Than to Cross Shock-Headed Peter" has echoes of the work of Edward Gorey, with 'flawed' children placed in an establishment where they act as examples to other youngsters, but in a lovely twist the 'lunatics take over the asylum'. This was a richly detailed story, with a horrific concept at its heart and some beautifully rendered characters in the freak show of children, and at the same time you applaud the fate of their captors, who get exactly what they deserve.

The longest story in the book, "The Artemis Line" by Peter Crowther has the Cavanagh family moving into isolated Grainger Hall, but from the first it is obvious that something is very wrong, with scarecrows surrounding the house and strange sounds. When an ancient dumb-waiter is discovered a link to fairy land is opened and there is a threat to the Cavanagh children that only a local 'wizard', for want of a better word, can combat. I loved this, for its merging of the ghost story and the fairy story, for the fully rounded characters and the underlying mythology. And there is something serious being addressed here, with Crowther's fairies by their very nature raising questions as to how important memory is to us, by inference touching on our fear of things like dementia and mental illness. Joanne Harris' story tells of a young girl's fascination with "The Silken People" and their Lacewing King. It's beautifully written, but doesn't do anything much with the material beyond laying it out for the reader.

Finally we have "Come Unto Me" by John Ajvide Lindqvist in which Annika marries into a wealthy family, only to find that its success is the result of a bargain with demonic groundsman Erik which has horrific implications for her. It's an elaborate and thoroughly entertaining rap on the story of Rumpelstiltskin, with Erik a truly sinister figure, physically attractive but repellent thanks to his odour and the high handed way in which he deals with others. Lindqvist builds his plot with panache, letting us become invested in Annika's plight and cheer her on, then adding a nasty final twist to the tale. It's a stunning end to a superb anthology of stories.




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