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Black Static

New Horror Fiction BLACK STATIC 82/83 OUT NOW

The Late Review: Mad Hatters and March Hares

20th Dec, 2023

Author: Peter Tennant

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Edited by Ellen Datlow and published by Tor Books in 2017, Mad Hatters and March Hares comes with the description 'All-New Stories from the World of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland'. After an introduction in which the editor professes her lifelong interest in all things Alice, we go down the rabbit hole with a poem from Kris Dikeman. "Gentle Alice" is presented in the form of a teapot and told from the viewpoint of the Cheshire Cat, who describes Alice's quandary on what to do once she has defeated the Red Queen, whether to rule in her place or go back to her own world and the comforts of her home. It's a wry, ironic piece with a quiet humour that serves as the ideal appetiser for what's to come. There's more delicious wordplay in "My Own Invention" by Delia Sherman, one of the stories that most accurately captures the feel of Carroll's work, the sense of absurdity and logic bent out of shape, as a White Knight encounters an Alice on a chessboard.

C. S. E. Cooney's "Lily-White & the Thief of Lesser Night" doesn't feature Alice herself, but instead gives us two sisters on a magical adventure, complete with borogroves, a vorpal sword, a Bandersnatch, and a whole host of various animals whose names have Cheshire as a prefix. It's gonzo storytelling at its very finest, and while whimsical in sensibility nonetheless has much of tragedy about it. "Conjoined" by Jane Yolen conflates different forms of wonder, with a performing ape in the 'employ' of P. T. Barnum finding his way into Wonderland, and the potential for overlap between the two worlds, the story delightful and constantly surprising the reader. Priya Sharma takes some daring liberties with the original text in "Mercury", with Alice visiting her 'mad hatter' father who is resident in a debtor's prison, introducing characters from the books into her Victorian England setting, the story ingenious and ultimately moving for the oblique manner in which it portrays the power of escapism to liberate us from intolerable situations.

Secrets of the past seep into the present day in "Some Kind of Wonderland" by Richard Bowes, with surviving cast members of a 60s underground film of Alice looking back at what happened all those years ago. So sharp is Bowes' writing that I want to see the film, but perhaps more than any of these stories, it is the human element that grounds things, that makes us care about the events going down. From Stephen Graham Jones we have "Alis", the story that reads most like a horror text, with higher mathematics and tricks with mirrors combining with folklore to reveal the truth behind the Alice story, the narrative moving assuredly to its chilling end, with touches of humour and aberrant psychology along the way, so that we can never really be sure if we are confronting madness or the supernatural. In "All the King's Men" by Jeffrey Ford the Queen's scientifically minded sister is charged with piecing together the shattered Humpty Dumpty, but things go memorably awry. It's a lively and thoroughly agreeable piece, transforming a loved character into something monstrous and offering a veiled critique of the amorality of those in power. I loved it. Angela Slatter performs a similar transformation on another Carroll character in "Run, Rabbit", injecting a very mean streak into the original work and showing us the dark places in Wonderland.

"In Memory of a Summer's Day" by Matthew Kressel has Wonderland as a kind of otherworldly theme park, the story told from the viewpoint of a put upon tour guide and showing both the appeal and ultimate nullity of Carroll style logic. Seanan McGuire's "Sentence Like a Saturday" plucks the Cheshire Cat from Wonderland and into our world, where it survives as a young girl in a bittersweet tale that celebrates love and logic, while at the same time suggesting that they are not entirely complementary qualities. In "Worrity, Worrity" by Andy Duncan we get events from the life of Alice illustrator Sir John Tenniel, particularly those to do with wasps. It's a clever piece, rich in characterisation and historical detail, capturing an obsession that comes to dominate the life of the illustrator. The heroine of "Eating the Alice Cake" by Kaaron Warren is an Alice for whom Wonderland is somewhere of which she dreams, while her reality involves clearing up after dead people, an encounter with the mock turtle leading to a moment of epiphany. This is a story of levels, with the light hearted and witty banter on the surface masking something far more sinister going on in the depths of the narrative.

In Ysabeau S. Wilce's story "The Queen of Hats" a young girl gets sucked into the world of a theatrical troupe with the Red Queen as their leading lady and Diva-in-residence. It's another story that flips and flops back and forth with a manic energy and invention, though ultimately I didn't feel there was much substance to the piece, albeit a huge amount of style. "A Comfort, One Way" by Genevieve Valentine focuses on minor character Mary Ann, the White Rabbit's maid, but again as with the previous story I really didn't feel there was anything of substance to it, the author running her idea up the flagpole but not giving us anything much to salute.

There are two strands to "The Flame After the Candle" by Catherynne M. Valente, for my money the best story in the book. In one strand Alice and Peter (Pan) have a wide ranging conversation touching on literature, the nature of reality, the psychology of writers and those they base their characters on, the way in which each has been treated by their 'creators', the line between fact and fiction. It is enthralling stuff. And in the other strand a young woman called Olive discovers the dystopian Wonderland left in the wake of Alice's visit, the implication being that our realities are shaped by the myths and stories we believe in. To use a cliché, it's the kind of story that will reward multiple readings, with something new to discover on each immersion into its world(s). Final story "Moon, and Memory, and Muchness" by Katherine Vaz features an Alice themed teashop, but the owner has a dark secret in her past that shapes how she interacts with some of her customers. It is a sad story, heartfelt and with a deep sense of loss running through the narrative, and for once fantasy doesn't really seem to ameliorate the underlying tragedy. We started this journey with a poem and we end with another, Jane Yolen's "Run, Rabbit, Run", a darkly comedic account of what happens when you forget who you are and your place in the world, the ideal curtain call for an anthology that was far more Wonderland than not.





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