Edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt
REVIEW: Ruth Browne
Short story collections are largely hit-and-miss. This collection, with its emphasis on the retelling of “classic fairytales and twisted tales”, has an especially long way to fall in this regard. In recent years, publishers (not to mention directors) have bought into this genre of recycling wholesale, and readers consume it just as eagerly. However dark and macabre, familiar stories based on tropes of nostalgia both confirm a collective identity and soothe like a childhood lullaby. But there are only so many times a story can be reworked before it becomes tiresome and tawdry, displaying not the heights of imagination but its pronounced absence.
Rags & Bones escapes some of the worst of this malady by having authors choose stories that “moved them, influenced them, and fascinated them”, making room for sincere and passionate retellings. That’s how Neil Gaiman gets away with yet another “Sleeping Beauty”: gruesomely inverted fairytales are a specialty of his, and The Sleeper and the Spindle continues the trend. The hero who rescues the princess turns out to be Snow White, a woman who knows her way round a sleeping spell, and things within the thorn-bound castle are not what they seem. Gaiman’s first imagining of Snow White was as an undead fiend with a necrophiliac paramour in Snow, Glass, Apples (1994), so his place in this collection is guaranteed.
Interspersed with black and white illustrations by Charles Vess, the stories tend toward the contemporary or the futuristic. Carrie Ryan’s Kafkaesque rendition of E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” follows a surface-dweller into the forbidden underground, where squat hairless humans sit in their cells sharing esoteric knowledge and having all their needs seen to by the Machine. Saladin Ahmed’s story, inspired by Sir Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, also flips the given perspective. He takes the part of the maligned and nameless Saracens forced to fight and die in service of an allegory, shedding light on the uglier aspects of this early epic fantasy.
Rick Yancey’s When First We Were Gods is a probing inversion of sci-fi narratives of immortality. Inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Birth-Mark”, it proposes a society in which the gap between rich and poor also means the difference between eternal life and inescapable death. At its heart, it is about the ephemeral nature of beauty and the excesses of human power and desire. There is also Kelley Armstrong’s clever retelling of “The Monkey’s Paw”, playing with the three-wishes setup in a world overrun by yet another variant on the zombie apocalypse. Perhaps the best story is Tim Pratt’s The Cold Corner, sourced from Henry James’ “The Jolly Corner”, a particularly well-told story of a man who returns to his home-town in North Carolina only to find that dozens of versions of himself still live there – other Terrys whose lives have taken different paths.The other stories, even the “inimitable” Garth Nix’s (gangrenous with comma splices), are at best unlikely to give offence. As usual for such collections, there’s a fair amount of dross concealing a little gold.
- This review first appeared in the Cape Times in February 2014