December is a month of magic – at least, that’s how I choose to see it, rather than a month of biting winds, zero natural light, and weeping over the expanding credit card bills and waistlines that mark the holiday season. No, it is a time of magic – fairies sit on top of trees, reindeer fly and morbidly obese geriatrics shoot down chimneys and creep into kids bedrooms without being put on a register. In honour of this time I thought I’d look at literature around fairies.
When I was growing up I loved the delicate drawings of Cicely Mary Barker’s Flower Fairies; the Poppy Fairy was my favourite because she looked a bit naughty. I’m not sure what that says about me as a child….
Firstly, The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan (Salt Publishing, 2014). I picked this up after reading Naomi’s review on her The Writes of Women blog. It was every bit as good as Naomi suggested. The twenty stories in this volume are united by fairytale themes, but also explorations of sexuality, gender, love and desire that demonstrate how the extraordinary can promote new ways of understanding the everyday.
Logan plays with animating the inanimate and mechanising the organic to destabilise notions of identity. So The Rental Heart sees a woman protect herself from heart-break, leasing mechanised versions of the muscle which she renews as needed. In Origami Rebecca constructs herself a paper lover; in Coin Operated Boys, Elodie rejects “Imperfect. Awkward. Repulsive…” human suitors for the titular machines, responding to their “calm, clean angles”, cool touch, and eyes “flat as a pond in summer”. In this way Logan shows how desire is manifold and defies easy categorisation, while exploring how we seek to control desire, and how denial of our humanity can lead to detachment from ourselves and others.
Extraordinarily, Logan’s startling use of images throughout her stories did not cause me to detach, but rather reveals new ways of perceiving that truly resonate. Choosing any page at random would give me a quote for this post, Logan is truly that good.
From Bibliophagy: “Standing pigeon-toed and bruise-kneed in the light from the fridge, his neck finally stops twitching. The words are waiting, cold as milk….He turns away so the moon is hidden behind next door’s chimney. He lifts the words. He shudders to think how smooth the vowels will feel along his oesophagus. He swallows.”
From The Gracekeeper: “The widow thanked me afterwards with her damp swollen hands too tight on my wrists, speaking in fummels and haffs as if she could not get enough breath. Her wedding ring dug into her finger, making the flesh bulge out at either side, and I wondered whether she would wear it until it engulfed: her own secret totem”
In stories such as Witch, Logan challenges the heteronormativity and misogyny inherent in so many fairytales, when the young woman wandering in the forest decides to stay put:
“She was honey on my tongue. She was the poison apple, the kiss that would wake me. When she finally slid inside me, I knew the end of my story. I never wanted to leave my bitch goddess warrior queen. I knew what happily ever after was, and I wanted to be a wicked witch too.”
I’m so excited about Kirsty Logan after reading this collection, and eagerly await her first novel, published next year.
Secondly, it’s impossible to write a post about fairytales without mentioning Angela Carter. She edited two volumes of the Virago Press’ books of fairytales, as well as writing her own short story collection along this theme, The Bloody Chamber (Gollancz,1979). Carter’s stories are creepy and unsettling re-tellings of well-known tales, pulling the dark undercurrents of the fables to the fore. Snow White is rewritten in The Snow Child as an incestuous tale of necrophilia, played out between a battling couple:
“Then the girl began to melt. Soon there was nothing left of her but a feather a bird might have dropped; a bloodstain, like the trace of a fox’s kill on the snow; and the rose she had pulled off the bush.”
In The Werewolf Little Red Riding Hood is far from helpless victim: “The child had a scabby coat of sheepskin to keep out the cold, she knew the forest too well to fear it but she must always be on her guard. When she heard that freezing howl of a wolf, she dropped her gifts, seized her knife and turned on the beast.
It was a huge one, with red eyes and running, grizzled chops; any but a mountaineer’s child would have died of fright at the sight of it. It went for her throat, as wolves do, but she made a great swipe at it with her father’s knife and slashed off its right forepaw.
The wolf let out a gulp, almost a sob, when it saw what had happened to it; wolves are less brave than they seem.”
The Bloody Chamber prompts a reconsideration of familiar tales that we imbue from childhood. Carter is an intellectual force, funny and challenging; I was left thinking about these stories long after I’d read them.
To end, a modern fairytale, and the greatest Christmas song ever (but not the greatest Christmas video ever, which is Wham’s Last Christmas, obvs):