Category Archives: Fairy Tales

A Wild Swan and Other Tales – Michael Cunningham

“And then what?” How many times have we been asked that by a small child or indeed remember asking it as a small child ourselves? Yet when we are young and are first read fairy tales you never ask that question when the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’ appear at the end. Michael Cunningham does this in A Wild Swan and Other Tales which somehow manages to combine the magical with reality and has some truly wonderful moments for doing so. From the very start of this collection we are greeted with Dis. Enchant, not quite an introduction rather a statement of intent mixed with a slightly knowing question that makes us ponder the question of when we went from the innocent all believing to the more cynical and, dare we even think it, more wicked selves, this sets the tone for everything to come.

9780008140380

Fourth Estate, 2015, hardback, short stories, 144 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the weeded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely… would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?
If not, blessings on you.
If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.
These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

I may have let out a small cackle myself having read that. In fact during A Wild Swan and Other Tales I cackled on quite a few occasions as Michael Cunningham looks at what went before once upon a time and what followed on from happy ever after with this collection of ten stories which mainly feature fairytales that many of us will have grown up loving. From favourites Snow White to Beauty and the Beast and from Jack and the Beanstalk to Rapunzel each tale is taken back to its darker routes and then given a slight tweak or twist all encompassed in a rather gothic essence and large sprinkling of as much dry wit as there is magical fairy dust.

It is hard to give much away about the way in which Cunningham does this without ruining the twist, which is of course what makes them all so (prince) charming to read, however I will try. In Beasts we discover that if you fall for a beast you might still be falling for a beast just one that is more apparent and has been changed for good cause. In Steadfast: Tin we look at how we fall in love with the people we really wouldn’t imagine and then how we make that love last and how complicated marriage can be, even if built on true love it can still go awry. In Her Hair we look at if looks matter and if so what happens if they fade.

Throughout each tale Cunningham’s wry wit is what keeps them either endearing, cackle inducing or all the more twisted. In the title story A Wild Swan there are several very funny moments all around the impracticalities of having swans wings instead of arms, on the subway or in a club etc, that actually become bittersweet and all the more thought provoking when you realise that the tale is in fact about imperfections and even disabilities by which people are judged. This black humour is also used just as often to be simply downright funny, sometimes even with a knowing wink, well slight of hand.

Jack and his mother still don’t have a black American Express card. They don’t have a private plane. They don’t own an island.
And so, Jack goes up the beanstalk again. He knocks for a second time at the towering cloud-door.
The giantess answers again. She seems not to recognise Jack, and it’s true that he’s no longer dressed in the cheap lounge lizard outfit – the tight pants and synthetic shirt he boosted at the mall. He’s all Marc Jacobs now. He has a shockingly expensive haircut.
But still. Does the giantess really believe a different, better dressed boy has appeared at her door, one with the same sly grin and the same dark-gold hair, however improved the cut?

I must also mention the illustrations before I move on, which are wonderful. Using only black and white artist Yuko Shimizu creates wonderful gothic images of depth which have you noticing more and more. The book itself is designed to be a work of art. The hardback edition also has a wonderful embossed cover with swans on, which you might not get on the paperback and certainly can’t get on the Kindle edition, coughs. Each story is given its own illustration to accentuate the world of the tale that Cunningham has created. It’s beautiful.

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To show I don’t have completely rose tinted glasses on this collection just because I love a good fairytale and a good reworking of one, I have to admit there were a couple of stories that didn’t quite do it for me like the others. Both Little Man and A Monkey’s Paw were two which I felt didn’t quite work either in there more modern reincarnations or in sync with the rest of the collection despite their best efforts. Little Man, a reworking of Rumplestiltskin, is a clever account of the rarity of a single man who would like a child of his own and can’t really go about that by normal means, it just felt slightly long and the ending (which you will all know) didn’t quite work in its modern confines – it felt a bit wedged in. A Monkey’s Paw was good but as it isn’t based on a fairytale it felt a bit out of place in the collection though it has a wonderful take on both grief and what it is to be very different from what people call the norm. Eight out of ten isn’t bad though which is, funnily enough what I would give this collection should I still give ratings on here.

Overall A Wild Swan and Other Tales excels and I think the best examples of those moments are with my two personal favourites Crazy Old Lady and Poisoned. Crazy Old Lady looks at what it is that would make a women go slightly crazy and leave New York to go and build a house made of candy in the woods before two children (who you might have heard of) come calling and do the unthinkable. Poisoned looks at what happens between Snow White and her handsome prince after the wedding, when it soon turns out that he might have a slightly disturbing kink. These two tales have the whole essence of what the originals did, the brutal, the gothic, the sinister and the sexual and who can argue with those traits.

I really, really enjoyed A Wild Swan and Other Stories, I was thrilled and comforted by both its sense of the new and sense of nostalgia all the way through. It was the perfect collection to end my reading year on in 2015 and was the perfect introduction (I know, I know it is shocking to admit this) to Michael Cunningham’s writing. I need to get cracking and read much more of his work… And get back to reading more and more collections of new, twisted or simply retold fairytales too.

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Filed under 4th Estate Books, Fairy Tales, Fourth Estate Books, Michael Cunningham, Review, Short Stories, Yuko Shimizu

The Rental Heart & Other Fairytales – Kirsty Logan

I am a thirty three year old man and I ruddy love a fairytale. There I have said it. I think that at the heart of every create story is the spark of a fairytale, the whole thing with fairytales is after all that anything is possible and when you open any book and enter into its world that is the feeling you should have. No, not every story has magic in it but by taking you away somewhere isn’t every story technically creating its own magic, yes even those gory crime novels. Anyway, I have gone a little off topic; suffice to say I love fairytales and so Kirsty Logan’s The Rental Heart and Other Stories has been a book I have meant to read for a very, very long time.

9781907773754

Salt Publishing, 2014, paperback, fiction/fairytales, 128 pages, kindly sent by the publisher

The more I loved him, the heavier my heart felt. Until I was walking around with my back bent and my knees cracking from the weight of it. When Jacob left, I felt my heart shatter with a shotgun pellet, shards lodging in my guts. I had to drink every night to wash the shards out. I had to.

It is really hard to summarise a collection of tales like The Rental Heart, partly because there are twenty of them and partly because they are all so varied and each one creates its own world so intricately that I want to surmise each one, but that would spoil it for potential future readers so I won’t. What I will say is that they are all in some way about love, lust or loss, or the emotions in-between and around those three states.  They are all also wonderfully magical and escapist and yet when you read them the world they inhabit is not too far from our own there is just the potential and acceptance that magic and bizarre things can happen be they good or be they bad.

Ladies build paper men in the night to fight their loneliness or buy coin operated boys to the envy of others. Young girls dare to find wicked witches and then fall in love with them. Men take finding a father figure too far. Love and lust reach an epiphany at the end of the world. People eat light bulbs. People fall in love but need to buy a new heart each time they do it. These and many other wondrous, puzzling and magical things happen in the worlds that Kirsty Logan so beautifully creates.

Because it is going to end, and everything I have is not enough. I need another soul, another set of guts to feel this. Maybe her body merging with mine will be the grace I need.
In school they taught us about the Big Bang: the universe expanding out from a dense primordial heat. They didn’t tell us that eventually it was all going to contract back again. For a month I’d been planning to tell her that I needed more space, some time to myself. Then they announced that the world was crashing in on our heads, and now all I want is to get inside her.

Logan’s writing is just gorgeous. She has an ability to conjure up so much in a single sentence or two that it is no wonder that these short stories, no matter how short, come with fully formed worlds with pasts, presents and futures (well with the exception of the apocalyptic The Last 3,600 Seconds, though what comes after the end of the world, probably something with Logan). In a single line or two someone can fall apart or fall in love. She smelled of rain and revolution. I fell. I also loved the originality that I found within all the stories of The Rental Heart even if shades of tales before or genres we know are encountered, there is always something different. In the latter case stories that have a steam punk edge, such as Coin-Operated Boys, also have something fresh and vibrant about them.

Many of the stories that I loved the most were ones which in some way feature an original fairytale that then gets Logan-ised and twisted in a new way, generally more gothic yet often modern too. Underskirts is like a tale of a female Bluebeard, which I adored for its gossipy nature and sauce. Tiger Palace is a wonderful riff on Beauty and the Beast which I shall say no more about for fear of spoiling. There are also tales like All The Better To Eat You With and Matryoska that take tales you know and love and spin them a little more, a heady hint of the new with a sprinkling of nostalgia. However Sleeping Beauty is the tale retold that I found the most brilliant (in terms of what it says and its power) and indeed the most disturbing and Logan turns it into a tale of sexual abuse, not many people could craft a tale like Logan does in this one. There are other tales which hold this particularly dark heart,

Daniel first kisses his brother in a town where no one knows them, a no-account place that’s barely even a town, just some buildings clustered around a highway: a smoky bar, an empty motel, a convenience store that only sells candy and condoms and beer. The nearest gas station is twenty miles away. The nearest bus station is fifty.

Yes some of these tales will shock as much as many of them will tantalise and titillate. This leads on to the many themes and layers of all the tales within the collection of The Rental Heart. In many ways it is a collection of very feminist tales (this is not a criticism, but you know me you’ll know that) and the twists that it takes on tales we know tend to highlight either a woman’s power or her vulnerability in all sorts of different ways, as I said there’s twenty tales here so it is hard to wrap them all up easily and I don’t want to. One of the most wonderful ones is Momma Grows A Diamond which looks at girls being flowers until they come of age and turn to jewels, after all a diamond is harder to damage than a flower – as I said, many layers in these stories.

Naturally in conjuncture with that both gender and sexuality are also predominant themes too. Wonderfully, more often than not, you cannot tell the gender of the person telling the tale and so if they fall in love with a woman or man they too could be a woman or a man. Love is just love after all, in all its queerest of ways. Logan celebrates this, hoorah for that!

One tale in particular stands out in this corking collection for me. (There is always one isn’t there, no matter how brilliant a collection.) Una and Coll are not Friends completely and utterly stole my heart. It is the tale of two young people who both stand out, well you would if one of you had antlers and the other had the tail of a tiger, and so people assume that because they are both different they should get on. Well they don’t, at first, and we follow how that relationship builds and turns out. I know, I know, no spoilers but if it doesn’t choke you up or make you beam then there is no hope for you, or heart in you.

Many, many people told me how much I would love The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales and they were all completely right. It is one of those collections that I will return to and simply pick a tale at random and know I will be lost with a whole world after a few sentences. It is also a collection that has grown on me more and more since I read it, with certain stories lingering in my mind long after. I am now very eager to get to The Gracekeepers (of which the initial idea is in The Gracekeeper in this collection interestingly) and her new collection A Portable Shelter which I treated myself to earlier this year. Treat yourself to this collection if you haven’t already, it is a collection of wonder and brilliance even at its darkest.

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Filed under Books of 2015, Fairy Tales, Kirsty Logan, Review, Salt Publishing