(tree wolf image by chic2view on 123RF.co)
This is for the Fantastic Five short stories prompt (May 22: “Bite-sized delight”), but I decided to be a little bit more specific and recommend 5 of my favorite fairytale retellings. I’ve read a few novel-length retellings — I loved Robin McKinley’s Deerskin and Spindle’s End — but I’m not sure I’ve read enough to make a top five, so here are 5 short stories instead. Three of these stories are from the anthology Black Swan, White Raven, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, which I read last year. There are several fairytales-for-adults anthologies from the same editors, and I look forward to reading more.
The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter (The Bloody Chamber & Other Stories)
This story is definitely the highlight of this well-known collection, for me. A Bluebeard retelling.
“Are you sure, she’d said when they delivered the gigantic box that held the wedding dress he’d bought me, wrapped up in tissue paper and red ribbon like a Christmas gift of crystallized fruit. Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I? ‘Are you sure you love him?'”
Pied Piper by Tanith Lee (Red As Blood)
My favorite Tanith Lee story of the ones I’ve read so far. From her collection Red As Blood. The original tale is, of course, The Pied Piper of Hamelin; this version is set in Asia.
“You try to lock everything up in a cage. Your animals and your hearts. But love will always get out. Love, or hate. Somehow.”
True Thomas by Bruce Glassco (Black Swan, White Raven)
This one is a science fiction twist on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, and so not properly a fantasy story. But I just couldn’t leave it out!
“How can I describe the Words of the Queen? Imagine that you are feasting on the finest banquet ever served to king or pope. It has been prepared by the finest cooks from Ireland to Inde, and they have studied your body until they know your favorite foods better than you know them yourself. Now imagine that, with every bite, you taste every course of the meal at once, but preserve the flavors separately as well, the way five strings of a harp struck together sound sweeter than one string plucked alone.”
The Dog Rose by Sven Westgard (Black Swan, White Raven)
The editor’s introduction to this story says, “It is the tradition of many fairy tales to have a prince awaken and rescue a princess. ‘The Dog Rose’ instead focuses on less royal folk who might have an interest in the outcome.”
“In the middle of May, when irises grow their beards and bleeding hearts shed their first white drop, Edward battled the sun for the life of the garden. Father was too old to haul buckets, so Edward carried the rain of the absent clouds on his shoulder-yoke. But in spite of his dousing, the herbs and flowers sagged under the growing heat. Shepherd’s knot leaves turned shriveled and brown, and Edward saw the fevers he would not cure.”
Godmother Death by Jane Yolen (Black Swan, White Raven)
I didn’t know, or at least didn’t remember, the original fairytale (“Godfather Death”) before reading this story. This is definitely the most metafictional of these five stories. I don’t always enjoy that sort of thing, but it works beautifully here.
“You think you know this story. You do not. You think it comes from Ireland, from Norway, from Spain. It does not. You have heard it in Hebrew, in Swedish, in German. You have read it in French, Italian and Greek. It is not a story, though many mouths have made it that way. It is true. How do I know? Death, herself, told me.”