Cabinet des Fées, #1

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“The Fool’s Doorway” by Sonya Taaffe
“Une Conte de Fée” by Lila Garrott
“The Music of Bremen Farm” by Mike Allen
“All for a Rose” by Donna Quattrone
“The River in Winter” by JoSelle Vanderhooft
“All My Mommies” by Virginia Mohlere
“Little Red” by K. Eason
“Owls” by Maria Beliaeva
“In the Woods” by Máire NicAodh

Cabinet des Fées
takes its name from the 17th century contes des fées, the tales of the fairies. In its first print issue, nine short stories are offered, as well as poetry and academic essays. The opening essay, written by Helen Pilinovsky, sums up the theme of this journal. Though it has the unwieldy title “The Commodification of the Fairy Tale: An Introduction to the Alternative,” I did find it an interesting prelude to the fiction. Basically, the fiction herein is trying to get back to the original form before the Victorians and Walt Disney watered down the genre to make it acceptable for children. This journal has an academic bent and may not be of enjoyment to the average fantasy reader. There is not a lot of dialogue in these stories, and most of them are told in the antiquated form to the tale—they are fairy tales, after all—meaning the characters are kept at a distance, and I came to care about very few of them. But for the university spec. lit crowd who thrives on deconstructing fiction, I’m sure this journal will find many enthusiasts.
“The Fool’s Doorway” by Sonya Taaffe is an interesting though difficult mood piece told in the second person. Which puts you, of course, in the story. Second person is an interesting point of view, but it is seldom used because it lends itself to sounding pretentious. This flash fiction story is told in the past tense, and considering it’s written in second person, I was rather surprised it wasn’t done in present tense since the two work so well together. Here, you are invited to cross the threshold of a doorway and are instantly bombarded with a profusion of images. The man you had taken for a street musician, with his tambourine that his fingers drum upon, welcomes you in, and the profusion of disjointed images just keeps coming. Since this is a flash piece, its plot is pretty thin, so I’ll only say a Pied Piper-like theme lurks at its core. This was not a very compelling story to kick off this issue with. I found the imagery questionable, and the purpose of it dubious. I do believe the author was trying to convey some manner of gypsy folklore here, though even that I’m unsure of. To her credit, it is well-written on a line-by-line level. Descriptive images abound, but they don’t seem to add up to a satisfying, memorable whole. Hence, there’s just not much in it to care about.

“Une Conte de Fée” by Lila Garrott is the first of two retellings of “Bluebeard,” and my least favorite of the pair. Despite the huge block paragraphs that are uninviting to the eye, this one begins well enough. It concerns a woman who is a painter but who gives up her art when she goes to live with her new husband in his manor. Of course, there are many rooms within, most of them locked, along with the forbidden room she’s not supposed to enter. And, of course, she does venture into this room by the end of the story, but what transpires in there is nothing like the original fairy tale. No dead wives are paraded before our eyes. The monster of the tale is the woman herself, who destroys men and angels for the sake of her own art. While this is well-written, I was left annoyed and depressed. It could be I was confusing the author with the story’s narrator at first. In Lolita, I never confused Nabokov as sharing the sentiments of Humbert Humbert, but here I didn’t think the narrative clever and/or unequivocal enough to convince me the tale had a true moral purpose. Consequently, I never could decide what Garrott was trying to say.

The introductory essay says that Mike Allen carries us to a Dr. Moreau themed fairy tale from the Grimms with “The Music of Bremen Farm.” In the Blue Ridge Mountains lives an elderly woman whom everyone calls Old Hag Bremen. Living alone, she claims that her main purpose in life is to bring back her ancestors who inhabited her old house for three hundred years before her. In one room of the house, she has a laboratory where she makes various chemicals that she imbibes. When she dies mysteriously, the town’s chief prosecutor and the sheriff and his deputies go to the house to investigate. There they are attacked by four relevant animals: a donkey, a cat, a rooster, and a dog—the principal animals from the Grimms fairy tale “Town Musicians of Bremen.” The town authorities play the roles of the four robbers, of course, from the original tale.

If the allusion to H. G. Wells’s novel hadn’t been mentioned in the foreword, I never would have made the connection. This was well-written enough, and I was pulled along by the story, but frankly I would’ve been rather dismayed by the ending if I hadn’t been able to relate it to the classic fairy tale. Otherwise, it would have been just another horror story—one told with the narrative distance of a tale, as opposed to the subjective point of view of the modern short story, so therefore I never could get inside the skin of any of the characters enough to care about them. Therefore, I wasn’t terrified. But taking this for what it is, a modern deconstruction and augmentation on the Brothers Grimm with a dash of H. G. Wells thrown in, I found it had an intellectual curiosity, if nothing else.

“All for a Rose” by Donna Quattrone is a simple tale of an unpopular young woman, her sister who has all the breaks, and their father who will do anything for his daughters to make them happy. The sister is the popular one who attracts the boys and all their gifts. The young woman whom the story focuses on can only wish to be popular. When their father goes away on a business trip, he returns with trinkets for the sister and a single perfect rose for the young woman, as per her request. But she quickly learns there is a price demanded of the father. The father has returned sick and the sister is no longer the apple of the local boys’ eyes. Always the faithful daughter, the young woman leaves one night to go live with the beast whom her father made the deal with for the perfect rose. Once there, she sees through the beast’s magic mirror that her father has regained his health and that her sister is happy once again. Of course, things have a way of changing.

This is a beautifully told tale without a heavy-handed moral in the end, that I can see. Its allegorical import to me is that we find our own beauty in the world. And the young woman finds hers in a single tulip as she grows into an independent woman and learns to experience life to its fullest. “Beauty and the Beast” is the classic fairy tale retold here, of course.

“The River in Winter” by JoSelle Vanderhooft is a beautifully written short-short story about a nixie, a water nymph, telling a painful tale of when she was a human girl. This one is really difficult to relate the plot to. Not because there isn’t one, but to do so would be to violate the reviewer’s no-spoiler credo. And while most stories need a plot, I’m not even sure this particular one is necessary. Yes, it does have a powerful theme of love and sex and how they lead to loss, but it’s more the language here that’s showcased. I was not surprised when I came to the author’s bio to find she’s a poet. Imagery abounds in this resplendent tale, with much made of the beauty of foliage, the pain of thorns, and the frigidity of icy winter streams. This is one to be read slowly and savored. But it’s not a tale that one would recount to a friend, I think. Though one might offer it to a friend who favors this sort of poetic fiction and say, “Read this!”

Call me twisted, but “All My Mommies” by Virginia Mohlere is my favorite story in this issue. While many of these tales are quite poetic, they tend to be a little too precious for my taste. This one isn’t. This retelling of “Bluebeard” is from the daughter’s point of view. Told in the first person, she is a young girl who is quickly growing up. Unlike the original version where the aristocratic Bluebeard has seven dead wives hanging on the wall in his forbidden room, there are twenty-seven “Mommies” here. The daughter knows they’re all dead, but they still talk to her as little voices in her head and tell her stories when daddy’s away. Some readers will no doubt find this extremely repulsive, but I found the black humor quite amusing. Lines like: “I got three more mommies after Mommy Angelique [her birth mother], and I’m almost seven years old. Mommy Rosamund, the newest one, is still a little stinky, but that’s not her fault. I don’t mind it so much.” All three thousand words of this story are like this, told from the innocence of a young child, blending the macabre with sweet childlike prattle. “Bluebeard” was a very popular fairy tale up until the 1950s, when white-bread America decided that children shouldn’t be exposed to it, and there really wasn’t any way to expurgate the corpses of the women locked in the room from the story. But this story celebrates that in all its gruesomeness, and from a young narrator that you can’t help but root for. Highly recommended, but not for the faint of heart.

There have been many versions of “Little Red Riding Hood” over the years, so it’s probably about time someone wrote a cyberpunk version of this oft-told tale. Which is what K. Eason did in “Little Red.” One may wonder exactly how such a thing can be done, but the telegraphic clipped prose lines such as these strike me as particularly Gibsonesque:

Slivers of sound, human and machine whispering together in a cybernetic conspiracy.

Obviously, the protagonist is named Red, and her mother has sent her through the mean, postmodern streets to make an important delivery to her Grammie:

Grammie came from the original genotype. She needs the drugs to jump the gaps in her biology.

A wolf would be out of place in the big city, but there are plenty of rats to test the gullibility of our young, unlikely heroine:

Rat-like, if rats grew as big as crocodiles, and had red LED eyes.

I know I’ve grumbled a bit about the narrative form of a few of these stories, saying that since they employ the antiquated style of the tale, they distance the reader from the characters. Yes, this is a trifle unfair since these are all supposed to be fairy tales in the first place, but here the ultra-modern style is a pleasant relief. One still doesn’t get the deep character penetration of the protag, as this is yet another story of style, but if there is one narrative in this journal that the term “eyeball kick” applies to, this is it:

She gulped the urban sour into her lungs and worked herself into a lope.

And though Red never becomes a fully realized, three-dimensional character, one does grasp her personal Zeitgeist from the images she takes in on her way to Grammie’s place:

Grammie lived in the heart of the city. A park, Mama said. Once upon a time, anyway. Grammie’s house wasn’t on the grid. Wasn’t open to swarms or spies from the uplink, but they knew. Somehow. Sense the vulnerability.

As much as I enjoyed the freshness of this narrative, however, I have to admit I did grow a bit weary of it toward the end. But I admired the author’s style and command of the language enough to want to see how she pulled it off. And even though I basically knew what was coming, I wasn’t disappointed:

The Rats swarmed. Wolves had hunted there, once. Wolves still did.

“Owls” by Maria Beliaeva is somewhat like the previous tale, “Little Red,” in that it places a young woman in a hostile urban setting and shows her struggle against streetwise decadence. In the introductory essay, the editor says that this story “ventures into the territory of the Russian folktale, a tale which speaks of wolves in its examination of post-Soviet politics.” Well, I’ll have to take her word for it. I’m not familiar enough with either to deconstruct this story with these two elements in mind. Beliaeva’s prose certainly is vivid, though I was bothered by a few technical items. One in particular being point of view. Not that there are any rules in fiction that can’t be broken, but in the beginning, she employs the odd, outmoded technique of having the third-person narrator speak directly to the reader. And this would be fine except it stuck out so clearly that when it was never employed again, I found it to be a technical loose end.

As to the tale itself, it falls somewhere between a fable and an allegory, as the young protagonist named Masha tries to find her missing boyfriend, Fedia, who’s represented as an owl. The local street gang is depicted as a pack of wolves, and the police as bears. Masha is then sent to see the witch in the woods, whom she calls Grandma, who then sends her deeper into the woods to confront a fairy where she finds Fedia. It has to be that I’m unfamiliar with the Russian fairy tale that Beliaeva is deconstructing here, because all these events didn’t add up to enough for me to be satisfied with the tale’s conclusion. Regardless, it had enough strong elements in it—imagery mostly, as well as creativity in storytelling approach—to praise it, although with slight reservations.

The next story is a flash piece by Máire NicAodh called “In the Woods.” On a hot summer’s day, a young man is rescued by a woman who finds him bleeding into a lake. After nursing him back to health, he asks her to marry him, and she agrees. In the next scene, his mother forbids him to marry the woman as she has another bride selected for him and a magic potion to make it happen. The story quickly evolves to the climax of their wedding, where the first woman appears.

Plotwise, this was a satisfying enough story, but one rather difficult to talk about in a review. None of the characters have names, just “he,” “she,” “her father,” “his mother.” The writing was vivid, but still the story suffers from that distancing created by the narrative technique intrinsic of the tale. Despite that, I think this story works well enough as a piece of flash fiction.

Out of the nine stories in this issue, I found “All My Mommies” by Virginia Mohlere” to be the standout story, the only one I can recommended highly.