Special Fairy Tales Issue
Reviewed by Lillian Csernica
“The Queen Who Could Not Walk” by Peter S. Beagle
On the royal wedding day, the queen loses the use of her legs. The king then carries her around everywhere until the time comes when by custom and practice he has to step down and make his way as a penniless beggar. The king has a special chair with wheels made for the queen. The time comes when the queen also has to step down. She’s abandoned out in the castle courtyard, sitting in the chair hoping for charity, utterly helpless until an old woman takes charge of her. Together they begin a strange journey that answers several key questions.
This is a strange kingdom. Royalty is chosen from among the common people and appointed for an unspecified length of time. The kings and queens all know that the day will come when they will be stripped of all privilege and cast out with nothing but a begging bowl. I’d like to have known who does the hiring and firing, so to speak. It was refreshing to see the issues of disability and adaptive equipment handled in such a creative manner. How and why the queen lost the use of her legs demonstrates Mr. Beagle’s talent for understanding the human heart as the centerpiece of all really good fairy tales. Poignant and subtle, poetic and bittersweet, this story has depth and dimension.
“Fae for a Day” by Teel James Glenn
Former police detective Robin Flannigan gets drunk on Halloween and accidentally saves Oberon, King of the Fairies, from getting mugged. Alcohol and a baseball bat knock Robin out. He wakes up in the Summerlands to discover he’s Oberon’s special guest for a feast and the trial of Caliban. Robin is delighted to discover his leg crippled in the line of duty works perfectly well. Poor Robin’s heroics bring down the wrath of Maeb, who suckers him into a plot against Oberon.
The first scene gave me high hopes that this would be urban fantasy comparable to Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files. There is a solid plot here, but it gets bogged down in all the Shakespearean references and the silly in-jokes. In keeping with modern sensibilities, Robin finds himself attracted to both Oberon, whom Puck calls “Obi-wan,” and Titania, who is referred to as “Queen Titty.” This is important to the resolution of the story, which explains the title/punchline.
“I am Moonflower” by Nicole Cushing
A bee is trapped inside a morning glory when it closes for the night. Both are transformed by the experience. A very short story, packed with color and imagery and meaning. The narrative voice is lovely. I could hear this story being told. It could serve as an allegory, depending on the author’s specific intent.
“Blind Alley” by Morgan Llywelyn
Told in a voice of cold, scientific objectivity, the story describes how parasites feed off their host and ultimately destroy it. The twist comes when the reader discovers the source of the voice and who the parasites really are. While there’s some suspense at the opening, and the freshness of what appears to be a science fiction approach, the story doesn’t really go anywhere. The conclusion is obvious and old news. I was rather surprised to read something this weak from an author of such proven skill.
“Suri and Sirin” by Court Merrigan
A father tells his children a variation of a Thai story about a doomed love triangle. Suri is the young lady and Sirin the loser in the triangle. This is pleasant enough to read. The stranger who comes to the village and captures Suri’s heart is a strong character, written well. Moments of culture shock and good-natured misunderstandings add to the cultural context. The author does take the liberty of changing the traditional ending of the story. That left me feeling like there were some loose ends hanging, but nothing serious enough to damage the overall story.
“The Flowers of Tir na Nog” by J.R. Restrick
This first person tale starts off with a man whose broken heart compels him to go walking through the forest. He follows the last patches of the day’s fading sunshine until he comes upon a special stone. From that stone a path of golden light leads him to the castle of the Elf-King in Tir na Nog. The man spends some time at the Elf-King’s court, but his restless heart forces him to move on. The Elf-King gives the man a magical sword to protect him on his way.
In tone and content this story reminded me strongly of Lord Dunsay’s The King of Elfland’s Daughter. There’s even a reference to Dunsany in the narrative. The inescapable sorrow of the human world in contrast to the changeless peace and beauty of Tir na Nog makes a powerful backdrop for the man’s journey both emotional and physical. The story is a serious downer, but it is poetic and beautiful.
“The Miracles of La Guardia Airport (Delta Terminal)” by Caitlin Campbell
St. Francis arrives to tell the Angel his good works have been noted and he’s up for promotion. The Angel does not want to leave the Delta Terminal and the regular employees of whom he’s grown fond. The Angel decides to go out with a major blessing. Taking on the human female form that will most appeal to George, the manager of the airport sports bar, the Angel gives George a fantasy come true. Where they do this and the consequences of that location result in the twist at the end of the story.
I have to say I didn’t want to like this story. This issue is about fairy tales, and I can’t stand it when people think angels and fairies are similar beings. The dose of divine ecstasy the Angel gives George is done with a tasteful amount of restraint. The details of airport activity and personnel are funny and perfect. What really won me over was the character of the Angel, who loves La Guardia and all the people who pass through the Delta Terminal. A good premise, good characters, and a satisfying ending. What more could I ask for?
“A Gnomish Gift” by Alex Shvartsman
How Rumpelstiltskin made the deal to spin straw into gold, from his side of the story. I don’t want to say much about the plot and give away the twists. I will say that the famous gnome’s actions are motivated by love for his wife who is consumed by grief over her miscarriage. Rumpelstiltskin is a character with more depth and humanity than the humans in the story, who are shallow self-centered creatures who don’t take the long view of life. When the time comes for Rumpelstiltskin to collect his price, the reality of his character overcomes the human prejudice in a touching and effective way.
“Enough” by Jane Yolen
Built around the folk legend Rabbi Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), this is the story of how generation after generation, for three hundred years, a rabbi protects his people. The knowledge required to do so changes with time, but that knowledge is always enough. The structure of this story is so wonderful, keeping the rhythm of oral storytelling yet offering all the advantages of the written word. The heart and meaning of the story come down to one key word, and that word will blow your mind wide open. Here we have the shining jewel of the issue, the work of a master storyteller.
“Gold” by Lauren Liebowitz
Another variation on the Rumpelstiltskin story. The son of a greedy, abusive king comes to Rumpelstiltskin asking to be made into someone his father will love. Once again, the person making the wish is not careful enough about the precise terms of the wish. Rumpelstiltskin grants the wish, much to the grief of all those concerned.
The fairy tale version of the punishment plot. I felt sympathy for the poor prince, who really doesn’t deserve any of the horrible things that happen to him. Jane Yolen is a hard act to follow, true, but this story still left me unimpressed.
“The Brown Man of Glen Gardens” by Frank Aversa
After the death of his mother, Rob Campbell goes back to his home town. Quite a bit of the story shows him wandering around, meeting a few old acquaintances, thinking about might-have-beens. The plot really begins when Rob decides to track down the Brown Man, a local oddball who appears to be a homeless person who always has one or more dogs with him. Rob follows him into the Old Weald, the dark heart of the Mighty Great Wood. When they come face to face, the Brown Man gives obscure answers to Rob’s questions in a peculiar dialect. Is the Brown Man just a schizophrenic derelict? Is the Brown Man a guardian spirit? As in many fairy tales, now that Rob has pried some answers out of the Brown Man, he’s offered a choice. Rob’s reaction to that choice and his final decision lead to the climax.
The first half of the story is way too long. Two of the characters do nothing to move the story forward. All that kept me reading to the end of the story was my commitment to providing a professional review. The Brown Man has potential, but that goes unrealized because it’s buried under all the backstory and other unnecessary detail.
“The King’s Enemies” by Marc Bilgrey
A greedy, land-hungry king turns paranoid and forces his wizard to find a spell that will kill all of his enemies. The king is not the most popular fellow, so the spell wipes out considerably more people than he anticipated. Now that the king knows who all of his enemies really are, he commands the wizard to cast a spell that will put everything back the way it was. The wizard warns the king that such a spell will require a massive amount of energy. The king doesn’t care.
From the first sentence this story has “punishment plot” written all over it. A pivotal element of most fairy tales is the price that’s paid for the magic. The Little Mermaid trades her voice for legs. King Midas gets all the gold he wants, but loses his daughter. When the wizard warns the king about the second spell’s price, I thought the plot was about to take a much-needed twist. I was disappointed. You would think that failing to follow the classic fairy tale tropes would have ruled this story out of consideration for this issue’s theme. Logic flaws and gaping plot holes usually result in rejection slips.
“The Crimson Cloak” by Zach Shephard
The Big Bad Wolf tells his side of the Little Red Riding Hood story. Why the cloak is red, why the heroine of the story has to be that little girl…. These and more details are explored in competent prose. Just when the big confrontation was about to happen, the story stops. I can’t really call that an ending. No satisfaction, no tying up of loose ends, just chopped off as if the woodsman had shown up with his ax. It’s really sad when a story that could have been good bottoms out like this. Again, I have to wonder how this made it out of the slush and into print.
“The Lute Player and the Mask” by Dick Baldwin
A pedlar talks a lute player into buying a mask by telling him the mask will make him rich and famous. The mask is the face of a beautiful girl. All the lute player has to do is admire the mask and love it. The next time the lute player performs, a voice of magical sweetness sings along. People flock to him and rain coins on him. As long as the lute player is careful to spend both his time and his growing fortune on the mask, which is now smiling, he’s more and more in demand all over the world. Whether it’s medieval Europe or modern America, a musician on a world tour is away from home for months on end, surrounded by adoring fans.
I like the premise here. There’s some suspense, leading me to wonder if the mask is going to bring good luck or turn into some kind of soul-sucking obsession. Unfortunately, while the first half of the story is well written and full of good detail, the ending is rushed and predictable. Some fairy tales have really nasty endings if the human violates the magical contract. There are opportunities here that have gone unexplored. Another case of strong potential, poor execution.
“Payment” by Alfred J. Vickers III
In a confusing piece of flash fiction, the Pied Piper of Hamelin is tired of getting shortchanged for his services. He exacts payback by playing a special tune on his flute. The ending doesn’t make sense. It does seem to imply that the Piper himself got hit by the flute’s bad juju. If playing that particular tune was going to wipe him out too, it would have been nice to know more about where he learned the tune, any warnings that came with it, etc.
“Out of Time” by Manny Frishberg
Pamela’s daughter Esther is dying of a fever despite all efforts with herbal medicine and everything else pioneer families can do. Having already lost one child, Pamela can’t bear the thought of losing Esther. When Pamela goes outside to fetch water, she sees a fairy prince emerge from the camouflage of trees and bushes. Pamela gives way to temptation and enters Tir na Nog, where there is no sickness or regret. Before the prince can coax her into dancing, Pamela rushes back to gather up Esther and bring her into the enchanted land. Esther is at once up and dancing, laughing and playing with the sprites. The prince is horrified, and for good reason.
Pamela is a well-rounded character, believable in her grief and desperation. The pioneer farm setting with its limited resources adds to the tension. I did wonder why the fairy prince turned up at such a convenient moment. He expresses no particular curiosity, desire to help, or any other specific motivation. The consequences of Pamela’s last ditch effort to help Esther are played out with a merciless hand, making them that much more effective.
And now, two stories from the “Unthemed Fiction” section.
“As Fleas” by Jon Koons
Another piece of flash fiction. The third person omnipotent viewpoint shows parasites going about their instinct-driven lives, eating and reproducing. They are steadily consuming their host who is aware of them but can’t get rid of them. There comes a time when the host has nothing left to give and is destroyed. The final sentence identifies both host and parasites by name.
There’s nothing original or weird about this. It could be a public service announcement paid for by Greenpeace.
“Black Poppy” by David W. Amendola
Doctor Rasmussen is a frequent patron of Tompkins Curiosity Shop. The latest delivery is a small silver box with strange writing and creatures decorating it. Inside is a quantity of black powder made from the black poppy. Tompkins has a cautionary tale to offer along with an explanation of how difficult the box was to locate and acquire. Doctor Rasmussen takes the box home and digs through his untidy library of occult manuscripts until he locates Zimmerman’s Diary, a journal kept by a man who conducted a series of experiments using the powdered black poppy. The final entries of the Diary don’t make much sense because Zimmerman went insane. Doctor Rasmussen is determined to continue where Zimmerman’s research ended so abruptly.
Cross M.R. James’ typical hero, the scholar who doesn’t know when to quit, with Lovecraft’s ancient cult and horrible monster-god, and you get this story. The tone is right, along with Rasmussen’s insatiable appetite for both the black poppy powder and the secret knowledge it provides, and Tompkins’ futile efforts to prevent Rasmussen from crossing that final boundary. This is a good example of this type of story, faithfully modeled on its inspirations. The trouble is, I feel like I’ve read it already. It lacks James’ growing sense of dread and Lovecraft’s intrusion of the forbidden realm into our world. They were both masters, true. All I’m really asking for is the stamp of originality.