I'm a sucker for themed collections and this one is a favourite: taking fairy tales and making them dark again. I say 'again', because if you've read Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, you'll know that they were very dark to begin with. These were cautionary tales for children, however Disney turned them into soporific nonsense with cutesy singing candlesticks and Oscar-winning elevator music.
Tanith Lee isn't with us any more, though she did leave behind over 90 novels and over 300 short stories. Apparently there are still others sitting with her publishers, as this is a new collection, released in April 2017, and three of its nineteen stories make their debuts here: 'Redder Than Blood', 'Love in Waiting' and 'The Beast and Beauty', each of which are different riffs on fairy tales already represented in this book by other stories. The rest are reprinted from a variety of anthologies and science fiction magazines.
I found this repeated but highly varied attack on certain fairy tales fascinating and I'm sure that the DAW editor felt that too because they're clumped together in the book. For instance, we begin with a couple of versions of 'Snow White', which are as thoroughly different from each other as chalk from cheese.
The first is the title piece, 'Redder Than Blood', which is a ghost story; we follow a travel writer, Edmund Sanger, as he obsesses over Lady Cremisia Rinaldi, the Red Lily, who is centuries dead, and a journey into her mansion which is haunting and dangerous. 'Snow-Drop', by comparison, feels more familiar, even if it follows a new and quickly neglected bride, Cristena, as she dips into insanity triggered by isolation and a set of relentlessly similar pictures of a young girl, painted by her husband's previous wife. When she spies the girl on the television, as a living creature working in a circus (with the inevitable seven dwarfs), she plans to meet her and... well, I do like that spoilers would be easy here, even when working with fairy tales that were written hundreds of years ago. Tanith Lee re-writes them that wildly.
It's hard to even label the book with a genre. The cover suggests fantasy, though with the red, white and black of horror, and both are applicable. 'Snow-Drop' touches on erotica (pun not intended) and some of the later stories leap heartily into that world. Yet few stay close enough to their originals to feel like fairy tales, the closest surely being 'Magpied', a traditional take on 'The Pied Piper of Hamelin' that adds little to the original but doesn't feel out of place here.
'She Sleeps in a Tower' brings modern urban darkness to 'The Sleeping Beauty', even if it's set in a tower in the woods that is surrounded by thorns. I would be surprised if anyone reading this collection, without fore-knowledge of its author's name, would believe that author to be male. The darkness in many of these stories comes from men, whether through rape, domestic abuse or paedophilia. That's not to suggest that all the villains are male and all the victims are female, because that's not the case, but there are themes that run through many of these stories and the sexual and physical domination of women is one. Of course, that's hardly inappropriate, given the misogynistic times in which these stories were written, but updating some to the modern day (or leaving others when they were) makes that an easy theme to explore.
Another theme is coming of age, again hardly surprising given that so many fairy tales featured children as protagonists. 'Awake', another take on 'The Sleeping Beauty', is a great example of that, in which faery intervention provides the young lady at the centre of the story with a hundred years to do so. The brief story that follows, 'Love in Waiting', feels like a corollary to that, in which a prince waits a hundred years to kiss his princess awake and, inevitably, falls dead after doing so. It's hard to avoid a spoiler in a fifteen line story, so I didn't even try.
Perspectives are important here as well, as evidenced by the first in a trio of riffs on 'Cinderella', this one being called 'The Reason for Not Going to the Ball'. It's written (literally, as it's a letter to Cinderella, now the wife of a prince, on her wedding night) from the perspective of her stepmother and it neatly explains how she wasn't the wicked stepmother that we might expect (and Cinderella remembers). There were reasons, she suggests, for all the things she did and they were done in Cinderella's best interests. It's almost a shock to read the following 'Midnight' and 'Empire of Glass' and realise that they issued from the same pen; the approaches are that different.
'Rapunzel' gets two treatments, one a straight fantasy called simply 'Rapunzel' and the other, 'Open Your Window, Golden Hair', a weird horror story. Generally, the early stories are shorter, building to some substantial pieces towards the end of the book, and these, with 'Kiss, Kiss', an aching way to look at 'The Frog Prince', and 'Into Gold', a sword and sorcery approach to 'Rumpelstiltskin', are consistent in length and quality. That continues with 'Blood-Mantle', the first of two takes on 'Little Red Riding Hood', which is a haunting horror story that speaks as much to the horror of the passage of time as it does to granny and the wolf. This one stayed with me, even as I read on.
The second, 'Wolfed', shifts us into erotica, while 'My Life as a Swan', easily the longest story in the book, tells the story of 'Swan Lake' with a combination of approaches already taken with prior pieces. We then take a look at 'Beauty and the Beast', with two tales that echo each other's look at perfection, but unfold in thoroughly different ways. 'The Beast' may well be my favourite story in the book, a fantastic piece of writing about which I can say nothing, because even its subgenre would be a spoiler. It's certainly better than 'The Beast and Beauty', which sits with me wrong; I enjoyed the build but didn't feel the ending fit.
Finally, we wrap up with a story so original that I didn't even recognise its source in 'The Twelve Dancing Princesses'. The story is 'Below the Sun Beneath', which feels very much like a fairy tale, but Lee twists it so far away from its origins that the commonality in different versions is ignored entirely. I liked it and I liked it as the final piece in this collection, not only because it marks the point at which Lee's imaginative approaches to these stories reach their logical conclusion.
As you can imagine, these stories are not just of varying length and approach but of quality. The new stories do feel like the weakest, but they're not bad and the best stories included are fantastic. I have a bunch of Tanith Lee books on my shelf, but I haven't got round to reading any yet. This collection tells me that I should. Whether it's remotely representative of her work in any other ways than imagination and quality, however, I have no idea. ~~ Hal C F Astell