Poor Cinderella. She's still dangerously charming—mixing up everybody's allegiances and making lesser women petty, jealous and mean—but these days, she's stuck in a toxic relationship with an outlaw biker, under whose often-violent direction she cooks up some of the best methamphetamine in town.
Tucson-based author Stacey Richter's unforgettable re-imagining of Charles Perrault's fairy tale is one of many high points in My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. Edited by Kate Bernheimer—also a Tucsonan and one of today's most active and imaginative scholars and expounders of the fairy tale—this large, diverse collection of short stories based on classic fairy tales and legends is a trove of experimental narrative, lyric imagination and, of course, inscrutability.
I say "of course," because the source material for these stories—from Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Italo Calvino and others—is generally ambiguous and often abstract. Fairy tales speak to us through a haze, it seems, and many of these stories follow that ancient example.
It took me a long time to read this fascinating collection. After finishing each story, I read the tale on which it was based. It became a multi-week study session, during which I rediscovered the strange territory of the fairy tale while sliding along the sharp edge of experimental fiction. I survived relatively intact, though enthralled and not a little confused.
The spirits of the late Donald Barthelme and Angela Carter pervade the collection. It's dedicated to Carter, whose The Bloody Chamber set the standard for contemporary re-imaginings of fairy tales. The structural tricks of Barthelme, whose Snow White is to my mind the best rewriting of a fairy tale ever, are also well-represented.
I can't stop thinking about Tucson/Houston author Karen Brennan's story "The Snow Queen," based on the Andersen story of the same title. Instead of a young girl searching for her boyfriend who has been seduced by the cold-hearted titular queen, Brennan's story is about a mother's ambivalence over her long-lost, drug-addled son. She returns to a seaside city she thought she knew, only to find it covered in snow. She searches for the ocean in vain and picks up a copy of Andersen's tale in a book shop, remembering that her mother always reminded her of the Snow Queen—"cold and beautiful."
Joy Williams, yet another Tucson author, opens the book with "Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child," a retelling of a Russian fairy tale. Typical of the stories in this collection, Williams inserts a real-world thread in the character of John James Audubon, who becomes something of a villain with his penchant for killing the birds that he painted.
Then there's Tucson-author Lydia Millet's "Snow White, Rose Red," a re-imagining of the Brothers Grimm fairy tale. "I met the girls and instantly liked the girls. Of course I liked the girls. A girl is better than a feast. This was before the arrest, before the indictment and the media stories," the story begins.
Millet, along with grand-master fairy-tale scholar Jack Zipes, is on the advisory board of the Fairy Tale Review, published right here in the Old Pueblo. Many of the authors in the collection have also published work in the review. A gorgeously produced literary journal dedicated to keeping the fairy tale fresh and alive, the Fairy Tale Review (www.fairytalereview.com), founded and edited by Bernheimer, is one of Tucson's best-kept secrets. In her introduction to the collection, Bernheimer—who also contributes a haunting tale based on an Edgar Allan Poe story—writes that she gets "thousands" of submissions for each issue, suggesting that we may be in the midst of a great age of fantasy literature.
"I have a sense that the proliferation of magical stories, especially fairy tales, is correlated to a growing awareness of human separation from the wild and natural world," Bernheimer muses. "In fairy tales, the human and animal worlds are equal and mutually dependent. The violence, suffering and beauty are shared. Those drawn to fairy tales, perhaps, wish for a world that might live 'forever after.' My work as a preservationist of fairy tales is entwined with all kinds of extinctions."
The stories in this volume have an equally preservationist spirit. They are ancient tales, many of them birthed on the tongues of the oral tradition, that have been driven slowly through a contemporary imagination.
They come out the other end much altered, but much enhanced as well.