This week I’m recommending another collection of Fantasy stories which offers new interpretations of traditional tales. `Toad Words and Other Stories’ by T.Kingfisher contains seven short stories, one novella and three poems. Most of these items have appeared elsewhere but the novella is original to this collection, which came out in 2014. T.Kingfisher is a pen-name for American writer and illustrator, Ursula Vernon. She is one of a growing number of professional writers who are choosing to self-publish their work as ebooks, so there is no print version of this one. Don’t be put off by the self-published bit, even if the author has called her imprint Red Wombat Tea Company.
Kingfisher begins her introduction by confessing that she didn’t think she was capable of `doing something so disciplined’ as writing short stories. She was wrong. Her imagination may be wild but Kingfisher uses language with precision and elegance. While reading `Toad Words’, I frequently found myself highlighting sharply expressed truths, such as, `But you have two cultures breaking against each other, it’s the young women who are going to come out the losers.’ One of the most charming stories in this collection, `Night ‘, should probably be classified as metaphysical Science Fiction; the remainder comfortably count as Fantasy. They shed a fresh, and sometimes disconcerting, light on famous works of Fantasy such as Peter Pan (`Never’) and `The Little Mermaid’ (`The Sea Witch Sets The Record Straight’) or on Folk Tales (`Toad Words’, `The Wolf and the Woodsman’, `Bluebeard’s Wife’, `Boar & Apples’) and traditional Ballads (`Loathly’).
One of the poems includes the lines, `Fairy tales are human things which we have chewed over since before we could eat solid food.’ Kingfisher has clearly chewed over them more than most and she delights in asking unexpected questions about Fairy Tale characters, such as what happened to the `bad’ sister condemned to have frogs and toads drop from her mouth whenever she spoke? In `Toad Words’ the delightful answer is that she learns to distinguish between toad words, such as desiccated, obligation and matchstick, and frog words, such as purple, murky and squill, and to use them creatively to save rare amphibians. As someone with a particular fondness for amphibians (my garden is full of them) I adored this story. It’s a good example of the author’s wit and dry humour.
Kingfisher also asks pertinent questions such as, `What might have happened if wife-killer Bluebeard finally married a woman who did feel that her husband’s privacy was more important than her own curiosity?’ and `Why was Red Riding Hood’s grandmother living in the middle of a deep dark wood, and who should you be more wary of – a shy wild animal or an angry, axe-wielding woodman?’ Kingfisher’s take on `Little Red Riding Hood’ is full of funny lines but is just as brutal as the original story. In this version, the grandmother is being stalked by a creepy admirer determined to force her into an abusive relationship. In several of the stories, Kingfisher writes angrily about the sufferings inflicted on women whose only power is their inner strength. `Loathly’ is an almost unbearably sad tale of a woman who has become a monster through no fault of her own. For her, as in real life, marriage to a handsome prince does not automatically make for a happy ending. In `Never’, Kingfisher focuses on the horrors that might happen when a young girl lured to Neverland by Peter Pan has the temerity to grow up. She chooses to bring out the very dark side of Peter Pan, which is definitely there in Barrie’s work (see my August 2014 post on `Peter and Wendy’) but her interpretation of the famous crocodile is original and nastily convincing.
Several of the stories in `Toad Words’ can be seen as reactions against the Disneyfication of Fairy Tales. If you only know the Sea-Witch from the Disney film of `The Little Mermaid’, you’ll be surprised by the motives she reveals in `The Sea Witch Sets the Record Straight’. This shrewd, unsentimental but compassionate witch sees all too clearly that the dim-witted mermaid will never attract the prince she has set her heart on. I found the ending to this story more moving than the one in Hans Christian Anderson’s original version. `Boar & Apples’ sounds like a recipe but this novella contains Kingfisher’s interpretation of `Snow White’. She has fun with references to Snow White’s famous costume in the classic Disney film – `The seamstress had always had a great desire to sew something with puffed sleeves, and the fact that Snow stared at them with great astonishment and mild indignation did nothing to diminish her moment of glory.’
Kingfisher also does full justice to the bleak and cruel aspects of the tale first recorded by the Brothers Grimm (see my May 2014 post on `Grimm Tales for Young and Old’). As in my own story,`Iron Shoes’, the Queen is Snow’s real mother but after that the two versions diverge. Kingfisher warns her readers not to waste sympathy on this murderous Queen. The magic mirror does `not have to seduce her with words or visions; she came essentially pre-seduced.’ The Queen orders a Huntsman to kill her teenage daughter, Snow, and bring back her heart. Since this isn’t the kind of Feminist Fantasy in which all the male characters are villains or wimps, he does no such thing. The Huntsman leaves Snow in the forest. What are you more likely to find in forests, dwarves or wild boar? So, seven talking pigs it is then. After this surprise, you realize that the story is going in an unexpected direction. Can her experiences in the forest help this practical princess to survive the inevitable confrontation with her jealous mother? Read `Toad Words and Other Stories’ to find out. Self-publication under a new name has allowed Ursula Vernon to escape from being pigeon-holed as an author and illustrator of cosy children’s books and write for adults about `hard, ugly, things.’ I hope that other authors will follow her brave lead. Until two weeks time…