Archives for posts with tag: Feminist Fantasy

I’m continuing Ghost Month by recommending “Women and Ghosts”, a collection of ten supernatural stories by American author and academic, Alison Lurie. Since her field of study has been Children’s Literature and Fairy Tales, she knows a thing or two about story-telling. Professor Lurie is best known for her witty novels, such as the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Foreign Affairs”, but she also has the knack of writing unsettling short stories. This collection dates to 1994. “Women and Ghosts” doesn’t seem to be available in ebook form but there is a good audio version (ideal for ghost stories) and cheap paperbacks are easy to get hold of.

As you would expect from the title, all of the stories feature female characters who go through some kind of supernatural experience. The settings are contemporary rather than Gothic. They range from sunny Florida to the rain-drenched English Lake District and from India and Africa to small and college town America. The supernatural elements are equally varied. Ghosts of the “wronged dead” type manifest themselves in unusual ways and apparitions of the living are just as frightening. Some of the stories involve haunted objects; others describe bizarre visions or inexplicable happenings. All of the supernatural encounters are life-changing for somebody but not always in a negative way.

In “Ilse’s House” a young woman is haunted by visions of her fiancé’s former girlfriend while in “The Pool People” a little girl can see more than shadows in her nasty grandmother’s swimming pool. Ever felt that inanimate objects have a grudge against you? Then you’ll respond to “The Highboy”; the story of a piece of antique furniture with a will of its own. In “Counting Sheep” a professor comes up with an extraordinary explanation for the mystery of a missing student. During “In the Shadow” a diplomat is haunted by a dead boyfriend who tells her unpleasant truths about her lovers. “Waiting for the Baby” follows an American woman who has come to India to adopt a baby and has a strange experience in a local temple. In “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” a bride’s feelings are transformed by a garment she is given to wear on her wedding day. “Fat People” lives up to its title when a reluctant dieter starts seeing monstrously overweight people everywhere. In “Another Halloween” a guilty woman realizes that there is always one Trick or Treater too many, while in “The Double Poet” a writer learns that she has a doppelganger who seems to be stealing her life.

I would classify the stories in “Women and Ghosts” as delayed-impact fiction. Some of them seem quite slight on first reading but they linger in the mind and gradually provoke new and disturbing interpretations. Alison Lurie’s fiction has sometimes been compared with that of Jane Austen. Like Austen, Lurie produces perfect prose and dissects human nature in a ruthless but amusing way. She is the mistress of fine detail. When Lurie writes about a particular sheep with “dense yellowish-drab wool, incurled grey corrugated horns, long pale narrow face, and liquorice eyes” (Counting Sheep) I can see it so vividly. She can describe anything from the exact effects of light on water at different times of day (“The Pool People”) to a gaudy group of “glaringly new…half-comic, half-sinister deities” in an Indian temple (“Waiting for the Baby”). Thanks to the power of Lurie’s prose, the supernatural elements in these stories seem as real as the mundane ones.

Lurie also has the gift of summing people up in a few barbed sentences (“She had the sort of cool manners that always made me think of words like pleasant and cordial. She never had much to say, or raised her voice, and she didn’t like it when somebody else did.” Another Halloween) . In Britain, Ghost fiction has been dominated by male writers and male characters (see my October 2013 post on the work of M.R.James) but females have had a stronger voice and presence in American Ghost fiction. It is refreashing to read a collection of Ghost stories centred on female characters who aren’t just there to scream when the ghost appears. At the start of  “In the Shadow” we’re told that successful diplomat “Celia Zimmern was about the last person she, or anyone else would have expected to see a ghost”. This is true of most of the women in “Women and Ghosts”, who include a Professor of English Literature, a market-research analyst and a Poet in Residence. None of these intelligent women frighten easily but they don’t behave like dauntless Fantasy heroines either. Their flaws are woven into the stories. Is Celia’s haunting caused by her greed for fine things and her sense of superiority? It’s left to the reader to decide.

An outstanding feature of this collection is that the living people in the stories are often scarier than the ghosts. The first story, “Ilse’s House”, contains a chilling portrait of Gregor, a man whose charm masks an abusive personality. During this story a confident young woman is haunted by a vision of the cowed housewife she will become if she marries Gregor. In “The Pool People” the villain is a monumentally selfish old woman, who fails to notice the catastrophes she has caused.  The central character in “The Double Poet” is a monster of egotism who despises her readers. “Another Halloween” is, on the surface, more like a conventional Ghost or Horror story than the rest of the collection. It shows how a failure to accept responsibility comes back to haunt a woman whose motto is “I wasn’t involved”. After a possibly preventable tragedy, the narrator says, “Now I believe women have to take responsibility for other women, even ones they don’t much like.” It’s a conclusion that lets none of us off the hook. Have a thoughtful Halloween.




This week I’m recommending another novel inspired by Celtic mythology. “The Island of the Mighty” is based on one of the ancient Welsh stories from the collection known as “The Mabinogion” (see my post of November 2012). The life-history of its American author, Evangeline Walton (1907-1996), makes her sound like the heroine of a story by Edgar Allan Poe – though fortunately one with a happy ending. Her first novel was published in 1936 under the rather unappealing title of “The Virgin and the Swine” but it wasn’t a success until it was reissued as “The Island of the Mighty” by Ballantine in 1970. This led to the publication of more novels by Walton based on `The Four Branches of the Mabinogi’. Her “Mabinogion Tetralogy” can now be found as a `Fantasy Classics’ paperback or as an ebook.

The plots of the Four Branches range from the odd to the extremely odd. “The Island of the Mighty” is an expanded version of the Fourth Branch, the oddest of them all. In `the druidic days of Britain’, Gwynedd was ruled by King Math the Ancient, who always sat with his feet in a virgin’s lap. When one of Math’s nephews, a hot-headed young man named Gilvaethwy, fell in lust with the King’s Footholder, Goewyn, she would have nothing to do with him. Gilvaethwy turns for help to his older brother, the enchanter Gwydion, who devises a ruthless plan to lure Math away from his castle and his Footholder. Gwydion provokes a war with the ruler of the neighbouring kingdom of Dyved by tricking him into parting with some of his magical pigs. This action leads to a callous rape, a death in combat and a bizarre punishment for the guilty brothers.

After three years, Gwydion is restored to his place as Math’s heir but he longs to have a child of his own to bring up. Gwydion tricks his sister, the sorceress Arianrhod, into giving birth to a premature baby and uses his magic to ensure that the boy grows and thrives. Furious that her reputation as a virgin has been ruined, Arianrhod refuses to have anything to do with her son and places three curses on him – that he should have no name, no weapons and no wife. Math and Gwydion work cunningly to avert the curses but the third of them leads to a dark story of betrayal, murder and revenge.

“The Mabinogion Tetralogy” is sometimes marketed as a straightforward retelling of the classic Welsh stories but it is very much more than that. Walton made herself thoroughly familiar with the original source material and wrote in her Foreword to “The Island of the Mighty” `I have altered little, but added much’. She accepted the scholarly consensus of her day that the leading figures in the Four Branches were Celtic deities transformed into medieval rulers but she wanted them to have the psychological depth of characters in a modern novel. That involved the difficult task of giving mysterious beings such as Math, Gwydion and Arianrhod plausible motives for their very strange behaviour. One of the ways Walton did this to was to apply ideas from anthropological studies of primitive cultures. She imagined ancient Gwynedd (roughly North Wales) as a society in which women were honoured as the sole makers of new life and marriage was unknown but assumed that in Dyved (roughly South Wales) a patriarchal culture had been established, which emphasized the importance of fatherhood and the need for women to be faithful to long-term partners. Some of the oddities of the plot make sense in this context and Walton was able to use a traditional story to examine whether the very idea of marriage is oppressive to women. I think it must have been this aspect of the novel which struck a chord in the 1970s and suddenly made her work popular.

When “The Virgin and the Swine/The Island of the Mighty” was first published in the 1930s it must have seemed almost as daring as the novels of D.H.Lawrence. It describes rape, incest and adultery and contains open discussions of virginity and free love. Walton didn’t censor or prettify her source material and she preserved much of its grim humour. She obviously had the gift of empathising with all her characters, even the ones we might now regard as villains or villainesses. In this novel the author appears as a kind of bardic voice commenting on the sources and the action of the story. It is clear that her sympathies lie with Goewyn, the dignified victim of a brutal rape, but she also makes us understand how Gilvaethwy and Gwydion fail to see the horror of what they are doing. Fascinating Gwydion, is a supreme magician and storyteller in love with his own cleverness. Walton brings out his flaws but still makes us sympathize with Gwydion’s desire to experience fatherhood and his over-protective love for his son by his sister.

The two leading female characters in the Fourth Branch are the proud Princess Arianrhod and Blodeuwedd, a woman made out of flowers to be the bride of Gwydion’s son: an episode which inspired Alan Garner’s famous novel "The Owl Service” (see my post of November 2012). The original story could be seen as quite misogynistic, portraying woman as deceitful, unfaithful and unreasonable. Walton slants it differently by showing that Arianrhod’s feelings towards Gwydion are a complex mixture of hate and love and by making us understand her outrage at losing control over her own body and being forced into motherhood. Poor Blodeuwedd begins as little more than a `puppet to do Gwydion’s will’ who longs for a life of her own, so it is hard not to cheer when she chooses a lover and learns to make her own decisions, even if they are very bad ones.

“The Island of the Mighty” now reads like a pioneering work of Feminist Fantasy.  There are other strong women who have to contend with extraordinary fates in Volumes I-III of this tetralogy: “Prince of Annwyn", “The Children of Llyr”, and  “The Song of Rhiannon”. These novels are set earlier in the mythical history of Britain, so if you like the sound of Walton’s work you might want to start with the first of the sequence. I have recommended “The Island of the Mighty” in particular because I feel this is the novel that the author put her heart and soul into. Evangeline Walton was the pen-name of Evangeline Ensley. She was a sickly child, educated at home by her formidable female relatives. A medical treatment for bronchitis caused her skin to turn blue-grey, so it is hardly surprising that she became something of a recluse. For over thirty years her work was ignored or rejected but Walton went on writing her distinctive novels trying, as she said, `to put flesh and blood on the bones of the original myth’. To me that makes her a heroine among Fantasy writers and it is heart-warming to know that she finally found many appreciative readers. Try “The Island of the Mighty” and perhaps you might become one of them. Until next time…






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…



This week I’m recommending a ground-breaking book which deserves to be better known. `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ (1985) was the first published novel of Canadian-born SF and Fantasy author Geoff Ryman. It was out of print for many years but having read this book came to be one of the signs by which dedicated Fantasy fans recognized each other. `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ was finally reprinted by ChiZine in 2013 and is also available on Kindle. So now everyone can enjoy this bizarre and beautiful story with its unique heroine/hero, Cara.

Cal Cara is the treasured `Dear Daughter’ of the leading family of the Village by Long Water. Cara’s mother suffers a horrible death after foretelling a time of destruction linked to her daughter. Soon a new ruling family, the semi-human Galu, take over the nearby City from the Better Times and begin to punish those who resist their tyranny. A group of warriors led by Galo gro Galu attack Cara’s village. She, her father and her brothers are all cruelly mutilated. Cara becomes known as the Destroyed Woman and grows up longing for revenge on the Galu.

As soon as she is old enough, Cara joins the cult of the Secret Rose run by the village women, even though she despises their feeble magic. She learns three major spells and for the final part of her initiation is supposed to turn herself into an animal for a year. Cara does something that no follower of the Secret Rose has ever done before – she transforms into a man, a strong warrior with magical armour and weapons. She sets out for the City to take her revenge but soon gets into trouble because she has no experience of fighting. Cara is helped to escape by a bondgirl (serf) called Stefile, who falls in love with the handsome warrior.

Cara and Stefile reach the City and join one of the Schools of fighters who serve the Galu. Cara takes her first chance to attack Galo gro Galu but the result is not what she expected. Realizing that violence may not be the way to save humanity from the growing evil of the Galu, Cara seeks answers from the sorceress known as the Great Mother. Inspired by the legends recorded in the One Book, Cara’s journey takes her into the Land of the Dead to find the Fruit of Knowledge and the Flower of Life. Can she use them wisely to save her world?

Short, stand-alone novels, such as `The Warrior Who Carried Life’, have become a rarity in modern Fantasy. Publishers are mainly interested in multi-volume epics or long-running character-based series. This is fine if authors have ideas big enough to fill a huge number of pages without waffle or repetition but so many don’t. `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ does contain some big ideas and the story is exactly the right length to work them out in a way that leaves plenty of scope for a different interpretation by every reader. It has the wild intensity of young man’s novel, which could easily tip over into the ludicrous but never quite does because of the sharpness of the writing. Ryman is a master of compressed story-telling. He grips you with the first sentence – `Cal Cara Kerig was five years old when she saw her mother killed’ – and never lets go. Events unfold swiftly and surprisingly and nearly everyone in the story goes through extraordinary changes. I promise that the last sentence of the book is as memorable as the first.

In the style of a fairy tale, Ryman lets labels such as `The Important House’ or `The Other Country’ do much of the world-building work. The sinister names of the various Fighting Schools, such as `The Men Who Advance Like Spiders’, `The Men Who have been Baked’ and `The Men Who Cut Horses’ are so evocative that he hardly needs to describe them. I’ve tagged this book as Dark Fantasy because the world of the story seems a cruel and hostile one. Be warned that the sufferings inflicted on Cara’s family are truly horrific. In this story, men think it is unlucky to kill women and so have them torn to pieces by dogs; desperate pilgrims trample and stone each other and an entire city is destroyed by fire because even the fabled Better Times `were built on murder, or the threat of it.’  Set against all this darkness is the unexpected kindness of a few strangers, the awesome beauty of the griffin, Asu Kweetar – `The Beast Who Talks to God’, and glimmers of hope that the Flower of Life might transform the world back into what it was meant to be.

Like my previous choice ( `The Silver Bough’, October 1st), `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ plays with Biblical story of Adam and Eve and the Serpent and gives it new meaning. Cara has to learn the true identity of the Serpent and answer the Riddle of Hawwah (Eve). She discovers that once a human has eaten the Apple of Knowledge, all humans become responsible for their moral choices in a way that beasts are not. Ryman makes use of another archetype from myth and folklore – the person who can succeed at an impossible task because they do not fit into any normal category. Tradition insists that no man or woman can take the Apple from the serpent but Cara can because she is `both man and woman’. She gets called an `abomination’ because of this but bravely goes on crossing boundaries. Cara experiments with sex as a man and learns to fight and kill like a male warrior but essentially she remains a woman in a man’s body.

If `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ had been written by a woman rather than a man, I think it would be remembered as a pioneering work of Feminist Fantasy. The story starts with a woman, Cara’s mother, being punished for breaking society’s rules by daring to have a vision, while in this mythology Eve has been falsely blamed for the Fall of Humankind. When Cara first turns herself into a man she dedicates herself to bloody revenge and tries to behave like a typical warrior in Heroic Fantasy, but `The Warrior Who Carried Life’ turns out to be an Anti-Heroic novel. Cara breaks out of the warrior mind-set and learns to renounce hatred and use her strength to absorb blows rather than give them. With Stephile she creates the family she thought she could never have because of the mutilations inflicted on her by brutal men. The elegaic final chapter `After Magic’ is dominated by Cara’s fear that at the end of her year of enchantment she will lose everything that she has gained. To find out whether she does, you will have to read `The Warrior Who Carried Life’. Until two weeks time….