Sing sorrow, sorrow, but may the good prevail – The Oresteia
I was reading an article in The Globe and Mail recently about fairy tales part of which I’d like to quote here:
Certain fairy tales resemble memes, a term coined by Richard Dawkins to represent the cultural evolution and dissemination of ideas and practices.. These tales form and inform us about human conflicts that continue to challenge us: Cinderella (abusive treatment of a stepchild), Little Red Riding Hood (rape), Bluebeard (serial killer), Hansel and Gretel (child abandonment), Donkey Skin (incest). In fact, the memetic classical tales and many others have enabled us – metaphorically – to focus on crucial human issues, to create – and recreate – possibilities for change. – Jack Zipes, ‘Why fairy tales are immortal’, The Globe and Mail, 21st November 2010
Of course he’s talking here about fairy tales as sanitised versions of folk tales. Why I mention this is because the book I’ve just finished reading, Sing Sorrow Sorrow, a collection of “dark and chilling tales” published by Seren Books, contains two stories that are loosely based on two of the fairy tales above, Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. Both delve into the origins of the tales and having done some research on Little Red Riding Hood myself I can tell you that a lot of tweaking has gone on over the years.
The book was the brainchild of Penparcau-based writer, editor and translator Gwen Davies:
I pitched the idea to Seren, the publishers, because I noticed that a lot of writers from Wales were interested in dark themes, that Welsh settings lend themselves particularly well to spookiness, and that Welsh folklore and myth are usually concerned with the blackest of universal themes: death, dysfunction and unhealthy urges. – ‘Death, dysfunction and unhealthy urges’, Cambrian News Online, 26th October 2010
When I first got this book I told people that I was reviewing a book of ‘ghost stories’ primarily because that’s what I thought I’d been sent. The final line of the blurb on the back, for example, invites us to, “Draw up your chair[s]: the fire’s lit,” and the opening story in the book, ‘Puck’s Tale’, in fact takes place gathered around a fireplace in a gentleman’s club where Puckeridge has been impelled to tell his tale:
You’re right, of course. I will speak, yes. It’s the very least you fellows deserve. But at some point this evening I fear that I must affect an abrupt departure. I’m hoping that it will occur following what I am about to tell you, but if, well, if you should look up and find this chair that I’m sitting in now unexpectedly empty, well, I’ll hopefully pre-empt your forgiveness. And hope still further that, should that moment arise, I’ll have been granted time enough to furnish you with sufficient information to allow you all to formulate some sort of reason as to why.
All in all it sounds like a ‘classic’ ghost story and, of all the stories in the collection, it is the one that comes closest. Puck, of course, although not a character in any fairy tale I know of is best known as a character in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Some Remarks on Ghost Stories, the author M. R. James, himself a prolific writer of ghost stories, identifies five key features of the English ghost story, as summarized by Prof. Frank Coffman for a course in popular imaginative literature:
- The pretence of truth
- "A pleasing terror"
- No gratuitous bloodshed or sex
- No "explanation of the machinery"
- Setting: "those of the writer's (and reader's) own day"
And he summed up his approach in his foreword to the anthology Ghosts and Marvels:
Two ingredients most valuable in the concocting of a ghost story are, to me, the atmosphere and the nicely managed crescendo.… Let us, then, be introduced to the actors in a placid way; let us see them going about their ordinary business, undisturbed by forebodings, pleased with their surroundings; and into this calm environment let the ominous thing put out its head, unobtrusively at first, and then more insistently, until it holds the stage.
The fact is that actually very few of the stories in Seren’s collection involve ghosts but, on the whole, they still follow James’ rules. For example, in ‘Just Like Honey’ we are introduced to two children, a boy aged seven and a girl of five:
On Autumn days, when my sister and I were children, we would fill bottles with water and honey to trap wasps. Every year they would invade the small garden behind our cottage, coming out from the green recesses where they’d hidden through the summer to swarm about the hedges and cluster around the deepening red of the hawthorn berries and the dark purple fruit of the plum tree.
And so he goes on happily (it seems) reminiscing about their idyllic childhood. But who is he telling his tale to? At first we think it’s us, his anonymous readers, but not too far into the tale he starts to address his sister directly:
Can you hear me now, I wonder? Are you listening? Look at you! How distorted and misshapen your features have become: your cheeks swollen and scraped; your nose shattered; your entire skin a bruise of different colours – purple and yellow and red. Look what your life has done to you!
Is this a ghost, a literal ghost or are we talking metaphorically here, is this the ‘ghost’ of his sister? What happened on that long, hot August day all those years ago? Little by little, like the wasps, we find ourselves drawn closer and closer just like his sister is drawn to the edge of the well, only it wasn’t really a well:
[I]t was really just a hole in the ground, covered with a piece of corrugated iron and ringed with rusty strands of barbed wire. But then again [Mum and Dad] called the cottage a cottage even though it was little more than a dilapidated bungalow. It was a sort of kindness wasn’t it? … Trying to hide the ugliness in our lives as if all that was needed was a sugar-coating of words.
I don’t know what the authors’ remits were but it’s clear that most of them took a broad-brush approach to these tales. In ‘Just Like Honey’ there is no literal ghost and there is no external malevolent force, and yet it’s clear that the narrator is a haunted man.
A further important requisite James made was that, "the ghost should be malevolent or odious: amiable and helpful apparitions are all very well in fairy tales or in local legends, but I have no use for them in a fictitious ghost story." One would assume that he would conceive demons to be equally loathsome. In the second story in the collection, ‘The House Demon’ what we get presented with is a tale very much from the perspective of the demon even though it is written in the third person. This creature is invisible to all but he is nevertheless a presence and one the old woman has known a long time:
When the old woman was a young bride she had left a cup of tea on the hearth and begged the house demon to go with her to their new home. He yawned, tired out from tidying the mess she and her new husband had made, first with their hasty wedding and now with their packing…
The house demon drank his tea, and was just settling more comfortably when he heard the husband say, ‘Where you’re going there’ll be no place for these old superstitions. The minister won’t stand for it, see!’
She didn’t argue, but that night she left her husband’s high-topped boots before the fire, and whispered, ‘Please come with us. We hope you will be happy there.’
It sounds more like The Elves and the Shoemaker doesn’t it? But things have moved on a bit since James laid down his thoughts and we’re more aware that good and evil aren’t cut and dried issues not that that’s a new concept. In the Ukraine, for example, there are a number of demonological figures in their folk tradition including the domovyk (house demon) and the polovyk (field demon) and the lisovyk (forest demon). Not all are intrinsically bad although some like the bolotianyk (swamp demon) will happily lure people into swamps.
The domovik traditionally is the ancestral founder of the family, and moves with it from house to house. He is portrayed as an old man with a gray beard, and is always referred to as "he", "himself", or "grandfather" – never by a personal name.
The domovik lives behind the stove. When the family moves, fire from the old stove is carried to the new, where it is lit to welcome the domovik into his new quarters. The domovik watches over the family members, keeps hostile spirits from entering the house, and does chores. But if a family member displeases him he makes poltergeist-like noise disturbances. His harshest punishment is to burn down the house.
There are other types of domoviks, each of which has its own small domain: the chlevnik, who lives in the barn; the bannik who lives in the bathroom; and the ovinnik, who lives in the kitchen. – angelfire.com
So, he’s a spirit, a ghost in all but name. What we witness is what happens after the old woman dies and in the generations that follow how he is treated and how he reacts to that treatment.
One of the things I probably hate about ‘traditional’ ghost stories is that they deal with the unknown, keep what we get to know to a bare minimum and leave us none the wiser and there are several stories in this collection where we are simply not provided with enough information to say what definitely happened; we can only guess at what may have happened. The last story in the book is one of these. ‘The White Mountain’ is a little unusual in that the protagonist is a lesbian which must have caused some problems for the incubus or succubus or whatever it is that appears in her bedroom at night. She can’t decide:
I keep asking myself the same question. If it wasn’t Arianrhod last night, then who was it? The ghost? There isn’t anybody else in the house, I’m sure of that. So either I’ve been sleeping with a sixty-year-old former pop star or the ghost of a thirteenth-century Welsh princess.
We never find out. Incidentally Arianrhod is the same name as the niece of Math fab Mathonwy from the Mabinogion who would die if he did not keep his feet in the lap of a virgin so, again, we have another story with its roots in folklore even if it’s not an actual retelling of the original tale. The princess to whom she’s referring is Gwenllian who is probably based on Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn.
At the end of the book there is an extensive afterword by the book’s editor, Gwen Davis, in which she talks in some detail about the sources used by the authors. It’s fascinating reading and really opens up some of the stories. In keeping with James’ guidelines none of the stories feature graphic sex or violence. Some horrible things do happen but they’re not described in any great detail. This is not that kind of anthology. It’s more interested in implication and suggestion than in-your-face horror. Something of an exception is ‘Three Cuts’. A “reimagining of the grimmer Grimm version of Cinderella,” writes Davis, “‘Three Cuts’, has an arranged marriage that ends badly. A blood bath with scattered body parts, this story is a fantastically paced, moving, gruesome feminist subversion.” It’s not a blood bath but you have to wonder what a girl might be willing to do to cram her foot into a glass slipper (actually it’s just a shoe in this version):
It’s not important what happens to me. She cut my foot, my heel. I have no real sympathy for a heel, no real nostalgia for a part of my foot that is so integral, the place that meets the earth, the round pocket that cushions my fall. In a shoe a heel can be done without.
The narrator here is Hele, sister to Javotte and Cinderella. Oh, and her feet are not the only thing that ends up being mutilated. It is a strange retelling of the story, one I have to admit to finding uncomfortable reading.
When James talked about setting he said to use "the writer's (and reader's) own day" and although most of the stories have a contemporary feel the one that feels most contemporary is ‘The Pit’ the simple story of a miner who gets trapped during a mining accident and resorts to eating his own arm before moving on to his dead comrades to keep himself alive:
It was a garden of broken limbs, white tulip hands breaking through the dust stratum, faces of his friends now flattened or wrecked out of recognition, staring at him like dumb watermelons. He ate William Trevor’s buttocks over a three-day period, savouring the vague hint of carbolic soap which adhered to his skin. Him being a miner, William’s obsessive cleanliness had always provided a topic of conversation.
On the surface this could have been presented as a tale of the lengths a man will go to to survive like in the film Alive where survivors from a plane crash kept going by eating those who weren’t so lucky. The fact that the story is set at the time when Thatcher was in power takes the piece from simply being a piece of abstract horror (a mine that could be in any country during any time period) to something many of us remember quite vividly.
I think it’s noteworthy that the two stories that I enjoyed the most were the two that could sit just as comfortably in a science fiction collection as in this one. These were ‘The City’ and ‘Yellow Archangel’.
There has been much debate about what ghosts may or may not be. Some are more than happy to believe them to be the souls of individuals who still have unfinished business and TV shows like Ghost Whisperer thrive on that notion; every week a new ghost with issues to resolve. Science fiction is just as open to the possibility of other states of existence – a good example being Philip José Farmer's Riverworld – and so what exactly the city is in this short story we never find out for sure. All we know is what we’re told:
I have a clear memory of the city’s arrival in my consciousness: I was walking on the shore one evening in a pale milky light; hardly any form was visible – the islands offshore were merely a smudge and the hills above me had dissolved in mist. But I saw the city clearly. As I moved across a gangway from one dimension to another I entered its gates without fear. … To remain there I had to concentrate in a way which was new to me; and it took me a while to get used to it. … But it was there from that day: the city. My city. Huge and silent, sheer and simple yet seemingly impenetrable – bolted together and layered neatly slab after slab.
Crossing between dimensions is a very, very old trope. Travel to and from another dimension is usually via some sort of portal – the exact term depends on the story – it can be a door, vortex, gate, window, back of an old wardrobe or, as in this case, a gangway. In Poltergeist it was a cupboard if memory serves me right (after the daughter is swallowed by the TV). And in Monsters Inc. it was closet doors.
Of course ‘the city’ might just be a fantasy state the narrator shifts to following the loss of a number of his relatives when their homes were flooded by violent thunderstorms.
My favourite story by far was ‘Yellow Archangel’ though to be fair it’s probably the least horrific in the whole book. There are no ghosts or demons or anything like that. There is simply the Virus:
The devastation in the cities was almost total. Country people like us had greater immunity, maybe, closer to the earth and the animals, to dirt and dung. And ours weren’t overcrowded like the urban areas. Mind you, plenty of us died too and we had to bury our own dead. Strangely, it was some of the younger, fitter ones went first. … After doing its worst the Virus abated, reappearing from time to time when least expected. By now there was no central government, just cobbled-together committees of local people who couldn’t do much but did their best.
So a dystopia. And there are hundreds we could reference but the two that come to mind are from TV: Survivors and The Last Train. What this story does is put forth the proposition that there might be a valid role in people’s lives for superstition. It’s an interesting suggestion. The narrator’s daughter, Kia, nearly dies (not due to the Virus – meningitis is their best guess) but she survives, and without any lasting problems, but changed:
She seemed so much older; quiet, melancholy. And there was another indefinable quality. Fey, maybe? She told us she was still alive because a yellow archangel had come for her and brought her back down the winter hill, carrying her in his arms and leaving her by the well. The archangel had a message for Kia. She had a task now, a special responsibility. She was here to help people and give them hope.
Was this a visitation from some spirit creature? Did she dream it? No one will ever know. But people can believe what they like and they start to: gradually a new myth is born.
I have never been a great fan of horror whether in book form or on the big or small screen. I think it’s only fair to mention this so it would be a lie to say that I loved this collection because I didn’t. I can be objective enough, however, to see that there are some well-thought-through stories here and it’s clear that the authors have done their homework. All are well-written but three stood out under the ‘Voice’ category: ‘Puck’s Tale’ by Niall Griffiths who gets the language of the men in the quasi-Edwardian gentleman’s club spot on; ‘The Lovers’ by Matthew Francis, only this time the setting is a public school and in ‘Herself’ Zillah Bethell conjures up some delightfully grotesque characters reminiscent of those found in the pages of Gormenghast or wandering around the imagination of Edward Gorey. Hers is also probably the only really funny story in the collection – an author’s ‘number one fan’ gets an audience with her but she is nothing like he expected.
Collections by a single author are hard to review but in this one there are twenty-two very different authors so I have little doubt that there will be one or two that don’t sit too well with each reader – that’s to be expected – but as long as you don’t try and rush your way through this lot there’s much to enjoy. It’s literary horror. The contributors all have a Welsh connection and about half-a-dozen have something of a Welsh feel about them but they’re not heavy-handed in their references and I would say this book would have a broader appeal than, say, Niall Griffiths’ The Dreams of Max and Ronnie which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago.
The cover, by the way, was produced by Aberystwyth professional photographer and designer, Gordon Crabb and is a photograph of a local girl, Stacey Lee, dressed as true-life sixteenth-century Hungarian serial murderess Elizabeth Báthory
who liked to bathe in virgins’ blood and was convicted on the count of 800 victims and was an early inspiration for the vampire stories, which makes her an odd choice since there are no vampires in this collection at all. Thank God!