Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer

Many of us, I'm sure, enjoyed fairy tales as children, but time has made them so familiar that even the darker original versions can lose their magic.  Retold and original fairy tales, which allow us to recapture some of that sense of wonder, have therefore become a major subgenre of contemporary fantasy and horror.  Famed anthologists Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling edited a six-volume series for adults in the 1990s, and in more recent years have put together several volumes marketed as young adult fiction but smart, dark, and complex enough to appeal to older readers as well.  Names both in and out of the genre "ghetto," from Angela Carter to Margo Lanagan to Angela Slatter, have demonstrated particular mastery of the form.  One of the early writers to do so was the versatile Tanith Lee, whose 1983 volume Red as Blood, or Tales from the Sisters Grimmer is an elegant, unsettling collection of nine classic tales re-imagined in ambiguous, adult fashion.

I don't want to match each of these nine stories to its source, as identifying the original is part of the pleasure of the reading experience.  However, I will say that they range from a retelling so faithful that the only new narrative element is a final melancholy twist, to one so different that I can't tell which of several similar originals it might be based on.  Two invert the classic moral schemes by featuring evil versions of famed heroines.  All but one of the nine has a female protagonist.  And eight of the nine are straightforward fantasy, while one has a science fiction edge.

What makes these stories particularly delightful to read is Lee's modern spin on fairy-tale prose.  Her style combines the vivid images and straightforward storytelling of classic fairy tales with deeper psychological elements that give these tales a human as well as a magical edge.  Red as Blood is one of those books where you find quotable paragraphs on every other page, but I'll try to contain myself:
Yes, the great ballroom is filled only with dust now.  The slender columns of white marble and the slender columns of rose-red marble are woven together by cobwebs.  The vivid frescoes, on which the Duke's treasury spent so much, are dimmed by the dust; the faces of the painted goddesses look grey.  And the velvet curtains-- touch them, they will crumble.  Two hundred years now, since anyone danced in this place on the sea-green floor in the candle-gleam.  Two hundred years since the wonderful clock struck for the very last time.
That's the opening of "When the Clock Strikes," a story that goes farther than any of the others in obscuring its fairy-tale source, to great effect when the original is slowly revealed.  And then there's "Thorns," a especially faithful and vivid retelling of a story I won't name, though this quote may well make it obvious:
He was on a marble terrace which rose in marble steps to an incredible garden above.  Dark green trees had been pruned into the shapes of birds and animals, fountains jetted into porphyry vases and a thousand roses bloomed.  Not a leaf moved.  The flowers were like things made of wax, and the water of the fountains stayed quite still like threads of crystal suspended in mid air.  The prince climbed the steps and stood in the garden mystified and troubled, and ahead rose the vast pile of a palace with pointing milk-white towers.  Taking one deep breath, he began to walk toward it.
 This powerful images are balanced by the stories' characterizations.  From a cruel yet beautiful god without followers to an abused wife to an eccentric, lonely daughter, the men, women, and creatures of Red as Blood have problems that will resonate with 21st-century audience.  Magic may be the way to solve their problems... or it may open the gates of hell.  Fairy tales are rooted so deeply in our minds that the best new versions of them stir some deep sensitivity, thrill and terrify us in an almost spiritual manner.  Although the longest of them is only forty pages, these concise and beautiful stories by Tanith Lee have the power of epics, and should not be missed by those for whom fairy tales have never ceased to be wonderful.

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