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Making the fairy tale young once more

By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / October 17, 2010

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In the waning years of the 17th century, just after the aging French writer Charles Perrault published his popular “Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals’’ (subtitled “Tales of Mother Goose’’), the derisive Abbé de Villiers took the opportunity to rip into fairy tales generally, except those of Perrault. “Follies in print,” was Villiers’s description of the genre — “Tales to make you fall asleep on your feet, that nurses have made up to entertain children.”

Since that time, the fairy tale has gained prestige, dignified with the imprimatur of intellectuals including, most famously, psychologists Freud, Jung, and Bruno Bettelheim, as well as a host of other scholars, from Vladimir Propp to Walter Benjamin to Maria Tatar. But it’s the writers who continue to reinvigorate this ancient, rustic genre. Perrault, Hans Christian Andersen, Italo Calvino, Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Anne Sexton, and many more have retold classic stories, and added some frightening and enchanting new tales. Editor Kate Bernheimer’s new collection by contemporary writers, the shiveringly titled “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me,” proves that the fairy tale can still mutate into new, chilling, often humorous forms — though perhaps not as often as Bernheimer would like.

For every tale that charms in this 500-plus-page book, one or two are more likely to “make you fall asleep on your feet.” Still, as horrid as the bad stories are, the good ones are very, very good and worth the price of admission. Each of the book’s 40 narratives is based — loosely, closely, satirically, exegetically, pompously, or moralistically — on a classic tale. These foundational stories include old favorites like “Hansel and Gretel,” “Rumpelstiltskin,” and “The Juniper Tree,” from which the collection’s title is taken, as well as more obscure fantasies like “Jump into My Sack,” an inventive Italian folktale, and, from Vietnam, the lovely “The Story of the Mosquito.”

Bernheimer tapped an impressive roster of writers for her book, which features stories by stars like John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Michael Cunningham, as well as relative newcomers, including Kevin Brockmeier, Alissa Nutting, and Joyelle McSweeney. The stories are told in every conceivable style: archaism, realism, surrealism, pastiche, and parody. Many of them are retellings done in a contemporary setting or style; the most successful are the intentionally anachronistic satires and the realistic stories that stray the furthest from their literary predecessors.

A fine example of the former type is Aimee Bender’s “The Color Master” (based on Perrault’s “Donkeyskin”), set in a fairy-tale shoemaker and tailor shop but told in a pitch-perfect contemporary voice. “The Duke’s son wanted shoes the color of rock, so he could walk in the rock and not see his feet. He was vain that way . . . He wanted to appear, from a distance, as a floating pair of ankles. . . . For this . . . all of us . . . were working round the clock. . . . We attended visualization seminars, where we tried to imagine what it was like to be a rock.” Patty, the narrator, complains on behalf of the brilliant Color Master, that “she is certainly the most talented in the kingdom and gets zero recognition.” And about herself, she disingenuously reveals, “I am a quiet sort, except for the paying of compliments.’’

Kim Addonizio’s similarly anachronistic “Ever After” is a funny look at a sad seven-pack of dwarfs who drink beer, smoke cigarettes, and eat take-out as they wait for their Snow White. And Brockmeier’s “A Day in the Life of Half of Rumpelstiltskin” is a grotesque, witty, and melancholy guess into what life must be like for the Rumpelstiltskin who tears himself in half at the end of certain versions of that tale.

Not surprisingly, the best story here is an old one by John Updike, “Bluebeard in Ireland,” offering a typically Updikean near-cheerful narrative of a failing marriage. Another triumph of realism is Francine Prose’s “Hansel and Gretel,” about another marriage gone south — an entirely credible story, that, in its woody Vermont setting, veers subtly into the uncanny: “Behind Nelson was a window and all through dinner I’d been distracted by dark shapes swooping near the glass.

“ ‘What kind of birds are those?’ I finally asked.

“ ‘Bats, darling,’ said Lucia. ‘But my bats are very strange bats. Most bats squeak, you know, like mice. But my bats cry like kitties.’ ”

Unhappily but predictably, many of the book’s authors regarded their task as an opportunity to indulge exuberantly in the fantastical side of their nature, ending up with, as the snooty Villiers would say, “follies in print.” Almost unreadable because of their bewildering proliferation of corpses and witches and talkative cats and birds, these stories try too hard to soar and fall to the ground through the weight of their own lugubrious whimsy. More annoying are the writers who abuse their fairy-tale license in order to “experiment” with form (ending up with some tired postmodern one-trick ponies), to luxuriate in excessive self-referentiality, or to wallow in excrescence.

Still, there are many surprising plums in this pie. Chris Adrian’s retelling of the Irish story “Teague O’Kane and the Corpse” is a gruesome romp. Karen Joy Fowler’s “Halfway People” is eerie and stirring. Jim Shepard’s “Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay” is challengingly complex. And the haunting “First Day of Snow” by Naoko Awa is a fairy tale that makes you feel like a child again.

Alec Solomita, a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville, can be reached at alecsolomita @ymail.com.

MY MOTHER SHE KILLED ME, MY FATHER HE ATE ME: Forty New Fairy Tales
Edited by Kate Bernheimer
Penguin, 543 pp., $17