Black Thorn, White Rose

edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
Avonova/Morrow, hc, 386 pages, $22.00
ISBN: 0-688-13713-X

Fairy tales are rich ground for dark fantasy, for they spring up at the intersection of the mind where fantasy and horror commingle. Despite the continuing bowdlerization of folk and fairy tales by folk both well-meaning and otherwise (at Readercon, an audience member at one of my panels complained in all seriousness--if stunning irrelevance--about how Disney's The Lion King was unfair in its portrayal of hyenas), this subgenre continues to thrive, and provide fertile, untamed ground for a broad variety of authors. Attempts to reclaim the fairy tales from the forces of tameness with new retellings have often been very successful, from Tanith Lee's Red as Blood onward. With that in mind, I came to this anthology looking for well-crafted dark fantasy, and I was not disappointed. Windling and Datlow are terrific genre editors, and this collection follows a strong previous anthology in the series Snow White, Blood Red.

The most haunting story in the collection is Michael Kandel's "Ogre." Not a direct retelling of a particular tale, "Ogre" is a community theater director's account of a fairy tale production, with an air of sad inevitability to it. I found myself re-reading the story repeatedly; it stayed just as matter-of-factly sad, and just as inevitable.

Isabel Cole's "The Brown Bear of Norway" takes a less-known tradition as its source material. An adolescent girl's Norwegian pen pal describes to her, not his life, but his adventures as the Brown Bear of Norway. Soon, the unseen phantom of her correspondent begins to occupy her dreams--and her bed. This understated coming-of-age story looks at the sacrifices we must make in the passage to adulthood, and how many of those sacrifices we forget along the way.

Nobody's fairy tales sound quite as natural as Jane Yolen's. In "Granny Rumple," she recounts the Rumplestiltskin story from the eyes of an immigrant Ukrainian Jew. Not all villains are what they seem, of course; racism can twist even the kindest acts into villainy, especially in a time of pogroms. Even darker is Tim Wynne-Jones's matter-of-factly chilling account of "The Goose Girl," told in retrospect by the prince who regrets the violent death of the imposter posing as his bride to be. Not all princes live happily ever after, even after marrying the real princess. The story raises questions about what is worth living for, or dying for.

The anthology contains two very different retellings of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. In Patricia Wrede's "Stronger than Time," a mournful prince convinces an old woodcutter to help him fight through the thorns which surround the castle, despite the tragedy they have already cost the prince. All men have secrets, Wrede's story quietly notes, and all of them pay very differently for the gifts of time. "Somnus's Fair Maid," by Ann Downer, is a breathy Regency romance, filled with giddy twists and turns and bubbly energy.

Susan Wade and Midori Snyder both weave tales of metamorphosis. In Wade's "The Black Swan," a north-country princess transforms herself in a tragic effort at winning her cousin's love. Although she nearly succeedsat a terrible price, she fuinds there is sometimes little difference between being a black swan and a black sheep. Snyder's erotic "Tattercoats" looks at a marriage fallen on hard times. A noblewoman's seemingly-doomed attempts to invigorate her life take a strange turn when magical gifts she receives prove to have motivations and intentions of their own.

Roger Zelazny's "Godson" is a lighter story; naturally, it concerns death. A boy from a broken home clings to his mysterious godfather, who seems to have very specific plans for the youth. But with adulthood comes rebellion--and there seems to be little room for reconciliation when powers of life and death are concerned. In "Sweet Bruising Skin," Storm Constantine tells the tale of a delightfully (and unabashedly) evil queen, determined to hold onto power at all costs after her husband's death. When her son starts to assert a little unasked-for will of his own, and her royal council has its own ideas about ruling the country, what's a poor widow to do? Particularly when her primary talent runs primarily to poisoning and other arts pharmaceutical.

Black Thorn, White Rose includes two poetic retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, both of them strong and dark in different ways. Lawrence Schimel's "Journeybread Recipe" and Ellen Steiber's "Silver and Gold" hint at the lure of the wolf, and the mysteries awaiting adolescent girls who wander too far off the path in the woods.

I still re-read "Ogre" frequently, and often recommend it to students.

First appeared in Horror magazine, April 1994.

Copyright © 1994 by Leigh Grossman