The Glass Mountain

by Leonard Wolf
The Overlook Press, hc, 243 pages, $19.95
ISBN: 0-879-51498-1

Leonard Wolf is known to genre readers largely for his nonfiction--annotated editions of Frankenstein and Dracula, A Connoisseur's Guide to Horror, and so on--but he is also a fine translator and writer of literary fiction and poetry. The Glass Mountain brings together the literary and the fantastic in Wolf's writing in a lyrical retelling of the fairy-tale, somehow transformed into a gothic set-piece. The story of the glass mountain has fallen out of fashion, of course. Kings no longer put their daughters on top of greased pinnacles of glass and challenge princelings to ride up the side to chance winning both princess and kingdom (and executing the losers, naturally). In Wolf's hands, the unfashionable fable has turned into a metaphorical Chinese box, with unsolvable puzzles wrapped in misty enigmas and surrounded by impossible mysteries.

Wolf retells the story from the perspective of two antiheroic princes, Fat Klaus and Fritz the Hare-lip. Each grew up in the shadow of a heroic older brother; each is twisted externally, while their knightly-looking older brothers are spiritually defective. The two princes, trapped in a tower at the end of the world, each convinced that he alone has won the Princess and hating the other for calling that hope into question, unfold their stories (and the Princess's) unwillingly over the course of a long night alone in their room with a dead goat and the corpse of an ape.

The puzzle-pieces of the princes' stories never quite interlock, nor are they meant to. Their shared tale of abuse, rape, incest, emotional and physical betrayals, and a hundred kinds of abandonment is resonant and disturbing, if ultimately an unsolvable puzzle. Wolf's writing is dark and beautiful, if not entirely penetrable; his tale's ending is perhaps unfathomable. Read this novel to enjoy the remarkable application of language to mythic tropes, but don't come to it expecting linear narrative or the magical key to scaling the mythic glass mountain that can't be climbed.

I edited two of Leonard Wolf's annotated books early in my career, and enjoyed working with him, though he has an old-fashioned scholar air about him that gives him sort of a high-maintenance editorial reputation. His fastidiousness drove me nuts as an editor, but it made for better books, and ultimately made me into a better editor.

Interestingly, Wolf's daughter is feminist scholar and best-selling writer Naomi Wolf, most famous for The Beauty Myth. The Glass Mountain was released at the same time as her Fire with Fire, and someone decided it would be a good idea to hold a joint launch party for the two books at Steuben Glass in Manhattan. It was a beautiful party from an aesthetic point of view, but it felt a little like one of those eighth grade dances where the boys and girls huddle in separate corners of the room. Wolf and his daughter may be close, but their respective followings... don't play well together (or at least they didn't at the time).

First appeared in Horror magazine, March 1994.

Copyright © 2004 by Leigh Grossman