Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Review - Realms of Fantasy (April 2011) edited by Douglas Cohen and Shawna McCarthy

Stories included:
A Witch's Heart by Randy Henderson
The Sacrifice by Michelle M. Welch
Little Vampires by Lisa Goldstein
By Shackle and Lash by Euan Harvey
The Strange Case of Madeleine H. Marsh (Aged 14 ¼) by Von Carr

Full review: The April 2011 issue of Realms of Fantasy was designated as the special "Dark Fantasy" issue. Given the nature of the fiction in the issue, I can only surmise that "Dark Fantasy" means "fantasy featuring a female protagonist", because that is the only element that four of the five stories seem to share. The staff did their best to set up the theme with an article by Resa nelson about the Walking Dead television series and a brief discussion of the movie Deadgirl, and a discussion by Douglas Cohen about the Addams Family musical running on Broadway. But while the Walking Dead is certainly a dark vision, the Addams Family musical is ultimately campy and silly, and despite Cohen's desperate attempts to connect it with darker Broadway productions of the past, it remains campy and silly and thus at odds with the issue's announced theme. Theodora Goss' Folkroots article about vampires is, as always, well-researched and informative and generally fits the theme of the issue.

But the heart of any issue is the fiction, and the "dark" nature of the selections in this installment is somewhat questionable. The first story in the volume is the macabre A Witch's Heart by Randy Henderson, a somewhat darker version of the classic Grimm's fairy tale Hansel and Gretel.In this iteration of the story, Granny Bab captures both Hansel and Gretel, but only imprisons Hansel, taking Gretel under her wing and introducing her to the ways of witchcraft. Although Gretel is initially skeptical, remembering the warnings about witches that her father and priest had imparted to her, Granny Bab's comparatively fair treatment and somewhat warped love slowly turn the girl into the witch's loyal apprentice. In the end, Hansel "saves" the day, but having tasted the freedom offered by Granny Bab, Gretel regards this salvation with some disdain. Any story that deals with the possibility of cannibalism is certainly "dark", but the counterpoint in this fairy tale is a message of freedom: Granny Bab offers Gretel the ability to become her own person, while the men who have previously controlled her life - her father, her brother, her priest - have effectively spiritually cannibalized her for their own purposes. But the price of freedom in Gretel's world is high because a woman who is not subservient is an outcast.

The danger of a woman acting on her own initiative even in her father's service is highlighted in The Sacrifice by Michelle M. Welch. The story is ostensibly told by a pair of clerks, Anders and Gilien, who are working for the Inns of Court and traveling to King Harald's castle on official business that coincides with the funeral of Harald's daughter. There they find Didi, a young girl who has been horribly wronged and assess her case for the judges. Along the way, Anders shows off his knowledge by regaling his younger companion with an account of the King's most prized possessions - the marks of the magicians, to which his success in warfare is attributed. Although Didi's case is never taken up by the judges of the Inns of Court, the two boys encounter her time and again, as she goes from being a mute victim, to the dead symbol and leader for used up veteran soldiers, to finally revealing the truth behind how she died. In the end, it turns out that the villains are not the enemy soldiers, but rather those who rewards the loyalty of family by turning their back. Didi, it turns out, made a brutal sacrifice to save that which was most important to her father, and he, in response, turned her out to become an orphaned outcast. Even when done with the best of intentions, it seems that the use of initiative on the part of a woman is dangerous to her standing.

Continuing the equation of "dark fantasy" with "fantasy featuring women" Little Vampires by Lisa Goldstein relates the story of a collection of female coworkers in the 1960s who get together after work for dinner and a drink and are joined for the first (and the story implies, only) time by Anna, the generally nice younger half of a somewhat standoffish pair of eastern European sisters. As it is Halloween, the women swap allegedly true scary stories - the first one told in full is by Irene, the young, pretty, and slightly hippy-ish woman in the office, about a close encounter she and her friends had with the owners of a creepy neighborhood house when they were out trick or treating. But then Anna takes her turn and tells of her and her sister's disparate experiences during World War II, when Anna got the benefit of an identity card that changed her faith from Jewish to a different faith, and Vera did not. Though Anna never experienced the nightmare of the concentration camps, their horror weighs heavily on her mind as she takes care of her sister. Of all the stories in the issue, this one is the least "fantasy" and the most "dark", as it puts on display the cost borne even by those who do not themselves endure the inhumanity that humans can display towards one another.

In contrast to the other stories in the issue, By Shackle and Lash by Euan Harvey is not centered on the story of a woman or a story by a woman, but is rather about a disgraced noble warrior who falls in love with what might be an imprisoned woman. Wahid and Kemal are honorable Mukhabarat until a fateful night when a Hand of Afiz comes after one of their comrades. They, and their doomed compatriot, turn and run, and for this they are removed from their stations and reassigned as lowly prison guards fit only to feed prisoners and clean up after them. In their subterranean existence, they come across a beautiful prisoner who makes them think of blue skies, fresh air, and the smell of hay. But the beguiling prisoner offers something that is both more wondrous and more dangerous than a mere yearning, she offers the promise of a lost world that could be recovered if only Wahid were bold enough to reach for it. Of all the stories in the issue, this one fits the "dark fantasy" theme the least, but it is still an interesting non-Western fantasy tale.

The silliest, and in my opinion best, story in the issue is The Strange Case of Madeleine H. Marsh (Aged 14 ¼) by Von Carr, a humorous account of how a young girl accidentally summons H,P, Lovecraft's Elder Gods into her family's basement while her parents are away. The ironic element to the story is that Maddie isn't particularly enthusiastic about Lovecraft's fiction, and was only aware of them because her friend Tori had lent her one of his books as part of an assigned reading swap. After trying to hire an exterminator to deal with the problem, and consulting with her friends, Maddie manages to deal with her problem in a very literary manner. It seems somewhat odd to have the Lovecraftian Elder Gods play the centerpiece in a comedic story about a teenager, but Carr manages to pull off this odd combination in superlative fashion. The only quibble I would have with the story is that it is not particularly "dark", and thus doesn't fit the theme of the issue particularly well. That said, it is the highlight of the issue.

If one looks at the material in this issue from the perspective of whether it is "dark fantasy", it is decidedly a mixed bag. While a story such as The Sacrifice is definitely dark, the remaining offerings are generally more hopeful and, in the case of The Strange Case of Madeleine H. Marsh (Aged 14 ¼), sillier than one would expect when reading a story that is ostensibly "dark". The one element that seems common to these stories is the empowerment of women - in four of the five stories the central theme is that of a female character making a choice and then living with the consequences of that choice. But what the fact that this collection of "dark fantasy" seems so focused on telling stories featuring women highlights is, I think, an interesting and depressing commentary on what "dark" actually means in the context of fantasy.

Previous issue reviewed: February 2011
Subsequent issue reviewed: June 2011

Realms of Fantasy     Douglas Cohen     Shawna McCarthy     Magazine Reviews


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