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by Elizabeth Hand

Far Far Away by Tom McNeal, Alfred A. Knopf, 2013, $17.99.

North America Lake Monsters: Stories by Nathan Ballingrud, Small Beer Press, 2013, $24.

 

HAPPILY NEVER AFTER

 
WHY DO WE need fairy tales? Do we need fairy tales? Once upon a time, stories told around a fire in the dark provided entertainment, education, and even enlightenment, along with admonitions about the perils of strange men; minatory thoughts on second marriages; and a great deal about the bad treatment of orphans and youngest siblings. We still have variations on these ancient advanced-warning systems, though the conduits have changed: digital and carbon-based tabloids, reality TV, self-help tracts, Amber Alert texts, and so on.

And of course we still have fairy tales—in particular, riffs on well-known fairy tales, a thriving modern subgenre since Walt Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937.

For contemporary English literature, Angela Carter's 1979 The Bloody Chamber is the touchstone. Other modern classics followed, by Patricia McKillip, Malinda Lo, Catherynne Valente, Robin McKinley, Gregory Maguire, Gail Carson Levine, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Bill Willingham, Jon Scieszka—there are far too many other worthy names to list. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's long-running series of original fairy tale anthologies provided a platform for short form variation. As for television, The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show introduced the world to Fractured Fairy Tales—a whopping ninety-one of them ran between 1959-1962—and one could draw a FFT family tree that includes series like 1980s hits Beauty and the Beast (penned by George R.R. Martin) and Shelley Duvall's Faerie Tale Theater, the underrated miniseries The Tenth Kingdom, and more recently, Grimm and Once Upon a Time. I'll leave it to those of you with more patience than I have to sift through all the contemporary cinematic renditions of tales drawn from Perrault, the Grimms, Andrew Lang, The Thousand Nights and a Night…

Yet I wonder: How many of us—parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, older siblings, babysitters, teachers—have actually read or recited to our own young children the quote-unquote original version of, say, "Hansel and Gretel"? It's a terrifying story—child abandonment and imprisonment; cannibalism; all that sugar in the gingerbread house. The Grimm Brothers edited their own version, with substantive changes between the 1812 and 1857 editions:

1812: "If you don't do it [abandon their children]," said the woman, "all of us will starve together," and she gave him no peace until he said yes.
1857: "Oh, you fool," she said, "then all four of us will starve. All you can do is to plane the boards for our coffins." And she gave him no peace until he agreed.
"But I do feel sorry for the poor children," said the man.

 

This past week, Tom McNeal's young adult novel Far Far Away was nominated for the National Book Award for children's literature. The book is a contemporary retelling of "Hansel and Gretel," beautifully written and ultimately compelling, if somewhat oddly executed. McNeal's first book, Goodnight, Nebraska (1998), traced the trajectory of a life from a teenager's violent act through his subsequent marriage and survival in the fictional small town of the book's title; it received both the James A. Michener and California Book Awards. McNeal's second book, To Be Sung Underwater (2011) also makes good use of a Nebraska setting, and with his wife, Laura McNeal, he's written four well-regarded YA novels.

Far Far Away is set in another small American town called Never Better; the state isn't named but it feels like Nebraska. Actually, it feels like one of those annoyingly, and generically, twee places that exist only on American television—Storybrooke, Smallville, Sunnydale, Stars Hollow, etc. (One can love Buffy, Superman, and Lorelai Gilmore and still wish they lived in, say, Yuma.) The precious tone of Far Far Away's opening pages isn't helped by a teenage protagonist named Jeremy Johnson Johnson and his innamorata, Ginger, a beautiful, feisty redhead given to pronouncements like "Zounds!" and "So…what's life like there in Johnson-Johnsonville?"

Fortunately, the novel is swiftly redeemed by the marvelous voice of its narrator, who is none other than the ghost of Jacob Grimm. One might wonder what a Grimm revenant is doing in a place like Never Better, but really, why not? Like that other lost soul, Jacob Marley, Jacob Grimm is doomed to wander the Earth because of "the thing undone"—

"…only the troubled remain here in the Zwischenraum, those who are agitated and uneasy, still looking for what this maid and others since have called the thing undone. "Vengeance, for example," she told me… "or some other unknown yet unmet desire. It is unique to every ghost, tailored to his own failures, disenchantments, or regrets."

The Zwischenraum is the "space between," inhabited by only a few unfortunate spectres. One of these is Jacob, who flits about the world vainly searching for his beloved brother Wilhelm. Contentedly married with a family during his lifetime, Wilhelm has passed on to whatever happy ever after awaits the rest of us (presumably not Hell, Michigan; Dismal, Tennessee; or Boring, Oregon). Jacob finally settles in Never Better when he discovers a young boy—Jeremy Johnson Johnson—who can hear unworldly voices like Jacob's own.

Over the years, the two enter into a sweetly believable paranormal symbiosis, with the scholarly ghost providing advice and definitions of obscure vocabulary words, and Jeremy acting as a surrogate child to the lonely Jacob. In true fairy-tale fashion, Jeremy's own parents are mostly absent. His mother is dead; his father, derailed first by his wife's betrayal and then her demise, spends his days watching quiz shows while his hair and fingernails reach a length to rival Howard Hughes's.

But Jeremy isn't friendless. The fetching Ginger Boultinghouse likes him, despite the casual scorn of her BFFs, who trail her like a gum-cracking Greek chorus. The slow-burn romance between shy Jeremy and the sharpwitted, but unfailingly decent, Ginger is one of this book's many pleasures, along with Jeremy's rival for her affections, a slightly blockheaded jock who turns out to be a good guy.

Another is McNeal's measured, old-fashioned approach to both his portrayal of adolescence and to storytelling. Never Better is a small town American Neverland. Cell phones, social media, teenage sex, alcohol and drug use are in scant evidence, though not allusions to fairy tales: the jolly baker whose delicious "Princess cakes" are rumored to have magical properties; the mysterious disappearance of the town's children; a deputy sheriff who's a dwarf; drastic repercussions for a seemingly minor, thoughtless action, akin to the plight of the poor husband who steals from a neighbor's garden to ease his pregnant wife's cravings. There is also Jeremy's obsession with the collections of fairy tales left behind by his mother when she abandoned her son and husband, and Jeremy's near-fatal ignorance of the Disney version of "Snow White."

At first, the leisurely pacing and overly familiar setting—a cross between the eponymous town in Gary Ross's film Pleasantville and Once Upon a Time's Storybrooke, Maine—weighed heavily on this reader. But again and again, McNeal's elegant prose won me over, as did Jacob Grimm himself. Melancholic, good-intentioned, increasingly ill-suited to be the invisible companion to a fifteen-year-old boy who desperately wants to establish his independence, Jacob is a beautifully and subtly drawn character. He stands in for every loving parent who wishes s/he could be that sane small voice inside a teenager's head.

And this is one of my concerns with Far Far Away. Not so much with the novel itself, which in its second half sheds the layers of overly precious dialogue, unnecessary subplots and backstory, to reveal a far more sinister, darkly gleaming tale of child abduction, imprisonment, cannibalism, and serial murder; but with its intended YA audience. Which is probably not twelve-to-sixteen year-olds so much as genuine young adults, i.e., those twenty- or thirty-somethings who drive much of the YA market.

To me, Far Far Away initially seemed like the kind of book a well-intentioned adult might imagine a kid would enjoy reading. Jacob Grimm's quest to find "the thing undone, the unknown yet unmet desire" within his own afterlife is undeniably poignant, but probably more so for an older reader than a twelve-year-old. And his search for the ominous figure known only as the Finder of Occasions feels more like a halfhearted effort to create a villain analogous to He Who Must Not Be Named.

So I found the sudden shift in tone halfway through McNeal's book to be jarring but also exhilarating: the abrupt and terrifying plunge after the tedious trek to the top of the roller coaster. The well-intentioned, unsuspecting grownup who reads the flap copy describing this as "an enchanted and enchanting novel, a wholly original and addictive fairy tale" (which it is) might recoil when s/he discovers that the fairy tale is really a horror story about the smiling, kindly man next door who entices then kidnaps children and does unspeakable things to them. Which is the tale of "Hansel and Gretel," as well as of John Wayne Gacy's victims.

It may be impossible at this late date to find a relatively untraveled path on such a well-worn and heavily trafficked route as that first mapped by the Brothers Grimm more than two hundred years ago. Far Far Away is the literary equivalent of one of those fabled blue highways where, once upon a time, you might have stumbled upon a real town resembling Never Better. It's a reminder that the power of a great narrative can also be the power of life over death; that the oldest tales can, like the white pebbles Hansel tosses behind him in the dark, be the means by which we find our way home.

"Maybe you could tell some of those old stories of yours," Ginger says to Jeremy while they're imprisoned along with Frank, another boy captured by the sociopath.
"Okay," Jeremy said. "I can try, anyhow." He glanced at Ginger. "I mean you both want to listen."
"Sure," Frank Bailey said. "We could use a good story," and Ginger said, "As long as it's got a happy ending."

Nathan Ballingrud's North American Lake Monsters is an exceptional fictional debut: It deserves a place alongside collections like Peter Straub's Magic Terror, Scott Wolven's Controlled Burn, Dan Chaon's Stay Awake, Raymond Carver's Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and Denis Johnson's Jesus' Son. Like those works, Ballingrud's stories delve into the damaged psyches of American men, with a distinctly twenty-first-century awareness of the world we now inhabit, itself as damaged as the shellshocked figures that populate it. Ballingrud's tales are ostensibly tales of terror, meticulously constructed and almost claustrophobically understated in their depiction of an all-encompassing horror that, despite its often unearthly shimmer, is human rather than supernatural in origin; Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" or Charlotte Gilman's "The Yellow Wallpaper" as reimagined by Robert Stone or Cormac McCarthy.

There are only nine stories in North American Lake Monsters (one, "The Crevasse," written with Dale Bailey), and that's probably a good thing. Once I started it, I couldn't put the book down, but the combination of gorgeous, controlled writing and unrelentingly dark subject matter works on you like an IV drip of some seductive, hallucinatorily beautiful but perhaps fatal drug. Werewolves, vampires, zombies, ghosts, and sea monsters populate these tales, but if I hadn't identified them, you might not recognize them as such.

These are tales of unbearable grief and the dislocation that accompanies it. As with the best horror fiction, the real monsters herein are human; Ballingrud's are nearly always male and inclined to violence and, in some cases, not much else. They're driven to violence and sometimes utter silence by the intensity of their despair, their longing, and, like Jacob Grimm in Far Far Away, by their knowledge of the thing undone. "People think it's the ghost that lives between places," says the pastor who attempts to help a homeless man in "The Way Station," "but it's not. It's us."

"Wild Acre" is a tale of lycanthropy set against the current economic downturn and a failed housing development. "Sunbleached" is a brilliant vampire story; along with Glen Hirshberg's novel Motherless Child, it's the best vampire tale I've read in decades. "The Way Station" is a beautiful, heartbreaking, Aickmanesque story, set in post-Katrina New Orleans. Every tale here is a standout, but my favorite is "The Good Husband," original to this collection, an account of a widower's descent into madness that's one of the most frightening and realistic horror stories I've ever read. It's a cliché to say, "This alone is worth the price of the book," but in the case of "The Good Husband," it's true. Actually, the entire book is worth much more than its cover cost: It's an instant classic, and priceless.

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