Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling’s The Beastly Bride: Tales of the Animal People

7304345Here we have an anthology with so broad a range of subject matter that it really seems to call for more than one review. The volume can be seen as, variously:

a) a patchwork quilt of fur, feathers, scales and skin;

b) an anthology about youthful growing pains;

c) an omnibus of fables on the theme of acceptance;

d) a collection of literary meditations on alienation;

e) a diverse group of tales and poems treating of such matters as personal triumph and personal loss, the price of deliverance and the pangs of abandonment.

And the answer, of course, is f) all of the above.

Of course, with Datlow & Windling at the helm, we probably ought to expect a collection that eludes obvious categories. And that is certainly what we’ve got here. In The Beastly Bride, these excellent ladies offer us twenty-two stories and poems concerning shape-shifters and were-beasties, deities and demons, humans, part-humans and altogether Other. These tales draw on a world of cultural traditions to place a remarkable smorgasbord before us.

Some of the tales are deliciously spooky. Lucius Shepherd’s contribution is set in the rural American South. “The Flock” brings together provincial attitudes and teen boredom, coming of age and local folk tradition, in a fine piece that seems to range quite effortlessly from irreverent humour to poignant insight — all presented in the voice of an adolescent narrator whose eye is both profoundly honest and uncommonly free of self-pity. Shepherd’s remarkable balancing act might just yield the most memorable piece in the anthology, and if so, it’s up against some stiff competition.

On a lighter (but still spooky) note, in “The Comeuppance of Creegus Maxin,” Gregory Frost spins us a yarn that brings an Irish nature spirit to America and captures the spirit of both lands neatly (complete with homage to Flann O’Brien, no less). Read it to friends or children on Hallowe’en. And speaking of Hallowe’en, Stewart Moore’s trick-or-treating piece, “One Thin Dime,” reads like a piece of vintage Bradbury Americana.

Jane Yolen’s stanzas on widowhood and the Indian tradition of suttee, “The Elephant’s Bride,” form a poem so profoundly personal I find it difficult to discuss it without feeling downright rude; ah, but it lingers, it lingers. I was reminded of my own mother’s widowed years, and as such the piece clouds my critical judgment: and yet precisely for that evocative quality, it deserves comment. Read it, and confront the mortality of human love.

With the dispassionate eye of a cat eviscerating its mouse, Tanith Lee tells a story of love and disillusionment in “The Puma’s Daughter”. An arranged marriage to a lovely were-cougar takes a very decent young man outside his familiar community — and outside the bounds of his reality — leaving us to judge for ourselves just who (if anyone) has really been wronged. There are two sides to almost every troubled marriage, and Lee very carefully delivers no auctorial verdict to simplify things for us here.

Johanna Sinisalo explores the roots of Finnish myth in “Bear’s Bride,” employing ancient traditional verses so seamlessly that until I read the author’s note I assumed she herself had composed them for the story. After reading said note, I found the story beginning to ring in my recollection with heightened mythic resonances. With that awareness in place going in, a good coming-of-age tale, set among a Finnish ur-tribe, may just refine itself to greatness. The “Mythically Correct” Award in this collection goes to Sinisalo, hands down.

But at that, it’s not for lack of competition. Peter S. Beagle’s South-Seas fantasy, “The Children of the Shark God,” is one of the author’s best. The timeless nature of gods and the time-bound concerns of a woman’s love and maternal responsibilities, something a little too subtle to simply be labelled “feminism,” are a hard pair of themes to blend, but Beagle manages it very well indeed.

Themes not unrelated to Beagle’s are addressed, in a very different tone and accent, in “Coyote and Valorosa.” Terra L. Gearhart-Serna has turned out a modern mother’s bedtime story to her daughter, a sort of inverse cautionary tale, challenging a young woman to dare and to make her own decisions. The mythic and cultural roots are solid, and the defiance of tradition is flagrantly intended to shake that solidity right down to the bedrock. Like the classic old flamenco-rock of Carmen in the ’70s, by all rights the elements should clash instead of harmonise: but instead a unique artistic resolution is achieved. Neither the daughter nor the mother telling the tale are actually characters in the piece — but they are vividly present to us all the same. We turn the last page with no doubt but that the daughter will live a life uniquely and fully her own.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey Ford’s odd and delightful “Ganesha” is the only story I’ve ever read of the Hindu deities that treats them with such a blend of whimsy and reverence. His author’s note informs us that a writing student from India told him, “If you write with an open heart, Ganesha will accept it.” And the evidence at hand shows plainly that he took that advice to (open) heart. Gods, demons and the roots of artistic development collide gently and wildly in this off-beat little tale of teen angst.

Marly Youmans’ “The Salamander Fire” takes us through farmer’s markets, the mysteries of glassblowing, love and hell in an odd blend of the myths of Pygmalion and Orpheus. Youmans may try to cover too much territory in a short story: there’s all the meat of a novel in here: but if so, there are far worse faults.

Steve Berman’s take on swan maidens and shapeshifting in general, “Thimbleriggery and Fledglings,” is tricky. He gives us the magician and his daughter, the handsome prince, the poor but beautiful seamstress, and a bird whose full wingspan might fill the sky — and whose eggs permit the accomplishment of still greater wonders. Despite the familiar trappings of fairy tales, the piece stakes claim to some uncommon ground. The reader’s sympathies are invited to shift more than once in this fantasy of love, magic, social class and family ties. It’s hard to say much more without spoiling the progression of revelations as crafted by Berman’s professional hand, but the overall effect is that of a classic fairy story that you haven’t happened to read before.

The weakest tales of the set are the fables of acceptance. The commonest subtext of these stories seems to be a matter of personal sexuality, more specifically the idea of coming to terms with one’s own (or another’s) homosexual reality. Make no mistake, this is a theme worthy of treatment: it’s just that in this collection, I find the tales themselves tend to be somewhat predictable, even when handled by some wordsmiths whose artistic corpus I admire very much indeed. In general, the animal aspect seems to have been extraneously grafted on to several storylines that are more about human reality than beastly fantasy.

The “selected decorations by Charles Vess” are unobtrusive — floral headers for each tale; a lovely cover; a pen-and-ink title page illustration reminiscent of fin-de-siecle children’s books; a header to the Table of Contents that shows us — if I’m not mistaken — the goat-horned Oberon from his work with Vertigo Comics; and a couple of other small images. The only complaint that can be made of the artwork is that we don’t see more of it (because really, can one ever have too much Vess artwork?). Still, in a work that is not actually illustrated, it’s nice to see the decorator credited. And like the professional he is, Vess has given us decorations that do not demand our attention.

A not-unmixed delight, any reader of fantasy will find tales here that please. Inside the furred and scaled skin of The Beastly Bride there is something for just about everyone. And what anthology can offer more than that?

(Viking, 2000)

About Gereg Jones Muller

Gereg has been teaching international weaponry arts for over thirty years, playing traditional and original music for over forty years, and writing for nearly fifty years. He plays several musical instruments, and has performed at Renaissance Faires, pubs, high schools, and the Ben Lomond Highland Games. His poetry has been published in Charles deLint’s short-lived “Beyond the Fields We Know” magazine, The Chunga Review, and the Towne Cryer. In 1980 he founded the Yeomen of the Queen’s Guard at the original Renaissance Faire in Agoura, California; he’s been Musical Director for the Guild of St. Luke at the Northern California Renaissance Faire; he played Morris music for Seabright Morris and Sword in Santa Cruz, California, and taught teen martial arts programs in International Swordplay for several years through the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Dep’t. At present he’s working on a novel combining Renaissance sword arts, the Reformation, historical paganism and English Fairy traditions. Inevitably, it’s predicted as a trilogy. Dedicated to developing a tradition of marital romantic poetry, he’s generally working on a sonnet or a song for his wife. He’s trying desperately to win the Renaissance Man Sweepstakes, and continues to labour under the delusion that that will get him something.