Cursed: An Anthology of Dark Fairy Tales by Marie O'Regan and Paul Kane (editors)

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Cursed: An Anthology of Dark Fairy Tales by Marie O'Regan and Paul Kane (editors)

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A nicely strong fantasy compilation, with many a fine new piece set alongside recent classics of the short form. The theme is really well maintained, and explored from so many aspects this is bound to have much to appeal.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: March 2020
Publisher: Titan Books
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1789091502

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Curses. They're there throughout tales of faery and other fantastical folk – people being cursed to do this, or not to be able to do that. Children can be cursed, as can princesses on the verge of marrying, and older people too. It seems in a way there's no escaping it. Which is why the theme of this book of short stories is such a standout – we may well think we know all there is to know about this accursed character, that demonised place, and that other bewitched person. We'd be very wrong.

It's always unusual to have any poetry in a fantasy compilation, let alone both start and end with it, but Jane Yolen bookends this with glimpses of Sleeping Beauty's world. Christina Henry at first seems to offer an equally well-known female title character, but actually manages to merge Snow White, Bluebeard and a quite different take on the poisonous apple. Our first male contributor, Neil Gaiman, no less, reminds us of an older age, when we first saw train routes litter the land without tracks or vehicles upon them. All those who have walked empty railway beds since will be on board here. It's not every fantasy story that name-checks The Stranglers' first LP, either.

Where Gaiman had newbuild houses in his story, although replacing the land that was home to his main fantasy character, Catriona Ward uses a new estate to house her evil. This is part Stepford Children at play, part an ageless Cthulhu-meets-Green-Man beastie. Jen Williams has a sort of female Green Man character, in her story with wonderfully epic stretch, where we start unsure of who is actually cursed among the people mentioned, and end up far beyond that query. There's a heck of a lot of activity too in the deceptively simple entertainment from Mike Carey (or M R Carey as he's resorted to here). But for every ounce of levity in that piece is a counter in the following, by James Brogden, who seems to take all vestige of the fairy tale kind of curse out of his work and ram its beating heart through a food blender. It's brilliantly, darkly on-topic for this compilation, however.

For the first time, we see a place cursed just as much as people and characters, with Maura McHugh giving us a new look on those old remains people sometimes unearth while renovating homes. Karen Joy Fowler comes back to Sleeping Beauty, and to give her a sequel – of sorts. Christopher Golden takes someone from classic fiction and shows them cursed by the reality of his version of their story – I didn't quite buy into the plausibility of what he has happen to them, but it was enjoyable all the same. I didn't buy at all into the very American-styled ribaldry of Charlie Jane Anders' updating of the inn-keeper and her shaggy dog story. (On the whole there is a wonderful representation of British authors in this collection, and their distinctive approach is evident in many places.)

Michael Marshall Smith is one of the few authors with previously published works on offer here, and it's no surprise people wanted to revisit this creepy tale of an uninvited house guest. Next, our poet collaborates with Adam Stemple, although not to my taste, and I was surprised by how I got so little from the work by Lilith Saintcrow. In between those, however, was Angela Slatter, another who takes her piece far from the well-trod paths of folklore, and shows us how much DNA is shared between the traditional Bluebeard story and the modern serial killer.

Christopher Fowler kicks off the final quartet, with a wonderful piece that could have come from the old Twilight Zone, with it's oh-so-simple twist on everyday life and impactful ending. Beyond that vintage piece of his, it's solely exclusive stories – Alison Littlewood with a marvellous merging of traditional talk of the hidden people and, well, something else; Tim Lebbon with a decent piece of romance; and finally Margo Lanagan with – well, I'm not sure really, as it wasn't a very reader-friendly way to close.

All told, though, this was definitely a strongly put together compilation, with very solid qualities all told, and no real stinkers of note. Yes, a few of the choicer pieces had been in other anthologies before now, but not to a huge extent and not well-known ones, meaning to a dabbler in fantasy and faerie a lot of this would remain brand new. The editors have managed to secure such a strong bunch of pieces that all read as if from accomplished authors, and you wouldn't really know in a blind test which was from the household name and which not. This, then, really does achieve exactly what it set out to do. Curse it.

I must thank the publishers for my review copy.

If you relish fine authors spinning off from some classic form or story, then Return to Wonderland by Various Authors will appeal with its variety, too. (NB these editors – and a similar batch of authors as here – have produced their own variant on that concept, too.) You might also enjoy You Will Grow Into Them by Malcolm Devlin.

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