Summary: REMEMBER THOSE GRIMM BROTHERS? Dark fairy tales that made you leave the light on long before Disney sanitized them? Well, we certainly do! And now the MISTRESSES GRIMM take back the night, five female authors who will leave you shuddering deliciously. Get ready to leave the lights on again with five pieces of short fiction bringing the Grimm Brothers’ tales into the present. Be advised: these aren’t your children’s fairy tales!
Thoughts: Over the years I’ve discovered, bit by bit, that I have a weakness for fairy tale retellings, preferably with a dark element or an unusual twist. So when I was offered a copy of Grimm Mistresses, an anthology of fairy tale horror written by a collection of talented women, I couldn’t say no. It provided me some good and disturbing entertainment during a long bus ride across provinces.
As is true in just about every short story collection, not always stories are equal. Some are better than others. Fortunately all the stories in here are good, and they work well to chill you and make you feel a little bit sickened, bringing forth that perfect horror feeling from the pit of your stomach. Though a warning to those who haven’t read this: let’s just say I agree with Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn when he says that the wrong anthology got named Trigger Warning.
Little Dead Red – Mercedes M Yardley starts off the collection with a take on Little Red Riding Hood, told from the perspective of a troubled mother raising a daughter alone after her ex-husband was revealed to be abusive and thrown in jail. The disappearance and death of her daughter tips her over the ends into a desperate madness fuelled by grief and vengeance, and she does the unthinkable while searching for “the Wolf,” the despicable man who hurt and killed her only child. It’s disturbing, powerfully so, and doesn’t flinch away from some very brutal aspects of reality. While this adds to the story’s strength, it also pegs it as one of the hardest stories to read in the entire collection, and it’s thrown at you right off the bat, no time to adjust to the dark tone. You open the book and BAM, a story about rape and death and wolves in sheep’s clothing and I won’t lie, I actually shed some tears over this one because it was just such a visceral hit. (And I probably would have shed more had I not been on a bus surrounded by strangers whom I did not want to see me cry.)
Nectar – I’m going to be honest. I have no idea which fairy tale Allison M Dickson’s story was based on. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad story, though it probably was one of the weaker stories in the bunch. Largely due to the unsatisfying and quite inexplicable ending. The story starts off with 2 men going on a blind date with 2 gorgeous women, who kidnap them and reveal that they are people from a far-future earth that, for some reason, can only allow women to survive. Seriously. Something in the atmosphere makes men revert to a primal brutal animal state and they don'[t survive long. You see this quite disturbingly when 1 of the men goes into a rage and kills himself by smashing his own face in. The other man, our main character, doesn’t really seem affected by the atmosphere for reasons that are never actually explained. He also shares a bond with the woman he slept with after the blind date, who was ostensibly there to kidnap him and get sperm so that she and other women could get pregnant and continue their race. She apparently feels the same way toward him, since the story ends up her freeing him and stealing a spaceship and them running off together with their newborn son. Not exactly love at first sight, but something akin to it, since she was willing to leave her wife and her entire world behind for a guy she slept with once and bonded with because reasons. The setup was interesting, the premise could have yielded so much, but honestly, so much about the conclusion seems random and doesn’t get explained. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief, and that rather spoiled it for me.
The Leopard’s Pelt – S R Cambridge’s story was probably my favourite of them all! It starts with a WWII soldier being stranded on a desert island, coming across a telepathic leopard (who may well be a demon) making a deal with him when he gets desperate. Kill her, wear her pelt and don’t wash or tell anyone his name and he can only live by the charity of others, in exchange for getting off the island. If he can’t follow through on this deal, she gets to claim his soul. He accepts. And ends up meeting a volunteer at a hospital, a woman who wants to become a doctor (which, in the 1940s, is impressive and I applauded her on determination alone). They bond, though he runs from her when she gets too close, fearful that their connection will force him into a situation where he’ll lose his soul, intentionally or inadvertently. This is another story where I’m unsure of the source material, the original idea this was a new spin on, but honestly, it didn’t matter. It was so stylishly written, so wonderfully told that it didn’t matter whether I was reading a fairy tale retelling or not. All that mattered was an amazing story told by a very skilled writer!
Hazing Cinderella – This story by C W LaSart made me feel a bit uncomfortable, largely due to the abundance of sexuality in the text. It centres around a duo of mother-daughter… succubi? Witches? A combination of both? They obtain life and youth by draining it from men during sex, which is what leads me to think succubi, but they’re not referred to as such in the text, so I’m not entirely sure. Either way. Most of the story takes place around the daughter, taking over-the-top revenge against her stepsister and her friends, who want to frighten and humiliate her. She responds by killing them. It’s not presented as justified. Merely expedient, cruel people being cruel on both sides of the coin. It’s visually quite impressive, but not a particularly strong story, and it largely stands out from the others due to the sex and gore.
The Night Air – Stacy Turner’s story is probably my second-favourite in the collection, tied with Yardley’s contribution, so this book banked on both sides by quality. (With a second slice of quality smack-bang in the middle. I think that makes it some sort of double-decker quality book-sandwich.) This is a retelling of the Pied Piper story, taking place around a family who has just moved to a small town. There’s some odd behaviour by the locals, which they pass off at first as just small-town mentality coming to light, but it turns out that the “old wives tales” have some merit after 2 of the children vanish into the night, never to be seen again. I admit, part of the reveal at the end stretched coincidence a bit for me, but otherwise this was a solid story, emotional and impressive, and I would definitely read more of Turner’s work in the future.
So over all, this double-decker is worth reading, though it’s definitely a “your mileage may vary” kind of book. There’s some very disturbing material contained within its pages, but then, that’s entirely the point. Fairy tales were cautionary tales wrapped in entertainment long before they were sanitized “happily ever after” tales that most of us have grown up with, and this brings them back to form with a host of talented women at the wheel. If horror is your thing, then definitely grab a copy of Grimm Mistresses while you can, and be prepared to feel some gut-shaking spine-tingling horror while you read.
(Received for review from the publisher.)