Tales from the land of the Nemunas

Back in 2013, I wrote a post on some of my favorite Lithuanian children’s stories.  Today, in honor of the March 11, 1990 re-establishment of Lithuanian independence (Yep, Lithuania actually has two independence days! 😀 ), which re-asserted the Declaration of Independence from 1918, I’d like to share some (mostly) newer collections of folk and fairy tales I’ve gathered in recent years.

*  *  *  *  *

Graziausios Vaikystes Pasakos
Ramutė Prapiestienė, ed.
The Loveliest Childhood Tales
Vilnius: Alma littera, 2013

My grandmother brought this book back from her last trip to Lithuania in 2014.  It’s a collection of not only classic Lithuanian tales, but also Grimm’s and other fairy tales translated into Lithuanian.  The best part is the artwork by Rimantas Juškaitis — bright, expressive illustrations of laughing rabbits, dancing storks, and nine-headed dragons.  My favorite illustration is of a girl and her magic cow, in the story “Karvė Verpėja” (The Thread-Spinning Cow).


It’s a Cinderella story in which a girl is mistreated by her stepmother, who gives her the impossible task of perfectly spinning flax without a spinning wheel.  A cow comes out of the field and offers to help, if the girl will just put the flax on her horns.  That evening, the cow returns with the flax all spun into thread.  Of course the stepmother finds out the girl’s secret and kills the cow, but before she does, the cow tells the girl to bury the first drop of blood in the earth where it falls, and bury the rest of the blood in the garden.  Where the first drop of blood fell, a well appears that serves only wine, and where the rest of the blood was buried, a magic apple tree grows.  Of course a prince passes by and only the orphan girl can serve him the wine and apples, and he takes her away to live happily ever after with him.

If this story sounds familiar, you might have read the Grimms’ tale “One Eye, Two Eyes, and Three Eyes,” in which only the mistreated two-eyed sister is able to pick the golden apples from a magic tree that grows from the remains of her magic goat, and is thus chosen by a passing knight for his bride.  The motif of the magic cow is also found in other stories, like the Chinese “Beauty and Pock-Face,” the Ethiopian “Magic Cow,” and the Serbian “Pepelyouga.”

Other fun stories in the collection include “The Orphan Elenytė and Joniukas the Sheep,”Kiskis
in which a girl has to save her brother from an evil witch after he drinks water from a sheep’s footprint and turns into a sheep himself; “Perkūnas and the Grand Duke’s Daughter,” in which a young woman marries the god of thunder, a story with elements of “Cupid and Psyche” and “East of the Sun, West of the Moon”; and “The Sky is Falling!” in which a skittish cat sends the whole forest into a panic with news that the sky is falling, when it was really a cabbage leaf that fell on its tail.

Honestly, my favorite part of that last one is the funny rhyming name each character gets — the fox is Lapė snapė, the rabbit is Kiškis tiškis, the bear is Meška pleška, the wolf is Vilke pilke…

*  *  *  *  *

This next collection I found in my grandmother’s home library, an anthology of old Lithuanian folk tales called “Tales From the Land of the Nemunas” (the Nemunas is the largest river in Lithuania, originating in Belarus and flowing through Lithuania into the Baltic Sea).

Vaidotas Aukstaitis 2010 07 29
Petras Cvirka
Tales from the Land of the Nemunas
Vilnius: Vyturys, 1988

Like with the former collection, half the fun of reading these stories is seeing the wild illustrations — these ones by Algirdas Steponavičius.  These are earthy, abstract, Picasso-like drawings of wild animals and people bonded with nature:


The stories are mostly animal tales, reflecting the forest-filled landscape of Lithuania, but also tales of humans and their daily antics.  They also reflect the socio-political climate of the time when the stories were created, and how the Lithuanian storytellers felt about their foreign neighbors.  In one story, a man from Žemaitija tricks a German by selling him a “magical” letter-carrying rabbit, a “doctor” fox that can make hens lay more eggs, and a “magical” hat that can get you free meals at any tavern.  Of course these “magical” items don’t work, and the Lithuanian ends up making a fool out of the German.

Other stories use anthropomorphic animals to reflect aspects of human life, like the tale of a rabbit steward who housesits at a wolf’s farm while he’s away, only to let in a wild, IMG_E2665partying fox and her family who overstay their welcome.  In another story, a rabbit invites several other animals over to celebrate the christening of his children.  The wolf tries to make off with the baby rabbits, but the other animals beat him up, and from then on, no one invites wolves into their homes.  Still another story humanizes Nature itself, depicting the Sun, Moon and Wind in an argument over which of them should be invited to sit at the place of honor at a man’s table.

These are stories of hard-working (and hard-scheming 😉 ) people who really live off the land, depending on the fields and forests and their creatures for their livelihoods.  These are stories of people who are one with the environment, seeing themselves in the animals and elements that surrounded them, seeing their fellow creatures as fellow people rather than merely tools or prey.

*  *  *  *  *

Finally, I bought the following two books during my own trip to Lithuania in 2009.  One is the legend of how the capitol city of Vilnius was established:

Vilniaus Legenda
Dainius Juozėnas
The Legend of Vilnius

Vilnius: Alma littera, 2007

Hundreds of years ago, in the sacred region where the Vilnia river meets the Neris, the Grand Duke Gediminas and his hunting party followed a great bull.  It took until nightfall to take down the bull, and by then it was too late to return home, so the grand duke made camp in the region known as Šventaragio Slėnis (the Holy Horn Valley).  That night, the grand duke dreamed of a great iron wolf that stood at the top of the forested hill and howled with the voice of a hundred wolves.

The next morning, Gediminas called on the great oracle Lizdeika to interpret the dream.  Lizdeika told him the wolf represented a great tower that must be built on that hill, and the hundred-wolf howl represented a mighty city that would become the nation’s capital.


Setting is very important in this story, both physical and historical, as the main story of Grand Duke Gediminas and his prophetic dream is prefaced by a history of the landscape as it developed from the Ice Ages to the Medieval era, glaciers carving out the holy hills and valleys, the lakes and rivers.  The hill and valley at the crossroads of the Vilnia and Neris rivers became a sacred place where the ancient pagans built their shrine of standing stones to the Lithuanian gods, where great leaders were buried, where priestesses sang their ritual songs.  It was there that Gediminas’ advisor Lizdeika was found as a baby in an eagles’ nest, in the branches of a great oak tree, and grew into a wise oracle and even sorcerer who could read the land and sky, foretell the future, and interpret dreams.

This is one of my favorite interpretations of the Vilnius legend, as it stretches beyond the main story to show the physical, historical, and mythological contexts of Gediminas’ dream.

*  *  *  *  *

The other book is a literally a fairy tale, the story of a beautiful green-eyed fairy who helps a young woman save her fiancé, kidnapped by an invading army.  Like The Legend of Vilnius, this one is heavy on setting, painting a vivid, sacred picture of the landscape and its importance to the people who live there.

Marija Baranauskienė
The Fairy
Vilnius: Džiugas, 1998

The Fairy takes place in the northeastern highlands region of lakes, a region of gods and fairies that, hundreds of years later, would become the first of Lithuania’s national parks.  So important were the nature gods and folk heroes to the people that they named their children after them — the heroine is named after Austėja, the bee goddess, and her lover is named Ažuolas — perhaps after the son of Eglė, Queen of Serpents, who became the first of Lithuania’s great oak trees?

Ažuolas and Austėja are their community’s power couple, as perfect as a pair of doves, and as is the custom in that region, they take a trip together to a sacred pond in the middle of a lake island where fairies cast their spells, sing their songs, and tend their babies in the magic lily cradles.  Beneath a nine-branched linden tree, Ažuolas and Austėja profess their love to one another and pray to the goddess Laima to smile down on them.IMG_E2669

But soon after their return to the mainland, before they can complete their marriage ceremony, a foreign army invades the land, kidnapping the young women, including Austėja, and taking Ažuolas prisoner when he fights to set her free.

In order to save her lover, Austėja will need to complete an impossible, forbidden task, a sin against the fairies.  It seems all hope is lost, but the fairies and the surrounding lake spirits have their own plans for how to save the land from the invading army.

This is truly a lovely ode to the Lithuanian mythology and landscape, a new fairy tale to explain the history of the region that would become Aukštaitija National Park.

*  *  *  *  *

What about you, Postcardians?  What are some of your favorite legends and fairy tales from your own cultural heritage?  What do those stories say about the people and landscape that inspired them?

Today, I’ll leave you with another rendition of the Lithuanian national anthem, set against a backdrop of Lithuanian rivers, lakes, and forests:

Posted in folklore/fairy tales, Lithuania, picture books | 5 Comments

An ode to the books I Did Not Finish (Juv/YA edition)

In the past eight years, I’ve reviewed plenty of amazing books, less-than-amazing books, really-kind-of-terrible books, and just-plain-meh books.  The reading experience has been a mixed bag of awesomeness and problems, but there was always something in each book that kept me going, whether it was the likable-enough characters, the plot that hooked me, or the world-building that made me want to stay in that setting just a little while longer.

But an inevitable part of any reader’s life is the DNF pile — the books they simply Did Not Finish.  The books that were so ridiculous, or so problematic, or so put-down-able, that you simply can’t stubborn your way through them.  Normally, I don’t give those books a second thought after I’ve returned them to the library or sold them back to Half Price, but you know what?  It’s time to give a shout out to my DNF pile.

These are my Top 5 Juv/YA DNFs, in order of how far in I got before giving up.


Moon Girl

Moongirl and Devil Dinosaur, Vol. 1: BFF, by Amy Reeder, Brandon Montclare, and Natacha Bustos.  I first met Lunella Lafayette, a.k.a. Moon Girl, in Issue 2 of America.  She was a 9-year-old genius who travelled to universities to give lectures about personal greatness and universal systems with her dinosaur sidekick.  Of course I wanted to know more about her!

Unfortunately, Vol. 1 of Lunella’s own comic series was just a mess.  The story was all over the place, Lunella’s motivations for not wanting to be an Inhuman and for suddenly changing her mind about letting the dinosaur tag along were too hazy, and the time-travelling caveman gang was beyond cliche, with their “Ooga booga” talk (oh, and apparently they’re like the Flintstones, living at the same freaking time as the dinosaurs.  Because that’s great science).

I actually almost made it to the end with this one; I got to around chapter 5 of 6 before I did a final eye-roll and gave up.



Egg and Spoon

Egg and Spoon, by Gregory Maguire.  I feel like, in theory, this story should have hooked me much more, especially with its focus on Eastern European folklore, but also the meta comments by the narrator, and if nothing else, because of Baba Yaga.  Maguire writes a really funny, sassy, apparently-time-traveling Baba Yaga who says things like “Yummers” and “You’re not going to drink the Kool-Aid?” and calls her feline familiar Mewster, and sleeps on a pink-ruffled princess canopy bed covered in heart-shaped pillows with phrases like BE MINE, VALENTINE, and ET TU, BRUTE?  How awesome is this lady??  How could I not get through a whole book just on her merits??

But the story itself moved sooo slowly in Part One, and even after the action picked up in Part Two, it just didn’t hold my attention for long.  I really didn’t care about the Elena/Ekaterina twin switch plot, and I’d find myself constantly putting the book down and delaying picking it back up.  I did kind of want to know how everything would end, but not enough, and I certainly wasn’t willing to slog through several hundred more pages to find out.  One awesome side character just isn’t enough to carry a 500-page story when none of the other characters — not even the protagonists — make me care enough to stick with them.



Love Stargirl

Love, Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli.  Sequels are a hit-or-miss venture to begin with, especially if the original book or movie was so awesome.  I know Stargirl could be considered a Manic Pixie Dream Girl in the original book, and I feel like a bad feminist for saying this, but I actually liked that mysteriousness about her, that magical, cosmic quality.  Not that she was a total MPDG, though — she wasn’t just there for Leo’s benefit.  She was there to shake the whole of Mica Area High School to its core.  Having a boyfriend was a nice perk, but it wasn’t the main goal of her life.

Now, this DNF was a little while longer ago, so my memories of it are a little hazy, but what I do remember is Stargirl spending her days pining over Leo after moving to…was it Pennsylvania?  She was very secretive about where exactly she moved to, and only slipped up once in her narration.  And when she’s not pining over Leo or starting to fall for a different boy — a bad boy, oooh! — yeah, she still does some Stargirl-ish things, but nothing as outrageous as in the original book.  It seems MAHS rocked Stargirl to her core, too, making her a little less bold and a little more normal.  Which shouldn’t be such a bad thing at all — it should be a good thing to see the human, relatable side of an MPDG, shouldn’t it?

But Stargirl was really something special in the previous book, and I kind of didn’t want to see Spinelli “normalize” her.  I wanted her to remain a mystery after she left MAHS for the world beyond.  I made it about halfway through Love, Stargirl, before I decided I’d rather stick with my memories of the original.



Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman.  Guys, I want to like Neil Gaiman more.   I want to like everything he writes.  I loved his treatment of folklore and mythology in the Sandman comics, and his twist on Snow White and Sleeping Beauty in The Sleeper and the Spindle, and his work in the Windling/Datlow anthologies.  I know Gaiman can tell a fantastic story, and The Graveyard Book certainly doesn’t lack in unique characters or setting or events.  So, what was it that failed to really hook me?  Why couldn’t I get more than five chapters in?

Honestly, this DNF is the hardest for me to explain, because there’s nothing technically wrong with the book, nothing I can point to and say, This is a flaw.  The characters are interesting enough — I especially liked Silas, this creepy Dracula-like figure who’s, nevertheless, a really loving guardian for the protagonist — and the setting of the graveyard/nature reserve is both beautiful and spooky, so you’d think I’d enjoy spending 320 pages with them.

Maybe it was the too-episodic nature of the story.  What works in a series of comics or a collection of short stories doesn’t always work as well for me in a novel.  There is an overarching plot re: the man who killed Nobody’s family and is still looking to finish the job, but it’s constantly put on the back burner, behind the various minor adventures Bod has in the graveyard.  It just doesn’t feel like he’s in any real danger from that main antagonist, or that his smaller adventures really fit into that overarching plot.

I could be wrong, of course; if I could push myself to keep reading, I could find out that Bod’s trip to the ghouls’ city, his attempt to get a gravestone for Liza, and his learning of the Danse Macabre somehow prepare him to fight the man Jack, but I’m just not getting that sense at this point.  After five long chapters, I want to feel like a novel is building toward something really threatening or important, and I just didn’t get that sense from The Graveyard Book so far.  Again, this is all completely subjective and other fans of Gaiman could think I’m completely nuts.  I kind of think I’m nuts.  Maybe I’ll give Graveyard another chance in the future, but right now, like with Egg and Spoon, I find myself putting it down too often and not picking it back up fast enough.



Between Shades

Between Shades of Grey, by Ruta Sepetys.  This one is really personal.  I’ve read Holocaust stories and other difficult subjects before.  I know it’s really important to learn about the grim moments in history, if we’re to prevent them from happening again.  But this book just hit too close to home.  My whole life, I’ve been hearing stories about the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, and the thousands of Lithuanians shipped off in cattle cars to Sibiras — to Siberian prison camps where they would be either worked to death or freeze to death.  My great-grandparents were on the list to be shipped off because they were teachers — intellectuals — and they had to escape with my grandmother and her sister to Germany to avoid the Soviet officers coming to their home.

Reading this book, I could too easily imagine Soviet soldiers barging into my own house, holding my own parents at gunpoint, trying to separate my own little brother from us.  After less than thirty pages, I just couldn’t read any more.  Someday, I’ll try again, because it’s important to know.  But not just yet.

.  .  .  .  .

What about you, Postcardians?  What are some of your most memorable DNFs?  What does it take to really turn you off from a book?  Have you read any of the ones I mentioned above, and think I should give them another chance?

For more DNF shout outs, see my Top 6 Adult DNFs at Same Story.

Posted in comics, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, historical, Lithuania | 2 Comments

Lithuania 100

Today is the 100th anniversary of Lithuania’s declaration of independence from Germany, Russia, and Poland. The Act of Reinstating the Independence of Lithuania was signed on February 16, 1918, announcing the establishment of an independent, democratic Lithuanian state with Vilnius as its capital. A temporary draft of the constitution was adopted on November 2nd, and Germany finally lost control of Lithuania with the end of World War I.

The actual document was recently found in Berlin, the only surviving copy of the original declaration.

In honor of this anniversary, I plan to write several Lithuania-related posts throughout the year, both here and at Same Story, highlighting the stories, music, and history of my ancestors’ homeland.

In the meantime, please enjoy this unique rendition of the Lithuanian national anthem:


Posted in Lithuania | 5 Comments

Screaming for Fairies: a conflicted story review

It’s been a month of raising the dead, hasn’t it?  I’ve been resurrecting my old Insatiable Booksluts posts, and now I’ve decided to delete my LiveJournal account.  Apparently, they’ve been bought by a Russian company and now require users to follow Russian internet rules, which is very bad news for LGBTQIA content and political commentary (I know, I’m pretty late to the party here; I hadn’t updated my LJ blog for a while, and today was the first time I tried to log in, and that’s when I was met by the new user agreement that kept referencing the Russian Federation).  Before I hit the delete button, though, I transferred my favorite posts to my new blog, Same Story, Different Versions, where I will be discussing adult books and other topics that don’t really fit here at Postcards.

As I was going through my LJ posts, though, I found one from 2010 that actually would fit in here, especially since it concerns a Windling/Datlow anthology (I’ve discussed other W/D fairy tale anthologies here, here, and here).

Time for a wander down memory lane!

.  .  .  .  .

Originally posted at LiveJournal on Sept 27, 2010

I’ve been really into folklore and fairy tales lately — especially new interpretations/twistings thereof — and one of the books I’m reading is The Faery Reel, an anthology edited by Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow.  Windling and Datlow invited certain fantasy writers to submit new stories that overcome the cliche depictions of fairies (“No butterfly-winged sprites”).

faery reel

Most of the stories are awesome (especially Kelly Link’s “The Fairy Handbag,” Patricia McKillip’s “Undine,” Gregory Frost’s “Tengu Mountain,” and Bruce Glassco’s “Never, Never”).  But there’s one story I feel really ambivalent about:  Ellen Steiber’s “Screaming for Faeries.”

The first few pages were sweet:  sixteen-year-old Cherry is baby-siting her little cousin Annalise, who likes to “scream for faeries” — she and her friend scream out the window, because that will make faeries come to them.  Cherry thinks it’s just a cute game and waits for the girls to fall asleep so her boyfriend Robbie can come over

Cherry and Robbie have a really strong connection, but Cherry is afraid to “take it to the next level” with him.  He — and the rest of their school — think Cherry’s already had sex because of a rumor that Cherry decided not to deny.  So whenever she and Robbie are alone, she stalls and  makes excuses.

Cue the fix-it faeries.  Cherry is back home, sans boyfriend, and suddenly sees the boy faery in her room.  The tiny, blonde, leather-jacket-wearing faery (yes, my Jareth senses were tingling 😉 ) glares angrily and accuses her:  “Liar.”  Then, “Virgin.”  Then his wise, graceful girlfriend appears, and they all but have sex in front of Cherry, who feels really turned on, but still unsure.

The faeries leave a bowl of mushrooms in the kitchen the next day, but Cherry throws them out and that’s really bad.  The faeries trash her room because those were magic mushrooms (yeah, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all) and they were a gift that could have taught Cherry something.  Well, they can’t tell her now, can they?  Instead they fondle each other again and talk about seasons needing to change, and how no one can stop that change from coming.

Bad Cherry — bad girl for not telling Robbie she’s a virgin!  Bad girl for being nervous about sex, and not sure if she really wants to do it already!  Reminds me of the Nostalgia Chick’s “Hocus Pocus” review XD

Ok, Steiber’s story wasn’t as conspicuous as “Hocus Pocus” in its message about the eeeeevil (or at least stupidness) of virginity.  To give him a lot of credit, Robbie is a very understanding boyfriend, and lets Cherry know that he’ll  never push her into having sex if she doesn’t want to.  Amen to that.  But the faeries are not so easy-going, and their seasons-must-change message sounds more like “You should be ashamed of your nervousness about sex.  You’re sixteen already, what are you waiting for, prude?”

Honestly, when I finished reading, I felt like finding Steiber’s contact information and writing an angry e-mail.  I slept on it instead.  I don’t want to come off sounding like some extremist who objects to a story because it has a “subversive” message.  It’s not the encouraging-teens-to-have-sex part that bugs me as much as the making-girls-feel-ashamed-if-they-haven’t-done-it-and-don’t-want-to-yet part.  To me, that’s worse than what I hear about Twilight (i.e. its portrayal of a girl whose boyfriend is her identity and who practically begs him for sex).

Then there’s the writer part of me who would feel guilty telling another writer that her artwork is “wrong.”  What if my interpretation of the story’s message is just that — my interpretation?  This is what Steiber herself says about the story, in her afterword:

As for the subject of the story, faeries have long been connected with the forbidden, which may be why so many of the old stories and ballads about them contain an element of seduction.  In addition to being tricksters and babynappers, faeries are sexy.  So when I saw that Cherry was stuck, afraid of her own sexuality and yet also feeling the power and the magic of it, I thought it would be interesting to see what the faeries might tell her.

When you put it that way, it doesn’t sound so bad.  I love Labyrinth, don’t I?, and the implied theme there is a girl’s introduction to a world of sexual power (all packaged in a tight pair of dance magic pants).  It’s just…couldn’t Cherry have gotten a less accusatory, less shame-on-you lesson about the facts of life?  A lesson that would sound more like “It’s a beautiful choice, and nothing to be afraid of if you do it with a caring person” and less like “You have to do it sooner or later, so quit whining and give in.”


Posted in book blogging, fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, LGBTQIA, short stories | 4 Comments

How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales

This was my final post at Insatiable Booksluts, a review of Kate Bernheimer’s How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, and Other Stories.  Expect future reviews of Bernheimer’s work; I’ve been savoring her twisted myths in xo Orpheus for several years now, along with several other fairy tale anthologies I’ve been meaning to discuss.
*  *  *  *  *

 How a Mother Weaned Her Girl From Fairy Tales, and Other Stories, by  Kate Bernheimer; Illus. Catherine Eyde

Published:  August 2014 by Coffee House Press, Minneapolis.

Recommended if you like:  offbeat, unusually structured stories; re-imagined fairy tales with a somewhat dark (but also whimsical) tone; the color pink.

First Lines:  “Girl from another planet, I’m yours. Your planet is small and difficult, but what planet isn’t?”

Rating:  4/5 sea urchins an old lady with pink hair gave your youngest daughter, for good luck.

ARC provided by Coffee House Press.

I can’t believe Kate Bernheimer wasn’t on my radar before now. She did a similar collection of tales in 2010, called Horse, Flower, Bird, and has edited the anthologies xo Orpheus and My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me (re: the former, Amazon says:

Icarus flies once more. Aztec jaguar gods again stalk the earth. An American soldier designs a new kind of Trojan horse—his cremains in a bullet. Here, in beguiling guise, are your favorite mythological figures alongside characters from Indian, Punjabi, Inuit, and other traditions.

Uh, yes! please!). Oh, and she also started and edits Fairy Tale Review.

Each story in this new collection is an odd blend of gloomy and whimsical. There’s the old dinosaur who wears giant panda-and-rainbow pajamas to bed – except when he’s not in the mood, like tonight, because he’s thinking about all of his dead friends and family.  There’s the librarian who literally lives in her library – in a secret room behind the circulation desk – waiting day after day for anyone to come inside (she’s even set out a flashing sign, hoping someone at least “might mistake it for a new bar”). There’s the boy hiding alone in the woods, inside a little chicken-footed cardboard house, too afraid to leave (there’s a child-stealing witch, you see), but wishing he at least had someone to talk to…

How does that Beatles song go?


Well, maybe not all the people are lonely. There are the Earth girl and the “Girl from another planet” in one of the prose-poem-like interludes that Bernheimer includes before certain stories.  And there are best friends S– and K–, in “Oh Jolly Playmate!”, whose childlike friendship made me smile.

The two girls had names for everything.  Out by the Fake Creek and the Good Stream they would clasp hands and sing children’s songs, though they were fourteen. *

S– and K– are obsessed with the color pink — actually, the whole book has a kind of pink theme. Pink toy horses, pink-streaked hair, pink wine, “rose-colored” cigars…

My favorite story was “The Girl With the Talking Shadow,” a twist on Peter Pan, about a girl with a love-hate relationship with her shadow.  It’s kind of a psychological fairy tale; there were times I wondered whether the shadow really was separate from Cathy herself, or whether she was part of Cathy’s imagination.  But then, why do other kids act so strangely around her, looking scared when she smiles at them, hating her the moment they meet her?

Other things I loved:  There were some really lovely passages, like this one from “Tale of Disappearance” —

…did I mention that it’s lonely in here?  Did I tell you this house is too heavy for words? **

Or this one, from “The Girl With the Talking Shadow” —

And her gray aspect slid toward me from the ceiling at night–a mirror of me made of shadows–even when my eyes were closed I could see her.  She had a vague edge, a definite darkness. †

I also liked finding connections between the stories, the way I did in Marshland, by Gareth Rees.  Besides the pink theme, there was a recurring rainbow set of fairy tale books (an Andrew Lang reference, perhaps?) and packets of pastel-colored cigarettes.

Things I’m more ambivalent about:  The overall bleak mood started to get to me after a while, as did the seemingly negative portrayal of LabyrinthSarah
fairy tales.  The characters who aren’t “weaned,” as the title story puts it, from their love of stories — characters who in some way resist growing up — spend their lives lonely, or end up chain-smokers, or develop mental issues.  Even as children they’re endangered by this love, like the sisters in “Babes in the Woods,” who are more easily lured into the forest through promises of adventure:

“We’re out here looking for fairy-tale monsters,” the mother said to the girls as they walked on the pine needles… ‡

But if Bernheimer means to associate fairy tales with childhood — and portray both as dangerous if you cling to them — why would the protagonist in one of the stories find the rainbow books in her library’s Adult section?  Why would Bernheimer say, in an interview, that she thinks of her story collections (she was referring specifically to Horse, Flower, Bird) “as children’s books for adults”?  She herself loves fairy tales, and the idea of getting so wrapped up in a book that you seem to live in its world —

Reading is bliss; it is disappearing, losing attachment to ego and self, to their afflictions.

Maybe I’m misinterpreting, and it’s not the fairy tales that lead her characters into trouble.  Maybe the stories are what keep them from completely falling apart, by offering a temporary escape from reality.

Another thing that bothered me at first was the structure. The text is broken up so it fills no more than 1/3 of most pages — sometimes as little as a sentence.  At first this was distracting, and I couldn’t help cringing at all the white space that to me seemed like wasted paper.

On the other hand, that staccato format does help emphasize/add tension to certain moments, and it gives each story a greater sense of  immediacy.  And here’s how Bernheimer explains her similar formatting choices in Horse, Flower, Bird:

I designed these stories to let the air into them, to make the whole experience less claustrophobic. As a writer a lot of your time is spent alone in a room (ceiling, walls, door). The white space in these stories is the airy world, coming in there.

That’s…a really neat concept, actually.  Of course, the part of me that’s still uncomfortable with the idea of so much paper being not-fully-used appreciates that Horse, Flower, Bird is available in e-book as well as print form, both at CoffeeHousePress.org and on Amazon.  Hopefully, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl will follow suit.


*  Pg. 56

** Pg. 33

† Pg. 125

‡ Pg. 100

Posted in folklore/fairy tales | 4 Comments

Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London

Here’s another post from my time at Insatiable Booksluts.  In this one, I reviewed Marshland, a collection of trippy, meta, even mythic stories and essays about the East London wilderness, a haunting world of demons and zombies and bear men and time travelers.
*  *  *  *  *


Marshland-cover-188x300Book:  Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London

Author:  Gareth E. Rees; Illustrated by Ada Jusic

Published:  2013 by Influx Press, London.

First Lines:  “My first daughter, Isis, was born in Homerton Hospital in November 2008.  My parents looked after our cocker spaniel, Hendrix, while we adjusted to our new life.”

Rating:  4/5 time-traveling riverboats that consider themselves an independent micro-nation.

Recommended if you like:  the surreal, the meta, the haunting, and the occasionally grotesque.  Exploring the unusual, less tourist-trod areas of a city.

A Kindle version of this book was provided by Influx Press.

When I read the description of Marshland on inpress.com – “a blend of local history, folklore and weird fiction, where nothing is quite as it seems” – I was like


One download later, I stepped into a world of night-wandering bear-men, haunted Matchbox car factories, time-traveling riverboats, and midnight zombie reunions.

Marshland is an ode to the East London wilderness.  The area encompassing Hackney, Leyton, and Walthamstow marshes provides a surreal and dreamlike setting where time, as Rees puts it,* is “in a perpetual remix.”  It flows forward, pulls back, curls in on itself…  Decades are superimposed on each other like waves stretching across the sand.

This is not a safe world, nor always picturesque.  Here be demons and crocodiles, buried bombs and corpses, a gritty twist on a Brothers Grimm tale, and did I mention those zombie reunions?  “How little [do] Londoners realise that, while they were tucked up in bed, battles between phantom beasts raged beneath the pylons and poplars.” **

But beware, most of all, the Old River Lea, who remembers a time before humanity — beware the day she’s strong enough to take back what she’s lost.

I love the constant dance between reality and fantasy in these stories.  The book as a whole is a mix of genres – part memoir, part literary fiction, part meta-fiction, part magical realism…  You have essays about the rise of Olympic Park and the fall of a late 19th-century sex cult, next to stories of hapless Victorians (literally) falling through time and guilty lovers trying to hide from their (literal) demons, complemented by Ada Jusic’s black-and-white illustrations that shift from simple to surreal, from eerie to macabre.  Like time inside the marshland, the book moves in multiple directions, resisting any single label.

I also liked how the stories would link to one another, in more ways than just via shared setting.  You’ll see a character or event from one story mentioned again several stories later.  A side character whose name you don’t even remember is suddenly the lead.  It’s another way the book defies genre, being neither a conventional novel, nor just a collection of unconnected stories.

A few things that lowered my rating:

  • The occasional proofreading errors — misused or missing words, two words smushed together, etc.  And there’s an error in the map of the Leyton/Walthamstow area, in the front pages – according to Google Maps, Leyton Marsh is actually southeast of Walthamstow Marsh, not southwest.  Maybe it sounds trivial, but it’s kind of sloppy, and as I said, it’s not the only mistake the red pen missed.
  • This one’s specifically about the Kindle version.  The text in the comic-form story, “The Raving Dead,” was too small for me, and unfortunately, there’s no zoom function in a Kindle book.  You can increase font size, but of course that doesn’t apply to text that’s part of an illustration. I ended up being able to just-barely read it on my laptop with the Kindle PC app.
  • The following comment from “A Walk By the River.”  Context = the narrator is describing some of the unusual things he’s seen in the woods by the Old River Lea, things he sometimes wonders if he’s imagining.  At this moment, he’s just walked past a group of African men and women performing a ceremony.

They waited silently for me to pass, smiling.  I smiled back but couldn’t think of anything to say.  I wasn’t even sure they were there.  They were figures from the dreams of another.  I had become a bit part in the dengue-fevered fantasy of a sick city. [emphasis mine]

To me, it sounds like he’s referring to this group of people — or his vision of them — as a symptom of disease.  Dengue fever is a mosquito-borne illness usually found in tropical regions, including some parts of Africa (though it’s apparently been spreading elsewhere more recently).  It usually breaks out in dense urban areas.  One of Marshland’s themes is the constant threat of urban London spreading into the wilderness… so, is the narrator suggesting that those people he saw (or imagined) in the woods — people he speaks of as other, as foreign — are part of the problem?  It’s odd, since the book expresses a different attitude three stories later, when a character seems comforted by the sight of a football game “‘played between men of all races and creeds,’” believing it represents the freedom of humanity (well, “man”) in general. 

Overall, though… 

Marshland is an excellent read, especially if you’re into meta-fiction and magical realism (if you liked Kei Miller’s The Last Warner Woman, for instance), and don’t mind the occasional swear word or a few graphic sex scenes.

I also recommend Rees’ blog, The Marshman Chronicles.†  The “Marsh Radio” section is especially fun – it’s a collection of super-short stories (and a slightly longer one about that time aliens tried to transform the marshes into “a giant spacecraft landing site”) matched with playlists featuring hallucinatory streams of disco, dub, techno, electronica, remixed chants, and “Hauntology”…whatever that is.  Anyone want to tell me what that is?  Sj?  Yeah, I know I could just Wikipedia it… oh.  Except, apparently, they deleted that entry?  Because they couldn’t decide if it’s actually a thing?  But there’s an archived copy of their debate (scroll to the bottom) re: whether or not to delete said entry?  Huh.  Um…

Dance Party Ending, GO!



*  In this quote from “Death of a Fish,” Rees is referring specifically to the Middlesex filter beds, but the comment also applies to the way he sees the marshland as a whole.

**  from “Death of a Fish,” Kindle Locations 685-686.

†  The Marshman Chronicles blog has since been taken down 😦  But ten points to Ravenclaw if you see what he did with that title†† 🙂

††  It’s totally an allusion to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, right?

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, magical realism, meta, short stories, spooky | 3 Comments

Scary ghost stories and tales of the glories: New Year’s tales and traditions

Back in 2013-2014, I was a contributor to the Insatiable Booksluts blog, which specialized in small-press literature reviews, Reading Rages™, and other fun and snark-tastic book-related business (I never did master Susie’s particularly awesome brand of snark myself).  It’s one of the most fun projects I’ve taken part in, and I’m really going to miss working with Susie, sj, and the rest of the IB team.

Unfortunately, the site has since been retired, but I’ve decided, with Susie’s permission, to resurrect some of my posts here at Postcards (the Juv/YA-appropriate ones, anyway…the more adult ones I’ll post to my LiveJournal blog to my new adult book blog, Same Story, Different Versions) starting with a look at some New Year’s folk tales and cultural traditions from around the world.

*  *  *  *  *

The Fire New Year” – A poor man and woman are celebrating the New Year, making do with what very little they have, when a weary traveler knocks on their door.  He needs a place to stay for the night, and none of the other houses would accept him.  The couple agrees, and their kindness is immediately rewarded – the traveler is really the god Miruku, who’d been searching for a place to bestow his luck.

To the people of Okinawa’s Yaeyama islands, Miruku (“Miroku” in other parts of Japan) is a harvest god and bringer of good fortune.  “Miruku parades” wind through village streets during harvest festivals, led by someone dressed as the god.  And some believe that on New Year’s Eve, Miruku – in this case known as Hotei – sails with six other “Lucky Gods” to various towns “to dispense happiness to believers.”

Miroku is also a very important figure in Buddhism – he is a version of Maitreya, the Future Buddha who will save humanity from its most corrupt state.  It makes sense, then, that “The Fire New Year” also speaks of the old couple’s faith in the future – when asked whether they’d prefer wealth or youth, they choose youth, reasoning that money can corrupt one’s mind, while youth would help them work toward a better life.  In other words, they don’t ask for instant (monetary) gratification, because they trust that their future will be happy enough.

*  *  *  *  *

Konig Ambanor und das Waisenmadchen,” or “King Ambanor and the Orphan Girl” – an


Wikimedia Commons
Oh, and the “fairy godmother” is an owl. Guess why I think that’s particularly neat. *cough*hint*cough*Bowie*cough*

Armenian Cinderella tale, as translated from a late 19th-century German text.  King Ambanor must find a wife if he wants to keep his throne, so he sets up a contest for New Year’s Day.  The woman “who, at a distance of one hundred paces, can knock the crown off his head with an apple,” would be his wife.  Many women try and fail at the contest, when a mysterious girl appears, veiled and covered completely with flowers.  She throws a diamond apple and successfully hits the crown, but disappears before the king can discover her identity.

According to Marian Roalfe Cox, the Cinderella in this story may symbolize the Armenian spring goddess Amanora.  Long ago, the Armenian people honored Amanora with a New Year’s festival, during which they offered her the fruits they’d grown that year.  Other sources refer to a god Amanor, or to Aramazd.

There are actually three dates associated with the Armenian New Year:

  • Amanor, March 21st, was a celebration of nature’s rebirth at the beginning of spring.  This remained the New Year’s date until the 25th century BC.
  • Navasard, August 11th, commemorates the day when the legendary hero Hayk Nahapet founded/united the Armenian nation.  Navasard was also the name for the entire first month in the Armenian calendar; it is said that Hayk Nahapet himself named that month after one of his daughters.
  • January 1st was declared the official New Year’s date by Simeon Yerevantsi, the 18th-century leader of the Armenian Church.

*  *  *  *  *

Match-Girl1The Little Match-Girl – Hans Christian Andersen.  A poor girl is sent by her cruel father to sell matches on New Year’s Eve.  She lights a few to warm herself, and with each match she has a wonderful vision.  Like a number of Andersen’s other tales, this one does not end happily…or does it?  You could say Andersen gives us two endings – one comforting and one bleak, one magical and one harshly realistic.

Or you could say that the Match Girl has the happy ending, finally entering an eternally warm and loving place, while the people who passed her by get the bleak ending.  Stuck in a cold, compassionless world, they can’t even imagine a better existence – “No one had the slightest suspicion of what beautiful things she had seen; no one even dreamed of the splendor in which, with her grandmother she had entered on the joys of a new year.”

And that’s another interesting point – each “ending” is also a beginning.  One year ends and another begins.  The Match Girl’s old, miserable life ends and a wonderful new life begins.  There may even be hope for the passersby; the story ends with someone finally noticing (or really paying attention to) the disheveled kid who maybe tried to sell them some matches yesterday.  They’re too late to help her, of course, but maybe they’ll pay more attention to other children with too-thin clothes and bruised, bare feet.  And the more fortunate children who read or hear Andersen’s stories might grow into more concerned, compassionate adults.

*  *  *  *  *

Gershon’s Monster – a very old Hassidic legend retold by Eric A. Kimmel.  Gershon


Random note: the illustrations in here are wonderfully expressive

never apologizes for his mistakes. Instead, he sweeps them into the basement until Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year), when he gathers them all in a giant sack and dumps them into the sea.  A wise rabbi warns Gershon that this practice will one day harm his family, but Gershon continues to be rude, ungrateful, and dishonest.  And then the day comes when all of his inner demons rise from the sea as one giant monster, while his unsuspecting children play on the beach…

In addition to Hassidic folklore, Kimmel’s story is based on a Jewish ceremony in which people symbolically shed their sins into the sea or another body of water – but unlike Gershon’s practice, this ceremony (tashlikh) involves actual regret for those sins and desire for forgiveness.

The way I see it, the timeline surrounding the story’s climax represents the timeline of Rosh Hashanah itself.  In the Jewish calendar, New Year’s Day is followed by the Ten Days of Repentance, and then Yom Kippur – the Day of Judgment.  In the story, Gershon performs his un-genuine tashlikh on New Year’s Day.  Some time passes, during which he might avert the coming danger, if only he’d remember the rabbi’s warning and actually repent for his mistakes.  Finally, the Day of Judgment comes, when all of Gershon’s sins are presented before him (and God), and his fate is decided.

*  *  *  *  *


There’s also an iPad app version of the story

The Tale of Nián – a Chinese New Year’s legend.  Once a year, the monster Nián comes out of its mountain prison to eat, and the nearby villagers are forced to hide in their houses or run away.  But one year an old beggar discovers a way to keep Nián out.  The monster is attracted by some red paper on the door of one house, but just as he tries to charge at it, he’s hit by lightning.  So the old man wraps himself in red cloth and uses firecrackers to simulate more lightning, which terrifies Nián right out of the village.

In another version, the old man is a god who first keeps the monster out by riding it away from the village.  Eventually the old man wants to move on, so he gives the villagers advice on how best to scare Nián – by making loud music, throwing fireworks, decorating everything in red, and having the children wear masks and carry lanterns (Nián especially likes eating children).

The word Nián means “year” in Chinese, and “New Year” is “Guò Nián,” which means to “pass over” or “overcome” the year.  So, in a sense, the story of the monster is about chasing away the old year so you can start a new one.  Maybe the demons repelled by the New Year’s celebrations are like Gershon’s demons – all the negative experiences we need to overcome before we can start a fresh year.

*  *  *  *  *

What other New Year’s stories have you heard or read?  What are your New Year’s Eve traditions?


Posted in folklore/fairy tales, picture books | 2 Comments

2017 year-end review

It’s been really good to be able to escape into fairy-tale worlds this year, where evil-doers and cranky fairies are no match for the power of love, and alternate Americas where superheroes can actually stop maniacs from taking over the government, and actual sea witches sing Little Mermaid tunes in San Francisco karaoke bars.  Who wouldn’t want to be part of that world?

Anyway, Christmas is a time to focus on the good things that happened in the past year, and for me, that’s been the funny, exciting, hope-inducing, and even spine-tingling books and short stories I’ve gotten to read.

Let’s take a look back at the best of Postcards 2017.  As always, click on each cover to see the full post.

Our Own Private Universe  King Baby  No Normal  My Lady Jane  princessbride  Dreadnought  Young Avengers  Hildafolk  Sovereign  henry-harbor-seal  Time Windows  Brightest Fell

More Favorites  

Back in March and April, I reviewed a number of versions of Little Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, and Beauty and the Beast — both original fairy tale versions and twisted versions by authors such as Margaret Atwood, Jim C. Hines, Tanith Lee, and Angela Carter.  My favorite source of the latter was Angela Carter’s collection of adult, feminist fairy tales, The Bloody Chamber.


Carter’s heroines are willful and disobedient, devious and dangerous, unconventional and untamable.  They face down controlling husbands, werewolf lovers, and their own humanity to make their own way in the world.  And Carter doesn’t shy away from the adult aspects of the tales, enhancing the risqué, sexual elements implied by the original tales.

Some of my favorites were “The Bloody Chamber,” a Bluebeard tale in which the young bride is saved not by her brothers, but by a fellow woman; “The Tiger’s Bride,” a Beauty and the Beast tale in which it is not the Beast, but the Beauty who transforms in the end; and “The Lady of the House of Love,” a tale infused with several Grimm motifs and a heaping helping of Bram Stoker, a tale of a sleeping beauty in a rose-choked castle in the Carpathian mountains, a daughter of Nosferatu who sleeps by day and feeds on unwary travelers by night.

Inspired to search out more of Carter’s work, I also discovered her collection of original fairy tales from around the world.

Angela Carter's Book of Fairy Tales

As in The Bloody Chamber, Carter focuses on stories about women and all their bold, adventurous, industrious, clever, and even wicked ways.  These are princesses who can work as hard as their subjects, little girls who are wiser than tsars, unimpressed wives who cure boastful husbands, good girls and bad girls and witches and wild women.  And these, too, are bawdy, graphic tales that don’t shy away from body parts and sex, as well as swear words and fart jokes and other “low” humor.

Some of my favorites were “The Three Measures of Salt,” a Greek tale about a young woman who challenges her husband that she can “rub three measures of salt on his face and he be none the wiser”; “The Market of the Dead,” a West African tale about a dead mother who gets revenge on the wicked stepmother watching over her two children; “The Rich Farmer’s Wife,” a Norwegian tale about a girl who tricks an arrogant, powerful man who demands her hand in marriage; and “The Two Women Who Found Freedom,” an Inuit tale about two co-wives who escape their abusive husband by hiding inside a dead whale.

More Favorite Short Stories & Novellas

Jim C. Hines’ “The Red Path” and Tanith Lee’s “Wolfland,” two Little Red Riding Hood stories in which Grandmother herself is the wolf, using her gift to rebel against abusive men, and passing along her power to Little Red so she, too, can protect herself against harmful humanity.

Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve’s “The Story of Beauty and the Beast,” the original “Beauty and the Beast” tale (after “Cupid and Psyche,” of course) in which we are treated to several backstories of the Beast, as well as the fairies who cursed and helped him.  My favorite part was the story of the Happy Isle and the fairy who rebelled against her society by falling in love with a human.

M. T. Anderson’s “The Gray Boy’s Work,” one of my favorite stories in The Restless Dead, a collection of ghastly tales of the dearly departed not resting in peace.  Anderson’s story contains the most unique supernatural characters, creepy angels and singing omens who visit a family whose father left to fight in the Revolutionary War.

Seanan McGuire’s “Of Things Unknown,” a novella included at the end of The Brightest Fell, starring the cyber-dryad April O’Leary, leader of the County of Tamed Lightning after her mother and several others were killed in A Local Habitation.  April blames herself for the disaster, but there’s nothing she can do except be the best Countess she can be.  Some mistakes cannot be undone.  Some sins cannot be fully atoned for.  Or so it would seem…  Because it’s been three years, and things have changed, and the impossible has been accomplished in other places when October Daye was involved, so why not at Tamed Lightning?  It’s a touching, world-altering story that is going to have serious repercussions in future books.

. . . . .

What about you, fellow readers?  What have been some of your favorite reads of 2017?  What are you looking forward to reading in 2018?

I hope your Christmas and New Year’s are filled with warmth, friends, family, fun presents, good food, and whatever weather you like best this time of year!  I’ll leave you with this wizarding Christmas classic to fill you with Potterly joy this season.

Posted in comics, fantasy, favorites, folklore/fairy tales, year-end review | 6 Comments

Happy October-versary to me!

October costume
Of course Toby’d wear a bloody Tolkien t-shirt under that leather jacket.

Five Octobers ago, sj introduced me to a wonderful selkie novella called In Sea-Salt Tears, and thus pulled me into Seanan McGuire’s amazing Faerie-verse. Like a totally normal reader, I immediately started my October Daye adventure with Book 5 (because that’s where all the mermaids are, duh), and promptly got confused (but pleasantly so) by all the references to knowes and changelings and such, but also absolutely delighted with all the everyday details of McGuire’s world-building – the scent of each person’s magic; the way they swear using phrases like “Oak and ash” and “Root and branch” and “Oberon’s balls”; the way they blend 21st-century mortal life with the older/more timeless Faerie forms; the way the faery characters are both unearthly and totally human in their feelings and actions; the way Faerie completely accepts LGBT characters as just a natural part of society…

I love the way this world is structured, from its roots to its youngest branches, from the Big Three to the Firstborn to all the faerie races, from the purebloods to the mixed-bloods to the changelings, from the deeper realms to the Summerlands to the mortal-side San Francisco apartments. I love the urban fantasy adventures we get to go on that blend mundane mystery/adventure plots with supernatural settings and details – murder mysteries involving magical weapons, missing children trapped in half-mortal shallowings, drug rings selling goblin fruit…

These books aren’t perfect. The series, like October herself, goes through a learning curve, working out the plot holes and the characters (*cough* Toby *cough*) making stupid decisions and Maeve’s teeth the repetition and Captain Obvious comments (see my October Daye drinking game for some more fun Toby tropes). Even the newest books have a few kinks in the story thread, a few places where I went from




But the memorable characters and incredible world-building make up for the pitfalls, and keep me wanting to know, What happens next? Will the Luidaeg end her contract with the selkies? Will Simon Torquill be saved? Will Luna and Rayseline ever forgive Toby for waking him up?  What the freaking oak and ash is going to happen with the county of Tamed Lightning after April and Toby’s totally world-altering actions in Of Things Unknown?

So far, we’ve seen Toby avert two wars, solve a bunch of murders, find dozens of missing children, thwart a plot to turn Faerie completely digital, battle the ancient and nasty inspiration for the Snow White story, perform a few resurrections, consistently turn the male-hero-rescuing-female-damsel trope upside down, and now… and now. And now, she’s finally getting to the heart of Faerie’s biggest issues. Now she’s getting closer to figuring out why the Big Three left in the first place and locked up the deeper realms. I have a feeling we’ll be meeting Oberon, Titania, and Maeve in person by the series’ end. I’m calling it. I’m ready to place bets. I’m with this series for the long haul.

P.S.  On a totally random note, this is my mental movie cast:

Toby/May Daye

Benedict Cumberbatch
Tybalt, the local King of Cats

Ziva Temptation
The Luidaeg, singing “Poor, Unfortunate Souls” at Toby’s bachelorette party.  Best moment in the whole series.

April O’Leary, the cyber Dryad

Posted in fantasy, folklore/fairy tales, Halloween, LGBTQIA, mermaids, selkies | 2 Comments

Ghastly stories for the biggest scare-seekers

Do you keep a night light on on Halloween, just in case?  Do thoughts of the undead keep you unrested?  Or are you all about the vampire bats and the plague-haunted castles and the vengeful murder victims come back to punish the criminals?  If you’re a Halloween thrill-seeker, these next three books may be for you.

The first is a recent work of nonfiction aimed at middle-grade+ readers, while the second and third are collections of literary comics and short stories more appropriate for readers with a higher tolerance for horror.

Anna Claybourne.  Don’t Read This Book Before Bed.  Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2017.

Don't Read this Book

Scare Level:  5 out of 10 Gruesome Guinea Worms

This recent book from National Geographic Kids is an encyclopedia of the world’s spookiest subjects, from the terrifyingly true to the positively paranormal, from zombie ants to presidential poltergeists, with several creepy quizzes in between (“How Woooooooo Are You?” was one of my favorites).  The neatest thing about this book is that each subject is accompanied by a Fright-O-Meter rating that warns readers just how scary that subject is.  Those with a low tolerance for terror might want to stick to the sections on space jelly and déjà vu, while those who don’t mind more mind-bending subjects can check out the sections on scary skin-dwellers and the Tower of London.

Though, some of the Fright-O-Meter ratings had me scratching my head; frog rain gets a whopping 10 on the meter, while parasites that eat your tongue and then live on in its place only gets a 2 (well, ok, so they really only affect fish, BUT STILL!!!).  And they actually have a section on butterfly migration.  Butterflies.  Granted, that one gets an understandable 1 on the meter, but really?  Butterflies?

Manny butterflies

To each their own phobias, I guess.  (Turns out, there is such a thing as lepidopterophobia, or the fear of butterflies.  Who knew?)

. . . . .

Gareth Hinds.  Poe: Stories and Poems.  Somerville, MA: Candlewick Press, 2017.

Poe cover

Scare Level:  6.75 out of 10 writhing, ravenous rats

For this collection, Hinds has chosen some of Edgar Allan Poe’s most famous stories and poems to illustrate, from “The Tell-Tale Heart” to “The Cask of Amontillado” to “Annabel Lee.”  What I thought was especially neat was how, before each of the stories, he includes a “Poe Checklist” of the biggest themes in Poe’s work — from angels and demons to creepy animals to guilty consciences (or lack thereof).

I have to say, the art itself took a second reading to grow on me.  At first, I was a little underwhelmed by characters and scenes that looked a bit too cheerful and bright.  This is purely a matter of personal taste, of course, (and maybe a touch of snobbery) but with my reading of the mood of Poe’s stories, I was expecting something more sinister throughout, something that really captures the horror at the center of the story, even in the initial, more benign scenes that build up to the main horrifying scene or event.

For example, the walk through the catacombs in “The Cask of Amontillado” seemed too quick and too well-lit to really give you a sense of growing dread as you go deeper and deeper underground.  And in “The Masque of the Red Death,” the ball certainly looks delightful, but you don’t really get a sense of how desperately outrageous and over-the-top and dream-like it is, in contrast to the ironically simple, yet too-offensive appearance of the final visitor.  It feels like those scenes are rushed-through on the way to the main event, and so you lose the sense of dread that really builds up the scary event.

Where the art does get creepier, though, it’s pretty darn creepy.

Red Death

I will say, “The Pit and the Pendulum” was the one story that benefited from being condensed, skipping Poe’s long description of the trial before you get to the torture chamber, which I think already has enough build-up to the horrifying pit and pendulum.  And I really liked the way Hinds depicted the narrator’s exploration of the chamber in a series of wordless chalk-like images against a simple black background.

I also really liked the illustration of the raven in the eponymous poem, with its feathers that transform into skeletal hands and skulls.  That was really cool.


Overall, it’s a good introduction to Poe’s most famous stories and poems.  You get the gist of each story, and you can’t go wrong with images of swarming rats and dismemberment when you want to seriously creep out your readers; I definitely recommend going back and reading the original works, though, to get the full measure of dread and horror.

. . . . .

Deborah Noyes, ed.  The Restless Dead.  Cambridge, MA: Candlewick Press, 2007.


Scare Level:  8.75 out of 10 realizations that you dug up the wrong grave

II’m giving this one such a high Scare Level purely because of “Bad Things” and “Honey in the Wound,” the most gruesome stories in the collection.  You’ve got your devil worshippers, your corpse mutilation, your amputations gone wrong, your homophobic teenage guys who use the idea of being gay as an insult…what more do you need for a truly terrifying Halloween read?

These are stories of the dead not resting in peace, the dearly departed souls who want revenge, or company, or just to play some pranks or keep partying in the living world some more.

A few notable titles besides “Honey” and “Bad Things” include:

“The Wrong Grave,” by Kelly Link — my favorite part was the matter-of-fact, somewhat sarcastic first-person p.o.v. that never reveals who exactly he or she is, other than someone who knows the protagonist from school (I do have a theory), but somehow knows all the innermost thoughts and feelings of Miles Sperry, a doofus who goes grave-digging one night for his recently departed girlfriend (more specifically, for the poems he mistakenly buried with his girlfriend), only to discover he’s dug up some other girl’s grave instead, and now she wants to ditch her dirty digs and follow him around instead.

wah wah

“The Heart of Another,” by Marcus Sedgwick — This is a Poe-inspired story about a graduate student who recently had heart surgery, and who now finds she has some new abilities and personality traits, along with some really unsettling re-occurring dreams.  Unable to simply enjoy her second shot at life, the narrator becomes obsessed with finding out whose heart she was given.  Except the answer reveals something terrible she might have been better off not knowing.  This was definitely one of the spookier stories in the collection, with a twist as good as the one in “The Wrong Grave.”

“The Gray Boy’s Work,” by M. T. Anderson — This was my favorite story, next to “The Wrong Grave,” because it has the most unique paranormal characters.  Ezra and his family live in a valley visited by singing omens and angelic chariots that give news from the Revolutionary War.  When Ezra’s father leaves to serve, the family is personally visited by a pair of angels, Victory and Despair, one blindfolded and one fanged, who just sort of hang around, being mysterious and a little creepy.  And then, when the father returns, the angels bring forth another spirit, the Grey Boy, to haunt the family for the father’s sins…or maybe it’s not so simple as that.

. . . . .

What about you?  Are you a Halloween thrill-seeker, or do you prefer to let sleeping corpses lie?  What are some of your favorite literary chillers?

Posted in comics, Halloween, nonfiction, poetry, short stories, spooky | 7 Comments