An anthology based on the curses of folklore and fairy tale was always going to be my cup of tea…
Book: Cursed edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane
Read before: No.
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Titan Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: A lot of death, blood and body horror, throughout. Vivid descriptions of self-harm in ‘Little Red’. Implied sexual assault/stalking in ‘Look Inside’. Baby death in ‘Wendy, Darling’. Strong authorial misogyny in ‘Skin’ and ‘Look Inside’.
This collection of short stories really ended up surprising me, as the stories I was looking forward to weren’t necessarily the stories I ended up enjoying the most. I was pretty meh by the names pulled out for the cover; I don’t tend to like MR Carey’s writing, and I find Neil Gaiman’s overt zaniness much less palatable than I did in my teens. I was really looking forward to Jane Yolen’s and Margo Lanagan’s stories, and the rest of the authors I was going into without any experience of their other work. I found that strangely, the anthology ended up being heavily weighted to have the most impressive stories (to me) at the beginning, and I struggled to connect to the latter half.
Let’s start with the standouts! I adored the first story in the collection, Christina Henry’s ‘As Red As Blood, As White As Snow’, which mashes up Snow White and Bluebeard in a wonderfully creepy, fairy tale feeling way. I also unexpectedly really liked Neil Gaiman’s ‘Troll Bridge’, and ‘At That Age’ by Catriona Ward, both of which slide ancient folklore into modern life in a deliciously atmospheric way. ‘Listen’ by Jen Williams starts as though it will be the story of the Pied Piper, but instead does something really inventive and clever with the idea of a curse that lasts longer than the giver intends. ‘Henry and the Snakewood Box’ really surprised me – as I say, I’m not a fan of MR Carey generally, but I thought the voice of this story was really good fun, and it offered an interesting take on morality. ‘Again’ by Tim Lebbon was a really sweet and thoughtful story about whether immortality is a blessing or a curse.
There were, as I’ve mentioned, some that didn’t work for me. ‘The Black Fairy’s Curse’ by Karen Joy Fowler is a Sleeping Beauty riff that leans on one of the worst writing clichés for me, and though it was lyrical, it didn’t really have enough body to it. ‘Faith and Fred’ by Maura McHugh just bored me, as did ‘Haza and Ghani’ by Lilith Saintcrow (a take on Hansel and Gretel that for me, struggled to get its plot across). ‘Fairy Werewolf vs Vampire Zombie’ by Charlie Jane Anders was so aggressively quirky I felt like Zooey Deschanel was shoving emoji cupcakes at me the entire time I was reading it. I wanted to, but didn’t love Margo Lanagan’s story, ‘The Girl from the Hell’, largely because I genuinely didn’t know what was going on, and Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple’s ‘Little Red’ suffered both from the fact that I don’t like Little Red Riding Hood as a story, and it contained graphic depictions of self harm.
There are also some real problems with a couple of the stories from a female reader’s perspective. ‘Skin’ by James Brogden was wonderfully atmospheric, but weirdly and overwhelmingly misogynistic – the curse is given by a woman for a good reason, but she ends up having to take on the emotional labour for the pain she’s caused the man she cursed, and though the writing was good, I can’t get over the sexism. It echoes every abusive relationship I’ve ever heard about, in that the man, who has become terrifying, tells the woman ‘you’re the reason I’m a monster’ and SHE AGREES. And the narrative voice AGREES that she is the monster here. And then she forgives him and appeases him sexually. It’s a disgusting sentiment and one I cannot believe no one involved in this anthology thought to question. I also found ‘Look Inside’ by Michael Marshall Smith to be unfortunately sexist – given that it’s about a woman whose home is invaded by something supernatural, and she’s upfront in the first few lines about the fact that it has impregnated her, she seemed remarkably unconcerned. The tone felt totally wrong, and it felt deeply weird as a storyline for a male author to narrate from a female voice. I enjoyed the concept of both ‘Skin’ and ‘Look Inside’, but this casual sexism/male-author-obliviousness ruined both stories for me.
So of the 18 stories (not counting the opening and closing poems) in this collection, I thought five were fantastic, six were just not for me personally, two were very problematic, and the remaining five were enjoyable but perhaps not the kind of thing that will stick with me. But there’s a really interesting mix of fairy tale, horror, and urban fantasy, and with the exception of ‘Skin’ and ‘Look Inside’, I think it’s a really well put together collection! I’ve been dithering for about ten minutes as to how many cats it gets, because my instinct is somewhere between 3.5 (which feels a bit harsh for an anthology that I, on the whole, enjoyed) and 4 (which feels too high given the strength of the issues I had) – but I don’t want to get into .75 ratings, so let’s go for a qualified 4 cats out of five (but skip ‘Skin’)!