Recently I’ve been enjoying lots of new series, such as Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike series, the Death Note manga and lots and lots of Agatha Christie novels. Before I dive much further into all these new interests, I thought this would be a good time to look back over my bookshelves and discuss a few old favourites! So here are two short stories that I would highly recommend!
Boy in Darkness by Mervyn Peake
Of course this macabre tale had to feature on this list – it’s so wonderfully strange and surreal! While the hero of this story is clearly Titus Groan of the Gormenghast series, it can be read in isolation from the series and still make perfect sense. It would be an excellent introduction for anyone new to Peake. I have talked about this story in detail before so suffice to say, it’s an atmospheric, nightmarish tale, which breaks down the boundaries between humans and animals. This is a story best read on a dark night, so close the curtains, dim the lights, and let yourself be absorbed into Peake’s disturbing fantasy.
2. Please Excuse My Husband, He’s a Vegetarian by Michele Roberts
As a vegetarian, it might be surprising that I’m fond of this story, but I challenge anyone to resist this appealing dark comedy. It tells the story of a British husband and wife trying to settle into life in France; the wife manages to adjust with ease, but the husband’s vegetarian habits are rather baffling to this new society. The wife’s growing frustration is aimed not at their new French neighbours, but instead it’s her unfortunate, oblivious husband that has to face her wrath. I won’t spoil the ending, but even though I recognised some of my own awkward restaurant encounters in this story, it’s an entertaining reminder that not everyone is happy to be accommodating!
Joanne Harris’ The Ugly Sister is a short story from Jig & Reels, a collection of stories which combine the magical and the everyday in myriad unsettling ways, whether it’s the school reunion of a class of witches, or a role-playing game which descends into a killing spree.
The Ugly Sister presents the Cinderella story from the perspective of one of the step-sisters. To complicate matters somewhat, the ugly step-sister in question is currently playing the character in a pantomime, yet she is not merely an actress; the reader is required to follow the fantastical logic of the story’s world and accept that our narrator truly is the ugly step-sister. In this way, the story plays with the conventions of both realist and fantasy writing; it grants too much attention to the mundane to fully transcend into a fantasy realm, yet to view the narrator as delusional actress is far too reductive a reading.
The narrator has existed ever since the story of Cinderella came into being, and has evolved alongside it throughout its various reincarnations. Joanne Harris astutely notes the ways in which fairy tales evolve to match the mood of the time, from the cruelty of the Grimm Brothers’ vision (‘the old days were savage, with crows to peck out our eyes’) to the triviality of the pantomime villain. Modern cinema, too, fashioned another angle on the story:
Nowadays, of course, we have trial by Disney, which is almost as bad: evil becomes ridiculous faced with so many pratfalls and flour bombs. There’s no dignity left in being a villain.
Granting a voice to an otherwise marginalised character enables the reader to appreciate a very familiar tale in an entirely new light. Cinderella is presented as irritatingly perfect (‘Mistress Smuggerella was toned, sleek, a perfect size eight’) while the sisters are ordinary, not the hideous caricatures they have become in the popular mindset. It is easier to perceive them as villains, and, by extension, the blonde, petite Cinderella as the downtrodden, oppressed heroine, by rendering them monstrously ugly.
The narrator uses her own treatment at the hands of her biographers to raise a slightly unsettling point about history: that it ‘favours the lookers’. Throughout human history, an association has been made between beauty and virtue; to be ugly is to have your sins written across your face. The theory of Physiognomy, for example, may appear out-dated and pseudo-scientific to us, yet have we truly moved on from believing we can read people’s characters in their faces? Although the story of Cinderella has been rewritten countless times throughout the ages, our attitudes towards ugliness seem to have remained static. In The Ugly Sister, Joanne Harris draws upon the reader’s knowledge of a conventional fairy-tale to probe our understandings of the connections between internal virtue and exterior appearance.