“The Squaw” by Bram Stoker

Holy underthings, Batman, this story scared the beejesus out of me! For serious, you guys. This story is quite possibly the scariest story I’ve ever read. Not just for R.I.P. Not just in terms of short-stories. The SCARIEST. STORY. EVER. I mean, yeah, Poe was all sinister and creepy and kinda scary. Sure. But “The Squaw”? No comparison. I’ve got to give this one to Stoker, evermore (get it? a play on ‘nevermore’? Man, I’m freaking Poe-larious. :P)

“The Squaw” begins blandly enough. Amelia and her husband – our unnamed narrator – are a couple of tourists (it’s not made clear whether they are American or British, if it matters) who are joined by a man from Nebraska named Elias P. Hutcheson on their trip to visit Nurnburg to see, of course, various medieval torture devices. Amelia and her husband are on their honeymoon, and Elias is passing through on his way to visit a friend in a village up the road. As they are touring Nurnburg, walking along an outer wall on their way to the torture chamber, Elias spies a cat and her kitten play with a small rock. Thinking it funny, Elias then picks up a stone to drop to frighten the kitty (after a good round of back-and-forth “no don’t, you’ll hurt the kitty” from Amelia and “no, I won’t, it’ll be fine” from Elias). It is, of course, not fine. For those of you who haven’t read the story, I caution you that the following passage is a little intense. And gross. But, well, that’s the story for you. Turn away now if you need to:

Thus saying, he leaned over and held his arm out at full length and dropped the stone. It may be that there is some attractive force which draws lesser matters to greater; or more probably that the wall was not plump but sloped to its base—we not noticing the inclination from above; but the stone fell with a sickening thud that came up to us through the hot air, right on the kitten’s head, and shattered out its little brains then and there. The black cat cast a swift upward glance, and we saw her eyes like green fire fixed an instant on Elias P. Hutcheson; and then her attention was given to the kitten, which lay still with just a quiver of her tiny limbs, whilst a thin red stream trickled from a gaping wound. With a muffled cry, such as a human being might give, she bent over the kitten licking its wounds and moaning. Suddenly she seemed to realise that it was dead, and again threw her eyes up at us. I shall never forget the sight, for she looked the perfect incarnation of hate.

So…yeah. Needless to say, the cat is now thoroughly enraged at Elias. (SIDE RANT: I totally don’t blame the cat – and I hate cats! Now, before you freak out, I know that many of my lovely readers and fellow bloggers are cat owners, and proud of it. Don’t get me wrong. I know plenty of individual cats who are very loving and cuddly. I’m sure yours is one of these types. However, my experience with the species has usually meant a haughty attitude and numerous scratches. Plus, I’m horribly allergic. So, even considering this, continue it quite the statement for me to say that I was TOTALLY on the side of the cat the entire time!) And, also needless to say, Amelia faints and needs to be revived. As she’s reviving, Elias tells her a story about how the cat reminds him on an Indian ‘squaw’ he saw once who killed a man viciously for stealing her baby (yeah, right? great recovery story). The three continue to the main torture chamber, the cat is following them from the yard below, relentlessly trying to jump up the wall and gain access to her human companions. But then the three enter the display of torture tools and the cat is virtually forgotten.

The entire length of the story, the reader is told that all the three people really want to see is this thing called the Iron Virgin. As Stoker describes:

It was a rudely-shaped figure of a woman, something of the bell order, or, to make a closer comparison, of the figure of Mrs. Noah in the children’s Ark, but without that slimness of waist and perfect rondeur of hip which marks the aesthetic type of the Noah family. One would hardly have recognised it as intended for a human figure at all had not the founder shaped on the forehead a rude semblance of a woman’s face…The inside was honeycombed with rust—nay more, the rust alone that comes through time would hardly have eaten so deep into the iron walls; the rust of the cruel stains was deep indeed! It was only, however, when we came to look at the inside of the door that the diabolical intention was manifest to the full. Here were several long spikes, square and massive, broad at the base and sharp at the points, placed in such a position that when the door should close the upper ones would pierce the eyes of the victim, and the lower ones his heart and vitals.

And then, there it is. In the middle of the room, where they can inspect it from a distance. But that’s not enough for Elias*. He decides he wants to really live, to be tied up and to lean inside the thing**. This proves to be a horrible decision. **BEGIN SPOILERS: Remember that pissed off cat whose baby Elias killed, who the three characters have forgotten about? Yeah, the cat didn’t forget about them. While Elias is leaning up inside the Iron Virgin, asking the decrepit old display manager to please slowly lower the VERY heavy iron door so he can “feel the same pleasure as the other jays had when those spikes began to move toward their eyes”***, the cat suddenly saunters in from around the corner. At the least moment, and just as Elias is getting ready to make his way out his unfortunate positioning, Amelia yells out to watch out for the cat. But the cat doesn’t go for Elias. As he’s preparing to exit, the cat suddenly lunges at the decrepit display manager, clawing in to his face and making him drop the only rope supporting the hundreds-of-pound iron door. And then it’s lights out for Elias. In a major, painful way. And the worst part?:

sitting on the head of the poor American was the cat, purring loudly as she licked the blood which trickled through the gashed socket of his eyes.

**END OF SPOILERS!!!**

And at the very end? Well, the cat doesn’t survive. Let’s put it that way.

I’m not sure what it was about this story that really did it for me. It was most likely the fact that I felt SO ENRAGED on behalf of the cat that it was almost  gratifying to see the man get his just rewards – and that feeling that in myself kind of creeps me out. Maybe it’s the underlying human nature of this cat, who can plot, plan, and wait for cold revenge, and then seem to take pleasure in it. I think a lot of it also had to do with the fact that, despite everything, if Elias had just not been an idiot (on multiple occasions), this could have been avoided. Much like The Shining, which I posted on not too long ago, this leads to ideas of the scariest and darkest things in the world coming from inside us, not from exterior ghosts and ghouls. Which, when you think about it, is a truly terrifying concept. This was another great read for Carl V.’s R.I.P. Challenge and I hope that, whatever you’re reading, you’re having a great time with it!

*: This is the first point in the story where I was like ‘Seriously?! The cat thing wasn’t bad enough? Elias, you don’t have it all there, do you?’

**: ‘SERIOUSLY?! Like, are you for real? You just watched a frail old man use all of the strength  to wrench this death trap open, and you want to…to…SERIOUSLY?!’

***: ‘OHMYGOODNESS YOU JUST DESERVE TO DIE. Maybe that’s callous, Elias, but you do. Survival of the fittest does not include voluntarily wanting a torture device capable of tearing out your eyes to be lowered closer to said eyes. You just lost all my sympathy. Well, everything you still had after killing the kitty.’

“The Masque of the Red Death”/”The Pit and the Pendulum”, Edgar Allan Poe

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I feel like perhaps the first thing I should do is provide one GIANT spoiler alert for this post. I always try not to give away too many spoilers, but I’ve found over time that this gets next to impossible with short stories. So consider yourself warned!

I feel like I’m just plowing away on the short stories for Carl’s R.I.P Challenge and Future-Mr. Book Maven’s recent obsession with Call of Duty: Black Ops has given me the perfect opportunity to read two greats from a legend of horror – Mr. Edgar Allan Poe himself.

Both “The Masque of the Red Death” and “The Pit and the Pendulum” are considered to be classic example of Poe’s ice-cold and bone chilling horror writing. The former tells of a lavish masque party gone awry while being held in a sequestered monastery during a plague called the Red Death; the latter the tale of man convicted during the Inquisition and subjected to one of the most horrifying (to me) deaths imaginable. Both are great examples of a challenging short story that will scare the piss out of you if allowed to take hold.

I have to say that while I personally find “The Pit and the Pendulum” to be the scarier of the two stories, I think that “Masque of the Red Death” is far more beautiful to read. To begin with, I find the description of the lighting – different colored rooms lit only by back lit windows – to be appealing both to the color freak as well as the creepiness lover within me. Second, just the general setting of a lavish, un-class conscious ball held during so much decay and death is just hilarious in a kind of sick way. If there is one issue I have issue with, it’s the ending. I mean, come on Poe? A ghost? Really? I would have enjoyed it much more, I think, had the man in the mask been, I don’t know, a zombie or recently infected party goer (somehow). It was scary, but it wasn’t terrifying. Unlike…

“The Pit and the Pendulum” scared the shit out of me. Seriously. I have often thought that being buried alive would be an absolutely horrible way to die. Add to that the panic I feel when I contemplate what it would be like to slowly watch my inevitable death approaching..damn. Well done, Mr. Poe. I’m not sure what else there is to say! I believe that the horror of a good horror story lies in the environment and surroundings, and no one does that better than Poe. The descriptions of everything from the slimy pit walls to the starving, red-eyed rats was terrifying. Of the two, if you’re only going to read one, I’d definitely have to say go with “The Pit and the Pendulum”!

In other reading news, I’m making decent headway on China Mieville’s The Kraken, although I usually find myself making the ” what the fuck is happening” face more often than not (people who have already read it – this is normal, right?!) but I’m enjoying it regardless! I’m also just starting to dabble in some H.P. Lovecraft short stories, and I’m thinking of picking up Daphne DuMarier’s Rebecca for the Labor Day weekend. We’ll just have to see though! No matter what you’ve got on the front and back burners, I wish you happy reading!

The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

“It is so hard to talk with John about my case, because he is so wise, and because he loves me so.”

I heard about this story earlier today from Amanda over at Dead White Guys: An Irreverent Guide to Classic Literature where she called it “one of the creepiest things ever ever”. With the RIP VI challenge on the brain, this sounded right up my alley. I found a free copy of it online and cleared about a half hour on my work calendar, anxiously awaiting to be titillated (dirty) and flabberghasted (not dirty, but sounds like it should be). This is not, however, what happened.

Granted, this short story does pack quite a bit of punch in to it’s relatively tiny length. It’s at once a feminist plea to actually be able to DO SOMETHING – gasp! – as opposed to sitting around all day, an exploration of ‘madness’ and all that goes with the term, and an incredibly long winded narration on some shoddy home decorating. Because SERIOUSLY. C.P. Gilman goes on FOREVER about this yellow wall paper. In detail. Yes, it’s the title of the story. Yes, I guess it’s kind of this huge metaphor for the double-ness that exists between a woman’s inner life and her outer life. And sure, it gets kind of creepy at the end (especially when **SPOILER** you’re left wondering, in a very Hamlet-esque fashion, whether or not she really was the woman in the wallpaper, whether or not there was a woman in the wallpaper, and just what are those strange S&N-reminiscent marks all over the wall and bedpost? **END SPOILER**

I found the story to be far stronger in it’s feminist aspects than in it’s horror-story ones. The yellow wallpaper – “It is the strangest yellow, that wall-paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw–not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things…But there is something else about that paper–the smell! I noticed it the moment we came into the room, but with so much air and sun it was not bad. Now we have had a week of fog and rain, and whether the windows are open or not, the smell is here” – is all that the main character (whose name we don’t ever learn, I don’t think) has to look at. All day. Why? Because she’s a lady – quite possibly a mentally ill one at that – and because of that her husband (a “physician” of the times, though he should really be careful against praising his depressed wife for sleeping all the time and then SUDDENLY BECOMING AN INSOMNIAC!!! I mean, can you say giant flashing ‘warning’ sign?)  “says that with my imaginative power and habit of story-making, a nervous weakness like mine is sure to lead to all manner of excited fancies, and that I ought to use my will and good sense to check the tendency. So I try.”

And by trying, she means she does nothing. Literally nothing. She sits. And stares. And writes this story, which apparently she shouldn’t be doing because it’s still too much exertion for her tiny womanly frame and weak, menstruation-laden sensibilities to be able to handle. So she watches the wallpaper. Is it moving? Or is the abstract geometry of the pattern just driving her insane? That’s the question, at the end of the day, that the reader is left to explore. Too bad the process of exploring this question is enough to drive me almost as insane as Ms Gilman’s wallpaper.

I’ll be counting this as part of my Peril of the Short Story section for Carl’s RIP Challenge, and can’t wait to hit up some better other short stories! Don’t skip the read, though. It might be more your thing. I just like to know my insane people are insane. Unless you really are Hamlet, in which case I’m going to assume you be crazy. But it’s a great feminist read, and makes you really glad (as a lady) that the days of medically ‘curing’ a woman have come past “um…lock her in a room?”

Happy reading!

PS: Thank you so much to all those fantastic well-wishers out there who passed on their congratulations! It means the world and I can tell you that we’re both (obviously) really, really excited!

Review: A Good Man is Hard to Find, Flannery O’Connor

 This short story collection was assigned in my Literature of the American South class this semester and, I’m saddened to say, Flannery O’Connor is the only woman writer we’re reading. This is incredibly disappointing, to say the least, although I will make up for it a bit by comparing the styles of Faulkner and Kate Chopin in my final paper. I have to say, though, that if it can only be one woman writer, I’m awfully glad it’s Flannery O’Connor. Her stories are right up my alley in a horrible, horrible way.

O’Connor was a staunch Catholic who believed that her stories were morality tales about grace, forgiveness, and the bounty of God. Which, I guess you could read in to certain stories if you tried really hard. But I think what’s even more obvious – and done much better by O’Connor – is the use of hypocrisy and irony to leave a lasting message/picture in the mind of the reader. There are 10 stories in this collection, and my class was assigned to read five of them. Of those five (“A Good Man is Hard to Find”, “The Life You Save may be Your Own”, “The Artificial Nigger”, “The Displaced Person” and “Good Country People”) the two that stick out the most as being especially worthy of comment – although all the stories are great – are “Good Country People and “The Artificial Nigger”.

“The Artificial Nigger” is the story of a young man, Nelson, and his first trip into the city with his grandfather, known only as Mr. Head (Nelson, however, swears that since he was born in the city, this is technically his second trip back). The two are undertaking the journey so that Mr. Head can, essentially, prove to Nelson that he doesn’t know as much as he’d like to belive he knows about being in the city. On the train on the way in to town, the two have a particularly telling conversation in which Nelson swears he could identify a “nigger” if he saw one but, when he sees an African American man, doesn’t seem to be able to make that association in reality. It’s a shining moment of the hypocrisy behind racism as brought out by O’Connor – hating someone for something genetically uncontrollable as a learned, not genetic, behavior. When the two are in the city, there is also a horrifying scene where, after leaving Nelson sleeping on the curb, Mr. Head watches as Nelson wakes up, panics, and takes off running. He soon careens into two women leaving the market and, when they begin to yell at him, Nelson looks for his grandfather. It’s then that Mr. Head denies that he knows Nelson at all, walking away until the whole thing calms down enough that Nelson is able to walk away after his grandfather. I was astounded to read about a grandfather deliberately and forcefully denying his relationship to his grandson, and foud it interesting to watch Nelson grow up in that moment, almost literally before the readers eyes. The “artificial nigger” of the title is a statue the two come across in the yard of a wealthier home in the city and, looking at the statue together, Mr. Head claims he is able to “feel the grace of God” and forgives himself his behavior.

“Good Country People” is a far different story, focused largely on issues of images and self-categorization. All throughout the story, the daugher Joy watches as her mother and their landlord rave on and on about the merits of “good country people”, the “salt of the earth”. Joy has changed her name to Hulga, gotten an advanced degree in philosophy, and become an athiest, all in an attempt to define herself as a not “good country person”, contrary to her mother’s desires. She searches for independance in these ways because, after being maimed as a child, she has a prosthetic leg and has severely limited mobility.  She feels superior based on her education, which gets her in to trouble when the charming and handsome Bible salesman Manley Pointer comes to the house. She views him as a social experiment, something she can manipulate. Before long, and much to the joy of Joy/Hulga’s mother, the two go on a walk one day in to the hayloft of an abandoned barn, where anticipated necking ensues. It doesn’t take long, though, before Manley’s true nature as a liar and collector of the strange and unususal makes itself known and he ends up running off with Joy/Hulga’s leg. That’s right. He steals her prosthetic leg. It’d be completely horrifying if it weren’t kind of funny at the same time. Needless to say, Joy/Hulga then has to struggel with a number of her preconcieved notions about herself, if she was silly enough to be tricked the way she was by a person presenting a completely false front.

All in all, I’d say that there was a lot more darkness than I was expecting out of Ms. O’Connor. Which is part of the reason that I liked it. It soon became a running theme in the class that “a good man is hard to find in O’Connor’s book, but shitty asshats are a dime a dozen”. Loosely paraphrasing, of course. O’Connor was often critically smashed for her overwhelming scenes of violence and darkness, and I have to say that there is no short supply of all this. It also is a bit incongruous with her suppposedly steadfast Christian beliefs. But, all that aside, there are real people with real flaws at the heart of Flannery’s work, and that’s what comes to the front of all the nitty-gritty. It’s not exactly light or humorous reading – not all the time, at least – but it’s worthwhile reading for sure.

A Once-Upon a Time Update and Short Story Adventure

Hello lovely bloggers! I’m so sorry I missed the Sunday Salon, but I was at home over the weekend and didn’t really get the chance, between church, breakfast, my boyfriend’s dad’s choral concert (he sings in a metro Christian choir) and then a delicious Sunday dinner, I didn’t get the chance to stop by a computer for long. Also, because my brain seems to have lost ALL ability to remember even the slightest details, I left my copy of The Magicians at my parents house, which my mom is thrilled about, but the library less so. I guess the good news is that, since we’re going home again next weekend for Easter, I’ll be able to pick it up then. If my mom’s done. If she’s not? Claws people. Claws.

Anyway, on to a little acutal book reviewing, huh?! In all fairness, it’s not a book so much as a short story, but the general concept still applies. Since I was all set to read The Magicians for the Once Upon a Time V Challenge (at least until my other library holds came in) I’ve had to do some last minute improvising and instead have picked up Dark Alchemy: Magical Tales from Masters of Modern Fantasy edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois, a short story collection I picked up a while ago at Half Priced Books (I think because it was around Halloween time, but I can’t remember for sure) and have relegated to the realms of the TBR pile since then.

 

The first story in the collection, which also happened to be the first story I read, is “The Witch’s Headstone” by Neil Gaiman, the, as far as I’m concerned, Lord and Master of All Things Fantastical And Mysterious. You know, this guy…

(Mmmm…Neil Gaiman….sorry. Had to take that little moment for myself)

“The Witch’s Headstone” later became a chapter in Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I’ve also read and reviewed before. However, I just had to read it again, both because I love Gaiman and because, to be honest, I was beginning to miss that Bod Owens.

The story begins with Bod (short for Nobody) Owens investigating the story that a witch is buried outside of the graveyard in which he lives, on the consecrated ground. After questioning both his “parents” (quick note:: I’m glossing over a good deal of the backstory of Nobody Owens because it’s not talked about in “The Witch’s Headstone”. For the full details, see The Graveyard Book. For the purposes of this review, though, it should be known that Bod is an orphan who has been, essentially, communally adopted by a local graveyard and it’s inhabitants and has been given the “freedom of the graveyard”, meaning he can see and talk to all sorts of spirits normal people can’t) as well as his teachers and guardians, Bod decides he’d like to meet the witch.

Unfortunately, Bod is a good boy and won’t violate the wishes of those who he’s supposed to obey. Perhaps it’s the power of the graveyard, then that sends him hurtling over the fence one day when the branch he’s sitting on in his favorite apple tree breaks. When he awakes, he sees the infamous witch, Elizabeth (Liza) Hempstock, standing over him. He questions her about her life as a witch, how she died, and the fact that all she wants more than anything now is a headstone, something to mark her burial space and, also, her existence. Bod then forms a plan to get Liza the headstone she seeks.

Stealing an ancient and valuable amulet from the Sleer (WE ARE THE SLEER. WE GUARD. I have a friend who has that exact phrase tattooed on the back of her neck, fun little tidbit), an ancient crypt-monster, Bod heads to a local pawnshop to sell the snakestone. When Bod tells him he found the stone in a graveyard, the man becomes enraptured with greedy thoughts of mountains of treasure and locks Bod up in an office while he calls his business partner. It’s then that Liza shows up and, hearing what a nice thing Bod is doing for her, helps him to become invisible and escape, but not before Bod notices and absconds with a heavy stone paperweight on the desk. Bod quickly returns the amulet to the Sleer (IT ALWAYS COMES BACK) and, after recieving a thorough flogging from his parents, makes Liza’s headstone out of the paperweight he stole. He mows the grass over her burial site, and leaves the stone carved just how Liza requested it:

E.H. We don’t forget.

Perhaps the thing I love most about this story, and about Bod in general, is that he really is such a loving boy. Yes, he disobeys his parents. Yes, his curiosity can get him into trouble (we’re talking stolen by demons and taken almost to the gates of hell kind of trouble) but, at the end of the day, he’s generous and caring and a truly warm heart in the cemetary. I also think that Bod gives us the chance, as readers, to read a very well written narrative told in the voice of an ordinary child (Bod never gets to be older than his early teen years) which I think is especially interesting given the fact that Bod is, really, anything but ordinary. He lives in a cemetary, for God’s sake, which isn’t a good start. But Gaiman writes him with such sympathy and love that it’s kind of easy to forget all that. And just love Bod for Bod, which is the best any writer can do, I think – to get a reader to love a character for that character, flaws and all.

I’m moving on now to “Color Vision” by Mary Rosenblum, another story in the Dark Alchemy collection, and I’m about a page in to it. So far it’s a little hard to get in to, but I also wonder if that has anything to do with the fact that I read it right after the Gaiman. After all, it’s hard to step away from the mastery Gaiman writes with when it comes to fantasy and fairy tales. However, I plan to stick with it and couldn’t be more excited to be getting some short stories into my reading diet. Because this post is so inordinatly long, I’ll go ahead and stop, but I do also want to mention that I’ve got Escape by Carolyn Jessop next on the pile (a memoir about a former polygamist who escaped with her eight children from a FLDS compound) and was wondering if any of you out there had read it? Liked it? The story seems great but the writing…eh… so I guess I’ll just have to wait and see if it picks up. Happy Monday, y’all, and happy reading!

– Chelsea

 OTHER NOTABLE QUOTES FROM “THE WITCH’S HEADSTONE”:

“It’s like people who believe they’ll be happy if the go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn’t work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.” (3)

A great example of Gaiman’s humor: “‘I do believe’, he announced, scratching his dusty mustache, ‘that you are getting, if anything, worse. You are not Fading. You are obvious, boy. You are difficult to miss. If you came to me in company with a purple lion, a green elephant, and a scarlet unicorn astride which was the Kind of England in his Royal Robes, I do believe that it is you and you alone people would stare at, dismissing the others as minor irrelevancies” (9).

“‘It’s not that much to ask, is it? Something to mark my grave. I’m just down there, see? With nothing but nettles to mark where I rest.’ And she looked so sad, just for a moment, that Bod wanted to hug her. And then it come to him, as he squeezes between the railings of the fence. Hje would find Liza Hempstock a headstone, with her name on it. He would make her smile. (8)

Review: Snow, Glass, Apples

I was browsing around over at Eva’s A Striped Armchair earlier this morning, during some of the down-hours at work, and decided that it was about time I got around to reading some of the wonderful short stories she keeps posted in her sidebar – after all, if anyone can talk me into reading a short story, it’s Eva’s recommendation – and, because I was feeling slightly whimsical and slightly dark (days of rain and snow can do that to a girl!), I picked “Snow, Glass, Apples” by Neil Gaiman. And I literally couldn’t remove my eyes from the screen for all 5,000 words of the amazing fairy-tale reimagination.

<– Lets just take a quick sec to apprecaite just how frightening that picture is, although it fits the story perfectly. “Snow, Glass, Apples” is Gaiman’s retelling of the Snow White story, told from the step-mother’s perspective. For Gaiman, the stepmother is a sympathetic character, subject to the terrors of a young princess who feeds on human blood, engages in dirty and forest-based prostitution, and who is hauntingly magical (here I’m talking about the princesses ability to live after her heart is cut out).

This princess bites and drains the blood of all those she encounters, and by doing so, is able to kill her father and a number of the “forest people”. She is eventually brought to death when the Queen takes a number of apples, infuses them with her own blood and a number of herbs, and leaves them for the princess to find. However, then the Prince comes along. And this prince isn’t the type of trumpeteers and heroic escapades (honestly, if he were, it wouldn’t be fitting for Gaiman at all). Rather, he’s a prince who finds his erotic satisfaction in necrophelia:

At first the prince seemed excited. He bade me remove my shift, and made me stand in front of the opened window, far from the fire, until my skin was chilled stone-cold. Then he asked me to lie upon my back, with my hands folded across my breasts, my eyes wide open – but staring only at the beams above. He told me not to move, and to breathe as little as possible. He implored me to say nothing. He spread my legs apart…“Please,” he said, softly. “You must neither move, nor speak. Just lie there on the stones, so cold and so fair.”

By the end of the story, the Queen meets her unfortunate but unavoidable end, although even then, the subtle horror employed by Gaiman is such that I’m sure the entire story will stick with me for quite some time. It’s surprising to find yourself rooting for a character you’ve so often despised in the past, but, as I’m coming to learn more and more as I read Gaiman, that’s part of what Gaiman does best – rousing reader support for characters you may be surprised to find yourself rooting for.

There is really only so much gushing I can do about this short story without it become overburdensome – the story itself was only 5,000 words! But let me just say that this is a story that you will read through quickly and want to be thinking over slowly for many days after. Not only is Gaiman’s prose absolutely striking (with brevity so often being the ‘point’ of short fiction, it’s wonderful to find someone that can write with directness, but do so remarkable poetically) but his twists on the story are subtle enough to still recall the original but drastic enough to make the reader absolutely sure that this is Gaiman’s creation, no buts about it. Please read it here – it won’t take you long, and who doesn’t love some free online short fiction? Below are some excerpts of my favorite parts, as well as another illustration that I think provides a slightly-more-playful illustrative tone to the entire thing. Happy reading!

“His beard was red-bronze in the morning light, and I knew him, not as a king, for I knew nothing of kings then, but as my love. He took all he wanted from me, the right of kings, but he returned to me on the following day, and on the night after that: his beard so red, his hair so gold, his eyes the blue of a summer sky, his skin tanned the gentle brown of ripe wheat.”

“Her eyes were black as coal, black as her hair; her lips were redder than blood. She looked up at me and smiled. Her teeth seemed sharp, even then, in the lamplight.”

“If it were today, I would have her heart cut out, true. But then I would have her head and arms and legs cut off. I would have them disembowel her. And then I would watch, in the town square, as the hangman heated the fire to white-heat with bellows, watch unblinking as he consigned each part of her to the fire. I would have archers around the square, who would shoot any bird or animal who came close to the flames, any raven or dog or hawk or rat. And I would not close my eyes until the princess was ash, and a gentle wind could scatter her like snow.
I did not do this thing, and we pay for our mistakes.”

“She stood up and walked around the fire, and waited, an arms-length away. He pulled in his robe until he found a coin — a tiny, copper penny, — and tossed it to her. She caught it, and nodded, and went to him. He pulled at the rope around his waist, and his robe swung open. His body was as hairy as a bear’s. She pushed him back onto the moss. One hand crept, spider-like, through the tangle of hair, until it closed on his manhood; the other hand traced a circle on his left nipple. He closed his eyes, and fumbled one huge hand under her skirt. She lowered her mouth to the nipple she had been teasing, her smooth skin white on the furry brown body of him.
She sank her teeth deep into his breast. His eyes opened, then they closed again, and she drank.
She straddled him, and she fed. As she did so a thin blackish liquid began to dribble from between her legs…”

“The goose-grease begins to melt and glisten upon my skin. I shall make no sound at all. I shall think no more on this.
I shall think instead of the snowflake on her cheek.

I think of her hair as black as coal, her lips as red as blood, her skin, snow-white.”