The Forgotten and the Fantastical 5is the fifth in an annual series of anthologies from Mother’s Milk Books. It contains fourteen stories (by both established and emerging writers), some of which draw inspiration from well-known folk and fairy tales, and others which imagine entirely new worlds.
Mother’s Milk Books (founded and managed by the editor of this collection, Teika Bellamy) is a small press specialising in books that ‘celebrate femininity and empathy’ so it’s no surprise that this anthology includes some wonderful re-imaginings of the role of women in fairy tales, as well as tender depictions of friendships and parent-child relationships.
The opening story, ‘Pelt’ by Angela Readman, is a delicious and unexpected take on the familiar story of Red Riding Hood. It focuses on Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, who having been cut out of the wolf’s belly, now feels strangely bereft:
I can only compare the feeling to those first nights of being widowed. After people had left with their fruit cake and stodgy condolences, I’d crawl into bed and roll into the absence. The depression on my husband’s side of the mattress felt like a sculpture it took forty years to carve. Touching it, I was so cold it seemed a blizzard stormed inside me and all I could do was knit a shawl. It was the same after the wolf. I couldn’t stop snapping kindling and scrubbing the floor. I kept busy, busy, busy to bury one icy thought I couldn’t shake. That it took just a second for something to swallow me whole. Gulp. I was there, then gone.
Many other stories take on a well-known tale or trope and turn it into something surprising. The wolf in Sarah Hindmarsh’s beautiful ‘The White Wolf’, for instance, is certainly not the menacing predator who appears in Red Riding Hood. In Kim Gravell’s ‘The Glass Slipper’ we encounter a fairy godmother who more closely resembles The Godfather. In the crisply-written ‘Princess, Star, Brilliant’ by Rosie Garland, a princess exasperates her more compliant sisters when she rejects the restrictions of their pickled, prissy lives. And in Becky Cherriman’s closely-observed ‘Fossils’, an enchanted mirror – a familiar feature of fairy tales – captivates three children who are on the cusp of adulthood.
‘My Son, My Daughter’ by Keris Macdonald tackles another enduring theme of fairy tales – the threat of harm to children. In this story, a mother has heard of the ‘strange folk’ who wander the moor for victims, and who ‘look [..] above all, with cold hearts and hungry eyes, for little children.’ This story has a brooding atmosphere and keen sense of place, and the mother’s ultimate stand-off with the ‘strange folk’ is moving and clever. There’s another battle of wits in ‘The Fox’s Wedding’ by Carys Crossen, where ‘ugly’ Morven challenges a foxy interloper who threatens the village girls. This story is a fantastic antidote to tales that valorise physical beauty.
‘The Glass Legs (or, it’s easier than you think)’ by Katie Gray similarly subverts the conventional fairy tale ending in which a handsome young man carries off his pretty young bride. There’s also some strange and wonderful imagery here – the story begins after Cordelia’s legs have been damaged in an accident and her father has created new ones for her:
‘They are made of glass.’ With a glance towards the house, Cordelia hitched up her skirt and showed Audrey a delicate, translucent ankle (…) Cordelia’s ankle flexed and bent almost as flesh. It had a smoky quality, a hint of creamy-yellow, like champagne. Audrey could see the lawn through Cordelia’s ankle, warped and tinted.
I loved the idea of the glass legs, which although the author’s original invention, seem as archetypal and haunting as any fairy tale accoutrement – the irrepressible red shoes, for instance, or Snow White’s suffocating corset.
Many of the other stories contain compelling imagery, and, oddly enough, two stories centre around the same striking image – a glass paperweight with mysterious powers. One is the brief but engaging ‘Dark Glass’ by Louise M. M. Richards, and the other Marija Smits’ ‘The Art Glass Paperweight’ which creatively explores questions about love, loss, and the painful memories we wish we could forget altogether. Fascinatingly, both stories made me realise how strange paperweights actually are once you think about them – intricate, anachronistic things that do indeed seem as if they might be magical.
While some stories revisit classic fairy tale themes and ideas, others are more fantastical. In Aliya Whiteley’s ‘Chantress’, a woman perched on a mountain top is tasked with singing songs to heal the local village’s sick children and broken hearts. In between ministering to the troubled villagers, she toasts marshmallows and plots her escape by cable car. This story is delightfully weird, and I was impressed by how, in just a few pages, Whiteley creates such an utterly compelling, inexplicable world. Likewise, the expansive ‘Darling Grace’ by Noel Chidwick tells a wild, new story inspired by Grace Darling’s famed sea rescue. Other, shorter, stories scratch the surface of an imagined world and offer an intriguing glimpse of possible futures – such as ‘Human Point-oh’ by Jonty Levine, where most humans have been upgraded to a new, improved version, and ‘People will Talk’ by Donna M. Day which features sophisticated androids who are almost indistinguishable from real humans.
Although the stories here are diverse, many images and themes recur across the collection – there are encounters with wild animals, battles of wits, enchanted mirrors and magical glass, inhuman beings and shape-shifters, flawless beauties and imperfect physical bodies. It’s worth noting, too, that the editor, Teika Bellamy, is not afraid to embrace this sort of repetition and doubling, which makes for a thought-provoking anthology where anything is possible, and nothing is quite what it appears. Although it can sometimes seem that contemporary publishing values novelty above all else, this echoing of ideas reminds us that for millennia, storytelling has been concerned with the same themes and ideas that are told and retold, revisited and refined, and that there is still much more to say about the stories that we think we already know.
Beyond the stories themselves, there are some nice extra details in this anthology. The stories are prefaced by a specially-commissioned illustration by Emma Howitt – an intricate little crest that adds a touch of magic as you begin each new story. There’s also a section of authors’ notes, where the contributors discuss the inspiration behind their tales and reflect on their writing process.
Sadly, shortly before this review went to press, Mother’s Milk Books announced that it will be permanently closing this month; unfortunately, independent presses in this day and age don’t always have happily-ever-after endings. Although it seems that The Forgotten and the Fantastical 5will be the final volume in this series, I hope that it will continue to be available and will be discovered by new readers – this is a satisfying, enchanting collection of stories that deserves to be savoured and revisited.
Becky Tipper’s short stories have been published in The Honest Ulsterman, Prole, The Lampeter Review, For Books’ Sake, and elsewhere. She is a previous winner of the Bridport Prize for flash fiction, and a recipient of a Society of Authors’ Tom-Gallon short story Award.