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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed IV

For anyone just tuning in, this is the fourth and last segment of reviewing Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed. Mitzi chose fairy and folktales from diverse sources. These aren’t just Grimm brothers or Arabian Nights. There are Japanese,  Persian or Sanskrit, a cultural mosaic of stories from sources around the world.

Written in Sanskrit, “A Tale of the Parrot” is an Indian tale where a talking animal relates various lessons or stories, much as Shahrazad did to her husband. An emir’s daughter is wasting away and the Spanish Infanta comes to try a cure, and discovers the Turkish Khan’s (who wants to marry the girl) emissary stirring a cauldron with a stick. The stick is actually his penis, with which he “agitates” the contents of the cauldron. The Infanta helps stir only believing his penis to be a growing stick. Then she takes a cup of the “creamy” broth to the emir’s daughter to break the spell. Now, whether Szereto is completely ignorant of cleanliness taboos of Arabic lands or not, the cleanliness taboos of Europeans would balk at this. Albeit, many of these tales have fetishistic aspects but the Infanta next takes a scrubbed chamberpot to fill. This would be repulsive to many people, even if they’re fine with a young woman drinking goblets of ejaculate.

I was actually surprised to see “Little Red Riding Hood” because, even with erotic rewriting, it’s almost been done to death. It has similarities to myths of gods changing shape, or magical beings consuming a string of victims. Here, “Red” sets off to Grandmother’s house on the lookout for “handsome young huntsmen.” She has a reputation for twirling about, revealing much beneath her skirts, to the workmen who grab their “bulges.” At least this phrasing makes it clear what they’re doing. When she wanders through the woods she actually hikes up her skirt, given as she is to the thrills of exhibitionism. The story follows the more traditional path when viewed in its sexual context, but with some  amusing twists with Red Riding Hood’s exhibitionistic tendencies, and refreshingly few odd twists of phrase.

“The Traveling Companion” is a popular riddle tale, especially in the Scandinavian countries and reworked by Hans Christian Andersen. Poor Johannes is like his counterpart Michel Michelkleiner and his innocence causes his poverty to increase before he has barely set out on the road. He meets an older, more experienced man who has a magic ointment for curing ills, and that he rubs high up under the skirts of an old lady, and a wooden marionette, which leads to the whole puppet troupe being rubbed and coming alive for a flesh and wood orgy. The two travelers learn of a princess whose suitors must answer three riddles and if they lose, they lose their heads.

Johannes uses the ointment to fluster the princess, and his traveling companion does not rely on the ointment alone but folllows the princess to discover her secret. He enters her bedroom where she is sound asleep with her nightdress having ridden up, “exposing a pair of graceful thighs and the corresponding hills above.” I wasn’t sure at first when he starts spanking her if these were her breasts or buttocks, but presuming buttocks, it would have helped to know she reclined on her stomach instead of trying to be tossed out of the story to figure it out. Other than this one aberration, the story is amusing if somewhat black in humor, and though bawdy, not overly erotic.

“The Turnip” brings us to where we began in Cinderella with the turnip (or parsnip) loving stepsisters who used the vegetative length and firmness for sexual diversion. This poor farmer has magical turnip seeds but his own member grows to gigantic turnip proportions and though he wishes to remove it, the king moves him into residence where the man is used for the king’s riding pleasure. This is another story that disturbingly borders on rape and does not meet erotic content so much as sexual abuse.

Also known as Brier Rose “The Sleeping Beauty” has long had an undercurrent of sexuality or even rape, where the prince kisses or impregnates the sleeping princess. Instead of the witch’s curse, Szereto tosses in a lecherous frog and then the story proceeds apace to the prince many years later breaching the brier thorns. By this point I confess to becoming quite annoyed with the bizarre euphemisms and found I was ejected from the tale when the prince lifts the sleeping princess’s dress where, “A pair of gossamer wings began to slowly unfold….the fragile creature was being held back by two fuzz-covered pods,…” What the–? I could not imagine what this was at first and then believing Szereto to mean the clitoris and labia I was dumbfounded. How is this description, even given to hyperbole, slightly erotic? Fuzzy pods? Gossamer wings? Has anyone ever seen genitalia that looked like this?

“The Twelve Months” is the last tale, with a stepmother and sister who envy the pretty daughter and send her off on tasks designed to kill her. She meets 12 men who are the months and tends to their “branches” in three ways. It is somewhat erotic and one of the better stories.

When I started out reading this collection I really thought I’d love it. I like what I know of Mitzi Szereto and I like the retellings of fairy tales (and many originals as well). Granted, eroticism is different for each person, I still find it hard to believe that many people would find these tales sensual at all; they fall more into the category of bawdy, if anything. The euphemistic phrases don’t work because the description is too bizarre, especially for our modern sensibilities. Why Szereto felt the need to follow this style I’m not sure, except maybe to mimic the style of earlier centuries, but why then the anachronistic aspects dropped in without making the whole tale of another era? It’s as if she was still writing these for children, which is not the projected audience at all. I did like the introductions  about the evolution and history of each story, but I would have liked to have seen a reading list or some lists including The Arabian Nights, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, etc. as well as scholarly works by Zipes or Bettelheim. I believe that Szereto can write but if I was in Sleeping Beauty’s bed, I was left wanting.

http://www.cleispress.com/gosearch.php?textfield=in+sleeping+beauty&search_type=TITLE

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Book Review: In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed III

The second tale “The Magic Muntr,” in Mitzi Szereto’s In Sleeping Beauty’s Bed interested me more because I’ve read so many versions of Cinderella, from the centuries old through the Disney and Grimm versions to modern and futuristic adaptations and retellings. But “The Magic Muntr” was new to me, a tale from some Persian stories about a man  duped into exchanging his form for a parrot’s.

You could say this is a tale of curiosity killing the cat, and the transformed ruler, because of his inquisitiveness, nearly loses everything to a wicked rakshas posing as a sage. As a bird, he views many things, including women bathing, but details are often lacking where a build-up would benefit an erotic setting. The maharajah is left with a curse of voyeurism.

“The Demon of Adachigahara” is another story of the Far East, this time Japan, and as unfamiliar to me as the one above, which also piqued my interest. This sadistic demon has a penchant for snaring weary pilgrims, especially those  men who bring around (tongue in cheek) religious and inspirational pamphlets. Szereto seems to want to capture a different era, or an anachronistic feeling, and instead of saying covered in black leather she says, “Their muscled flesh had been partially covered with a supple black hide…” But there is a naiveté about each main character that is hard to believe. The male pilgrim, on discovering the chained men “…caressed the bulging arc of flesh held imprisoned by its plaited ring, [and] he found himself being sprayed with the same spumy substance that stained the captive’s costume…”

It starts to become obvious after three stories that Mitzi Szereto isn’t just writing about erotic sex but about different fetishes as we have the shoe fetishist in the first story, then the voyeur, and then sadomasochism. The next story is “Rapunzel,” quite familiar to everyone, and starts with a classic beginning. However, Szereto throws in an anachronistic image against the medieval aspects that grates as opposed to being a good blend. Rapunzel is a rap artist, playing off the name, and though she has a unique way of getting her lover up the tower’s walls, I found the rap aspect so anachronistic that it didn’t make sense nor add anything.

“The Swineherd” is a familiar Grimm’s tale, if not the most well-known, where a nobleman goes in search of a wife, but under disguise as a common man. He falls in love with the scourge-wielding warlord’s daughter and tries to woo her with ingenious, handcrafted tools of the kinky sort. Yet this woman is also ignorant of any man’s genitalia and she sees, in regards to the swineherd’s “scepter” that “For some mysterious reason, the swineherd had stuck a very large purple plum on the end of it…” At least her maids inform her it’s not a plum. The nobleman gets his masochistic dreams fulfilled.

“The Shoes That Were Danced to Pieces” is similar to the “Twelve Dancing Princesses” of Grimm’s fame. The twelve princesses (or countesses) always have worn out shoes in the mornign.  This story is more successful but again there is an odd hesitance to actually acknowledge the sexual activities and everything is couched in peculiar terms that are not necessarily those of the time period. In fact, I have a book of medieval bawdy tales and the “naughty words” are the same as ours (ass, cunt, shit). The seasoned soldier who solves the mystery dons a black, rubber cape. A rubber cape, especially in another medieval setting, makes me question why. Either modernize the tale or keep the innovations within the context of the time. The soldier is naive of the women’s activity though perhaps this naiveté is for the audience?

“The Ebony Horse” is from The Arabian Nights (a collection far vaster than the complete Grimm tales, which takes up numerous volumes–I have two volumes of selected tales), collected by Sir Richard Burton. I did go and read the original of this to compare it to Szereto’s version. The tale starts out very similar, but shortened and continues with the adventures of the mechanized and magical ebony horse. The sultan’s son is whisked away and eventually meets a beautiful sultan’s daughter, and proceeds to take her up on the horse, where she discovers she enjoys being exhibited naked before others’ eyes. The sultan’s son is also enraptured with her rose petal and for once the euphemisms actually fit the actions and lend to a sensual and poetic tone.

“Michel Michelkleiner’s Good Luck” is an obscure European story about a simpleton’s adventures, which Szereto has extended past gaining his fortune. I found her version disturbing as it begins with Michel’s rape by a group of brigands. Szereto’s style  does  not make it clear that Michel enjoys this forced sexuality, yet he  views the brigand as doing a most “extraordinary jig–or at least it seemed extraordinary to his unversed prey.” But it seems that Michel does indeed come to enjoy their ministrations and so his adventures continue.

Known as King Thrushbeard and Taming of the Shrew, “Punished Pride” is a tale of putting a woman in her place. It is similar to “The Swineherd” in that a rich/noble man disguises himself to win a spoiled/ill-tempered bride. This time she falls for the lowly gardener and leads a life of poverty and work alongside her husband. But her toils take on a lascivious nature when she must attend one lady. Now this noblewoman married her gardener who is the Czar in disguise so they have consummated their marriage and any woman would know what breasts are, yet here is the description of the lady the woman must attend: “…the lady had been endowed with two very large conical objects that she wore proudly upon her chest,…”

She seems somehow innocent of a woman’s anatomy when “No matter how thoroughly she scrubbed at the wriggly knurl she found and the two furry puffs encasing it, her mistress refused to be satisfied.” Maybe, just maybe a storyteller would tell a tale thus to an audience in the 16th century, but somehow the euphemisms get in the way here, as well as being bizarre. Furry puffs? I found I had to stop a moment and try to visualize this. Still, it’s one of the better stories, with more depth of  love and somewhat believable sexual ministrations that do contain erotic content even though the descriptions become more bizarre. As the woman submits to a flogging she looks between her legs (at herself) and sees “…a fiery red flame extending out form her body….exactly like the vermilion tongue belonging to the furry creature that lurked between her former mistress’s thighs.”

Tomorrow, the final part of the review.

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Writing: Revisionist Poems & Stories

A discussion of revisionist writing came about on another list when I mentioned that I had sold my poem “The First Taste” to Dreams & Nightmares. It is a revisionist poem about Persephone. I was asked what I meant by revisioning. A good question because the term is probably most often used in terms of history and politics. But on the other side are the revisionist myths or fairy tales. Some will come tagged with feminist revisionism but it goes beyond that.

I ran into revisioning somewhere way back, maybe first to do with the retold fairy tales, especially the ones that were in the Datlow/Windling anthologies. But I was also doing a course on children’s literature where we examined fairy tales right back to Perrault and the Grimm brothers. Angela Carter’s tales came up as some early revisionist fairy tales. I’ve also run into it in poetry but don’t remember when anymore. It could have been in the creative writing courses at UBC or in the world of speculative poetry.

I guess the basis for any revisioning poem is that instead of a third person or narrative tale of a hero’s or god’s deeds, the tale is now told in first person, though third person is also used. It might also be in the voice of the lesser being/mortal/bad guy who traditionally was fairly two-dimensional. This is not always the case with stories, which may also be in third person, but all tend to delve into the psyche of the person and how they feel.

This is sort of what happened to SF when it evolved past the embryonic stage of BEMs (bug-eyed monsters) and started to become more realistic; or magic realism, set in today’s world with just a small twist of otherness. (Is this the bastard child of canlit and spec fic?)

Like all genre labels, revisioning is just another fancy word for categorizing what we write. 🙂 In my revisioning poems (which really is just a classic tale, whether fairy tale or heroic myth, from another point of view) I’ve written on Dionysus, Kore/Persephone, Athena, Leda, Psyche, Demeter, Aphrodite (though the last really doesn’t fit the same way as the others). I’ve also written one story on the oracle on Pythos before it/she became the Delphic oracle.

In stories, I’ve taken various fairy tales and rewrote them as well, from the Princess and the Pea, to Snow White, to Dorothy after Oz.I’m sure there are other takes on revisioning but this is pretty much how I see and understand it. One well-known child’s story done in a revisionist mode is the about the three little pigs but from the wolf’s point of view, pointing out how he was framed.

Classical fairy tales are fairly thin and two-dimensional, offering very little depth into the whys and wherefores. Many fairy tales were cautionary tales, and others were, what academics now presume, tales to show/train young women for their eventual separation from their parents, and subsequent marriages. It is the purview of fantasy and speculative fiction to take the regular world and twist the what-if. If we’re looking at old, tried and true  tales, then it’s turning the story on its edge and presenting a new view.

Whether called revisionist, speculative or just plain fantasy, taking the classics and showing a new perspective is part of the evolutionary process. Fairy tales, myths, fables were once passed down, word of mouth from person to person. The oral tradition actually kept the story current to the times as the teller would adapt or change aspects to suit the understanding of the listeners. The constant evolution means many stories have passed over the lips of humanity to be lost in the trails of time. With the newer tradition of taking those now codified tales, whether Sleeping Beauty or the tale of Eros and Psyche and telling a new story, the process continues to bring evolution to the myths and fairy tales of our ancestors.

Here is a lesson plan on revisionist fairy tales for anyone who teaches about writing and reading: http://www.readwritethink.org/lessons/lesson_view.asp?id=992

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Worlds of What If: Story Ideas & Oz

I recently wrote a story about Dorothy, ten years after Oz, where she still lives in Kansas. It involves the shoes showing up suddenly in her closet. It’s barely fantastical, might be called literary.

I sent it to a speculative fiction magazine where it was rejected. The comment was that the protagnonist didn’t do enough and, what about the other 15 Oz books and what they covered that people knew so well. I can live with criticism and comments on what doesn’t work but I didn’t find the comment about the Oz books helpful nor true to the whole genre of speculative writing.

Worlds of what-if includes looking at something and saying, what if it did this instead of this? What if Snow White had actually enslaved the dwarfs to work for her and they were brainwashed? What if the Germans had won WWII? What if magic did exist and it caused a worldwide class system? There are a thousand examples of where someone takes a pre-existing concept or event and changes it.

Fairy tales have long been in the realm of public domain and many have been rewritten and retold in varying ways. The most popular example would be anything that Disney has touched, to the extent that some people think that the Disney version is the one and only. But fairy tales have a long tradition of orginally being oral tales that were eventually written down by the Grimm brothers and others. Once they hit print, they didn’t change and adapt with the times as much, but they did still change. Writers still took those ideas and played with them.

L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz was written in 1900 and published in 1901. It’s been around long enough that it is now in our memories. When I decided to write the story I actually had to go read the book, because like many people, I was more familiar with the movie. I didn’t read the other 13 books (not 15). Though they were popular it was that original adventure that caught so many people’s imaginations.

Asking, what if this happened to Dorothy is a valid question. But perhaps I’m just an angry rejected author. Well, I have given examples of other what-ifs, but let’s look at two that I just found this week. Yesterday, I was listening to CBC Radio’s Wiretap http://www.cbc.ca/wiretap/index.html There were two stories: What if the Penguin and Mary Poppins met on a blind date? And what if Barney accidentally killed Dino in Bedrock? Hmm, if I was the editor that rejected my story because I didn’t consider the other 13 books, then I could also say but Mary Poppins never met the Penguin. What about all those other Batman comics. Or, but Dino never died and what about all those other Flintstones cartoons?

Okay, well, those are closer to the point I’m making but not about Oz. Then I came across the following article this weekend in the Dec. 2007 issue of Wired.

Tin Man–SciFi Chanel’s three-part reimagining of The Wizard of Oz, premiering Dec. 2, blends steampunk and Buffy. Heroine DG (Zooey Deschanel) battles the evil Sorceress (Kathleen Robertson) to free the oppressed residents of The O.Z. The Tin Man (Neal McDonough) is a more-dreamy-than-tinny ex-cop resistance fighter, and the Scarecrow (Alan Cumming) is a victim of grand theft brain. Cheesy? Absolutely. But it’s also clever and wonderfully geeky.

Steampunk and Buffy? The Tin Man is an ex-cop? Oh my goodness! But…but…. I think my point is made that it’s valid to take a character, a time, a place and ask what if? It’s valid to not slavishly follow what has been written but to take some elements and fly off into the worlds of imagination. As to my story, well, I’ll continue to send it out and see what the editors think.

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