The Wilful Eye (Excerpt)

Check out the introduction to The Wilful Eye, a collection of re-imagined fairy tales, edited by Isobelle Carmody and Nan McNab, out on April 1, published by Allen & Unwin, distributed by Traflagar Square Publishing/IPG:

A dozen of the most exciting and unique writers for young people have chosen fairytales as starting points for their own original stories, in this surprising and spellbinding two-volume collection

Margo Lanagan (Tender Morsels), Rosie Borella, Isobelle Carmody, Richard Harland (Worldshaker), Margaret Mahy (The Seven Chinese Brothers), and Martine Murray (Henrietta There’s No One Better) have taken inspiration from stories that have shaped us all, tales like “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Steadfast Tin Soldier,” and “The Snow Queen.” This collection carries universal themes of envy and desire, deception and abandonment, courage and sacrifice. Characters are enchanted, they transgress, they yearn, they hunger, they hate, and, sometimes, they kill. Some of the stories inhabit a traditional fairytale world, while others are set in the distant future. Some are set in the present and some in an alternative present. The stories offer no prescription for living or moral advice and none belong in a nursery. Open the covers and submit to their enchantment.




When I was a child, I did not love fairytales. They led you into the dark woods and left you there to fend for yourself with no understanding of where you were or why you had been brought there and no idea of how to find your way back.

They frightened me almost as much as they fascinated me with their vivid strangeness. There were rules in them and they were rigid, but they were not the rules that governed my world, and the results of disobedience were unpredictable. The adults behaved differently from how adults were meant to behave. Fathers and kings were weak and careless or blood-drenched tyrants. Queens and mothers were ruthless and vain and sometimes wicked. Guides were sly and deceptive. Children were often in mortal danger.

The world of fairytales was not how the real world was represented to me by adults, who spoke of reason and fairness. Nor did fairytales offer the comforting magic of such fantasies as Enid Blyton’s The Magic Faraway Tree. They felt powerful and important, thrilling as well as frightening. I often felt that I was being shown things I was not supposed to see, that there was something in fairytales beyond my ability to understand, something adult and difficult and possibly painful. I both wanted to understand and feared to understand in the same way that I wanted and feared to become an adult.

The many cruel indelible details in fairytales gave me nightmares: the red dancing shoes that grew onto the feet of the disobedient girl who had bought them and which, when severed by a woodcutter, danced bloodily into the sunset; the way Hansel poked a bone out of his cage so the blind witch would think he was not fat enough to eat; the slimy feel of the frog against the lips of the princess who had to kiss him because she had promised to do so; the incriminating bloodstain that appeared on the key Bluebeard gave his young wife, when she disobeyed him.

In fairytales, tasks are tripled, certain phrases are repeated: the wolf chants over and over that he will blow the house down, the troll asks repeatedly who is trit-trotting over his bridge, Otesanek lists all that he has consumed over and over. All of these things generate the anxious feeling of impending and inexorable disaster. Right from the beginning, there is a sense that something dreadful is going to happen.

When I grew up, I came to love fairytales for all the things that had frightened me when I was a child. I understood that a fairytale worked through obscure but vivid archetypes and strange opaque metamorphoses. A fairytale did not try to explain itself. It was not exploring or analysing anything. It did not offer rational or obvious answers or advice. It was like an eruption that you could not help but feel and react to in some visceral way.

A fairytale is short, but it is not a short story. A fairytale does not explore or analyse but a short story can do both. Short stories often do not need to explain or sum up everything or come to a conclusion as longer works often do, perhaps in part because they have the leisure of time and space. Fairytales nevertheless usually have a feeling of completeness, as if everything is finally where it should be. The short story form allows evocation, suggestion, implication. Its potency often lies in what it does not say.

I can vividly remember the breathless thrill I felt at the last profound image of the panther padding backwards and forwards in the cage that had been occupied by Kafka’s hunger artist. It is not explained or analysed. It is left to us to make of it what we can and there is no page at the back to tell us if we are right or wrong. This, incidentally, is how fairytales work, though one is always inclined to want to draw a moral from them. The form seems to be shaped for that, which may be why they were handed down to children. It is interesting that the worst retellings of traditional fairytales are those that heavy-handedly take the step of making a moral point.

Long fiction is wonderful and you can lose yourself in it as a reader and as a writer, but short stories don’t allow the same kind of immersion. Often the best stories hold you back and make you witness them. This may be one of the reasons some people reject the form. That and the fact that they are harder work to read. A story will not let you get comfortable and settle in. It is like a stool that is so small that you must always be aware of sitting. I love writing short stories because the form will not permit me to forget about it, and because it allows me a freedom to do things that I cannot do in a novel, such as focusing in very closely on a single event or thought. Of course there are novels that do it, such as Peter Handke’s chilly, brilliant Afternoon of a Writer, but I would say that was a novel written like a short story. A short story does not need to be completed in the same way a novel must be finished. Even if it is a slice of life story, there is always something open about it.

Perhaps one of the things I love most about the form is that a short story can be intoxicatingly, provokingly openended. So can a novel, you might say, but again I would say that is a different sort of openness. Tim Winton’s The Riders is open-ended, meaning that we don’t ever come to understand certain things, but in a way the story is not open-ended because we sense that all has been said that can be said of this man’s love, obsession, pursuit of woman. We understand that the seeking and the hunger to find her are actually a hunger to find himself or some aspect of himself, or that it is an exploration of the space in him which cries out for the missing woman.

Another thing I love about short stories is that images can dominate like a mysterious tower on a hill. Short stories do not say this happened and this happened and this happened. They are a microcosm and a magnification rather than a linear progression.

The idea of using the short story form to explore fairytales came to me one day after I had been thinking about how fairytales are considered to be children’s stories, when in fact they are ancient stories passed on to children because the adult world no longer sees them as relevant or interesting. The moment they were handed over to children, they lost their gloss and could never be admitted to the adult world again. They had lost their value. Yet paradoxically, I did not love them as a child, and I adore them as an adult. My thoughts turned to Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, which removes several fairytales from the sticky grasp of children and allows them their full, rich, gothic, gritty, dangerous potency before serving them up for adult consumption. No one would dare to say they were irrelevant or childish. I thought how exciting it would be not only to try to do this myself but to see what other writers of short stories would make of fairytales they had loved or hated as children, now that they were adults and there was no need to censor themselves, if they were invited to take them seriously and interpret them in any way they wanted.

The idea was exciting to me as a reader and as a writer.

I had completed my own collection of short stories in Green Monkey Dreams, and with a few notable exceptions, I was not much drawn to collections of short stories by many different authors. I think there are too many of them, despite the fact that short stories are considered hard to sell. The number of such collections seems to me to be the result of marketing departments, which weigh the perceived and perhaps genuine difficulty of selling short stories against the advantages of a list of saleable names on the cover. That many of those names belong to writers better known for their novels and long fiction rather than for their ability to write short stories is irrelevant. That the collection will sell is its entire reason for existence, and if there is a theme, it is usually something thought up by a team as a marketable idea. It is the literary equivalent of one of those prefabricated boy or girl groups where a stylist manufactures each band member’s look and persona with an eye on the market demographic. My own preference as a reader has always been for collections of stories by one writer, because they will be informed by some sort of creative idea, and it is likely the stories will resonate with one another and tell a larger story, even if the writer did not intend it.

It is ironic, then, that I should come up with an idea that would result in a collection of stories by different authors. My original idea was to have a collection of novellas, each by a different author, but this was deemed unsaleable once I brought the idea to a publisher. The form changed shape several times before we settled on the right publisher and a final form: two big, beautiful, lush books with covers that would make it clear the content was strong, sensual, diverse and serious, six long stories to each book, arranged to resonate most powerfully with one another.

Long before we went to a publisher, Nan and I had made a list of desirable authors, people whom we knew could write stories of the type we wanted. We wrote to each of them individually, outlining the project. We had high hopes when all of them responded with enthusiasm and chose the fairytale they wanted to explore. Once the choice was made, that fairytale was off limits to everyone else. Nan and I, who were to be participating editors, chose our tales, and in due course the stories began to come in. Reading though them we quickly realised the collection was going to spill out of the original concept, in form and also in content, some of the stories roaming far from the original or being lesser-known folktales, but the result of the overflow was so exciting, the depth and potency of the stories offered so breathtaking, that we decided to encompass them.

The twelve stories that make up the collection are very diverse, not only because each arises from a different fairytale, but because each is a profound exploration, through fairytale, of themes important to the individual writers. They chose their stories consciously and subconsciously, and the depth of their choice is reflected in the depth of their stories.

That the stories are as powerful as they are is the result of the writers’ abilities to be inspired by the stories that shaped all of us. You will find in them the universal themes of envy and desire, control and power, abandonment and discovery, courage and sacrifice, violence and love. They are about relationships–between children and parents, between lovers, between humans and the natural world, between our higher and lower selves. Characters are enchanted, they transgress, they yearn, they hunger, they hate and sometimes, they kill. Some of the stories are set against very traditional fairytale backgrounds while others are set in the distant future. Some are set in the present and some in an alternative present. The stories offer no prescription for living or moral advice and none of them belongs in a nursery.

The final result is this book and the one to follow. These two towers have taken time to erect. They are full of mystery and dangerous sensuality.

All that remains is for you to enter and submit to their enchantment . . .

Isobelle Carmody


The Wilful Eye © Isobelle Carmody, Nan McNab 2013


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