Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Review Tuesday: Like a Thorn (#bdsm #fairytale #anthology @CircletPress)


 
Like a Thorn: BDSM Fairy Tales
Edited by Cecilia Tan and Sarah Desautels
Circlet Press, 2009 

The term "fairy tale ending" has come to signify a happily-ever-after resolution in which the protagonists' dreams are fulfilled. The original versions of classic fairy tales, however, did not necessarily offer such perfect conclusions. Today's kids have grown up with Disney-fied interpretations of Cinderella, Snow White, the Little Mermaid, and Hansel and Gretel, light and airy, where even the villains sing. The stories offered by the Brothers Grimm, on the other hand, were, in fact, frequently--grim. Blood, pain, terror, curses, and above all, ambiguity, characterized these tales, which derived from the ancestral memories of villagers in the gloomy forests of old Europe. The prince might succeed in his quest, but something was always lost on the journey. The heroine might not waken from her hundred year sleep.

In Like a Thorn, editors Cecilia Tan and Sarah Desautels try to tap into the darkness at the heart of many fairy tales. In these stories, the "darkness" results from the more or less perverse desires of the characters. I'm not entirely happy with the equation between BDSM and darkness, but the five authors represented in this book all succeed in integrating a storyline of dominance and submission into the plot of familiar fairy stories. Sometimes the result is a clever romp, an old classic with a naughty twist. In a few cases, the stories cut deeper, exposing desires as twisted as the thorn bushes that overran the walls of Sleeping Beauty's castle.

The most exquisite and disturbing tale in the collection is Shanna Germain's "Skin Deep", a retelling of Beauty and the Beast. In this version, Belle is as gorgeous as required but is also a cruel sadist who delights in torturing the gentle, refined Beast. Despite himself, the Beast hungers for her torments, although she repeatedly taunts him, threatening to leave him to the nice young girl who will eventually fall into his clutches and turn him into a pretty, bland, boring Prince.


They say I went willingly, and that part is true. It wasn’t for the rose, or even for the beast though―after all, I hadn’t met him yet. Would I have gone if I’d known what awaited me? Oh yes. Oh yes.

But I went for the stem, the thorns. Strong as a lash, sharp as claws. I bent the long stem of it over and over in my hands, closed my palms on their curved points until they pierced my flesh.

Oh, yes, I went willingly. Wantingly. Wantonly. A thorn in each hand.

Another clouded and moving story is "The Last Mistress of the Chatelaine", a BDSM version of Bluebeard by Kieran Wyn Dewhurst. A plain village maiden is sent to wed a rich nobleman, his seventh wife in as many years. Sophie is not much to look at, but she is clever and bold, by her own admission. She falls in love with her gruff, mostly absent husband and manages to resist the temptation to open the forbidden door that has been the downfall of her predecessors. Then she gives her lord the punishment he craves and allows him to expiate his guilt.


It is a strange thing to look down upon a wretch, a murderer, a drunkard, a heretic, and feel sympathy... yet I do. I do not understand what has taken place here, only that it is certainly not of God’s doing; but to be prevented from confession, from taking Communion, from grace itself does not seem holy to me either.

So vulnerable now, my proud Lord, on his knees in horseshit and straw. I am keenly aware of his need for atonement, and also of my own dark delight at his suffering, both for it and for want of it.

I kneel to face him, pushing the acrid bowl to the side, and place my hands over his.

Husband. Look at me.”

He lifts his heavy head. I do not see a monster. I see a once-strong man burdened by his own sins, as are all humans. How cruel to make him carry them, unlightened, through his lifetime! His eyes plead with me, wet and aching, for release. My fingers tighten over his; I am filled with resolve, compassion, power... and something less noble.

I will give him what he needs. I will take what I want.

The other three stories in the anthology offer somewhat lighter fare. The brightest is "The Princess and the Peony" by Mercy Loomis. Ms Loomis gives us a princess in thrall to her dominant ladies maid, who has hatched a plot to marry her to a gay prince. In "Cinder Feet", by Mari Ness, Cinderella is the devoted slave of her ravishing step-mother, who allows her to dance at the ball but calls her home by midnight. Cinderella rebels and marries the prince who comes to woo her, only to regret the decision for the rest of her days. Sunny Moraine's "That Wicked Witchcraft" turns Hansel and Gretel into Han and Greta, teen-aged drifters who are caught stealing the witch's stereo. Circe the witch lures them into some pervy sexual adventures, and invites them to stay with her in her house in the woods. Greta , though tempted, declines--but her relationship to the formerly uncomplicated Hans has changed forever.

The stories in this collection more or less fulfill the promise of the introduction. They are original, well-crafted, and varied. All are laced with at least a bit of darkness. My biggest criticism of this collection is that it is too short. This is the second Circlet mini-anthology that I've read, and I gather that the publisher has released a number of others in the same format, with just five or six tales, under one hundred pages. Perhaps shorter works sell better in the e-publishing domain. I don't mind reading a novella at that length. However, I prefer anthologies that offer a wider range of authors, topics and tones. Like a Thorn succeeds in its objectives, but it was over far too quickly. If Circlet can assemble five stories of this quality on this fascinating theme, I suspect that they could have managed ten, fifteen or twenty just as easily. That would have left me far more satisfied.
 

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