These are the kinds of stories that make you wince, take a swig of whiskey, and then give a disheartened chuckle under your breath as you feel your chest tighten.
Cunningham is a Pulitzer Prize winner and doesn't generally write horror, science fiction or fantasy (though many of his previous novels have contained a hint of them), but in this small book of short stories he rewrites well-known fairytales from a modern perspective. He seems a bit angry about them. In the first chapter "Dis. Enchant." Cunningham starts off with:
"Most of us are safe. If you're not a delirious dream the gods are having, if your beauty doesn't trouble the constellations, nobody's going to cast a spell on you...Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities. Who wouldn't want to funk them up?"Who indeed? In "A Wild Swan" Cunningham tells the story of the twelfth brother who despite the best intentions of his sister is only partially turned back into a man. His right arm remains a swan wing. He tries to make the best of it, but ends up middle-aged, alone, and a regular at the bar scene. "The twelfth brother can be found, most nights, in one of the bars on the city's outer edges, the ones that cater to people who were only partly cured of their curses, or not cured at all."
"The Crazy Old Lady" describes a woman who thought she was winning the race, but somehow got left behind. "Your solution to your slackening body was squeezing it into ever-tighter dresses until, by the time sixty loomed, it seemed as if the dresses themselves held you upright on the bar stools; that if they were cut away, you'd spill onto the floor and lie there, helpless, a pink-white muddle of overused flesh." And that, my friends, is how the witch came to build a gingerbread cottage made out of candy.
I want to quote every line. Cunningham has an addictive way with words and I kept re-reading lines just because they seemed so perfect. I needed more. Other fairytales that Cunningham slams into reality are Jack and the Beanstalk, Sleeping Beauty, The Monkey's Paw, Rumpelstiltskin, Beauty and the Beast, and Rapunzel. Let me tell you that no one comes out unscathed.
If you're feeling the slightest depressed, do not pick up this book. However, if you feel you're pretty grounded at the moment then by all means read this book. I loved the fresh perspective on these stories. It made me realize that no one is really that special and blessed. In the end, we're all just fucked so you might as well make the best of it.
P.S. The illustrations by Yuko Shimizu are beautiful.