Terri Windling was the best editor of the 90s; while she was in the business it seemed everything she touched turned to gold. I’m especially fond of the Adult Fairy Tales series she edited for Tor Books, which gave us novels like Charles de Lint’s Jack the Giant Killer and Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose. Her involvement seemed to bring out the best in writers. Snow White, Blood Red (1993) is the best multi-author anthology I’ve yet read; unsurprisingly, Terri Windling was involved. Together with Ellen Datlow, she assembled a group of stories that took direct inspiration from Angela Carter’s famous fairy tale retellings in The Bloody Chamber. Twenty-one adult fairy tales by twenty-one different authors. All of them are a delight to read.
I approach many fairy tale retellings with scepticism since they’re often pretty shallow. Part of the attraction of fairy tales is their passing into oral tradition or the appearance of such a passing; the tale is in the retelling, as you might say. But you still need to do something with those stories, infuse yourself in them rather than view the fairy tale as a vehicle for Timeless Truths and therefore meaningful simply by replication. That’s not how storytelling works. That view is, in fact, a dangerous one, since it assumes narratives are authorless and shielded from human flaws and frailty; we trust them, when we should really prod at them, question them, analyze them and unfold them. A fairy tale’s basic structure is only a pared-down semiotic system, another meaning-generating machine, deceptively simple yet often emotionally powerful; it is a lens through which the reteller can examine humanity, but it’s not an end in itself.
None of the authors in Snow White, Blood Red fall into the fairy tale trap. Each tale is twisted around and given new impact; sometimes, the editors set two retellings of the exact same fairy tale side-by-side, but while the story inspirations are identical, the authors interpret those tales very differently, give the basic stories very different meanings. As they should. The tale-teller is just as important in this process as the tale. If the introductory words from the editors put perhaps put too much stock in the idea that fairy tales spontaneously generate, the stories themselves give the opposite impression.
A word for the squeamish: as the title indicates, there is a great deal of horror in this anthology, and quite a bit of sex. Both of these are in keeping with the early modern origin or inspirations for many of the fairy tales from which these stories derive. Snow White, Blood Red is an important step in reclaiming the fairy tale for adults as an important literary form, and one any fantasy fan would do well to pick up.