Twists in the tales

"Veneto 0006" by Bartolomeo Veneto - Laura Pagnotta: Bartolomeo Veneto, l'opera completa, Firenze : Centro Di, 1997, ISBN 88-7038-316-4Bound. - Contains notes, bibliography and indices. - First catalogue raisonné of the complete works of Bartolomeo Veneto (ca. 1481-1531). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Portrait of a man with labyrinth design on his chest, by Bartolomeo Veneto, Italy, early 16th century. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Diana Wynne Jones editor
Hidden Turnings
Douglas Hill, Tanith Lee, Robert Westall, Garry Kilworth, Lisa Tuttle, Diana Wynne Jones, Mary Rayner, Geraldine Harris, Helen Cresswell, Emma Ball, Roger Zelazny, Terry Pratchett
Teens Mandarin 1990 (1989)

When, in the late eighties, Diana Wynne Jones was asked to choose authors for a short story collection the only stipulation was for twelve tales “to do with the imagination”. When the submissions came in the main theme they all shared was “hidden turnings of the mind” where the reader is led into “remarkable new places”, an aspect which easily suggested a title for the collection. The sad fact is that, of the twelve authors, half have since gone round their own hidden turnings: Robert Westall (1993), Roger Zelazny (1995), Helen Cresswell (2005), Douglas Hill (2007), Diana Wynne Jones herself (2011) and, most recently, Terry Pratchett (2015). How lovely though to have such an assemblage of writers, all authors whom the editor tells us she loved to read herself: “the people who keep me on the edge of my seat, or awake all night, or gently chuckling — or all these things — people who I think write really well.” The collection, then, sounds very promising.

Short story collections, however, can be mixed blessings. There are the ones where the author specifically writes a group of related tales — perhaps involving characters or places common to several — and these can be quite successful. There are the ones which bundle up a handful of unrelated pieces penned by one author for different publications and different audiences, and the overall effect can be very uneven. And there are the ones, such as this, where the selection and ordering of contributions from different writers is crucial to the success or failure of the collection as a whole. I think Hidden Turnings — despite very disparate authors — hangs together very well, with some really outstanding stories lodging in the mind.

My favourite has to be Robert Westall’s Fifty-fafty. This semi-autobiographical tale, set on Tyneside just before the Second World War, is captivating and not a little melancholic. Amongst the realistic depictions of life in the aftermath of the Great Depression, with the minutiae of daily rituals vividly described, is a kind of ghostly folktale featuring the motif of a unknown relative unwittingly murdered. The kernel of Westall’s tale is actually a play of near enough the same name, Fifty Fafty, by Charles Freeman, produced in North Shields in February 1882 and subtitled ‘the Tyneside Mystery’ (and later, in 1895, ‘The jaws of death’). Westall invests his short story with empathy for a young sensitive boy and with rage against a God who prowls Tyneside “like a man-eating tiger, driving good men to drink by killing their young wives with TB, and slaughtering innocent babes in their cradles…” Such an atmospheric tale to be included in this collection.

Many of the tales have a fairytale aspect to them, sometimes hinted at but at other times explicit. There are tales of dark woods: Douglas Hill’s True Believer which with its echoes of an unholy Sabbath and whiff of Gothick horror riffs on the motif of the sleeper who wakes to a nightmare scenario; and Diana Wynne Jones’ The Master which, despite its science (the protagonist is a vet) and SF trappings, is really her take on the Red Riding Hood story, but not as you’d imagine it.

Fairytale motifs also abound in Emma Bull’s The Bird That Whistles. Borrowing lines found in Dylan’s Corrina, Corrina (“I got a bird that whistles, I got a bird that sings”) and in other song variants, Bull’s account of teenager John Deacon’s meeting with the enigmatic folk musician Willy Silver is suffused with a love of traditional music and ancient songs, so it comes as no surprise then that the Child ballad of Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight which gets a passing mention proves to be a template of a sort for the narrative. Popular music also makes an appearance in Mary Rayner’s The Vision, a time travel story which links a young medieval monk with the 1987 Glastonbury Festival at Pilton in Somerset.

Another time travel tale is Lisa Tuttle’s The Walled Garden. No end of secret gardens approached by never-to-be-found-again portals abound in fairytale and fantasy, but perhaps rarely woven quite so cunningly into a plot as this, with quite the panache as this almost metafictional tale-within-a-tale and set in so unlikely a place as Houston, Texas. Continuing with the supernatural thread is Garry Kilworth’s Dogfaerie, a finely told atmospheric account of a kind of house spirit that cunningly includes elements of the Arabian Nights story of ‘The Genie in the Bottle’ — with a surprising twist.

Geraldine Harris is an Egyptologist so it’s not surprising that Urgeya’s Choice has a hint of Hellenistic Egypt about it. Twins on the cusp of adulthood are expected to learn from the goddess of fate what their life has in store for them: “Each one of you has a soul of flame, each must choose how much of yourself to feed to that flame…” Will they choose danger, risk and a short life and so light up the darkness? Or will they opt for safety and long life in which the flame will have no power to burn bright? This variant of the Greek adage Those whom the gods love die young is beautifully told, full of insights into young psyches. Meanwhile, Tanith Lee’s Ceres Passing is a variation on the classical myth of Proserpina or Persephone, and imagines what existence her mother Ceres might lead in her search for her lost daughter, told with quiet humour but also pathos.

The remaining three pieces are as great a contrast with each other as with the foregoing. Roger Zelazny’s Kalifriki of the Thread appears to be a standard swords-and-sorcery tale were it not for its equally mesmerising undertones of traditional themes. In particular these themes include the imaginative combination of Miranda and Prospero types from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the automaton Talos from Greek myth (his life literally hanging on a thread from a nail) and the universal plot of Overcoming the Monster. Then there’s Terry Pratchett’s Turntables of the Night, featuring a reappearance of Death — that wonderful character from Pratchett’s novel Mort which had been published a couple of years before — in the company of an enthusiastic if incompetent DJ, in which both wit and the inevitable ensue. Finally, Helen Cresswell’s The Sky Sea showcases ‘the slightly dotty’ Great Aunt Cass (with whom the young protagonist Daisy finds most affinity) and who avers that there is a sea beyond the sky; this tale reminded me most of Joan Aiken’s short stories where, once you accept the unusual as commonplace, anything that can happen does happen, and all with impeccable logic.

So there you have it: twelve labyrinthine tales, each with a twist at the end. Although loosely linked by fairytale motifs, or music, or time travel or death they all approach their themes in highly individual and accomplished fashion. As with waking dreams it’s sometimes difficult to tell where reality really begins and ends; best to surrender yourself to the moment.

Incidentally, Helen Cresswell subsequently repaid Diana Wynne Jones the compliment by including both her own and Diana’s pieces for Hidden Turnings in a new selection called Mystery Stories (2003) — look out for a review. Soon.

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5 thoughts on “Twists in the tales

  1. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    I must pull this out and read it again! I don’t believe I’ve reread it in full since it first came out. And that was before I had read any Discworld, so I was probably a bit baffled by the Pratchett.

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