Short stories in high school anthologies tended toward the bleak. Nothing was resolved, nothing quite made sense, and everyone was unhappy in a sort of run-down, hopeless way. I was not fond of short stories.
There were a few exceptions: Budge Wilson’s “The Metaphor” was a bright light, bleak, yes, but with a clarity and individuality (i.e. the characters felt like characters, and not like marionettes of misery); there were a few other tales whose titles and authors I have forgotten but whose characters and situations remain with me. Dark but not despairing.
And then, after high school, I discovered lighter tales. Funny, comic stories, vignettes of characters from full-length novels, glimpses of other worlds. As with all anthologies, I don’t like all the stories equally, and so this post is dedicated to a few of the short stories of the carefree kind that I have enjoyed over the years, from a variety of collections.
The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales has an excellent range of fairy tales, alias short stories. I enjoyed almost every single story, and reread them (some, multiple times) before returning it to the library. Some of the authors I had never heard of, some are very well known indeed: L. Frank Baum, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Le Guin, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Steveston, Edith Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, H. G. Wells, T. H. White, Jane Yolen, and Tanith Lee all contributed a story to this collection.
The tales range in tone from dark, to slightly grotesque, to absurd, to sly. Here I will focus on three light-hearted short stories. As fairy tales, they all concern themselves with relations between the sexes, and in particular, marriage. The protagonist of Jeanne Desy’s “The Princess Who Stood On Her Own Two Feet” is a beautiful, intelligent, tall princess – tall because here parents were tall, and because that was what she believed princesses were supposed to be. The princess, however, is rather lonely. The Wizard brings her a dog, supposedly enchanted (the wizard had been fooled by mail-order promises before) to be a companion, but a dog is only a dog, and the princess still longs to marry. And then one day a prince from a neighbouring kingdom comes – a dashing young man with a dark, romantic gaze, and very definite ideas about what ladies should and should not do.
Why you may like this story: You like humour, appreciate play with types that are at the same time empathetic and recognizable characters (the Wizard is kind and slightly ineffective, the Witch is practical and impatient, for example), and love deep observations expressed in plain language.
Why you may not like this story: The ending is a little clumsy.
I was incredulous to notice that “Prince Amilec” is written by Tanith Lee, because I expect her stories to be filled with blood and death, and the nastiest character in this story is a furious princess who, at the end, I rather empathized with, although of course I would never behave as badly as she does *cough*. Prince Amilec falls in love with this beautiful, foul-tempered princess who really doesn’t want to marry, so she imposes tasks on her would-be suitors. Prince Amilec, being a normal mortal man, has no hope whatsoever of fulfilling the first of these tasks, but he takes his problems to a witch (probably really hideous), who agrees to help him if he will look after her bat, Basil, while she completes the task. By the end of the three tasks, Prince Amilec realizes who he really loves, and the princess, much relieved, sets out to do what she really wants to do: travel… and, having come across a handsome prince who imposes tasks on all would-be suitors, takes her problems to a wizard (probably really hideous)…
Why you may like this story: It’s funny. It proposes an alternate ending for task-based prize-marriages, and suggests that this process is cyclical (the princess isn’t evil, either).
Why you may not like this story: The scene when the final task is completed is a little clunky.
“Petronella” by Jay Williams also concerns a princess and a prince (or three). The set-up is that in one particular kingdom, the king and queen always have three sons, and when these sons come of age, they set out together. The first and second sons go off and have adventures, and nobody ever knows what becomes of them. The third son, who is always named Peter, goes out, find a princess, and returns with her to rule the realm. Until the day that the third prince turns out to be a princess. Obviously, she can’t be named Peter, so her parents settle on ‘Petronella’ instead. When she and her brothers come of age, Petronella insists on keeping the usual custom – she is determined to go forth, have adventures, find a nice prince, and come home to rule. And it just so happens that an old man she meets in the road tells her about a certain handsome prince, who can be found at the home of a nearby sorcerer, who will impose on any comers three perilous tasks.
Why you may like this story: Like the others, it plays on readers’ expectations in a humourous fashion. Petronella has a few traits that make her stand out as a bit more of an individual than the typical hero-rescuer, the tasks are fabulous, and her swain makes me grin.
Why you may not like this story: A wee bit of insta-love, and the dialogue is, as in traditional fairy tales, occasionally formulaic.
The other stories in the collection are also well worth reading, and I recommend especially “The Wife’s Story” by Ursula K. Le Guin, which is a slightly dark, bitter-sweet werewolf tale; “In The Family” by Naomi Mitchison, which is endearingly Scottish with a very strong sense of place-time-people; “The Unicorn in the Garden” by James Thurber – a sly tale that raises both horror and laughter.
A few years ago I discovered Firebirds and Firebirds Rising, anthologies edited by Sharyn November. I will restrain myself to mentioning only one from each collection. I’ll focus on two light-hearted tales; there are more that are, and many that are not, that deserve to be read and reread.
From Firebirds, Sherwood Smith’s “Beauty” takes up where Court Duel left off, more than fifteen years down the road when Meliara and Vidanric’s three children are teenagers themselves. Elestra, the middle child, is gawky and considers herself plain compared to her siblings. Much as Elestra loves plays and has long passages memorized, when her friends decide to perform, she is never the hero. Rather upset one night, Elantra “goes into the throne room to look at a tree, and meets a beautiful villain. Thus begins a duel of wits” (according to Smith’s website) and an unplanned “camping” trip.
Why you may like this story: The ending is open – there are definite suggestions as to what will happen, but it isn’t laid out and you know that there is a lot more adventure and growth to come. Readers who enjoyed Crown Duel and Court Duel get to see more of Flauvic and (even better) get a glimpse of the hard work that goes into dispensing justice and the ebbs and flows of life (and politics) in Remalna. Plus, the key exchange at the end between Elantra and her father is very satisfying.
Why you may not like this story: You really, really hated Flauvic and wanted him to stay a tree forever, or else to die a slow and painful death?
“Wintermoon Wish” in Firebirds Rising was my first introduction to Sharon Shinn. In this tale, a rather self-absorbed, unhappy young woman travels to her grandparents’ home to observe the family customs for Wintermoon (sort of Christmas, Solstice, and New Year’s in one) rather than attend the elaborate balls being held in the capital, because the boy she likes isn’t interested in her. Her trip and stay at home, however, is rather interrupted by a young man who actually does have cause for misery, and she resents him for it.
Why you may like this story: You’re in the mood for an undemanding romance story whose protagonist starts growing up. You like glimpses into other worlds with different customs. You like grandparent-grandchild tales.
Why you may not like this story: You’re not in the mood for any romance or sulky teenage girls.
As you may have noticed, these light tales tend toward romance narratives, or at least, the happy (marriage) ending. Which is a bit surprising, considering that it is I who recommends them, and I empathize with you if you do not want to read a word more about mush, or sap, or anything to do with so-called love. There is a time for sweetness and fluff – but I would argue that these stories, particularly the first ones, are primarily playful, and destabilize, or at least poke fun at and call into question, certain norms regarding fairy tales and true love/marriage and happy endings. These short stories are light-hearted rather than haunting, and even so, linger in the memory.