Theodora Goss only began publishing her short fiction and poetry in 2002 but already her work has appeared in some of the genre’s most respected publications (including “Realms of Fantasy”, “Strange Horizons”, “Polyphony” and “Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet”). No less than 6 of her published stories, out of only 11 to date, have appeared in “best of” collections (along with a good deal of her poetry) and in 2004 Small Beer Press collected four of these, together with some unpublished material, into a perfectly formed collection – “The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories” – as part of their occasional chapbook series. Those in the know have confidently proclaimed her One-To-Watch and linked her name with that of rising star Kelly Link (who, as you all well know, co-founded Small Beer). Such high praise warrants investigation, and thus…
At only 59 pages long “The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories” is a slim volume; indeed, I’m almost tempted to call it a pamphlet (although “chapbook” has a delicious 19th century ring to it that seems to warrant my $6). I sat down with it at 9am this morning, meaning to read one story before embarking on another novel. I finished it at 11.30am (note-taking and breaks between each piece included), by which time I had been thoroughly converted to the growing cult of this Hungarian-born, American-raised storyteller. Put simply: Goss is a true word-alchemist, a mistress of the transformative short story that I’m in the process of discovering on the borders of genre fiction. She writes stories (and poems) which are located in half a dozen networks of fantastical literature – enmeshed in fairytale, folklore and myth, invoking late 18th century Gothic and mid 19th century Medievalism – but remakes and reorients them for her own lyrical purposes.
The opening title story, first published in “Realms of Fantasy” in 2002, is a retelling of Sleeping Beauty in twelve different voices. The subject matter might sound ubiquitous – certainly alternate versions of fairytales are dime a dozen these days – but it is anything but. Firstly, it subtly posits an alternate history of Britain (or “Britannia”), one in which Elizabeth I married the Earl of Essex and bore a son, in which the Glorious Revolution of the 1680s never happened and in which Communism flourished in the 1930s. Thereby the story of Sleeping Beauty is also the story of a transformed nation, in which all of our own values and political norms are alien and virtually unthinkable. And secondly, it thrusts aside the unifying vision of the fairytale narrator and replaces it with a dozen voices. We see the dynamics of the story through the eyes of the Witch, the Magician, the Queen, the King, the King’s Mother, the Princess, the Spinning Wheel, a Gardener, the Tower, a Dog, the Prince and the Rose itself: animate and inanimate things, active and passive players perceive the situation from their own unique viewpoint, interweaving a number of secondary narratives. We learn, for example, how the Witch (who was once the King’s mistress) comes by the central curse; we share in the pregnant Queen’s loneliness, isolation and Arthurian idealisms; we are presented with King’s innumerable political dilemmas; we are even made party to the “birth” and sympathies of the spinning wheel that will prick the finger that will bring about the curse. What emerges is a very full exploration of the archetypes of fairytale, each broken down, made new and given voice – the many conflicts and motives of such a simple story’s participants are made clear. But in the end, Goss refuses to give us an ending. Instead she tells us how she would tell it (the communist Prince would be obliterated, and an alliance between the Witch and the Woken Princess she once cursed would blossom) but leaves us to make our own decisions about what should and shouldn’t happen in a fairytale.
By far my favourite story in the collection was “The Rapid Advance of Sorrow”, a Hungarian anti-fairytale in which Goss posits an apathetic student’s revolution. Eventually everything is reduced, bleached and made symmetrical, all in pursuit of a beauty which is also a kind of death. Fundamentalism and psychological control are at the centre of the story, and, indeed, it becomes clear throughout, that Goss is politically inclined. Not to say that she has a specific agenda, but that she envisions a series of worlds in which difference and choice are negated or ignored and seems to ask: are we anymore awake to what is happening in our own world? Sensory loss and numbness are recurrent themes (silence and sleep in “The Rose in…”, blindness and coldness in “The Rapid Advance…”), as is an inability to respond correctly to stimulus or ask the right questions (as in “Professor Berkowitz Stands on the Threshold”). This last, which also lambastes the claustrophobia, doubts and pressures of academia perfectly, is the most surreal and disorientating of the stories. Alistair Berkowitz, a failing English professor obsessed with the fragmentary poems of a French recluse, finds himself in a dream-like world and is offered the chance to cross the “Threshold”, die to our world (the “inner islands”) and “progress on to the outer islands”. Haunted by his innumerable failings and the academic success of his ex-girlfriend, he struggles to interpret the new world about him and tap into the profound.
In “Lily, With Clouds” Eleanor Tolliver, southern Belle and rich socialite, visits her dying sister Lily in a run-down house packed with her husband’s portraits of her, and in “Her Mother’s Ghosts” a little girl is haunted by images from her mother’s past and the legacies of communism. Both are deeply concerned with the relationships between women (as is the title story itself), and also with the myriad interweaving of reality, dream, memory and emotion that pervades the selection.
Finally, the nine poems neatly corralled in the final pages reflect and represent aspects of the stories and highlight the diversity of the collection. “What Her Mother Said”, which uses a wickedly arranged and disconcerting rhyming scheme, imagines Red Riding Hood’s advice to her own daughter, while “The Ophelia Cantos” commingles Shakespearean poetry and Pre-Raphaelite imagery. Both “By the Tidal Pools” and “Helen of Sparta” envision some of classical mythologies most famous women in their old age, and two bear themed poems confront us with possibilities of hybridised sexuality and experience.
Which, as you can imagine, is a hell of a lot to get through in just 59 pages; the very reason the chapbook idea works in this case is because Goss’s work is so thematically and thoughtfully dense. Her work is crystalline, visual and properly challenging, capturing the surreal wonder and horror of fantastical terror with a lyrical simplicity. And it seems to me that chapbooks like this one are perfectly formed troves of boundary-breaking fantasy for savouring between the tome-like books we genre-ites love to devour. However, if you’d like to wait for a bigger slice of Goss-goodness, her first full collection “In the Forest of Forgetting”, is due from Prime Books sometime in 2006. ‘Tis definitely on my wishlist I assure you.
- originally published 12/29/2005