Cluracan’s Tale – Sandman Meditations

I have to admit, I was dreading this one.

My reason for dread isn’t even a reason, not in any reasonable way — it’s nothing more than an irrational prejudice.

I hate fairies. Everything about them. The glitter, the glamour, the glow. Most of all, I hate the word itself. Fairy. (Or, worse, faerie. Ugh, it hurt just to type that.)

I have no idea why this is. The aversion began somewhere in the primordial ooze of my childhood. When everybody had to clap to keep Tinkerbell alive, I sat on my hands. When people tried to read me fairy tales, I ran away, or, if trapped, covered my ears and squeezed my eyes shut and screamed out my best impersonation of Ethel Merman until they gave up and left me alone.

I know this makes me a horrible person, a creature with an irredeemable soul. And kind of pathetic, too, because really … who pathologically hates fairies? When there are so many other perfectly worthy targets of hate — war, poverty, Smurfs, Rebecca Black songs — why do I have to be stuck hating fairies more than anything else?

It probably has something to do with failures of masculinity. I grew up a very unmasculine boy in a pretty macho culture (my father owned a gun shop), and I’m sure that somewhere along the line I associated the word “fairy” with men who weren’t exactly Sylvester Stallone, and so, to try to skew my sympathies toward the dominant culture, I watched the Rambo movies again and again and let my unconscious mind associate the word “fairy” with everything that’s contemptuous in the universe. And now, because childhood is hard to shed entirely, I’m stuck still traveling the defensive neuropathways of my earliest days.

Experience can help renovate even the most solid architectures of thought, though, and I got through “Cluracan’s Tale” without foaming at the mouth, which for me is a step in the right direction. I even felt a hint of happiness when Dream showed up to rescue the ill-fated ambassador when he was cold irons bound. That seems to me a big leap in my recovery — even just a few years ago, not only would I not have felt any emotion for Cluracan at all, I would have desired only one fate for him: an explosive-tipped arrow to the heart.

But I liked “Cluracan’s Tale”, and liked Cluracan himself, or at least how he presented himself, since what we read is not so much a story about him as a story he tells about himself, one he admits may not exactly be truthful. (Or it may be. He likes being coy.)

The ambiguity of the story’s truth annoys some of the listeners, and they question him about the details. They’re the sorts of folks Alfred Hitchcock called “the plausibles” — people who get so stuck on the details of a story’s plausibility that they miss all the fun. Cluracan enters into the spirit of the storytelling endeavor with panache. He makes all sorts of excuses for his story being “dry and dull”, but that’s more of a lie than anything else he says, and I’d bet he knows it. It’s the false humility that used to be a requirement of any tale-teller, and it situates him within a narrative tradition, one where the ritual declarations of a story’s ordinariness, banality, and soporific potential tend to be most fulsome for the most extravagant yarns.

The listeners who demand to know from Cluracan what was and wasn’t true in his story are like the people who are horrified by novels marketed as memoirs. If you want a story and not just information, does it really matter whether that story is “true”? For many people, yes. Books labeled as memoirs tend to sell better than books labeled as novels. Movies and tv shows that claim themselves to be “Based On A True Story!” are considered preferable by many viewers to movies and tv shows based on imagined stories. In most cases, though, it really doesn’t matter whether the story is true or not. There will be no difference to your life if someone like, say, James Frey embellishes the facts of his exploits as an addict to make his tale more interesting.

There are, of course, lies that affect people’s lives, and some of those lies are ones created by frustrated fiction writers — pulp writers who discover, for instance, that claiming guru status is much more lucrative than churning out another story for a cent a word; science fictioneers who know that calling an alien story an honest-to-god-true-tale of abduction is a better way to sell books than to keep the fiction label on it. These sorts of people are the equal of stage magicians who become “psychics” because there’s better money in preying on people’s yearnings and superstitions than there is in being honest about illusions and tricks. These people aim for a gullible audience and cynically exploit it.

But a good story is a good story, regardless of factual accuracy. And who says fiction isn’t truthful, anyway? You might be disappointed that the latest memoir of substance abuse turns out to be more imagined than lived, but you’ll find fewer more visceral, vivid, and affecting tales of addiction than such novels as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano or William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch — both based very much on their writers’ own experiences, but not limited to them or by them.

I’m with Cluracan. If people want a story to pass them time, or to distract them from their drab, wretched lives, who cares what’s true and what’s not? What matters is how absorbing the story is, how entertaining. Anything else is voyeurism or accountancy.

Interestingly, though, Cluracan didn’t just tell an amusing story — he told a story that is also a political allegory, a tale of power and revolution that sums up whole shelves of political theory. It vividly illustrates the idea that rulers require the consent of the ruled, and it shows some of the techniques the ruling classes use to gain and exploit that consent.

Perhaps that’s the sort of the truth the plausibles at the end should have been looking for, not whether the Vault of Horror-style twist was an accurate representation of Cluracan’s experience in reality. Fairies are, it seems, illusionists. A bit of contemplation, though, reveals their misdirections and leads us deeper into the tale.

I think I’m starting to like the fairies. No lie.

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.