Denise Little, editor,
Rotten Relations
(DAW, 2004)

Denise Little may have had noble intentions in mind when she drafted the idea for Rotten Relations. Perhaps she wanted to give the villains of some of literature and folklore a chance to speak for themselves. Perhaps, as suggested by the cover text, she hoped to make people appreciate how decent their own relatives are.

But perhaps -- and more likely -- she was seized by the same spirit as the villains of her latest collection. Because it turns out that these dark relations, given the chance to speak for themselves, say some shocking things; and after some time spent with the more creative of them, the next family reunion is going to seem downright boring.

Some of the authors seem unwilling to roll around in the sheer wickedness of an evil stepmother or embrace the exuberant evil of a witch drunk on power. Instead the villains -- and some unfortunate heroes -- are shown as misunderstood, rather than evil. But rarely do these put upon characters benefit from the new editorial viewpoint. Instead they become petty complainers, crying about the minor injuries inflicted upon them by the heroes of their novels, who themselves lose the luster and motive of their original incarnation and become, not even proper villains, but mere annoyances. So Cinderella's stepmother becomes merely self-righteous and narrow-minded not once, but twice, and Grendel's mother becomes a nagging, emasculating old wench rather than a primal force of nature. It's a sad comedown for some of folklore's most powerful women.

Some of these misunderstandings are entertaining. The image of Grendel haplessly tearing apart King Heorot's soldiers while trying to be friendly is grandly comic, even while turning his tale into tragedy. And while Pauline J. Alama's attempt to turn Santa Claus into an unpleasant relation lacks some bite, the clever insights into the Christmas business make for a toothsome read.

But for the most part, these Rotten Relations show themselves to greatest effect when taken to extremes. Nina Kiriki Hoffman's eerie "Switched" gives the stepmother of the Cinderella tale one more appearance, in a darkly ambiguous tale that suggests evil, kindness and frightening foresight all in one set of actions, becoming fairy and witch in one. The daughters of the tale gain precious depth here, too, with both gaining a deeper strength than they're allowed in most retellings. It ends with a quiet, unsettling moment that provides both happy endings all round and the disturbing sense of uncontrollable forces that should accompany acts of magic. Jacey Bedford gives Snow White's famous stepmother a name, a kingdom and a painfully tortured soul while honoring her talent for the horrible.

Those who dare to make the leap to heroism are also surprisingly eloquent. P.N. Elrod's "King of Shreds and Patches" dares to turn Hamlet's usurping uncle into a man bent wholly on good. The change is shocking because of how little change is required to make the switch effective. Even Hamlet is allowed much his same role, a tormented young man, now blocking the actions of a good king instead of an evil one, but still trying to do right in his own perplexed way. The maligned wife of Goodman Brown, too, takes an eloquent stand in her own defense, giving a somehow more believable cast to a tale "Thrice Told."

There are a few surprise visitors showing up, too. Most of the authors choose to stay in the familiar pages of European folklore, but Susan Sizemore finds her story "Beyond the Stars" in the legends of ancient Egypt. Her fictional tale of the very real and historically fantastic Pharaoh Hapshetsut makes inspired use of the book's theme of relations, and offers some sweetness to the ending of a woman treated badly by the history of her own culture. Devon Monk looks at Mother Goose with the suspicious eye of a detective and uncovers a new villain in "Peggy Plain." Bronte's Heathcliffe seems a bit of a latecomer to the company of these fables and ancient myths, but he does well for himself at last in "Heathcliffe's Notes," with his trademark brooding given a sly twist of humor by David Bischoff. Josepha Sherman shares a secret tale from the American myths in "The Trick of the Trickster's Tricked." It's surprising variety in what could well have been an unbroken march of witches and stepmothers.

Rotten Relations isn't entirely without its flaws. But, like the best of villains, it conducts its affairs with enough style and passion to stir forgiveness in the pure-hearted and envy in those with darker bent. And a guilty hope for another such family gathering. With luck, plenty of robber bridegrooms and ogres are still awaiting their turn in the spotlight.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 5 February 2005