Denise Little, editor, Twice Upon a Time (Daw, 1999)

There are plenty of short stories on the market which give new slants on old stories -- Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling's excellent series of adult fairy tales, for instance. Well, add another to the list: Denise Little's Twice Upon a Time.

As Little explains in her introduction, many fairy tales have entered the public consciousness to a degree that, even if one's parents never read to the child, the stories will still become somehow familiar before reaching adulthood. But it's also true that any but the most credulous of readers will have questions after such a tale. What happened next? Were there no recriminations? Is that what really happened, or would the other parties involved tell a different story altogether?

Those are the questions which Little's collection of writers strive to answer in Twice Upon a Time. And, as is always the case, a collection of short stories can't really be judged on the intention or theme, but only on the strength of the individual writings. By that measure, Twice is a success.

The book begins with Jody Lynn Nye's "Spinning a Yarn," which relates the aftermath of the old "Rumplestiltskin" story. The miller's daughter, Vonaree, is comfortably installed as queen of the realm, but the miller runs afoul of the kingdom's auditor, who questions his newfound wealth. His only way to avoid serious prosecution is to provide the name of the gnome who spun the gold; without the name, the wee man will steal away the king's new heir. And so the miller trudges off into the Enchanted Forest, meeting a variety of familiar fairy tale characters along the way, in search of a name and freedom from financial bureaucracy.

Nina Kiriki Hoffman follows with "How I Came to Marry a Herpetologist," which examines the tribulations of living for centuries when every word you utter creates a new toad, snake or other such critter. Then, Connie Hirsch tells us, in "Puck in Boots, the True Story," what happens to a minor deity when he falls from favor and starts taking odd jobs from disreputable agencies.

"The Beanstalk Incident" by Jane Lindskold picks up the story one year after Jack's several trips up into the kingdom above the clouds. At last, justice has caught up with him, and he's tried for his crimes. In "Case #285B," Esther M. Friesner ponders what really happened when Baby Bear found a young, attractive blonde in his bed ... and lets us eavesdrop on the counseling sessions which must follow.

Nancy Springer's "Gilly the Goose Girl" is an absolutely lovely tale about a princess who doesn't want to be a princess any more, a horse who talks in rhyme when she's in the mood to talk at all, and a gooseherd with an admirable philosophy of life. This tale in particular should join the body of popular fairy tales, of for no other reason than its moral teaches that happy endings don't always involve happily-ever-aftering in a castle with a royal spouse.

The Big Bad Wolf gets a new name and a major lifestyle change in "Fifi's Tale," in which Alan Rodgers has constructed a cunning story which combines the black-hearted Snow White with the wolf from "Little Red Riding Hood," "The Three Little Pigs" and "Hansel and Gretel." It's a great juxtaposition, although the ending was a little too abrupt, too neat, as if Rodgers suddenly decided it was time to stop writing and he had to wrap things up quickly.

Richard Parks, in "The Golden Stair," ponders what would happen if Rapunzel decided to take matters into her own hands, rescue herself from the tower and seek -- not a happy ending, but a life. In "True Love (or The Many Brides of Prince Charming)," Todd Fahnestock and Giles Custer have concocted a deucedly clever story about the ubiquitous prince and his various wives -- Cinderella, Snow White, Sleeping Beauty -- and each's wife's eventual fate. The prince, a true romantic, is a sucker for beauty, deep kisses, heaving, milk-white breasts and, it seems, women with anthropomorphic animal friends and strange semi-human companions. You gotta feel sorry for the guy.

"Savior" is a very short tale by John Helfers which casts the huntsman as Red Riding Hood's lover (she's not so little any more), but takes a realistic view of what spending time in a wolf's belly might do to a person. Ew. Lupita Shepard's "Wolf at the Door" -- her first published story -- provides a lycanthropic twist to the relationship between wolf and pig. "The Castle and Jack" is another beanstalk spin-off, this time by Tim Waggoner, who gives us no less than a vengeful residence seeking justice from its master's killer. Leslie What translates a very familiar moral tale into "The Emperor's New (and Improved) Clothes," with a modern communist slant and a cleverly fiendish pair of brothers.

P. Andrew Miller turns to the detective story in "One Fairy Tale, Hard-Boiled." Rumplestiltskin is back, as are a certain pair of candy-eating Scandinavian waifs and a pack of short, grieving miners. How can it miss? Josepha Sherman, in "Feeding Frenzy," reveals the aftermath of that whole "Frog Prince" affair (and manages to cast the media in a rather bad light, too). Gary A. Braunbeck's "A Leg Up, or The Constant Tin Soldier (Gonzo version)," is a strange retelling of the star-crossed love between a tin soldier and a paper ballerina, throwing in a nasty Black Goblin, a rat, a fish, a couple of garden gnomes, Hansel and Grethel (yes, again) and a chatty storyteller/editor. Oh, and some inexplicable references to Of Mice and Men....

The book closes with "Mrs. Myrtle Montegrande vs. the Vegetable Stalker/Slayer" by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough. This story suffers by being the third story in the collection to cast Jack of beanstalk fame as a villain due for retribution, and the second story in the collection to take Jack to court to get it. It's a fine version, truly, but it's possible to take only so many woeful giantess scenes in one book.

Overall, Twice Upon a Time has many hits, very few misses and a few grand slams. It certainly deserves an honored place among the ranks of fairy tale-inspired anthologies.

[ by Tom Knapp ]