In Graham Joyce’s Some Kind of Fairy Tale (published earlier this year), a teenage girl disappears into the woods only to return, two decades later, having aged a mere six months. In that time her parents have become OAPs, her brother has married and had children, and her ex-boyfriend, a once-promising musician (who was at one point accused of her murder) has seriously failed to live up to his promise. Joyce’s novel explores the impact of her return, and the sudden perspective it puts upon the passage of twenty years in each character’s life.
Ramsey Campbell’s The Kind Folk (published last month) opens with one of those “real people’s problems” tabloid-style talk shows, where the host, Jack Brittain, is poised to reveal the results of a DNA test that will prove if, as Maurice Arnold suspects, his grown-up son Luke isn’t really his son at all. Maurice suspects his brother, Terence, who has always been overly proud of the boy, taking him on trips to remote parts of the country and telling him odd little fairy tales. But despite a family resemblance, it turns out Luke isn’t related to either. Nor, even, to the woman he calls his mother. A stand-up comedian with an uncanny knack for imitation, Luke comes to suspect the truth about his origins by retracing, through his uncle’s tersely-worded journal, the odd places they visited, where they always seemed to meet with “kind folk”. Nice people? By no means.
Joyce’s novel uses a multiple viewpoint approach to work at two questions. One, the rational, is just what happened — is the returned Tara really Tara? And can she really still be a teenager, twenty years on? Or is it all self-delusion and an extreme case of arrested development? The other (and far more interesting) question, is how her disappearance and reappearance have affected the people who knew her (among which the most compelling stories are those of her ex-boyfriend Richie, to whom she was a sort of muse, and who, as a result, was left like the traditional fairy-thralled knight, bereft of his inspiration and life-drive; and of course Tara’s own, having lost twenty years’ worth of family life, and finding herself in a world with which she’s now two decades out of step). My one criticism of the book is that I didn’t think the two questions quite gelled. It’s interesting to compare it to Alan Garner’s Boneland, another Faerie-tinged book published this year which also dealt with the devastating, lifelong impact of loss, though in an even more intense way (perhaps because entirely focused on one character). Garner combines the psychoanalytic and fantastic threads of his novel into one meaningful narrative, whereas Joyce spends a chapter psychoanalysing Tara only to disprove it later, which left me feeling a bit cheated. But in Boneland, psychoanalysis, even if it has a dangerous air, is ultimately seen as an aid to self-understanding and self-healing, while Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s take is more about the abuse suffered at the hands of the profession by people whose experiences have taken them beyond the norm.
For most of The Kind Folk, Ramsey Campbell takes a more traditional horrific approach to the presence of a race of half-seen non-human beings at loose in the world. As usual with Campbell, his novel is mostly about the isolating, destabilising effect of the supernatural on one man’s family relationships, identity, and sanity. But the end managed to step clear of the simply horrific to a glimpse of something a little more magical. A far more claustrophobic but focused novel, Campbell’s worked that little bit better, of the two, for me.
Both The Kind Folk and Some Kind of Fairy Tale are well-written, interesting modern takes on the traditional matter of fairyland. Cornered as it is by hordes of zombies, vampires and teen wizards, I’m wondering if Faerie isn’t becoming one of the last refuges of the fantasy novelist who wants to do something genuinely different. There’s something about these outward blasts of the irrational & incomprehensible, and how they impact on real-seeming human characters, that smacks of those areas of life that fantasy, perhaps, is the best way to write about. The loss of a loved one may have a rational explanation, but that goes no way to explaining or expressing the impact it has on the people who feel the loss. The fantastic can. Besides, there’s something about the Perilous Realm and its inhabitants that, however much they may be commercialised into butterfly-winged, tutu-wearing Tinkerbells, there’s always a dark underside that resists commodification, a marshy creature lurking in the weeds, a too-wild dance echoing from over the next mist-wrapped hill. All too often, vampires and zombies are more and more restricted by rules and behaviours as their literature grows, but Faerie only seems to increase in its ability, the more it’s written about, to be what you don’t expect it to be. (Which may be its defining feature.) Besides, I don’t believe in vampires or zombies, but can’t help being a little bit afraid that if I say I don’t believe in fairies, they’ll get me.