Not to delay
Or be misled.
I should have heeded her advice ...
But he seemed so nice.
—Stephen Sondheim, Into the Woods
"My story has the contours of a fairy tale." So begins "The Belt," one of sixteen stories that make up Theodora Goss's haunting debut collection, In the Forest of Forgetting. It's an opening that brims with promise: of the tropes familiar to us from a thousand bedtime readings—the beautiful, motherless girl, the handsome prince, the terrible secret—but also of something unfamiliar. The story, after all, has the contours of a fairy tale, but what of its contents?
Theodora Goss is by no means the first author to hollow out a fairy tale and fill it with something of her own invention, and the modern reader might be forgiven for feeling that the style has very nearly been tapped. We've had our Angela Carters, offering dark and subtly erotic variants on familiar stories, forcing us to wonder what darkness had already been latent in these supposedly harmless fables. We've enjoyed the gleeful sensationalists, who pervert a fairy tale's premise, or retell it in an unconventional style, or recast the hero as a villain and vice versa, as a way of surprising and delighting their audience (Neil Gaiman's "Snow, Glass, Apples," Kelly Link's "Travels With the Snow Queen," to name but two examples). Does the world really need another Sleeping Beauty?
At first glance—and the collection does indeed open with a retelling of that story, "The Rose in Twelve Petals"—the answer would appear to be that it doesn't, or at least, not the one Theodora Goss has to offer, which is clever and well-written but by no means ground-breaking. As we delve deeper into In the Forest of Forgetting, however, Goss's voice begins to assert itself, and her plots grow more complicated and ornate (most of the stories in In the Forest of Forgetting are recognizable as retold fairy tales not because they follow a distinct plot but because they indulge in tropes universal to the genre). Goss has an elegant, almost understated style, ill-suited to the flashier kind of perverted fairy tale. Which is not to say that her retellings are not perverse—merely that it takes some time for their perversion, for the full effect of Goss's clever juxtapositions of mythical and modern, to creep up on the reader.
When he said, "Come in!"
With that sickening grin,
How could I know what was in store?
Once his teeth were bared,
Though, I really got scared-
Well, excited and scared
There are rules, and we all know them. Don't stray off the path. Be courteous to old women and heed their advice. The third of anything is always the right choice. Some rules were made to be broken—where would we be if Bluebeard's wife had conquered her curiosity? What would be the point of Little Red Riding Hood if the wolf had been ignored?—but in order for the story to come to its satisfying conclusion, others must be adhered to. That a reader can so easily distinguish between the two kinds of rules is one of the defining characteristics of a fairy tale, and one of the means by which the genre's dual nature is sustained—on one hand, cautionary tales about the dangers of rejecting conformity, and on the other, comforting stories about the triumph of goodness and true love.
When Goss uses fairy tale elements in her stories, she creates the expectation of a similar duality. What she produces, however, is its mirror image—tales that celebrate a free-spirited disdain for social conventions but which more often than not end on a bittersweet, and sometimes even a sombre, note. Her modern settings—class-conscious 19th-century North Carolina towns, tyrannical Communist regimes (as a child, Goss fled her native Hungary with her mother, and several of the stories in the collection take place in that country under Soviet rule)—are guided by rules just as unspoken, and just as iron-clad, as those of any fairy tale. As modern readers we can sympathize with the protagonists' desire to escape, through means both magical and mundane, a world too crass, too hard, too unkind to hold them (in many ways, Goss tells the same story over and over again, and it is to her credit that she can find so many facets to this simple dilemma). But whether or not they achieve that escape, the characters in In the Forest of Forgetting always pay a price—sometimes a hefty one—for the attempt.
In the collection's title story, the protagonist wanders through the titular forest in search of her name. She is offered several options by the people she encounters—the witch who wears a white coat and magics her breasts away with a silver wand calls her Patient, the queen who sleeps in a glass coffin ("Magic is much more advanced, nowadays") once called her Daughter, the knight calls her Wife, and the Princess calls her Mother. One by one, the heroine rejects these names, sloughing off the layers of her existence as she makes her way to the edge of the forest, and to an escape from life itself.
She would find her name in the mountains. It would be unexpected and inevitable, a name she could never have imagined, like Rumpelstiltskin. In the mountains she would learn about berries. Her winter coat would come in. (p. 84)
As her final, gruesome legacy, the heroine leaves the Princess two enchanted moths—her own transfigured breasts. Goss's light, almost conversational style in describing this multi-generational tragedy both intensifies its effect and raises the tantalizing possibility that, in turning her back on existence, the heroine might actually have made the right choice.
Probably the most disturbing story in the collection is "Letters from Budapest," which ruthlessly overturns the cliché of salvation through art. István, a young art student in Communist Hungary, is dispirited by the restrictions that the Party puts on topics and styles at his academy. His roommate introduces him to a fantastic, surreal style (through a book cunningly hidden between the covers of a Playboy magazine)—"what our professors had warned us about when they told us not to develop a decadent style"—and István becomes obsessed with some of its practitioners. When a painting in the fantastic style is rejected by his teachers in spite of its technical and artistic merit, István runs off to Budapest in search of the so-called Fantaisistes, but finds instead only a gaping maw of hunger eager to devour his talent—a creature out of his own paintings. Goss discomfits her readers by relocating a very old premise—the seeker, artist or scientist or scholar, who delves too deep into forbidden knowledge—to a modern setting in which right and wrong are so easily recognizable, and so incompatible with the story's conclusion. We've been taught to sneer at the notion of decadent art, but in Goss's tale the term has an actual meaning, leaving us perplexed and uncertain of our—and Goss's—allegiances.
Now I know:
Don't be scared.
Granny is right,
Just be prepared.
Isn't it nice to know a lot!
And a little bit not
At the end of "The Belt," Sophia, the beautiful shoemaker's daughter, is an old woman, telling her life story—in the contours of a fairy tale—to her mistress, the Empress. Wooed by and married to a handsome young baron, Sophia quickly realizes that her happy ending is only a troublesome beginning.
Once, he pressed his lips to her hands, and she realized, with a start, Why, he loves me more than I love him. ... I cannot give him as much as he gives me, and that is a bad bargain. There, you see, spoke the grocer's daughter. (p. 189)
Sophia determines to be as good a wife as she can be, to substitute pity for love, but her prince charming demands more than she can ever give him—her complete trust and dependence—and in the end she is forced to make her escape. To her audience, she concludes:
I will tell you, too, that every fairy tale has a moral. The moral of my story may be that love is a constraint, as strong as any belt. And this is certainly true, which makes it a good moral. Or it may be that we are all constrained in some way, either in our bodies, or in our hearts or minds, an Empress as well as the woman who does her laundry. ... Perhaps it is that a shoemaker's daughter can bear restraint less easily than an aristocrat, that what he can bear for three years she can endure only for three days. ... Or perhaps my moral is that our desire for freedom is stronger than love or pity. That is a wicked moral, or so the Church has taught us. But I do not know which moral is the correct one. And that is also the way of a fairy tale. (pp. 195-6)
The Publishers Weekly review of In the Forest of Forgetting bafflingly refers to the collection as moralistic. The reviewer may be either ignorant of or insensitive to the subtle distinction between the two definitions of moral. The one that is perhaps more familiar to modern, adult readers, is the ethical one—moralizing being an act of telling people how they should behave. Goss has too much respect for her readers to lecture them in this fashion, and too little interest in doing so anyway (in this respect, at least, her art is thoroughly decadent). In the old-fashioned, fairy tale sense, however, a moral is simply a lesson, a truth about the world that we would do well to learn if we're to make our way through it safely. In this sense, Goss is indeed a moralist. The cumulative effect of her stories is the heartfelt reminder that we can do as we like so long as we remember that no one ever promised us a happy ending. Taken as a whole, perhaps the moral of In the Forest of Forgetting is a very simple one—be careful what you wish for.
Abigail Nussbaum has recently completed a Computer Science degree at the Technion Institute in Haifa, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction and the Israeli SFF quarterly, The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.