The adaptation of fairy tales to a contemporary idiom is nothing new. The resonance of fairy tale imagery, beloved and familiar from childhood, has proved irresistible to entire generations of fantasy writers. But fairy tales were never meant to be comfortable, and much of the trick in producing any truly satisfying modern interpretation of such classic texts lies in recreating some of the inherent strangeness and harshness and vigor that characterize the originals.
Elizabeth Knox's "A Visit to the House on Terminal Hill" (Tor.com, June 11th 2013) is constructed around the central idea that drives such time-honored tales as "Beauty and the Beast" and "Jack and the Beanstalk": don't mess with fairyland, and if you do then definitely don't try and take anything away from it that isn't yours. The story also plays games with the film-era counterparts of such fairy tales, the dozens and hundreds of B-grade horror movies which might adequately be summed up in the simple instruction don't go through that door. Knox's tale might be more specifically described as an eco-revenge parable, although to lumber a story so light on its feet with such a cumbersome epithet would be to do it a disservice. I have a particular and abiding dislike for didactic fiction. As both a reader and a writer I prefer ambiguity. Knox's story is both intensely affecting and highly amusing. At its core it is driven by a righteous anger that maintained its strength throughout my three readings and remains with me still. The fact that I did not once feel preached at will perhaps give some indication of the power and humor and cleverness of this concise yet deeply intricate tale.
Even the title pulls its weight. The "terminal" in Terminal Hill is not there for nothing. Is the hill a kind of final bastion, a last redoubt? Or is it one or other of the story's characters who faces termination? What is certain is that the word raises in our minds the specter of finality.
The story's plot is disarmingly simple: government surveyor Tom Teal and lawyer Albert Barnes are on official business in the Zarene Valley, a site of outstanding natural beauty that is due to be sacrificed in the creation of a new hydro-electric dam project. They intend to talk with one of the area's few inhabitants, a member of the reclusive Zarene family who own the valley and who have opposed the government in their decades-long struggle to acquire the land. The opening paragraph sets the scene and summarizes the action that has taken place prior to our involvement in the story. What Knox gives us is the setup for about a thousand Hollywood fright films. What sets it apart from any of them is the ironical tone, the knowingness:
The visit had been Teal’s idea, one he'd come up with thanks to his progressive methods. Things hadn't gone quite to plan, but nor had they gone completely awry. For instance, he and lawyer Barnes hadn't aimed to stay the night but, after a fruitless and peculiar talk with the countrified recluse they'd hoped to ferret out of his property, darkness got the jump on them, and they were obliged to accept the recluse's invitation.
The story is told from Teal's point of view—something of a necessity, given that lawyer Barnes disappears in peculiar circumstances some four paragraphs after the opening. We are told that "at midnight Barnes raised the house with his screams," an incident Teal brushes off as a nightmare. In the morning Barnes is gone. His briefcase has been moved from the bedroom to the library, where his legal documents and plans lie strewn about on the desk. Teal wanders through the house, searching for Barnes and their taciturn host. He ends up in a room that is empty, save for "a long, deep window seat." Teal bends over the open recess, where he spies what looks like a long roll of grubby carpet underlay. As all fans of high Gothic will know, this is the moment where things look set to turn nasty:
It was then that his host crept up behind him and pushed. Teal fell face-first into the window seat. The lid slammed shut on him, and the lock turned.
As someone who's seen too many horror movies, what leapt immediately to my mind at this point was that scene in George Sluizer's 1988 film The Vanishing when Gene Bervoets wakes to find himself in a coffin six feet under. Other readers might think of Poe's "The Premature Burial." What follows, though, is something less predictable. While it's true that Zarene won't let Teal out of the window seat, he seems less interested in murder or torture than in hearing Teal give a rationale for his visit. "Let's just open a discussion," Zarene says, echoing Teal's own words to Zarene the evening before. One has the sense that Teal knows Zarene is mocking him—but he is still unwilling to relinquish the idea that he is the man's superior. Teal still, as Knox puts it, "has faith in his own judgement":
Teal was seeing it all now—the young man hadn't been simple, only unworldly and isolated. Teal recalled the way he'd watched their faces, like someone watching a beautiful sunset. The young man seemed beyond shyness, so solitary he had forgotten that, when he was looking at someone, he was also being looked at. Oh, it was all clear now—as if the dark inside the window seat had helped Teal see things he'd failed to notice at the time.
As Teal's new and bizarre circumstances force him to examine his motives more closely, Knox has him retrace his journey to the house, in considerably more detail this time and revealing to us in the process levels of truth we were not made party to before. Hence we learn that a stray cow Teal and Barnes "came upon" on their way up the hill was in fact badly injured, her belly "torn open" following a collision with a snapped sapling. Teal puts it to Barnes that informing the recluse about the wounded animal might help them form a bond with him, something they can use in their discussions about the dam project. In fact they fail to report the cow's injuries at all.
Now trapped in the belly of the window seat, Teal considers his career to date as the beginning of the trail that led him to his present predicament:
Teal's big break came when he was sent to the Alexander Peninsular to talk to people living downstream of the diversion on Pitt River. He was given the task of bringing Faesu villagers in on the project, and the idea of progress. . . . Teal talked, and when he got back to Founderston, he pulled strings. He found a job for a chief's son driving a big earthmover. And for the chief's nephews he found jobs setting charges in the quarry.
In this way the Faesu were gradually purchased by pay packets. Five years later there was a tunnel through the rock spur that separated Pitt River from Queen Carolyn River. Half the Pitt's water flowed west to the hydroelectric dam—and the eel traps in the river were empty, the navigable channels had silted up, and the steamer that had plied the Pitt for ninety years was permanently moored at a crumbling dock.
The passages dealing with the destruction not just of a single village but of a whole way of life resonate all the more powerfully because they are delivered in the same deliberately declarative, precisely descriptive manner as those wry opening paragraphs. Knox never has to strain for emotional impact, because she knows the emotional impact is already inherent in her subject matter. She is skilful enough and practiced enough never to make the mistake of trying to chivvy the reader along. She is a veritable master of "show, don’t tell," as evidenced still further in the passages that deal with Barnes and Teal’s ascent of Terminal Hill itself.
If the opening paragraph were all s/he had to go on, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that the trip to Zarene's home had been a simple afternoon drive through innocuous woodland. In the longer exposition, the truth becomes evident, and the journey begins to take on an aspect of nightmare, or miracle, or fairy tale. Knox's story is finally revealed for what it is, not a pert little moral fable about mean government men and recalcitrant hicks so much as a cry of outrage against the environmental atrocities inflicted upon our planet in the name of progress, the grandeur and vulnerability of our natural landscapes, the great unsolved mysteries at the heart of our existence:
The landscape of the Palisade Range was vast and thirsty, pasture riddled with rabbit holes. The car's exhaust pipe came loose on the gravel ridge in the center of the road. They carried on, the car farting loudly. . . . There was a huge rock formation a few hundred yards from the road that crossed the summit of Palisade Range. It had become quite famous in recent times. Come to think of it, it did seem rather odd to Teal that the rock formation was never mentioned in documents from back at the turn of the century, when there was a stagecoach stop on the summit. Teal had seen historical photos of the four-door coach, its passengers ranged in front of it wearing drab black clothing, and looking hot. There'd be a six-horse team in the photos, lather gleaming on the horses' hides. . . . Teal had found the formation bewitching, the rock turrets surrounded by a natural garden of flowering heath plants. He'd stood with Barnes for a long time, staring, slack-jawed.
And isn't there something of the fairy tale about Zarene's house itself? In the midst of the wilderness and with no roads into the valley, the house is large and well kept, the roof in good condition, the lawns green and level. Barnes, who visited the valley in the 1940s in an earlier attempt to wrest the land from the Zarenes, doesn't remember even seeing the house then. In fact the place seems to be invisible until you stumble out of the trees and find yourself facing it:
Lying in the dark, Teal tried to bring to mind the moment he had first seen the house. The house itself—not an aerial photograph. He followed the thread of his memory only to find it frayed and broken. It was only yesterday. Why couldn't he remember?
After a fuller account of Barnes's and Teal's arrival at the house (including the curious way Zarene asked them if they were apparitions), Zarene informs Teal that Barnes has already left the premises. And then, most tellingly, quotes from a traditional fairy tale first realized in 1710 by Barbot de Villeneuve.:
"You don't even have to pluck a rose to owe me your youngest daughter," the recluse said, sly and apparently nonsensical—till Teal remembered the fairy tale "Beauty and the Beast."
"You were my guests," the recluse said. "And you acted like door-to-door salesmen."
We hear how Barnes and Teal tried to tempt Zarene to betray his kinsmen by assuring him that his house on Terminal Hill would remain above the eventual flood line in any case. Then we remember that the father in "Beauty and the Beast," a merchant—a salesman, in other words—lost his daughter through an act of theft. Teal is nervous about the coming darkness, but the ever practical Barnes insists they must stay the night or their deal might be scuppered. "If we turn up at the guest house," Barnes insists, "other Zarenes might figure out who we are and what we've been doing."
Teal nodded, but "Hades," said a voice in his head, and "fairyland." He closed the voice down; told himself to stop being a nervous Nellie.
What happens in the night is bizarre to say the least, occupying an edgelands between humor and horror that is one of the defining characteristics of this story. This uncanny combination is never more present than in the story's denouement. Teal is unexpectedly released from the window seat and Zarene beckons him wordlessly outside. In the light of a new day, the recluse seems suddenly less—or more—than human:
The recluse opened his mouth, but all that came out was birdsong, and for a moment Teal thought he glimpsed a cool dawn light in the back of that wet cave of a mouth.
He turned and fled.
This most unnerving of moments is swiftly followed by a sequence of events so blackly hilarious it could have been lifted straight out of The League of Gentlemen. Another member of the Zarene clan appears, has a mild-mannered argument with the recluse over his kidnapping of Teal and his Luddite tendencies. They eventually agree that the recluse will "swap Mr Teal for a radio." As the more worldly Zarene guides Teal away down the steps, he leaves him in no doubt as to the real nature of their bargain:
Before they entered the forest Cyrus Zarene said to Teal, "The only thing I need to know is inside you is an understanding: that the Zarene family are best left alone."
As we recall that we never did find out what was wrapped in that grubby piece of carpet underlay, we can only imagine the impassioned vehemence with which Teal delivers the final words of this story.
I originally chose "The House on Terminal Hill" for my Short Fiction Snapshot because a New Zealand friend of mine had often mentioned Elizabeth Knox to me as a writer I should read. The appearance of this story in the right place and at the right time seemed the perfect opportunity to begin that acquaintance and I'm glad I did. I have been interested to learn since that "The House on Terminal Hill" is in fact a prequel to Knox's 2013 novel Mortal Fire. Knox is clearly a writer of the old school, disdainful of cheap tricks or the voguish flashiness of street vernacular. Rather she achieves her effect through the careful crafting of good plain English, a refined eye for detail, and respect for the pleasing symmetries of a well-turned sentence. In writing about the things that matter to her, she shows us herself. She speaks quietly but with force, leaving us in no doubt that here is a writer brave enough and talented enough to tackle any subject she chooses with purpose and with rigor and with the surety of success.
Nina Allan’s stories have appeared in Best Horror of the Year #2, Year's Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011, and her most recent book, Stardust, is available from PS Publishing. Nina's website is at www.ninaallan.co.uk. She lives and works in Hastings, East Sussex.