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Review: Fearsome Fairies: Haunting Tales of the Fae, edited by Elizabeth Dearnley

Elizabeth Dearnley (ed.), Fearsome Fairies: Haunting Tales of the Fae (London: British Library Publishing, 2021), hardback, 336pp.

The first ‘proper’ supernatural short story I ever read and enjoyed, when I was perhaps 11 or 12 years old (sadly not included in this collection) was a story about fairies: ‘The Child That Went with the Fairies’ (1870) by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. My father had tried to introduce me to the short stories of M. R. James and Arthur Conan Doyle, but to no avail – probably because I was primarily interested in fairies, not ghosts. I collected books of fairy tales, and I was particularly fascinated by Irish folklore – so Le Fanu was a perfect author with whom to begin my journey into classic supernatural literature.

When the British Library first began publishing its ‘Tales of the Weird‘ volumes – themed collections of little known 19th- and 20th-century weird short fiction – my first thought was the earnest hope that they would bring out a volume dedicated to that small (or perhaps not so small?) sub-genre of weird fiction about fairies. As it turns out, the British Library has gone one better and brought out a rather beautifully designed stand-alone volume dedicated to these stories, and edited by Elizabeth Dearnley. Fearsome Fairies is surely a landmark collection dedicated entirely to the weird fairy fiction of the last 150 years, which brings fairies out of the shadows and into the mainstream of the history of weird and supernatural fiction.

Aside from the 12 stories themselves, the book features an expert introduction, background to the authors, and poems and quotations selected by the editor to accompany each story. Dearnley even includes the Cottingley Fairy photographs, emblematic early 20th-century approaches to the fairies, as an appendix. The book features such well-known favourites as Arthur Machen’s weird classic ‘The White People’ (1904), M. R. James’s whimsical ‘After Dark in the Playing Fields’ (1924), and the unavoidable J. M. Barrie, whose portrayal of fairyland has gained him (perhaps undeserved) notoriety as one of those Victorian authors who supposedly turned the fairies ‘twee’. Yet, as Dearnley argues, Barrie’s fairies are still imbued with a subtle menace – and, like all fairies, theirs is a world apart that represents separation from the world of human beings and, ultimately, irrecoverable loss. By the end of Barrie’s ‘Lock-out Time’ (1906), as Peter Pan faces the eternally locked and barred nursery, is the true horror of fairyland really any different from Algernon Blackwood’s much more overtly serious and openly frightening presentation of the Fairy Ride in ‘The Trod’ (1946)? Fairyland is loss, separation and despair concealed by the glamour of magic, like the strikingly memorable portrayal of a fairy lover in Le Fanu’s ‘Laura Silver Bell’ (1872) – who is seen by the eponymous Laura as a handsome gentleman, and by others as a ragged, gaunt, and ill-favoured black-clad stranger.

While the settings of the stories range from New York City to Scotland and Wales, it is Irish themes that predominate – perhaps understandably, given the widespread 20th-century belief that fairy lore was a ‘Celtic’ (and often a specifically Irish) phenomenon. Charlotte Riddell’s ‘The Banshee’s Warning’, Le Fanu’s ‘Laura Silver Bell’ and Margery Lawrence’s ‘The Case of the Leannabh Sidhe’ all draw on Irish folkloric themes. The surprise of Blackwood’s protagonist to find himself hearing of fairies in ‘stolid, matter-of-fact England’, as opposed to Ireland ‘where it would have been natural’ (p. 262) reflects the prejudices of the time. Margery Lawrence’s tale is the longest in the book, and one of the most fascinating. It will be entirely new to most readers, as it was to me, and while its author was interested in Spiritualism, the tale manages to break free from the expectations we may have of trite parlour-room Spiritualist literature to produce a changeling story of depth, fascination and genuinely disturbing terror. As with many of the authors in the collection, Lawrence succeeds in convincing us that the otherworld she presents really might exist.

The fairies of Fearsome Fairies are the otherworlders of our darkest imaginations: seductive, attractive, magical, yet drawing us ultimately into a realm where the soul is lost. The fairies are not mere bogies, monsters of the existential abyss; nor are they ghosts, mere simulacra of the dead: the fairies represent an alternative society. They are social supernatural beings, almost (but not quite) human, and they embody another way of being. A world where there is magic, but where – at the same time – that which is human about us must be laid aside, sacrificed, or surrendered. The fairy other is an object of both longing and terror, often simultaneously. Blackwood captures this distinctive fairy horror in ‘The Trod’ (p. 270):

He had experienced all this before … And even as he realised all this, the strange, eerie sensation vanished and was gone, as though it had never been. It became unseizable, lost beyond recapture. It left him with a sensation of loss, of cold, of isolation, a realisation of homelessness, yet of intense attraction towards a world unrealised.

Dearnley’s collection is certainly not representative of the full range of portrayals of fairies in 19th- and 20th-century literature – it does not include, for example, a specimen of the problematic (not to say racist) literature derived from ‘pygmy theory’ that represented fairies as a race of troglodytes still surviving in remote parts of the country. But that, I suspect, is because the real purpose of this collection is not to explore all literary responses to the fairy theme but rather to present those stories that are most reflective on the nature of that theme. Who are the fairies, and why do they continue to matter? Why would authors in the 19th and 20th centuries have continued to write about them? In this revelatory collection, the editor shows that – even after Disney got hold of Tinkerbell – the finest authors of supernatural, macabre and weird fiction continued to present compelling visions of the fairies and of fairyland throughout the 20th century. And their fairies were very, very scary.

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