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Rags & Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales

From “That the Machine May Progress Eternally”: It isn’t until he’s nearing the bottom of the ladder that Tavil realizes his sister hasn’t followed him. He stares up the narrow tunnel to the surface expecitng to see her there, but instead he finds nothing except darkness capped by a wash of stars. 

Literature is filled with sexy, deadly, and downright twisted tales. In this collection, award-winning and bestselling authors reimagine their favorite classic stories, ones that have inspired, awed, and enraged them; ones that have become ingrained in modern culture; and ones that have been too long overlooked. They take these stories and boil them down to their bones, and then reassemble them for a new generation of readers.” 

Going in, I knew that a collection like this had the potential to either be really good or not so great, but as with most short story collections, was most likely to be a mix of the two. That actually wasn’t the case; I loved almost all of the stories included, despite not having read many of the original texts or many of these authors. They each had similar elements but were distinctive, offering their own delights and thrills. 

Almost all of the stories were amazing; they all had a certain chilling element in common, with many of them ending in similar fashions, and each one kept me absorbed until I had finished. Although the first story, Carrie Ryan’s “That the Machine May Progress Eternally” started off oddly, with little development, I was quickly sucked in by its chilling portrayal of an underground world in which the Machine regulates every facet of people’s lives; they basically don’t have to do anything. A boy from aboveground gets trapped in the Machine’s world, and although he initially longs to get back home, eventually he succumbs to the torpor and the easiness of life below-ground; his descent was awful to read, and the story was quite skillfully written. It was inspired by an E.M. Forster story

The second story,  Garth Nix’s “Losing Her Divinity”, was probably the oddest one in the collection, but it was quite hilarious, with a very pedantic, scholarly protagonist narrating both the past and the present (you see, he’s being interrogated by a rather violent intruder who periodically interrupts his very wordy account of events). It ends rather predictably, but was good for a laugh and a chill.

The next story is by Neil Gaiman, one of my favorite contemporary authors. “The Sleeper and the Spindle” is a mix of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White, and the traditional sleeping beauty myth is turned on its head. Yes, it is a beauty who sleeps, but not the one you might think. And it is Snow White and several faithful dwarves who journey to the palace behind the rose vines. I have to say that I wasn’t expecting the twist towards the end, and I was awed and shocked by Gaiman’s mastery, and yes, chilled.

“The Cold Corner” is a more contemporary story, although it’s certainly still fantasy. The main character, TJ, returns to his North Carolina hometown after five years for a family reunion. But things become surreal, with the little town warping and twisting, and TJ’s not sure if he’s going mad or not. But then he stumbles into a bar called T.J’s…I enjoyed the Southern jargon here, and while I predicted some elements of the story, not all of them were so obvious.

I’m generally not a fan of vampire-related stories, but Holly Black’s “Millcara” was pretty good, certainly spine-tingling in its own way. It’s intriguingly narrated by the vampire/fiend herself, and while I was disturbed her, I was also sympathetic. Which was of course the point.

“When We Were Gods” is also science fiction, set in an unnerving futuristic society where certain classes of people live forever and can frequently change their bodies (their memories are downloaded onto a card and inserted into the new bodies). There are also those who are not immortal; it’s the story of a love between an immortal and mortal, and like most loves between vastly different kinds of people, it does not end well. I loved this harrowing story too.

“Sirocco” was to me one of the weakest stories in the collection; a modern-day horror story based on The Castle of Otranto. However, I didn’t find it that compelling or entertaining. It was funny at times, and I suppose the ending was sort of shocking, but other than that, it wasn’t impressive at all.

I enjoyed “Awakened”, which deals with selkie lore. The portrayal of Leo, a not totally evil man who controls the selkie chilled me to my very bones; it was uncannily realistic and hit home. I loved the ending; it felt like such a release.

“New Chicago” was another excellent post-apocalyptic story; again, it definitely had that chill factor down pat, with a monkey’s paw that grants wishes – but not in the way you’d want. Not at all. “The Soul Collector” was also set in a seedy, filthy world, and had its points too.

I admit to skipping the next story, based in part on the Faerie Queen. I really don’t have an excuse except that it didn’t interest me. The final story, “Uncaged”, was something of a disappointment. I got what Gene Wolfe was getting it, but I didn’t enjoy reading it very much.

Overall, though, I definitely enjoyed this collection, and there were only a couple of stories that I didn’t love. The idea of the collection was so great, and thankfully it delivered. I love the way the original stories were used, and the new stories weren’t exact modern replicas of them or anything. They really were boiled down to their bare bones and then stitched together with a dash of the author’s own distinctive style and their own personal touches. Many of the contributors talking about using parts of their own heritage and background. Although many of the stories had similar elements, each was compelling in its own way.

349 pages.

Rating: *****

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