Have you ever been plagued by a string of misadventures? Ever groaned “Why is this happening to me?” as you miss your train, lose your wallet, and step in something nasty that you’d have sworn wasn’t there a moment ago? Has it ever crossed your mind – have you ever wondered – whether perhaps, maybe – you’ve been cursed?
Curses are a staple of folklore and fairytale. Some are blatant: uttered aloud as a prophecy of unavoidable future misfortune. Some creep up on their victims, gradually plucking at their lives until the eventual dawning realisation that their bad luck may not just be down to coincidence or clumsiness. And some are literally transformative, changing the physical appearance or abilities of the one who has been cursed. Generally though, and whether you’re the curser or cursee, curses are bad news for all who are involved.
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Cursed from Titan Books, edited by Marie O’Regan and Paul Kane, opens up the idea of the curse to a variety of interpretations, presenting 18 stories and two poems that take multiple angles on the theme, from re-imagining well-known fairytales – with surprising results – to creating entirely new strains of (hopefully) fictional curse.
There are big names here – Neil Gaiman, Christina Henry, M. R. Carey – and whilst some of these tales have previously been published elsewhere the majority make their debut in this malediction-filled tome. And actually, there’s not a weak spot in this book.
Christina Henry opens with an elegant take on Snow White that demonstrates not only a deep knowledge of fairytales but an awareness that the patriarchy has unfairly pointed the finger of blame at the women of these stories on too many occasions. Wicked stepmother? Perhaps not.
‘Skin’ by James Brogden is an upsettingly visceral take on the theme, whilst M. R. Carey’s ‘Henry And The Snakewood Box’ takes a lighter, almost comical tone. ‘Haza and Ghani’ by Lilith Saintcrow is a transposed reworking of Hansel and Gretel, and ‘The Merrie Dancers’ by Alison Littlewood – well, you’ll know it when you see it.
‘Again’ by Tim Lebbon, and ‘Hated’ by Christopher Fowler take a rather modern look at the nature of curses and how they might affect us. ‘Listen’ by Jen Williams is a mournful tragedy, and ‘Faith & Fred’ by Maura McHugh is a dire warning, whilst ‘New Wine’ by Angela Slatter and ‘Wendy, Darling’ by Christopher Golden are chilling new perspectives on familiar stories. These 18 prose stories are enclosed by a poem at each end: ‘Castle Cursed’ and ‘Castle Waking’ by Jane Yolen – a very fitting beginning and ending.
Usually collections of short stories have a few standout entries, a few weak points, and a quantity of enjoyable but perhaps easily forgettable tales – depending, of course, upon the reactions of the individual reader. But Cursed has clearly not lived up to its name, as every story selected for inclusion here is of incredibly high quality, delicious and moreish, provoking in the reader a compulsion to keep turning the pages until the book is complete. A compulsion strong enough to be a curse? Perhaps. You’ll need to buy a copy and find out for yourself.
Cursed is out now from Titan Books.