The Midnight Circus, Jane Yolen (Tachyon 978-1-61696-340-8, 242pp, $16.95, tp) October 2020.
The Midnight Circus is the third collection of Jane Yolen stories from Tachyon in the last three years, following The Emerald Circus (which won a World Fantasy Award in 2018) and How to Fracture a Fairy Tale. Collectively these rather modest volumes are giving us a pretty good sense of what a Selected Stories volume might look like, and it might look pretty important. Yolen’s astonishing bibliography, closing in on 400 volumes as I write this (and who knows, maybe passing 400 by the time you see it) represents an almost unprecedented synthesis of centuries of worldwide tale-telling, at all levels, from kid’s board books to challenging novels of the Holocaust. This one comes with an introduction by Theodora Goss and an equally appreciative afterword by Alethea Kontis, which, among other things, serve to remind us that scores of younger writers, some now approaching middle age, literally grew up on Yolen stories. The earlier two volumes collected stories that drew on both literary sources and traditional tales, while this one focuses on the darker side of Yolen’s fiction. Some of her devoted readers might be a bit surprised to realize there is a darker side, and Yolen herself seems to share the surprise, but those Holocaust novels were pretty uncompromising, as is the one Holocaust tale that appears here, “Names”, in which the daughter of a survivor becomes darkly obsessed with the litany of victims’ names. Historical sources also feature in “The Snatchers”, which has its origins in Russian Jews mutilating themselves to avoid conscription into the Tsar’s army but turns into a modern horror story, and “Requiem Antarctica” (written with Robert Harris), a found-manuscript tale speculating on the actual fate of the failed Scott expedition, with a more effective setup than payoff.
Most of the stories, though, return to familiar folk or mythic sources. Selkies and mermaids show up in “The White Seal Maid” and “The Fisherman’s Wife”, both brief but lovely tales that are more elegiac than dark, and “The Weaver of Tomorrow” which begins with a girl desperate to know the future and turns into a neatly-constructed version of the classical Fates. Even the story of Exodus, in “An Infestation of Angels”, becomes a mordantly witty tale of outwitting not only slave masters, but some pretty disgusting angels as well. “Little Red”, in some way the most disturbing story here, written with Yolen’s son Adam Stemple, combines Red Riding Hood with the folk legends of the malevolent goblin Redcap, updating both through an unsettling contemporary narrator given to self-cutting. Redcap shows up again in “Dog Boy Remembers” as the abusive and murderous father of the title character, raised part-boy and part-dog, who learns about vengeance, though the actual payoff is wisely elided in the story’s conclusion. Revenge also figures in “Inscription”, which brings the flavor of a Scottish ballad to a tale of betrayal, witches, and murder, and in “Become a Warrior”, a warrior-princess tale covering a decade in the life of young girl after she sees her father the king gruesomely dismembered on a battlefield.
Not all the dark stories – or “darkish,” as Yolen puts it in her introduction – tend toward horror. “Winter’s King” features another abusive stepfather and dead mother, but the fate of the strange, almost stillborn boy, turns out to be more mournful than frightening, and the near-death of another boy in “The House of the Seven Angels” – a story which alludes to Yolen’s own family history – turns out to be an account of the birth of a great storyteller. “Nightwolves” draws on childhood fears of wolves under the bed and a bear in the closet, but ends on a sweet note of kid empowerment. Even the one more or less science-fictional tale, “Wilding”, in which kids can temporarily be transformed into animals for adventures in a walled-off Central Park, somehow turns a creepy premise into an appreciation of Maurice Sendak. As with her earlier Tachyon collections, Yolen offers not only fascinating story notes, but poems – some published here for the first time – that reflect on and add to the complexity of stories that, like the great story traditions she so knowledgeably draws upon, are never quite as simple as they first seem.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the September 2020 issue of Locus.
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