Fairy tales: You know them all the way from your childhood, and that’s the problem — there’s nothing unexpected about them anymore. Or is there? That’s where Rags & Bones comes in. Anthology co-editor Tim Pratt (with Melissa Marr) shares how the idea to twist familiar tales came to be.
Back in 2010 — for the wheels of publishing grind slow — I was chatting with my friend Melissa Marr on the phone. Melissa is best known for her YA fantasy novels, but is also a great writer of adult fiction, and occasionally edits fantastic anthologies. She’d seen me mention something online about writing a satirical short fiction mash-up of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and the children’s TV show Dora the Explorer, and that made her think, “Hmm, maybe Tim would be right for this project I’ve got in mind…”
She had this wonderful idea for an anthology, you see. There’s a reason authors are constantly asked about their influences: it’s because a career as a writer is usually preceded by an intense love of reading. Often writers are able to trace back their passion for a particular genre to reading one story, or book, or poem at exactly the right moment.
Melissa wanted to get together a bunch of talented, savvy writers with a deep knowledge of literature and ask them to think about classic stories that had been important to or influential for them, and to then re-imagine, re-envision, interrogate, or respond to those stories with new short fiction of their own. In our proposal for Rags and Bones: New Twists on Timeless Tales, we described it like this: “In this collection, modern, award-winning and bestselling authors take their favorite classic stories, boil them down to the bones, and re-assemble those bones for today’s readers.”
Melissa needed a hand putting the book together, and I was only too happy to help out, since so many of my favorite stories by SF/F authors were written explicitly as responses to earlier works. (Like John Kessel’s “Another Orphan” taking on Moby Dick, or Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” dealing with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia novels, or Peter Straub’s twist on “Bartleby the Scrivener” in “Mr. Clubb and Mr. Cuff.”) A chance to commission stories like those? No way was I going to miss out on that.
Melissa and I put together our dream list of authors, looking for leading young adult writers, science fiction legends, and exciting up-and-comers, all of whom had demonstrated a deep knowledge of literature — and we were lucky enough to secure just about everyone we wanted. Rags and Bones is an anthology designed to be enjoyable for smart teens and book-loving adults both, with a wide range of approaches and subject matter.
Neil Gaiman delivered a bold and affecting variation on “Sleeping Beauty” with “The Sleeper and the Spindle.” Science fiction grandmaster Gene Wolfe chose the rather obscure “The Caged White Werewolf of the Sarban” by William Seabrook and created “Uncaged,” a strange, elliptical, and chilling piece, as one would expect from Wolfe. Holly Black took Le Fanu’s vampire novella “Carmilla,” and turned it into a heartbreaking story about friendships among teen girls (and vampirism) with “Millcara.”
Saladin Ahmed broke open Spenser’s The Faerie Queen and explored the horror of life inside an allegory in “Without Faith, Without Law, Without Joy.” Garth Nix put a twist on Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King” with one of his Sir Hereward and Mr. Fitz stories, “Losing Her Divinity.” My co-editor Melissa wrote an absolutely brilliant selkie story, “Awakened,” inspired by Kate Chopin’s masterpiece The Awakening. Kami Garcia’s “The Soul Collector” transports a Rumpelstiltskin-like figure to a modern urban world to make dark deals and grim transactions. Margaret Stohl went back to Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto for a tale of modern movie-making among the still-potent ruins of the old world, “Sirocco.” Carrie Ryan wrote a sequel (or, rather, a parallax view) of E.M. Forster’s dystopian classic “The Machine Stops” with “That the Machine May Progress Eternally.”
Rick Yancey was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story of science and the quest for human perfection, “The Birthmark,” and wrote a tour-de-force novelette of a far future populated by decadent immortals, “When First We Were Gods.” Kelley Armstrong’s “New Chicago” works changes on W.W. Jacobs’s beloved chiller “The Monkey’s Paw,” this time set in a collapsing urban future. (Though I’m not really worthy to be in the company of those authors, I took on Henry James’s “The Jolly Corner,” about the ghosts of lives that might have been, with my own “The Cold Corner.”)
That line-up should be enough to tempt anybody who loves short fiction, but if you need more encouragement, I should mention there are six gorgeous illustrations by Charles Vess, each a scene from a different work of fantasy that inspired him. I just got my first copy of the finished book this week, and it is a gorgeous object; the team at Little, Brown absolutely outdid themselves, and they’re a bunch with pretty high standards anyway.
I usually tend toward a certain modesty when I talk about my work in public, but since this book is mostly by other people, and all I did was help with Melissa’s initial vision, I’m comfortable saying it’s one of the strongest anthologies I’ve read in ages, full of wonders and darkness and sorrows and delights. This is a book for anyone who’s ever read a story and loved it so much that it changed their world.