Books of The Times: Fairy Tales About the Fears Within

Two women make a baby together – or do they? The book’s novella-length centerpiece, “Especially Heinous,” rewrites almost 300 episodes of “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit,” arguably the dominant fairy tale of our time, with its ritualistic opening riff, the women in distress, the tidy resolutions.

The eight fables in Machado’s book all depict women on the verge. A wife struggles to keep her husband from untying the mysterious ribbon she wears around her neck. The victim of a violent assault discovers she can hear the thoughts of the actors in porn films.

Machado is fluent in the vocabulary of fairy tales – her stories are full of foxes, foundlings, nooses and gowns – but she remixes it to her own ends. Her fiction is both matter-of-factly and gorgeously queer. She writes about loving and living with women and men with such heat and specificity that it feels revelatory.

Everything returns to the body in these pieces: the “one-beer-deep feeling” of holding a baby; sex so good you feel “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall.”

Carmen Maria Machado Credit Tom Storm

But if Machado is strong on pleasure, she’s better on despair, on our rage at our bodies – for their ugliness and unruliness, their excess and inadequacy and, worst of all, their temerity to abandon us altogether.

The strongest and scariest story here, “The Husband Stitch” – look up the term if you dare – follows a character through marriage, childbirth and childrearing. Running parallel are the gossip and ghost stories she hears about unlucky brides, unlucky pregnant women, women who got in the wrong car, who trusted the wrong doctor, married the wrong man, married the right man. “Stories have this way of running together like raindrops in a pond,” the narrator thinks. “Each is borne from the clouds separate, but once they have come together, there is no way to tell them apart.”

In the old myths, women were fenced in by forests, towers, spells. In Machado’s work, cautionary tales are all that’s required. Fear keeps women in line. Their own minds act in the place of moats.

Fairy tales were meant to inoculate us against dread, or so the theory goes; to offer children controlled exposure to frightening things – to jealousy, to adult sexuality. Terror in doses. Even Angela Carter, who claimed with characteristic relish that her work “cuts like a steel blade at the base of a man’s penis,” wrote some joyous endings. In her telling, Red Riding Hood and the wolf make the loveliest couple.

Machado offers a more complicated solace. She doesn’t contain our terror, she stokes it and teaches us about it.

We see what her characters cannot – that some of the scariest monsters come from within. And learning to identify what to fear, and to fear the right things, can be a kind of power.

“Life is too short to be afraid of nothing,” Machado writes. “And I will show you.”

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