joysilence: (Getting back to my roots HARHAR *canned)
[personal profile] joysilence posting in [community profile] darkling_tales
In my last post I looked at a pagan horror novel nearly a century old. But who are the big names in pagan and sylvan horror today? With this question in mind I recently purchased the anthology The Green Man edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. If you're puzzled by the apparently phallocratic title, I should perhaps explain that the "Green Man" is a recurring character in British folklore and folk art that has manifested in many different avatars over the centuries. The green man is characteristically portrayed as a face made of leaves and branches, with leaves and plant life pouring out of its mouth. A famous example of these tree-faced fellows is the sculpture of Baphomet in the old Templar church at Garside on the Welsh border. The church and its leafy denizen even starred in a Phil Rickman novel, The Origin of Sin, and were a crucial part of the novel's success. So I was very keen to read an anthology of new tales and poetry about this verdant gentleman.

Things get off to a good start with a surprisingly good Neil Gaiman poem, 'Going Wodwo' (a Wodwo being a tree-dwelling "wild man" figure often considered to be a foundation of the Green Man myth).I never thought I'd live to see the day when Gaiman wrote three decent lines of fiction in a row, but here he manages over a dozen, so credit where credit's due, I suppose. Unfortunately, the stories of the book's first half are not so enjoyable. Stories like Delia Sherman's 'Grand Central Park' and Patricia A. McKillip's wimpy cop-out 'Hunter's Moon' are a bit insipid and childish, with strenuously average teenage girls as narrators. This particular trend continues throughout the book, unfortunately. I read in an online review that The Green Man is meant to be a Young Adult book, but it doesn't say so anywhere on the cover or in any of the blurb. But that would explain the rather glaring lack of graphic sex and violence.

Of course, YA fiction is not in itself a bad thing - I've read some really frightening and very mature YA ghost stories by the likes of John Gordon, Ann Halam and Robert Westall. For those authors, the ban on sex and extreme violence simply acted as a challenge to create fear without resorting to facile props, and its a challenge they've all met very well. YA stories don't have to be insipid or watered-down like those in The Green Man, so the editors' choice of lukewarm, kiddified tales narked and disappointed me in equal measure! In these first stories the Green Man (or woman - several of the tales feature a female incarnation of the myth) is betrayed as either benign or just tricksy, and very in tune with human wants and needs. You can bargain with him (or her.) After a while, this "nice" Green Man got a bit samey and I began to wish for a deity more exacting, vengeful and just plain adult. In fact, several of the tales feature fairies rather than the Green Man, which is proper short change if you ask me! That said, most of these stories are reasonably written and some of them can be quite pleasant to read (e.g. "Somewhere in My Mind There is a Painting Box" by Charles de Lint).

There are some more interesting stories in the latter half of the book, however. "Grounded" by Nina Kiriki Hoffman is pleasingly menacing at first, even though it has a happy ending that is slightly inane (although the author is highly defensive of it in the commentary)and is, yet again, about a strenuously average teenage girl. The talented Kathe Koja contributes a tale in characteristically sing-song prose that is bittersweet but not childish (see! It can be done!) Towards the end of the book, the contributing authors seem to be interpreting the "Green Man" concept less literally, and exploring other pagan myths of a similar (but not identical) kind that exist in places other than Britain. We visit the fantastical fairy-filled childhood world of the famous composer Maurice Ravel, in a semi-factual and totally bonkers story called 'The Pagodas of Ciboure', and Native American myths are explored in Carolyn Dunn's 'Ali anunge o chash' (though I couldn't quite get on with the author's oblique prose style.) There is also the inevitable dollop of South American magical realism from Katherine Vaz with "A World Painted by Birds". And a couple of comedy tales that go from "agonisingly awful" to "OK actually".

But my favourite of these travelogue tales - and my favourite in the whole book, in fact - was "Joshua Tree" by Emma Bull. Her long story about a local girl's mystical encounter in the Mojave desert has a bit more bite to it than most, and while it too has a female teenage narrator, this one actually resembles a real human individual rather than a whiny stereotype, so that's alright. Like many people from temperate old Britain I had never thought of the desert as a particularly beautiful or fascinating place, but Bull manages to show that the desert has a multi-hued mystique all of its own, especially at night. It's also an astute look at small-town ennnui, and this leads me to another problem I have with many of the stories in this anthology: the absence of a pre-supernatural, "normal" stage before the fantastical action starts. For there to be the magical, there has to be the mundane, after all, and one of the problems the other stories in this collection face is that they don't show enough of the real world and real feelings, so that there is little contrast between mundane and magic to be enjoyed.

Obviously, not every horror story needs this, and some good stories have been written that plunge the reader into the horror straightaway. But you have to be a very good writer for that to work. M R James - himself no slouch at the ghostly tale - specifically recommended writers include a "normal bit" and ease the reader into the supernatural gradually. And where pagan fantastic fiction is concerned, I think it's telling that Arthur Machen was very fond of the framing device. When you've read a handful of stories in a row that don't have any such "scene-setting", and they're all on the theme of the Green Man and the greenwood, you feel caught in a confusing, unremitting blur of green that simply prevents you from being properly scared.

But perhaps the worst thing about The Green Man is the amount of authors missing, authors who really should have taken their rightful place in any collection of greenwood tales. I'm thinking especially of Robert Holdstock and M John Harrison here, but there are others, like John Manchip White and Ramsey Campbell, not to mention a host of 20th-century writers. If the brief was to compile a collection of stories solely from the past 20 years, then fine, but they should have said so in the jacket blurb! I also felt they should've chosen a better Tanith Lee story than 'Among The Leaves So Green'. It's not like she hasn't written gazillions of great woodland tales, for God's sake! I am almost tempted to say that the poems are the best bit - there are only three, and they are short and simple, but I did enjoy 'The Green Man' by Bill Lewis especially.

In short, The Green Man is a great idea poorly executed. There is far too much emphasis on the fairytale (despite Datlow having already pumped out several fairy-themed anthologies!) and many of the stories are unforgivably childish, even they are written as YA fiction. It was a disappointing read, especially since the book is absolutely stunning to look at. £10 gets you a hardback with gorgeous jacket artwork and charming original line drawings at the head of each story, all by Charles Vess. The paper is unusually lovely to handle and the layout is exquisite. I wouldn't recommend The Green Man to the general horror fan, but if you enjoy the fairy tale format or perhaps have young children of your own, then it might be worth purchasing. And one thing's certain, it'll look great on your shelf!
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