One of the reasons I wanted to get my hands on the Ellen Datlow-edited Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy was Margo Lanagan’s “The Goosle” — not just because I usually admire Lanagan’s stories, but because the reactions to this story, as tracked on Lanagan’s blog, have been interesting. They have been generally enthusiastic (or enthusiastic but nervous about how Lanagan might react), and occasionally bizarre, but a number have had an undercurrent of uneasiness: Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, for instance, says that though he “appreciated the creativity and inventiveness on display,” he’s “not sure the viciousness created a disturbing experience rather than an off-putting one”; and in general the descriptions emphasize how dark the tale is.
And now Dave Truesdale has reviewed the anthology, as one of his “Off on a Tangent” columns, and attacked “The Goosle”. (It’s interesting that this column appears under the SF Site banner, rather than as an online column for F&SF, although it’s not the first of the columns to do so.) Before I go any further, in case you haven’t followed any of the links above, a brief review of the premise: the story is a sequel to a version of “Hansel and Gretel” in which Gretel (here Kirtle) didn’t escape, and Hansel was found wandering by a man called Grinnan. The two now travel together, with Grinnan regularly and sexually abusing Hansel (“goosle” is one of his names for the boy; in the original “silly goose” is what the witch says as she demonstrates her oven to Gretel), and as “The Goosle” opens they pay a return visit to the witch, here called the “mudwife” (one of Lanagan’s common linguistic tricks is to corrupt existing word; here we’re obviously meant to think “midwife”, and there is a suggestion that the mudwife may act in that capacity for some locals). Here’s a sample of Truesdale’s judgement:
Del Rey ought to get a long, loud, wakeup call… and quick. If the author, editor, and publisher can nuance this story, massage it, spin it to where the objectionable inclusion of child rape for shock value alone is acceptable, then there are absolutely no boundaries, for any reason, anywhere — and we can expect more of the same. This sets a precedent, if not challenged. And again, what audience were the editor and publisher expecting to hit here? Several stories seem written just for a younger crowd, so then what can be the reasoning behind also presenting a fairy tale retelling with repeated instances of child rape for shock value?
To sum up, his charges are: that the story is inappropriate given what he judges to be the likely audience for the anthology; that the abuse is included for “shock value” and crosses the bounds of decency, specifically in a scene where “young Hansel thinks he might even like what is being done to him”; and that it adds nothing to the story specifically or to “the canon of Hansel and Gretel”.
To take these points in order: Truesdale’s perception of the anthology as being marketed, at least in part, at young adult readers seems to rest entirely on the fact that several protagonists, including that of Lanagan’s story, are young adults. This strikes me as almost so daft as to not be worth engaging with: you’d think that the presence of a story as confrontational as Lanagan’s would be a fairly clear marker that young adults aren’t the target audience. But apparently not. There is the grain of a sensible point here, in that if the anthology can be mistaken for a young adult anthology then a reader might be confronted with material they’re not fully equipped to handle; but having read several of the other stories in the book, and looking at the way the book is presented, I think it’s unlikely anyone would actually make that mistake.
On “shock value”: here’s the scene that (I presume) Truesdale was thinking of with reference to Hansel enjoying being abused. As context, it occurs after arriving at the mudwife’s house; Grinnan and the mudwife have in fact kicked Hansel outdoors so that they can get busy.
I try dozing, but it’s not comfortable among the roots there, and there is still noise from the cottage — now it is Grinnan working himself up, calling her all the things he calls me, all the insults. You love it, he says, with such deep disgust. You filth, you filthy cunt. And she oh‘s below, not at all like me, but as if she really does love it. I lie quiet, thinking: Is it true, that she loves it? That I do? And if it’s true, how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?
Earlier this week, Victoria Hoyle was debating where she draws the line in the sand with regard to the content of fiction. It’s a valid question, and it’s not unreasonable for Truesdale to note that this story crosses his line. The problem with his critique is that he never goes any deeper than assertion – his discussion of “The Goosle” is six paragraphs long and uses the phrase “shock value” six times, which leaves the residual impression that it is the simple fact of the subject matter, rather than how it is handled, that is giving Truesdale trouble.
But this sort of thing really happens, which makes it a valid subject for fiction, and for me the handling is good enough that the story does not cross my line. In the context of the rest of the story the depiction of abuse does not strike me as exploitative, or sensationalist, or cheap. To be honest, given the hollow pain evident in that last sentence — “how is it that Grinnan knows, but I don’t?” — even in that single paragraph I think there’s enough evidence to conclude that Lanagan is approaching her topic with some care, which is to say that it strikes me — as Jeffrey Ford puts it in the comments to a post by Datlow linking to the review — as part of a portrait of how damaging, confusing, and frightening abuse can be for a child. The entire story is filled with unsettling images and situations, from the very first glimpse of the mudwife’s house — it’s clear that it’s the house of bread and cake from the fairytale, but what Hansel sees is “the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud … you are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating” – and it’s the accumulative weight of disorder that gives the story its power. Because of its subject matter, the story reminded me somewhat of M. Rickert’s “Holiday“; with reference to that story Jonathan Strahan says, in his year’s best, that “the best fiction challenges us in some way. The frankly disturbing dark tale that follows … was one of the most challenging published this year”, and in a year’s time it’s not hard to imagine someone saying the same of “The Goosle”. Both stories are asking us to try to understand psychologically damaged individuals. It’s true that Lanagan is (often, though not always) more direct than Rickert: where Rickert is suggestive, Lanagan tells us how Grinnan gets Hansel drunk to make him an easier mark, how Hansel was cut and bleeding after the first time Grinnan raped him, how “The price of the journey … is being spiked in the arse”. Of course it is unsettling to read, we might say. It’s meant to be. But this economically confrontational style suits Lanagan’s purpose: it makes it impossible to ignore what has been done to Hansel, and impossible to ignore the issues it raises.
Which leaves the question of what the story adds to our understanding of the Hansel and Gretel ur-story. In some ways, I think this is the wrong question to ask. As Abigail Nussbaum said elsewhere earlier this week, a reasonable way to evaluate a piece of fiction is to ask whether it does something new, or does something well; and if there have been dark extrapolations of Hansel and Gretel before (though I, at least, have not read so many as to be bored by them) then Lanagan’s is done seriously and well, and that is enough to justify its existence. For example: in the original, the background calamity is famine, which resonates in obvious ways with the gingerbread house and the witch’s proclivities; in Lanagan’s story, the land is ravaged by plague, which resonates equally obviously with the moral depravity of the adult characters. In the original, there is a neat, happy ending; in “The Goosle”, although Hansel does eventually find his way home, to do so he has to witness the most “obvious and ongoing” act of evil he has ever encountered, and when he gets home, his family has been killed by the plague. The moral order that structures the most commonly-read version of “Hansel and Gretel” is entirely absent in “The Goosle” — as Truesdale notes, it is ultimately the mudwife, not Hansel, who kills Grinnan — but that absence is surely part of the story’s point, and that it may have been done before does not diminish its impact here. Indeed, Hansel ultimately avenges Grinnan: an act which is both just (for what has been done to Grinnan is in itself horrific) and disturbing (for we can’t be completely sure that Hansel is not to some tiny degree saddened by his abuser’s death). Hansel is alternately at the mercy of the world, and ignored by it, and “The Goosle” is a tragedy.
There is also one significant way in which the story doesn’t differ from the original, which is that in both cases the witch is basically evil. In the flashbacks we get to Hansel’s original captivity, it becomes apparent that her interest in the boy, like Grinnan’s, is in part sexual — she is still hungry to eat him, but instead of feeling his finger to determine whether he is ripe, she feels his penis. And in the moments before Hansel ultimately kills her, she is described in ugly terms: “She has her back to me, her bare dirty white back, her baggy arse and thighs. If she weren’t doing what she’s doing, that would be horror enough, how everything is wet and withered and hung with hair, how everything shakes”. It’s also something that makes “The Goosle” interesting as a Margo Lanagan story, a way of evaluating the work that Truesdale doesn’t even consider. (There is nothing in his review about Lanagan’s skill with description or imagery, which is as evident here as in most of her other work.) The depiction of the mudwife put me strongly in mind of the last Lanagan story I read, “She-Creatures”, which appeared in Eclipse One. If that story has a folk antecedent I didn’t recognise it — the story is of three night-workmen being attacked by the titular creatures. But as in “The Goosle”, women are figured as terrifying and horrible — although in ways that have to do with their appearance as sexual beings than with their age – and as in “The Goosle”, sex and hunger are inextricably linked.
I originally read “She-Creatures” as an exercise in the blackest of black humour: for the narrator and his macho companions, the most terrible monsters imaginable are women who want to have sex with them. In “The Goosle”, there is no doubt that the mudwife really is both terrible and monstrous; but considering the two stories in conjunction, it’s a little scary to see how easily caricatures of women can be figured as, well, scary. I don’t think it’s an accident that in both stories, our perceptions of the women are entirely filtered through male characters who clearly do not see the targets of their gaze as full human beings, either through prejudice or inexperience. And in the case of “The Goosle” — given the familiarly misogynist positioning of women in many of Grimm’s fairytales – it adds another layer to what is already a fearsomely memorable tale.