Title: Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses
Author: Ron Koertge
Published: 10 July 2012
Publisher: Candlewick Press
Genre: fairy tales, short stories
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Note: the eBook file was converted from pdf to awz when sent to my Kindle, and it messed up the formatting. As a result, my quotes are almost all incorrectly formatted. My apologies to the author, publisher and readers; I’ll fix it if I get the chance.
Ron Koertge. That’s all I needed to know. In high school I read his prose-poetry novel The Brimstone Journals, about fifteen teenagers in their last year of high school. Using only simple, intertwined narratives (one of which involves a guy planning a Columbine-style shoot-up), Koertge captivated me with brief but intimate portrayals of the many facets of teenage angst – alienation, insecurity, sexuality, anger, hating your body or being obsessed with it, being too smart or not smart enough, wanting to stand out or wanting to fit in. A narrative made up of poems was unusual and exciting, and Koertge proved masterful with this short form, skilfully filling it with more memorable, evocative details than you would ever find in an ordinary novel. I still remember some of the lines and many of the characters, perhaps not perfectly, but at least in essence.
Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses is written in a similar style – narratives in the form of poems, although in this case each of them tells its own story. Each is a retelling of a classic fairy tale in contemporary language, often with a modern setting. In writing both elegant and punchy, the stories explore relationships, the body, sex and sexuality, desire, violence, prejudice, and cruelty. It can be funny, tragic, and bold, it’s usually very twisted, and sometimes perfect.
Definitely not for children though. It might be a collection of fairy tales, complete with illustrations (all stark, eerie silhouettes), but I wouldn’t give this to a kid. Teenagers maybe. Koertge tells these tales in ways that expose the violence, sex and cruelty in them, or explores the characters’ psychologies in disturbing ways. These stories aren’t explicit, but there are themes and innuendo that would be better appreciated by adults. Take the ending of “Bluebeard” for example:
She knows her life is on the line but, believe it or not, she’s never been so excited! Her husband’s a serial killer, and her bodice is wet with tears, but there’s a chance her brothers will show up like winning lottery numbers. Which does she want more — her hair wound in the maniac’s hands and her white white throat bared, or the sound of boots on the marble stairs?
That should give you an idea of the dark, sensuous stories that Koertge tells, full of taboo desires. Hansel and Gretal have a semi-incestuous relationship and a taste for revenge. There’s an ogre wants to eat her own children.
Cinderella’s stepsisters tell their own sad story:
Ella is married and happy. Our Ever After is silence, darkness, and bitterness. We have names, by the way. She’s Sarah and I’m Kathy. We were always close. As girls we lay in bed kissing and pretending one of us was the prince. We were practicing for happiness.
One particularly unsettling story is “The Princess and the Pea”, where Koertge considers what life might be like for a woman with such a fragile body:
Have you seen the prince? My God, his hands are big as anvils. Do you know what that would do to me? Do you? I see him ogling my breasts and I think, “If you want one of them black and the other one blue, if those are your favorite colors or something, go ahead and grope. Don’t let the screaming bother you.”
Not surprisingly, few of Koertge’s fairy tales have happy endings. Usually there’s at least the taint of dissatisfaction, if not outright misery and pain. Marriage isn’t as blissful as the princes and princesses imagined, and even if they’re happy, there’s often a longing for the past, with its danger and adventure. The Beast is very happy with Beauty, but he hasn’t forgotten his previous life: “With a sigh, sometimes, I brush my perfect teeth and remember when they were fangs.”
Rapunzel, with more than a touch of vanity, is disappointed with her brutally masculine prince:
RAPUNZEL: Up there in the tower, I was a catapult of questions — one after another to keep the witch at bay. So when I first saw the prince, I was thrilled. I wouldn’t be a prisoner forever after all! But he was so hairy. His kisses were like blows. His cheeks sanded down my mother-of-pearl skin and the Plow Horse Game skinned my knees. I admit he made me feel real. I was vapor, otherwise, only collecting into the form of a girl when the witch called and I tugged and she climbed and she was the oven and I was the bread. Now that it’s all over, I suppose I’m happy. I love my daughter. But the prince is moody and thinks of himself. While the witch thought only of me.
Koertge constantly subverts conventions and expectations. Villains and monsters are portrayed with sympathy, while heroes are often revealed to be selfish, manipulative, or just average imperfect human beings. It’s not all so dark and disturbing though. There’s humour too, as in the reaction of the princess who kisses a toad and gets a prince:
OMG. He’s a gift shop, a lamb kebab with mint, a solar panel poetry machine with biceps. He’s the path through the dark woods, the light on the page, a postcard from the castle and a one-way ticket there. He’s the most astounding arrangement of molecules ever!
Just look at those tights! An honest-to-God prince at last.
I also loved Red Riding Hood as a contemporary teenager, telling her mom what happened when she met the wolf:
So first he’s all into my pretty this and that, like I haven’t heard it all before. What? Where did I hear that all before? At parties. What planet do you live on?
And what she thought when she found out that the wolf had swallowed her grandmother whole:
And it kind of makes me want to know what that’s like. What? No, as a matter of fact, if everybody at my school got swallowed whole I wouldn’t want to. It’s lame if everybody does it, Mom. How old are you, anyway?
There are a few stories that I thought were just ok, but this book still went straight into my ranks of best short fiction. Ok yes, I haven’t read that many short fiction collections, but that’s because I seldom enjoy them as much as this little beauty. I’ve read Lies, Knives and Girls in Red Dresses twice now (it’s really short, you can do it in an hour) and I want to buy a print copy because it’s the kind of thing I like to pick up on a whim. I’d open it for some random reason, perhaps looking for a quote, and then inevitably end up curled on the couch reading the whole delightful thing.