The Globe and Mail reviews A.S. Byatt’s Little Black Book of Stories. Although the collection won’t be released in the states until April, you can read one of the stories in The O. Henry Prize Stories 2003, available now. The Globe describes it:
In the opening story, The Thing in the Forest, two girls, evacuated from London during the Blitz and temporarily billeted in a country mansion, wander into the woods beyond the house and stumble upon a monster, “like a cross between a monstrous washerwoman and a primeval dragon.” The creature is described in vigorous detail: vast mouth, mottled flesh, rank scent, the way it trailed “veils and prostheses of various manmade materials.” Clearly destructive, it does not set out to terrify, but bears an expression of “pure misery.” The girls do not experience it as an illusion but as something “more real than we are,” which, as much as its awful appearance, is the source of its terrifying power. Physically unharmed, they never recover from the sighting. Their notion of what is possible explodes. “The corner of the blanket that covered the unthinkable had been turned back enough for her to catch sight of it,” thinks Penny, one of the girls, years later.
The most memorable part of that story, for me, was this bit:
There was a very small child — one of the smallest — whose name, she told everyone, was Alys. With a “y,” she told those who could spell, and those who couldn’t, which surely included herself. She was barely out of nappies. She was quite extraordinarily pretty, pink and white, with large pale blue eyes, and sparse little golden curls all over her head and neck, through which her pink skin could be seen. Nobody seemed to be in charge of her, no elder brother or sister. She had not quite managed to wipe the tearstains from her dimpled cheeks.
She had made several attempts to attach herself to Penny and Primrose. They did not want her. They were too excited about meeting and liking each other. She said now, “I’m coming, too, into the forest.”
“No, you aren’t,” said Primrose.
“You’re too little, you must stay here,” said Penny.
“You’ll get lost,” said Primrose.
“You won’t get lost. I’ll come with you,” said the little creature, with an engaging smile, made for loving parents and grandparents.
“We don’t want you, you see,” said Primrose.
“It’s for your own good,” said Penny.
Alys went on smiling hopefully, the smile becoming more of a mask.
“It will be all right,” said Alys.
“Run,” said Primrose.
They ran; they ran down the steps and across the lawn, and through the gate, into the forest. They didn’t look back. They were long-legged little girls. The trees were silent around them, holding out their branches to the sun.”
Poor Alys-with-a-y. (Perfect name.) You can guess what happens.
The Globe review sums up the collection:
Like fairy tales, and good old-fashioned melodrama (in which characters are not conscious of the melodramatic), Byatt’s stories often rely significantly on coincidence.
But unlike a fairy tale, we’re here aware of the author as arranger (manipulator?) of character and event. Byatt’s stories are pleasingly sophisticated in their conceptual patterning, of which coincidence is a part.
But their structural neatness — their overriding shapeliness — means that while the tales may surprise and reverse our expectations, they stop short of offering true mystery. They reward by engaging us, by inviting us to think about them, rather than by leaving a lingering emotional trace. There’s no sense of the truly unpredictable quivering beneath the surface. The horror feels, if not explained, then contained. The felt world, our experiential world, remains at a slight distance. Yet the stories are engrossing enough to reaffirm the power of fiction to make real what cannot be made real in any other way.