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A new look at old tales
on November 24, 2010
I was concerned about coming to this collection of biblical retellings as a secular reader, knowing too little, but I found quickly that knowing the original tales in their various versions isn't a prerequisite for enjoying this collection. From start to finish, the stories in She Nailed a Stake Through His Head (Dybbuk Press) are well-crafted, beautifully written, and freshly conceived, tearing into the sanitized versions of these biblical tales to get to some disturbing hidden horrors, and definitely stirring up new considerations for stories that have lasted hundreds of years.
"Whither Thou Goest," by Gerri Leen, begins with a confident narrator telling a history that wants vengeance: Lot's daughters, the narrator says, "learned to turn the words of servitude into words of angry potency after their father raped them." But power and vengeance works on itself, and what we steal might also be stolen from us. This story is haunting and resonates with the feel of legends and what's hidden beneath old tales.
Daniel Kaysen's "Babylon's Burning" shifts us to modern times at a flashy corporate party, that shifts from a casual lack of ethics to talk of losing the human soul. The tale twists and turns so that the reader never stops trying to guess the protagonist's fate, feeling more and more horror at what this company--that worships gold and silver and "the shock and awe of Iran"--will ask a person to do.
The third tale, "As If Favorites of Their God" by Christi King, is told in multiple voices, each as compelling as the next, as King Saul visits a witch to speak to the Prophet Samuel. As the story unfolds and the visions begin, the two find unexpectedly their fates intertwined. The language is remarkable, with striking images that keep the reader moving with the story.
Catherynne Valente's tale, "Psalm of the Second Body," insists on the reader's attention from the first line: "I am the first story ever told; the story of the harlot." Angrily the narrator relates that she is the story scratched from the stone to make room for Gilgamesh. Startling, fresh images leave the reader living the narrator's life and essence, and beautiful poetic repetitions hark back to the oral storytelling tradition, as we see the mother of creation relating what was lost.
"Judgment at Naioth," by Elissa Malcohn, begins with the image of a road that might have once been a river, evoking a sense of history and continuum immediately, but we're then thrown into this modern, industrial world as a leather-clad girl dismounts her motorcycle to enter "the navel of Yahweh," a seedy warehouse-turned-nightclub. Once in the club she meets with the "sallow-faced" Solomon, and we learn of the girl's rape, a prophesy for revenge, and talk of opening the slit between worlds. Strange and fascinating, the story blends the old and the new so well that I believe the old might have found that "slit" into the new.
Romie Stott's "Judith and Holfernes" is a short short tale of beheading as a "full-time job," revealing with almost humorous (though too gruesome to make me laugh) vividness all the positions in which a beheading can be accomplished as well as the care that should be taken in knowing which way the blood will flow. The tale is quick and rolls like the heads.
To see God in someone's eyes seems like a wonderful thing, but for the protagonist in Lyda Morehouse's "Jawbone of an Ass," the God in her husband's eyes hates her. What at first seems to be a tale of marital abuse shifts quickly as the narrator announces that she needs an answer to her husband's "riddle," and we find ourselves in an embattled Ireland facing a vengeful God.
"Swallowed!" by Stephen M. Wilson, opens in a surreal place, where the narrator first sees the whale, a "grotesque malignancy of fantastic nightmare." This nightmare vision spreads as he wanders the city, and death, it seems, is no relief. In death-like dreams we see the narrator's past, his shocking relationship with his mother and the horrifying relationship with his "in utero" brother. The story is charged with strong, disturbing images, evoking a hellish world of mutilation, told in an efficient and intriguing backward structure.
The final story, D.K. Thompson's "Last Respects," begins with a twist from the start, as we see a vampire sharpening his dentures and a vampire family frying up dinner. This oddly domestic tale is told in a fluid, easy manner, fitting naturally with the family problems and nostalgia, though all the while, we're traipsing along a cliff edge knowing what's to come is going to be gruesome.
I came to the collection with fairly meager knowledge of the original stories, but each piece is strong both in story and in style, leaving me wanting to delve deeper into the original biblical tales, to then come back and draw the parallels and expand my understanding. It's not necessary for enjoyment, but the stimulant to want to learn more, rather than toss the finished book aside, is welcome.