Once upon a time, there was a young girl named Dylan Meconis who was much loved by all, for she could draw pictures and tell stories that made people forget their cares. She spun a story called Bite Me as a dwarf spins gold from wool, and all who read this story were enchanted. But one day, the story ended and the people were sore disheartened. But goodly-hearted Dylan heard their cries, and began a new story called Family Man. All who read the story were glad once again, and waited eagerly for midweek to come so that Dylan might tell them more. And they lived happily ever after.
Ah, fairy tales; you may not realize what those words actually mean. It’s been a couple of centuries since we really had fairy tales, you see; Jacob and Wilhelm were documenting language and culture when they compiled their famous collection of folk-tales, and they cleaned them up considerably to make them worthy of the right sort of people. More than 40 tales were omitted from their compilations for being unsuitable for respectable society. By the time Hans Christian Andersen came along, the Victorians had thoroughly sanitized the very idea of the fairy tale (Andersen’s originals are only now starting to be restored to their original grandeur). Then came Disney, and fairy tales became more than harmless — they became cute.
So here we are in a new century, with a thoroughly safe set of stories for children where the good guys always win and the bad guys always get punished safely off-screen, and some brave storytellers are writing fairy tales as they used to be. That’s what Meconis has crafted here: a story full of mood, from a time when the dark outside the house contained who knows what, and there are worse things in the woods than a wolf that needs to be put down on a frosty night.
Take a look at that page again — it’s the first one of Family Man, and it sets a high bar of expectation. Everything about the landscape screams “deep of winter”, in a time before climate control, insulation, or performance fleece, when the short days of the year didn’t mean winter wonderland, they meant maybe we won’t die of starvation and cold before spring comes. Look at the wolf’s face, with the narrow, malevolent eyes and a cruel sneer over vicious teeth; it was an undeserved reputation, but for millenia this was the most feared and loathed of the forest’s creatures, surely the very spawn of the Devil. That is how you start a fairy tale, with an attention to detail and mood that drags you along, will-you or no.
Very slowly, Meconis is doling out bits of the story. We have met Luther Levy, ink-stained scholar in the Saxon lands near GÃ¶ttingen, and his merchant brother Johann, home for a visit. Their younger sister Liesl (sniffed out by Johann with his “Levy nose” … hmmm), their stern, religious mother, and their clockmaker father have been given to us in the smallest of doses, forcing us to learn about them in an organic, deliberate fashion. Right now, all is well and ordinary, but we know how fairy tales start — it’s just matter of time before the menace that lurks outside the hearth decides to step from the shadows.
From a starting point of modernity (for what could be more modern than the clock, bending the natural rhythms of time to the mechanical rule of man?), we’re about to fall back into a sense of magic and wonder. And when the ancient and modern bump up against each other, can danger and divine punishment be far behind? This story is to Cinderella as an angel (a real angel, a messenger of fearsome visage and great import) is to those treacly little cupids running around the greeting-card store at the mall. It’s worth your time; you deserve a little bit of real fairy tale in your life.
And since I’m thinking of it: I want a cherub to top my Christmas tree this year. A real cherub, straight from the King James Version or the Book of Ratings; there’s creative people that read this, so if any of you are good at soft sculpture or dollmaking, drop me a line. In a world where I can buy a plush Shoggoth or Summer Fun Chtulhu, there must be somebody willing to make me a four-faced, four-winged tree topper.