THE MIDNIGHT CIRCUS by Jane Yolen (BOOK REVIEW)
“Once, on the far side of yesterday, there lived a girl who wanted to know the future.”
‘The Weaver of Tomorrow’
Jane Yolen is one of the key voices of the Fantasy genre. From the fairytale retellings Snow In Summer (2011) and Briar Rose (1992) to the excellent science fiction of Cards of Grief (1985), her work covers the spectrum of genre fiction and is well beloved by generations of fans. One would not immediately associate Yolen with dark fantasy and horror, but her latest collection from Tachyon, The Midnight Circus (2020), focuses specifically on this aspect of her work. Yolen has had stories in Year’s Best Horror Stories and been nominated for horror awards. This collection shows that Yolen’s work is unafraid to embrace the dark side, and can be incredibly effective when it does so.
Given that one of her finest and most iconic novels, Briar Rose, seamlessly combines fairy tale with holocaust narrative in a way that is approachable but does not talk down to younger readers, perhaps the strength of Yolen’s darker writing should not be a surprise. Many of the stories in this volume are fairy tale stories that lean very effectively into the darkness inherent in folk tales. ‘The White Seal Maid’ is a selkie story, fully exploring the isolation and loss at the heart of these tales. ‘The Fisherman’s Wife’ is a mermaid narrative that features a sinister mermaid luring a fisherman into the sea, and his mute wife’s brave attempt to rescue him. ‘Little Red’, written with Adam Stemple, is a particularly brutal retelling of the Red Riding Hood story that focuses on madness, abuse and death. ‘Dog Boy Remembers’, an origin story of sorts for a character in Yolen and Midori Snyder’s Except The Queen (2010), explores the horror of both domestic abuse and the mythology of the Red Cap in a memorable and horrifying tale.
Other stories show Yolen’s talent at inventing fairy tales wholesale, and playing and subverting aspects of the genre. ‘The Weaver of Tomorrow’ feels like it could be a traditional fairy tale, but is entirely Yolen’s invention. ‘Become a Warrior’ explores the idea of women warriors and the roles that fantasy writers frequently saddle women with in these stories. ‘Inscription’ is an incredible Scottish folk tale inspired by Yolen’s visit to stone circles in the Scottish countryside, a story whose rhythms and cadences luxuriate in the narrative voice of the traditional Scottish tale. ‘Winter’s King’ is about a child born to the Winter Kin, as cold and as imposing as the snow and ice of its setting. These stories demonstrate just how steeped Yolen is in the language of fairy tale, folktale and myth, that she is able to create modern day legends from whole cloth and manipulate them to her will.
Yolen also experiments across genres of horror and science fiction, expertly mixing disparate elements to create compelling stories. ‘Requiem Antarctica’, written with Robert J. Harris, is a chilling secret history that reimagines Scott of the Antarctic as a vampire who is driven to the polar wastes to get peace from his terrible hunger for blood. Yolen and Harris manage to pay tribute to the doomed heroism of Scott and his men whilst recontextualising the story into an effective work of horror. ‘Wilding’ imagines a future in which kids in New York transform themselves into feral animals to run wild in Central Park. It’s an incredible character piece, a masterclass in narrative voice, and a stealth reworking of Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are (1963). ‘Great Gray’ is a disturbing, slice of life narrative horror story from the point of view of a child killer in a small town who stumbles across a strange ritual involving owls. The story is an unsettling work of folk horror that shows just how dark Yolen’s writing can get.
Yolen’s work is frequently at her most personal when exploring aspects of her Jewish heritage, as is the case in some of the best stories in this collection. ‘An Infestation of Angels’ is a retelling of the book of Exodus with an original and striking take on angels and the Egyptian plagues. ‘The House of Seven Angels’ is a Jewish folktale about an encounter with the Angel of Death, set in the Ukrainian town Yolen’s grandparents lived in. ‘Names’ is a harrowing story about holocaust survivors and survivor’s guilt, and the importance of remembering those who were killed. Perhaps my favourite story in the anthology is ‘The Snatchers’, a story about a modern-day Jewish boy who is haunted by a spectral bounty hunter until his father takes drastic measures. Full of tense atmosphere, expertly built up tension and a keen sense of what makes the fantastical and horrific work in a story, it is the story’s connection to the real world discrimination faced by Jews that gives it such a powerful impact. Yolen’s passion and compassion shine through.
The Midnight Circus explores an unexpected aspect of a beloved author and reminds us why Yolen’s writing means so much to us. Like Tachyon’s previous anthologies of Yolen’s work, The Emerald Circus (2017) and How to Fracture a Fairy Tale (2018), not only does The Midnight Circus provide a strong overview of this particular aspect of Yolen’s writing, it is also accompanied by Yolen’s own notes on each story, plus a poem she has selected to complement each story. These notes give fascinating insight into Yolen’s approach and process, and the poems show that Yolen is a first rate poet as well, highlighting the attention she pays to word choice, rhythm and imagery in her writing. As such, The Midnight Circus is essential reading for all fans of Yolen’s work, especially those who are less familiar with the darker side of her imagination.