In A Twist of Grimm, William Holden’s enchanting new collection of traditional Grimm Brothers’ folktale reworkings from GLBTQ publisher Lethe Press, there’s much about these erotically endowed versions that is fresh and queer. The author accomplishes this by presenting strong story choices, thoroughly and nearly seamlessly injected with a fabulist, queer, kinky, sometimes violent sensuality that makes for stimulating masculine reading. Elves, fairies, trolls, giants, and other folk populate these stories because they represent queer, transformative aspects of the hero’s fantastic world, pervaded by a fabulous perversity. In the hero’s world of the traditional fairy tale, human sexual desires are usually represented by animals or humanlike beings with supernatural powers; in Mr Holden’s thirteen stories, however, the characters are free to explore and express their randiest desires through sexual magic.
The classic gay fairy tales come to us from master storyteller Oscar Wilde, who wrote numerous such stories filled with his uniquely queer wit and wisdom. Contemporary feminist fairy tales appeared in the 1986 anthology Don’t Bet on the Prince by Jack Zipes, and in Barbara Walker’s brilliant 1996 Feminist Fairy Tales.
In casting traditional tales forward into time, there is always the risk that the resulting prose will be anachronistic or culturally misfit. Both of Peter Cashorali’s charming collections, Fairy Tales: Traditional Stories Retold for Gay Men (1997, HarperOne) and Gay Fairy & Folk Tales (1997, Faber & Faber), while providing same-gender renderings of old folktales, occasionally lapsed in this regard, where the hero acts and speaks more like a dejected WeHo clubkid than a subjugated prince of yore. In Lethe Press publisher Steve Berman’s excellent 2007 collection, So Fey: Queer Fairy Tales, traditional story lines are also queered in more contemporary idiom.
Folk and fairy tales express aspects of human existence that endure through the ages because they contain timeless lessons. Any fairy tale will involve: unusual or pathetic subjection of the hero; wisdom imparted to the hero that provides release from significant difficulties or obstacles; and finally, the hero’s release must be transcendent and include compensation that compels the hero’s return to a human existence greatly enhanced. The heroes in Mr Holden’s Twist explore masculine worlds freed from sex taboos and gender concepts, which makes for splendid reading that is as psychologically satisfying as it is erotically charged.
True to its title, A Twist of Grimm endows traditional tales with kinky erotic action, and the sex does get hot and heavy at times, yet its flame gives off at least as much light as heat, in the sense that the sexual episodes of various familiar acts and fetishes always convey some deeper, darker symbolism. I found myself most engaged (and engorged) when a story takes a magical, kinky turn, such as in “Wicked Little Tongues,” which involves a naked hairy shoemaker and his wife, a handsome customer in a skirt, a storeful of leather, and copious amounts of elf semen.
If only the Grimm Bros. had been free to depict such horny elves with “bodies … covered in a ﬁne white hair that trailed all the way down their tiny legs. Their pricks stood erect and glistened with dampness in the candlelight.” What a different childhood we all might have experienced reading these old folktales. My favorites include “The Flaccid Cock that Sang,” based on “The Singing Bones,” in which an unresponsive member betrays its owner. I also loved “Joshua and His Many Men,” involving a “giant whose body was covered with hair and muscles” and Joshua, whose doom is assured after he attempts to fellate Death, then insults the Grim Reaper’s endowment as “too small to be any use to me anyway.” You just know that this jackass’s fate will inevitably be one wicked “twist of grim.”
Like most of the collections cited here, I had hoped for some verse in some of these stories. When characters sing, chant, or recite poetry in fairy tales, often a special magic is released, and these lyrics can become the most memorable part of the story. That said, the prose is sometimes lyrical, often droll, always sharp and sexy, and overall highly readable. A Twist of Grimm is a well-crafted, compelling compilation of queeroticized tales that fans of folklore, mythology, and fairies of all colors and hues will appreciate, and I highly recommend it.
Reviewed by Ron J. Suresha