A letter from the editors

Welcome to Paraxis 03.

Transformation has hooked storytellers and writers, listeners and readers across the ages. In her book Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds, Marina Warner discusses the many roles of metamorphosis in literature and art, ‘as divine fantasy, as vital principle of nature, as punishment, as reprieve, as miracle, as cultural dynamic, as effect of historical meetings and clashes, as the difference that lures, as the lost idyll, as time out of time, as a producer of stories and meanings.’

The possibility of other lives draws us to fiction, and the fantastic possibilities of tales of transformation allow our imaginations to inhabit the impossible. You’ll find a little about how such stories have hooked each of the Paraxis editors below.

i.
This summer, I spent several days at a friend’s cabin in West Yellowstone. During our stay we had to be on the lookout for bears. Anyone who went outside alone had to wear a bear bell which made an incongruously pretty sound. I felt scared at times - there were clawed scratches on trees in the area that looked suspiciously bearish - but my children thought it was great fun, especially when we encountered a real bear. The transformation stories I am going to mention all contain bears, but none of the bears are as real as the one I saw in the summer.

When I was a little girl I enjoyed the Ladybird Well Loved Tales series. I particularly liked the story of ‘Snow White and Rose Red’; the bear was so tame - it was clear from the outset that he was really a human in disguise. The book had beautiful illustrations of the ungrateful dwarf and his ever-shortening beard, and I was glad when he got what was coming to him. ‘Snow White and Rose Red’ is a simple transformation story; when good triumphs over evil, the transformation is permanently reversed. This kind of straightforward transformation suited me as a child, but nowadays I prefer transformation stories that are a little more ambiguous. I read Cassandra Parkin’s short story collection New World Fairy Tales recently and I subsequently found her ‘Shaggy Bear Story’ online. It’s a tale in which a journalist interviews a man who is able to turn himself into a bear. The journalist is distracted from danger as he tries to understand the trick of the transformation.

‘The huge-dog smell assaults him as he leans into the bear’s chest. His fingers brush past coarse guard-hairs and plunge into a thick underlayer. Burrowing deeper, he finds the warmth of living flesh, the throb of leaping blood, and then muscles contracting, flexing...’

It’s a brilliant story; hilarious, disgusting and startling, and it reaches an appallingly satisfying conclusion.

Parkin’s tale led me to reread a story from Jeremy Dyson’s Edge Hill Prize winning collection The Cranes That Build The Cranes. ‘The Bear’ is the story of Daniel Sher who needs a costume for his company’s fancy dress ball. Following an unpleasant exchange with the owner of a costume shop, Daniel settles for an outfit that will make an impression, ‘something people ain’t likely to forget.’ He arrives at the ball dressed as a bear and what happens next is uncanny and uncomfortable, in part because of Dyson’s straightforward, unemotional prose.

Unlike the story of ‘Snow White and Rose Red,’ ‘Shaggy Bear Story’ and ‘The Bear’ resist explanation; loose ends are not tied up, the reader is left to think, wonder, and fret: the stories are reread and replayed; carried in the reader’s imagination where their unfastened threads resonate like tiny bear bells.


ii.
I love stories where people are transformed into birds or other winged beings. From the fairy tales of the Grimms’ in which brothers become swans and children become ravens, to contemporary stories like Joel Lane’s ‘Albert Ross’ and M John Harrison’s ‘Isobel Avens Returns to Stepney in the Spring’. In Lane’s story, Lochran, a healer, is visited by a youth whose feathers at first appear like a faded tattoo across his back: ‘random lines, like crazy paving…So intricate, so detailed, that a quick glance took in only disorder.’ As Ross’ wings grow and Lochran tends to the damage wracked by the transformation, he finds there is a cost to helping Ross to fly. In Harrison’s story, which is also the basis for his novel Signs of Life, a yearning for flight leads Isobel Avens to a clinic where the client ‘chooses any kind of feather, from pinion to down, in any combination.’ Biological engineering can bestow some avian characteristics, but the procedure is devastating and for Isobel the degree of transformation possible won’t ever be enough.

Italo Calvino commented on the link in anthropology and folk tales between the levitation desired and the privation suffered – ‘the search for lightness as a reaction to the weight of living'. But bird transformation rarely leads to joyous, unhindered flight; it damages the one who has metamorphosed or those they leave on the ground.

Conversely, one of my other favourite transformation stories – AS Byatt’s ‘A Stone Woman’ – involves the accretion of weight: ‘The first apparition of the stony crust outside her clothing was strange and beautiful…a necklace of veiled swellings above her collar-bone which broke slowly through the skin like eyes from closed lids, and became opal – fire opal, black opal, geyserite and hydrophane, full of watery light.’ As the transformation takes hold, even the woman’s thoughts and feelings slow to ‘stone-speed, nerveless and stolid’. Yet in the state she fears will render her immobile, she finds motion. Reminding us that stone, too, moves and changes, and that nothing, no matter how solid and permanent it seems, is immune from transformation.

iii.
Nothing is immune from transformation. Transformation in literature and myth is about creation and loss. There is often a sense of tension between celebrating a new state of being, and grieving for one which has been erased. Michael Moorcock’s magnificent biography of the city of his birth and childhood, Mother London, celebrates the adaptable nature of the metropolis, its ability to absorb new cultures and integrate new people while, at the same time, mourning the wonderful eccentricities, architectural and social, swept away in the process of permanent development, constant reinvention.    

Sometimes transformation is quite simply horrific – an appalling symbol of the self-destructive nature of human beings. Characters in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark experience a variety of degenerative mutations such as ‘mouths’ (wounds which open all over the body and speak independently of the sufferer), ‘softs’ which turn the carrier into a blancmange-like foodstuff and ‘dragonhide’, involving the growth of heavy scales and claws and which has been compares, on the author’s official website, to ‘a physical manifestation of Wilhelm Reich's emotional armouring’.  

I too am an admirer of Italo Calvino. I’ve always loved the sheer imaginative exuberance of his Qfwfq stories, collected in Cosmicomics and t zero. The palindromic Qfwfq transcends time, space and all limitations. The only predictable thing about Calvino’s work is its deceptive complexity. While these stories tend to be constructed around clearly stated philosophical themes, they are never merely thought experiments in fictional form, but are playful, provocative and beautifully written (and translated). 

About this volume
The stories we have selected for this volume of Paraxis contain transformations that range from the personal to the public; sometimes troubling, occasionally violent, at times optimistic and often amusing, these stories are beautifully written and memorable: Ailsa Cox’s witty and incisive tale of frustration and atonement plays out against a frozen, New Year landscape; Nicola Belte’s disquieting and compelling story explores the transformative power of pain; Max Dunbar’s humorous and tender tale is written with a touch so light, it seems to float; Katie Gooch’s irresistibly warm story explores redemption, new beginnings and the joy of beds that are got on to, not in to. Finally, there’s Ruth Jenkins’s beautifully woven tale of obsession, imprisonment and escape.

As well as the fantastic range of artwork accompanying our stories, we have images and interviews from two artists whose work is inspired by transformation. Nom Kinnear King’s portraits show strange and beautiful girls transformed by their inner lives and Eleanor Leonne Bennett’s photographs transform everyday moments into the extraordinary.

In our essays, John Patrick Pazdziora explores the relationship between shadows and story, looking in particular at George MacDonald’s fairy tale ‘The Shadows’, and Andy Hedgecock reflects on the links between literary, personal and social transformation.

We hope you enjoy this volume of Paraxis as much as we’ve enjoyed putting it together. And if you do, please consider helping us to raise some money for charity. For this volume, we are fundraising for the Anthony Nolan Trust, a charity who save the lives of people with blood cancer by matching donors who are willing to donate their blood stem cells with people who desperately need lifesaving transplants. We know you’re used to getting your content for free online, but donating is a wonderful way of valuing the work shared here by all our contributors and of helping a very worthwhile cause.

Claire Massey, Andy Hedgecock and Carys Bray
February 2012




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