Little Black Book of Stories
by A. S. Byatt (Knopf, 256 pages, $21)
Though best known to the reading public for Possession, the Booker Prize-winning novel that was massacred by Neil LaBute in its film adaptation, A.S. Byatt has lately begun to work in shorter, more symbolic forms (her first excursion into fairy tales was 1997's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eye). The term "fairy tales" conjures up bedtime stories, but on closer inspection, these tales are usually concerned with the blood-and-guts conflict of human relations, the struggle and lawlessness of real life tamed into understandable formulas by repetition and recognizable symbols. In Little Black Book of Stories, Byatt claims those symbols as her own new tools.
All the signifiers are there in the first story, "The Thing in the Forest," from the very first line: "Once there were two little girls." After a long journey they reach a huge stone house in a forest, where they're fed white "rice pudding with a dollop of blood-red jam" (starting to sound familiar?) and, though they know they shouldn't, venture into the woods alone, where they encounter a child-eating, tree-trampling monster. Up until the point where you realize that they really are seeing a monster, you keep expecting the story to resolve itself into some sort of modern psychological tale. Nope. It's a dragon, all right, and one princess is sacrificed. With that, Byatt stakes her territory.
The other four stories in the collection, though couched in more familiar modern terms, are also transformation tales; and the almost psychedelic attention to visual detail, the rigorously observed processes of everyday life, are vintage Byatt, yet something wholly new.