See, this was about 1979, and vampires were still pretty freakin awesome. Animated corpses with diabolical powers clawing their way out of their graves, hell-bent on tearing open some throats? Come on. What’s in that scenario for a 12-year-old boy not to love?
Little did I know that pop culture vampires had already begun their steady decline into wussification (which I’ve previously touched on here).
Anne Rice — a guilty pleasure of mine, I must admit — painted them as a bunch of preening pretty-boys in “Interview With the Vampire,” published three years earlier. In subsequent decades, they would increasingly become the domain of black-lipstick-wearing goth types.
Then the “Twilight” series came along. And in retrospect, we might as well have dubbed ourselves the “Twinkly Happy Prancing Little Unicorn Patrol.”
But vampires aren’t the only folkloric creatures to make a pop culture transformation from scary and dangerous to twee and sparkly. In a previous generation, the same thing happened to fairies.
Yes, fairies. As in Tinker Bell. As in the gay slur referencing the (offensive, ignorant and untrue) stereotype of gay men as a bunch of mincing weaklings. As in the benign, childlike beings that have graced countless pieces of eye-searingly tacky home décor. Those things.
They used to be badass.
I don’t need to get deep into the particulars of fairy folklore here. I’m no expert anyway.
But I understand there are a lot of different interpretations of the nature and origin of fairy folklore. One school of thought has it that fairies started as pagan deities, repurposed by later Christians. Another that the stories originated as surviving legends of conquered peoples banished to the woods and gone guerilla.
As I said, lots of variations. But the overarching theme is that they’re mysterious beings lurking beyond human settlements, more often than not waiting for an opportunity to fuck you up.
They tended to function as a metaphorical manifestation of nature, at a time when people generally regarded the natural world as more of a threat than a resource to be protected. And their appearance in folklore frequently coincided with sex, insanity or death.
By the Victorian Era, with the Industrial Revolution in full swing, a lot of people were buffered from nature — for better and for worse. Amid a wave of nostalgia for the pastoral life, the popular depiction of fairies changed from mysterious and menacing to benevolent and cute.
That was when J.M. Barrie wrote in Peter Pan: “When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.”
As origin stories go, that’s quite a departure from some wild-eyed Pict skulking through the woods with a flint knife clenched in his teeth.
Wow. It just struck me that I’m taking a long goddamn time to mention the book that’s supposedly the basis of this review — The Halfling’s Court, by Danielle Ackley-McPhail.
The Halfling’s Court is among a series of anthologies and novels grouped under the rubric “Bad-Ass Faeries.” You can see more about them here.
Overall, these books represent an admirable attempt to wrench fairy stories back to their origin as … well … badass.
The Halfling’s Court is the first of those books I’ve read, though I doubt it will be the last. It was a hoot!
I genuinely don’t know if the books in the series are all part of a unified story or not. The dustjacket of The Halfling’s Court says it’s based on a couple of stories from a previous Bad-Ass Faeries anthology. Sometimes I felt a bit lost as the story referenced characters and events from past stories. But that didn’t detract from my enjoyment.
The “halfling” in question is a half-fairy, half-human. He’s estranged from the fairy kingdom and rules his own mini-kingdom — the “court” in the title. Too precious by half, you say? Bear with me.
The “court” is actually a biker bar, where he presides over a Harley-riding motorcycle club. Then a fairy king regards him as a threat and comes gunning for him. All manner of bad assery ensues.
Here’s the thing, though. From that description, you might get the idea that this is a gimmicky, jokey book, based entirely on the seeming incongruity of fairy bikers.
Ackley-McPhail is clearly aware of this seeming incongruity, and the book has its humorous elements. But this isn’t some tongue-in-cheek goof.
The characters are genuine and complex enough to be engaging, which draws you into the story. You actually care about what happens to them. The fight scenes, which employ magic, are exciting and surreal.
And though you root for the biker club, Ackley McPhail doesn’t present this as some simplistic dark-vs.-light fable. The bikers are violent, unpredictable and dangerous. They’re just a bit more sympathetic than the other guys.
So if you’re interested in the kind of fairies who are more likely to knock your teeth down your throat than to take them from under your pillow and leave a quarter, check out The Halfling’s Court. It’s a fun read.