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Read an Excerpt from Michael Cunningham’s New Collection ’A Wild Swan and Other Tales’

Read an Excerpt from Michael Cunningham’s New Collection ’A Wild Swan and Other Tales’

Author: William Johnson

November 29, 2015

In November, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux released A Wild Swan and Other Tales, a short story collection that offers contemporary takes of popular fairy tales.

From the Lambda Literary Review:

[…] Michael Cunningham’s queered renditions of the selected fairy tales in his collection, A Wild Swan and Other Talesare timely and compelling. He disrupts familiar happily-ever-after outcomes and paints them with the vivid colors and grey ennui of our modern lives. Cunningham, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Hours, constructs continuation narratives for these stories that ask the reader to envision the what-if behind the enchantment.



Most of us are safe. If you’re not a delirious dream the gods are having, if your beauty doesn’t trouble the constellations, nobody’s going to cast a spell on you. No one wants to transform you into a beast, or put you to sleep for a hundred years. The wraith disguised as a pixie isn’t thinking of offering you three wishes, with doom hidden in them like a razor in a cake.

The middling maidens—the ones best seen by candlelight, corseted and rouged—have nothing to worry about. The pudgy, pockmarked heirs apparent, who torment their underlings and need to win at every game, are immune to curse and hex. B-list virgins do not excite the forces of ruination; callow swains don’t infuriate demons and sprites.

Most of us can be counted on to manage our own undoings. Vengeful entities seek only to devastate the rarest, the ones who have somehow been granted not only bower and trumpet but comeliness that startles the birds in the trees, coupled with grace, generosity, and charm so effortless as to seem like ordinary human qualities.

Who wouldn’t want to fuck these people up? Which of us does not understand, in our own less presentable depths, the demons and wizards compelled to persecute human mutations clearly meant, by deities thinking only of their own entertainment, to make almost everyone feel even lonelier and homelier, more awkward, more doubtful and blamed, than we actually are?

If certain manifestations of perfection can be disgraced, or disfigured, or sent to walk the earth in iron shoes, the rest of us will find ourselves living in a less arduous world; a world of more reasonable expectations; a world in which the appellations “beauty” and “potency” can be conferred upon a larger cohort of women and men. A world where praise won’t be accompanied by an implied willingness to overlook a few not-quite qualities, a little bit of less-than.

Please ask yourself. If you could cast a spell on the ludicrously handsome athlete and the lingerie model he loves, or on the wedded movie stars whose combined DNA is likely to produce children of another species entirely … would you? Does their aura of happiness and prosperity, their infinite promise, irritate you, even a little? Does it occasionally make you angry?

If not, blessings on you.

If so, however, there are incantations and ancient songs, there are words to be spoken at midnight, during certain phases of the moon, beside bottomless lakes hidden deep in the woods, or in secret underground chambers, or at any point where three roads meet.

These curses are surprisingly easy to learn.

Reprinted from A Wild Swan. Copyright 2015 by Michael Cunningham. Published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
William Johnson photo

About: William Johnson

William Johnson is the former Deputy Director of Lambda Literary.

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