“Beauty and the Beast,” “The Night Ocean” and “The Book of Joan” all look back to charismatic stories from the past.
Some stories matter so deeply that they live beyond their first tellers’ lives. Those become folk and fairy tales like the 38 collected in “Beauty and the Beast: Classic Tales About Animal Brides and Grooms from Around the World” (Penguin, 196 pp., $16). The story on which the Disney movies are based is the longest included, but it constitutes less than a tenth of the book despite the book’s title and the gold-toned “Now a Major Motion Picture” medallion gracing the cover.
Beginning with a quartet of Greek, Roman, Persian and Indian myths, editor Maria Tatar moves on to sections devoted to “Charismatic Couples,” “Animal Grooms” and “Animal Brides,” with variations on these themes from lands as diverse as Ghana, Japan and Chile. Attributions for each tale are given at the book’s end, crediting their authors, their popularizers or, in the case of colonized and non-Western countries, the professional and amateur anthropologists who based them on indigenes’ oral accounts. Together with Tatar’s 20-page introduction outlining the stories’ origins and taxonomy, this list of sources ensures the book’s use as an academic text. Even without such scholarly embellishments, though, “Beauty and the Beast” stories, starkly poignant or elegantly stylized, repeatedly highlighting the common human risks, joys and tragedies of matrimony as they do, are themselves deeply rewarding.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft created a mythos that may last as long as the legends “Beauty and the Beast” explores. Eighty years after his death, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu still troubles the modern imagination, as Paul La Farge’s “The Night Ocean” (Penguin, 389 pp., $27) depicts with nightmarish clarity. Told from the viewpoint of a widow whose journalist husband commits suicide following his investigation of a hoax concerning Lovecraft’s romantic partnership with a much younger man, the novel plunges downward through deception after deception.
The hoaxer is first revealed to be SF fan Robert Barlow, Lovecraft’s erstwhile sexual companion, masquerading as an obscure Canadian named L.C. Spinks. Then we learn that Spinks really is Spinks, then that the explanation Spinks gives of how and why he came to initiate the original hoax is false. Truths crumble into nonexistence, and the narrator succumbs to the cosmic horror of meaninglessness for which Lovecraft was renowned. Plausibly told, with each new set of facts’ vivid details all the more convincing due to the previous version’s demolishment, this is a many-layered onion of a novel. Peel and savor.
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“The Book of Joan” (Harper, 273 pp., $26.99), by Lidia Yuknavitch, harks back to an earlier charismatic figure: Joan of Arc, saint and soldier, burned at the stake as a witch in 1431. Set in a war-ravaged near-future scenario, “Book” glides between the perspectives of a new Joan, an Earthbound teenager with Tantalus-like powers, and Christine, inhabitant of a space station populated by desexualized elites who modify their bodies into “bloated white doilies.” As far as these elites and the tyrant ruling them are concerned, the planet below exists only to feed its raw materials into their parasitic maw. A plot to similarly exploit Joan’s powers goes satisfyingly awry amid recitations of sarcastic poetry and direly convincing demonstrations of gore. Cruel and beautiful, “Book” is strong meat meant for those of us with, as the Christian Bible says, our senses exercised.