Raymond Feist is known for his Riftwar saga, which I never cared for. Before Game of Thrones fantasy was cliche, and in the ’80s especially, aside from the works of Stephen Donaldson, had become near emasculated. But somewhere Feist took a break from Pug and wrote Faerie Tale (1988), a horror novel which allowed him, in his own words, to “stretch myself as a writer, as the serial fantasy genre didn’t allow me to address aspects of contemporary humanity — sexuality, fear, the day to day considerations of relationships”. Again, in the post Game of Thrones world, that’s a silly dichotomy, but it does remind us how hard it was to think outside the box in the ’80s, when fantasy, much like the D&D game, was being increasingly sanitized and not allowed to breathe a hint of adult realism.
I first read Faerie Tale in ’92 when I was in the Peace Corps. It was one of many beat-up paperbacks sent to me in a care package, and on my mountain in Lesotho I read almost anything. It turned out quite a surprise — one of my favorite novels which still holds up today. I reread it this month to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. If it isn’t the scariest book I’ve read, it’s certainly the one which most convincingly conveys the fear of its characters. I’m not easily unnerved, but in his experimental stretch Feist gave me more scares than Stephen King at his best.
The plot is simple: a family moves into an old farm house in New York State, with acres of woods in their backyard, which happens to be the playground of spirit beings out of Irish folklore. The novel explores the dark side of these faeries. Puck and Wayland Smith make an appearance, as does the Wild Hunt. There are sprites and leprechauns — but again, not the benign creatures we think of on St. Patrick’s day — and contorted creatures of demonic fury (see the book cover above). The strongest of these beings have the power to incite terror and lust in a person, fan those passions like a blaze, and then feed on both until there is nothing left of the soul. That’s how they “feast” on humanity, in envy of the mortal form they can only artificially assume.
Gabbie’s scene in the barn is the first example of such an attack. It’s a vivid depiction of every adolescent girl’s nightmare, being in thrall to a rapist’s sexuality. Her attacker is a “boy” who looks about fifteen years old, but who we are given to understand is Puck:
“The youth moved in front of her and she saw that his eyes were electric, a blue like flashing lightning. His boyish features were masked by a shadow of ages, both childlike and ancient. He was beautiful and terrifying to gaze upon. Her mind shrieked and yet she could make no sound; and from deep within, a desire was building. Her own body became a thing unto itself, alive with awareness. Her nipples were hardened to a painful state and her stomach and groin were awash in damp heat. A distant voice deep within screamed in horror, pleading with her to flee.
“Through a crimson haze of her own pounding blood, she could see the youth moving to position himself over her. A face of cruel beauty regarded her, which lowered to meet hers. His hot breath was as sweet as mulled cider, his thrusting tongue hinting at peppercorn sharpness. His kiss seared her lips; his touch shocked her skin, and pleasure mounted to levels of intensity beyond her capacity to endure. The burning wet heat between her legs became electric, and as she climbed new heights of desire, the gratification of that desire remained just beyond her reach. Seeking unobtainable release, Gabbie crossed the boundary between passion and torment. Desire fled as, in that instant, pleasure turned to pain.
“Terror engulfed her. Within her own mind she screamed, but her lips only moaned in pleasure, as her body remained a thing apart from her. She screamed again in her mind, but her body only made hoarse sounds of sexual satisfaction. The youth attacked her with animal fury, his teeth and nails leaving fire upon her white skin, each nip and scratch eliciting a yelp of pleasure. Deep within herself, Gabbie shrank away in fear, a spectator to her own body, so mindless in its grotesque lust that even this pain became a delight. Silently, inwardly, she wept in mortal terror.”
I’ve compacted the narrative. Puck’s assault on Gabbie actually goes on for pages, with her lust and terror building, opposing and reinforcing each other in a much more graduating crescendo. It’s a phenomenal scene that Feist apparently sweat over and revised several times.
That scene pales, however, to the one much later on, when Sean and Patrick are molested in their beds. The Faeries go after children too, and the nastiest of them all, The Fool, appears in their room late at night, pummeling Sean with lusts his eight-year old body can’t interpret:
“Sean lay frozen, barely able to breathe. Someone stood in the corner. Hidden in the darkness of the farthest corner, he was motionless, but his outline could be faintly seen. Sean felt him there. Cold terror clutched at the boy’s chest. He fought to will breath into his lungs, so he could shout, but sound lay beyond his ability. He could not move. The dark man stepped forward, closing the distance to the bedside, as if to get a better look at the boys. Sean wished nothing more than to scream for Mommy and Daddy, but no sounds came forth. He scuttled to the head of the bed, trying to get as far from the glowing black figure as he could. His small feet scraped against the sheets and covers. Tears ran down his face as his eyes were locked, staring at the invader.
“Then the dark man leaned close, until his face was scant inches from Sean’s. In his eyes Sean saw lightning dance, as electric-blue orbs sought to burn his soul. A beauty so pure it was terrifying greeted Sean in that instant, something alien, beyond the ability of the human mind to accept. And in that instant Sean wanted nothing more than to give up all will and go with the man, and in that rush of unexpected longing came a desire so concrete Sean’s body rocked. For that desire was something he was not ready for, but now it struck Sean with a wanton heat, a hunger so intensely sexual that his body could not interpret his desires. Sean found his child’s penis stiffening unexpectedly, while his body shuddered and his skin prickled with chill bumps. His heart pounded in his chest and he could endure no more. His bowels contracted, and his tiny erection vanished as his bladder emptied. And in that instant of adult longings shocking his child’s body, of beautiful passions twisted to black lust, Sean screamed.”
Again I’ve compacted a much-longer narrative that includes other nasty elements, not least the kidnapping of Patrick, who is supplanted with a demonic doppelganger to confuse the family. The entire scene is probably the scariest terrorizing of a child I’ve read in a work of fiction, and yes, I’m including The Shining‘s Danny Torrence.
The novel also explores the idea of forgetfulness: the cultural forgetfulness of people who treat myths lightly throughout history, and individual forgetfulness inflicted by way of enchantment. One of the reasons the Hastings family stays in the house for six whole months is that the Faeries are able to make them forget (or barely remember) the strange occurrences and attacks. Thus Gabbie doesn’t manifest any rape-victim symptoms (anger, depression, anxiety) unless her memory is triggered in some way. The boys are the exception. Unlike their sister and parents and visiting neighbors, Sean and Patrick can remember everything, the Fool’s attack being the worst, but also the incidents before, like the monkey-like demon (on the book cover) which almost tears Patrick to shreds under a stone bridge. That the kids can’t confide in the grown-ups revs up the horror factor considerably. Feist also seems to be saying something about the nature of children, for whom everything is magical and are thus receptive, and most vulnerable, to the supernatural.
The final act takes place in the actual Faerie lands, which Sean enters on a suicide mission to rescue Patrick. The description of this dark wonderland is of the highest order, and the showdown a ripper. Thanks to this book, I think of St. Patrick’s Day as a second Halloween. Leprechauns and changelings have all the potentials of ghosts and vampires, and if Faerie Tale doesn’t convince you of that, you’ve grown up too much.