“To walk In the Wild Wood is to enter worlds where the mundane is made magical” states the blurb on the back cover of Frances Gapper’s newest short story collection, published by Cultured Llama. I suspect for Gapper, what is meant by as mundane, daily life for most folk in England where many of her stories are set, is anything but. Not all writers have an ability to see magic in the every-day occurrence, however this is Gapper’s stand-out peculiarity; what would be dry description from the fingers of a less skilled writer is, in Gapper’s hands, the equivalent of a Grecian urn with a laugh-out-loud comic strip glazed around its vitreous fired girth. And just as the ancient Greeks understood the winning combination of high art with low art, so too does the author of In the Wild Wood, juxtaposing classical references with contemporary ones such as Come Dine with Me. Old with the new.
I first encountered the title story in issue seven of Short Fiction. As I read the issue eagerly, excited to see what talent I was on a par with – my story While “Women Rage in Winter” had just won Short Fiction’s competition and was published in the University of Plymouth’s journal alongside stories by Catherine McNamara, Scott Pack, Annemarie Neary, Jenn Ashworth, Jill Widner, and others – I came across Gapper’s. Actually: I opened issue seven, read my story first and “In the Wild Wood” - illustrated by Claire Harper with an intriguing deceptively simple head from inside which grew a tree-brain - followed it, so. The story details the metamorphosis of a mother into a child due to the symptoms of dementia, but really what’s being described is the fear of a child forced to become a parent to their parent, the grief of losing their own life to the shepherding of the person whose care consumes them. Old age, filtered through a child’s lexicon, is made new, a contrast symbolised beautifully by the cover illustration for In the Wild Wood, an original artwork by Jane Eccles that evokes Oscar Wilde's "The Selfish Giant" for me.
A simple thing representing a complex one, a youthful approach to an adult issue, is what Gapper does best. She has the ability, in the words attributed to Ezra Pound, to “make it new”. This is perhaps best showcased with the stories “In Bed with Miss Lucas” and “Observing Lucy”, lifting off as they do from literary classics of two of England’s most lauded women writers, Jane Austen and Charlotte Brontë, with insights that are at times as hilarious as they are diverse.
“In bed with Miss Lucas” re-casts Pride and Prejudice from a LGBTQ perspective, in which “The younger girls might now form hopes of coming out a year or two sooner than they might otherwise have done”. Brontë scholars will be familiar with the setting of “Observing Lucy” as Monsieur Heger’s Pensionnat in Brussels, attended by Charlotte Brontë who went there first as a pupil, encouraged by her friend Mary Taylor, and later as a pupil-teacher, until her obsession with her master forced her to return to England and harass him via a one-sided correspondence. Gapper’s re-imagining of Villette is told from the perspective of Madame Beck, whose husband is the love interest of Lucy. In these two short stories, Gapper encompasses greater political and emotional terrain than the two original novels they are derived from.
From these longer historical pieces to the deft brevity of “The Leaf that Wouldn’t Fall” and “MyLion”, In the Wild Wood shows Gapper flexing all her story muscles, and leaves the reader in no doubt there is a lot more to come from one of the most exciting imaginations producing fiction today. I cannot guess where her next work will take me, her previous being The Tiny Key, I can only dream it will open up a world as yet un-imagined from the starry heights of a girl staring at the moon from a cartoon tree-top as In the Wild Wood.