Jack o’ the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney is one of the inaugural publications of Papaveria Press’s new Wonder Tales imprint, a slim and lovely volume of the fantastic sure to characterize future installments in the Wonder Tales library. At 69 pages, rather than being one continuous novella, Jack o’ the Hills is a pair of short stories unfolding the misadventures and mischievousness of one Jack Yap, his stone-shod brother, Jack’s skinchanger love, and the local grave-minded monarchy.
“Stone Shoes” first appeared in Subterranean Press Magazine, but is more than worth revisiting here. It is a delectably odious tale of unchecked impulses as it follows the abused and debased lives of Jack Yap and his seemingly simple brother Pudding. Their mother is a terror, having once sewn Jack’s mouth shut for three days (and oh, he has the scars to show) and insisting her towering simpleton of a son Pudding always wear painful granite shoes so he can’t wander too far. Their good old Marm’s too busy satisfying her own impulses to watch over her boys every second of every day, and so they terrorize the local countryside and come to find a skinchanger’s egg to further horrifying results.
“Oubliette’s Egg” is original to this publication and is more than worth the cost of admission if you’re hung up on the fact that you can read “Stone Shoes” for free. This second story picks up three years after “Stone Shoes” left off, introducing us to Princess Oubliette and Prince Garotte, twins and two of the most wicked and disturbing monarchs-in-waiting you’ve likely met recently. We also reunite with Jack Yap, Pudding, and Jack Yap’s own Tam, his bright and vicious skinchanger beloved. There are literal hanging gardens here, and murders most fell, nettle shirts and perverted swan-maidens, and more besides.
These are stories that made me shudder with horror and revulsion, but also had me clinging to the pages with delighted wonder and avid hunger. Cooney is a master with the cadence and rhythm of prose, weaving sentences and paragraphs that bespell and entrap. Her characters, while homicidal maniacs and terrifying sociopaths, are captured with breathtaking precision and captivating monstrousness shot through with just the right hints of humanity. They’re people you love to hate, but also find yourself hating to love– and doing it anyway. These stories are dancing with the best kinds of monsters.
Cooney also proves herself a deft hand at retelling fairy tales, or rather understanding their essence and tapping it to suit her purposes. Her stories are infused with the stark terror of maiming and mayhem implicit in so many fairy tales, right alongside the narrative nudges toward insight and maturation. “Oubliette’s Egg,” particularly, offers illumination with its subtextual commentary on skins: skins that bind, skins that change, skins that sicken us, skins that free us. There are only two overt skinchangers in the story, but the reader can’t shake the feeling that we are all of us skinchangers in our lives. Or that we want to be, and, oh, how we tangle and tame those around us by the metaphorical skins we choose.
After finishing Jack o’ the Hills, I found myself quite unable to put Jack Yap and Pudding and Tam and Princess Oubliette out of my mind. My dreams last night were actually Tam-colored, and that’s a captivating goldblack thing; today, I find myself impatiently wondering when we can expect the Empire of Leech to fall. These are tales written by a magnificent madwoman, full of rhyme and mischief, and all I want to do is ask her how much more blood she needs for her inkwell. Read Jack o’ the Hills, and you might just find yourself right alongside me.
If you’d like to find out more about Jack o’ the Hills by C.S.E. Cooney, check out “You don’t know Jack!” on the Papaveria Press blog. The post includes links to purchase information, news about the audiobook, and insight from the author on the origins of Jack Yap.