Skeleton Key by Derek Newman-Stille

Skeleton Key

Artist: Derek Newman-Stille

Fairy Tale: Bluebeard

Media: Acrylic on canvas, yarn, metal keys, skull beads, glass, plastic halloween decorations, and paper.

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Bluebeard, the fairy tale most famously written about by Charles Perrault, is a gothic tale of the disempowerment of women and spousal abuse.

In the tale, the aristocratic Bluebeard asks to marry one of his neighbour’s children, but all of the girls except for one reacts in horror at the man’s unusual beard colour. The youngest girl agrees to marry him and goes to live with him.

Bluebeard gives his new bride a set of keys to every room in the house except for one door. He then leaves the house and his wife is overcome by curiosity and ventures into the room. Inside she discovers that the room is filled with blood and that Bluebeard’s first wives have been murdered and left in the room. She gasps in horror and drops the key.

The key becomes stained with blood and when Bluebeard comes home, he finds her with the blood-covered key and attempts to kill her for discovering his secret. She is able to delay him until her brothers can arrive and kill Bluebeard.

What has often struck me as confusing about this tale is the horror that is evoked by Bluebeard’s blue beard. It confused me that so much horror could come from a beard that was of a cheery colour. Yet, the whole tale is horrific. My Bluebeard mixed media piece plays with the alternation of cheer and macabre.

I chose to highlight the joyous quality that I imagined in Bluebeard’s beard by creating his hair from spirals of yarn. The yarn itself was a variegated blue, allowing for the flow of light blue colours into darker blue. In order to highlight the fantastic nature of his beard, I interspersed beads, glass pebbles, and buttons. These provided some texture that took away from the simplicity of the hair. In order to add a macabre quality to the fantasy of his hair, I included metal skulls to underscore Bluebeard’s murderous qualities.

The figure of the key is central to the Bluebeard story, and the key here symbolizes domesticity and, particularly the domestic confinement of women. It denotes the separation of male and female space in the home and, particularly, ideas of privacy and secrecy. In order to accentuate this idea of domestic control and domestic violence, I mix keys and skulls into his beard and hair. His ideas of domestic control are linked to his violence.

I use a large key at the bottom of the canvas, bleeding off of the edge, bridging the boundaries between the frame of the canvas and the external world. This is meant to illustrate the key’s power to bridge liminal spaces, between one space and the next. Similarly, the skeletons at the bottom of the painting denote another form of liminal boundary crossing, bleeding off of the canvas to denote the bridging of the space between life and death. The skeletal image is also conveyed in the rib cage subtending the key. This combination brings attention to the idea of the skeleton key, but it also plays with the idea of the cage, the confinement and the idea of the rib cage.

The yarn of Bluebeard’s beard constructs a heart-like shape with skeletons interwoven into the heart, illustrating the idea that Bluebeard’s corrupt ideas of love are polluted with violence and decay. Yarn also comes off of the heart to create nooses around the two skeletons, creating a sense of Bluebeard’s love as strangling, choking and linked to the death of his first wives.

Body and place are intertwined in this image, interweaving house and body through the repetition of keys. Bluebeard becomes the confining house, tangled with problems and threats.

Domestic violence is a terrifying reality of our lives and my hope in depicting the innocent blue colour with the macabre skulls is meant to bring attention to the way that people often do not believe that certain people can be abusers because they “look innocent” or “seem like a nice guy”. This painting is meant to be a reminder that abuse often masks itself as innocence.

The keys in this image connect to the original myth, but also denote the idea of the secrecy surrounding domestic assault by the abuser, the people being abused, and the surrounding neighbours who are aware of what is occurring and say nothing.

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Animal Instinct

A review of Marissa Meyer’s Scarlet (Square Fish, 2013).

By Derek Newman-Stille

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Scarlet is a Red Riding Hood tale with a twist. Scarlet continues Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles that began with Cinder. Like Cinder, Scarlet is a tale of family secrets and the danger of family secrets. Like Cinder, Scarlet has been raised with family secrets and has now become uncertain of her own history and the relationships she created with her family. Scarlet discovered that her grandmother was kidnapped and she realizes that in order to save the woman who raised her, she needs to find out more about her family and herself.

 

Like many Red Riding Hood re-envisionings, Meyer reimagines the wolf as a werewolf, but this is a werewolf with a twist, a soldier of an invading army from the moon. Meyer envisions a battle of instincts with the wolf in the man fighting the man in the wolf. This wolf is torn between two sets of instincts, uncertain what parts of him are real and which parts are genetically manufactured.

 

Cinder’s discovery that she is a Lunar princess continues through this novel as she struggles with this knowledge about herself and debates which part of her behaviour is biological and which part is learned. She wants to find out if she is the product of her Lunar biology or if she is a product of her human upbringing. All that mediates between her two identities is her cyborg programming, which keeps her Lunar powers in check, preventing her from using the biological power the Lunars have to control the minds of others.

 

This is an intertwined tale of Cinderella and Red Riding Hood, but it is also a twined tale of body and identity formation.

 

To discover more about Marissa Meyer, visit her website at http://www.marissameyer.com/

Enchantments

EnchantmentsA review of Marissa Meyer’s Cinder (Square Fish, 2012)

By Derek Newman-Stille


As a person with disabilities and someone who loves fairy tales, I was excited to see Marissa Meyer’s exploration of the Cinderella through the lens of prostheses. For some time, I had thought that the Cinderella narrative’s focus on the foot made it an exciting possibility for examining ideas of mobility. Meyer’s Cinder has more than a leg prosthesis though – she is a cyborg in this futuristic fairy tale. Cinder lives in a world where cyborgs have been treated as second class citizens, their lives shaped by scientific and medical experimentation. In addition to being the product of medical intervention, their bodies are re-visited by science when they are experimented on to try to find a cure for a disease that has been spreading across Earth.

Cinder explores ideas of the stigma that come with disabilities, the social need to conform to an able-bodied norm, and the process of passing as able-bodied. Cinder is a woman who seeks belonging in a world where cyborgs are consistently reminder of their outsider status. The only belonging she is able to achieve early on is to be considered the belonging of other people – property. Like many people with disabilities, Cinder lives in a perpetual state of poverty, her livelihood based on the need to always be the best in her field in order to be able to attract customers. Being part machine, she is attracted to mechanical work and becomes a highly-sought-after expert in the area of machine repair. 

Cinder’s stigma is treated as contagious as she fears that being around her nation’s prince will mean that he will be viewed as somehow diminished by associating with a cyborg. Her stepmother similarly mirrors this concern about Cinder’s stigma when she worries what others will think of her for having a cyborg daughter. This stigma is made literal when Cinder fears that she may be spreading the disease that has been ravaging her planet. Her stigma is associated with her guilt and the belief of her society that anyone “abnormal” should sacrifice themselves for the “normal” population. 

Cinder discovers that the medical is political as political decisions are shaped by the need to keep the population safe and free of illness. Immunology and immigration intertwine in this tale of contagion and security.

Despite the identities she has created for herself, Cinder lives in a state of perpetual uncertainty about her identity. All of her memories from the first 11 years of her life have been erased and her uncertainty about her selfhood is further increased by her uncertain social situation in a society that generally ostracizes people like her. Her questions about identity are deepened by her awareness that people have begun using fake ID chips to disguise their identity, and no one around her is what s/he seems. 
In addition to the mechanical story, there is, of course, an element of enchantment to Meyer’s fairy tale. In this future society, the moon has been settled and it has allowed an offshoot of the human population to develop the ability to control the minds of others, to portray a glamour of beauty that is powerful enough to control others. The enchantment of this tale is tale is one of deception and control, allowing a powerful Lunar queen to rule her people by using her glamour to take away power from others. There are hints of a Snow White tale in this use of glamour since the Lunar Queen can’t bear to see mirrors since a mirror will rob her of her glamour by showing her the reality of her appearance. Reality and lies mix and mingle in Cinder’s experience since she, like a mirror, has an ability to reflect the truth and she is able to see an orange light when people lie. 

With an android fairy godmother, a prosthetic slipper, and a pumpkin of a car for a carriage, Meyer imagines a fairy tale that combines fantasy and science fiction, projecting tales onto the future instead of making them Once Upon A Time.
To discover more about Marissa Meyer, visit http://www.marissameyer.com

To discover more about Cinder, visit http://www.thelunarchronicles.com/books/ 

Bisclavret Reimagined

A review of Joanne Findon’s “That Time of the Month” from The Horrors: Terrifying Tales book 2, edited by Peter Carver (Red Deer Press, 2006).

By Derek Newman-Stille

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As a researcher who has given papers on Bisclavret, I was excited to read Joanne Findon’s werewolf tale “That Time of the Month. Findon remapped the Medieval tale Le Lai de Bisclavret by Marie de France into her modern werewolf tale. She modifies the werewolf from male (as Bisclavret was in the original tale) to a female character named Lupa. Lupa is a teen in high school who is going through bodily changes, as many teen girls do. Using a teenage female main character, Findon is able to bring attention to the connection between moons and menses, body shame and the pressure for girls to hide their bodies, interactions between ideas of family and independence that are central for teen life, and peer pressures and how they shape choices.

 

“That Time of the Month” preserves many of the powerful narratives that Marie de France captured, illustrating that Le Lai de Bisclavret has the power to extend beyond its Medieval context to speak to the human experience. Bisclavret was a tale that dealt with a man who needed to disappear frequently to assume the shape of the wolf. He did this by removing his clothing and was only able to return to his human form by putting human clothing back on. Bisclavret’s wife becomes jealous of him, seeing his disappearances into the woods as indicative of his disinterest in her. This evokes her jealousy and causes her to make him explain what he does in the woods. When he reveals his secrets, she brings her lover to steal Bisclavret’s clothing and forces him to stay in wolf form. She then begins a relationship with her new lover. Bisclavret proceeds to terrorize towns until he meets a king, who he immediately bows to in human fashion. The king becomes convinced that Bisclavret is more than a wolf, but has something about him that speaks more to courtly behaviour. The king adopts the wolf as a pet and Bisclavret becomes entirely passive until his wife shows up at court, whereupon he bites her nose off. It is this sudden change in behaviour that makes the king suspect that Bisclavret is a man in wolf form and he interrogates Bisclavret’s wife until she reveals the truth. The king is able to restore Bisclavret’s human form by providing him with new clothing.

 

Findon plays with these themes in her reimagining. Bisclavret’s world was one of hierarchy, so it made sense for Findon to situate Lupa’s tale in a high school – the epitome of hierarchy relationships in modernity. Lupa has to cope with social stratification, encountering the popular kids. Clothing is also an essential feature for translating this tale into a modern context. Women in our society both explicitly and implicitly have their clothing choices policed, told what not to wear, threatened when they wear something that patriarchy considers sexually evocative. In the current climate, girls have frequently been sent home because their clothing is “too revealing” and might distract male students. The role of nudity and clothing therefore became essential to Findon’s re-mapping, exploring Lupa’s connection to her own body through her nudity and the transformative power of clothing, which, like Bisclavret, is needed to change Lupa from human into wolf and wolf into human. Where Lupa differs is that she expresses a desire to change permanently into a wolf in her feelings of conflict between her humanity and her animality. “That Time of the Month” also reexamines jealousy, switching from Bisclavret’s jealous wife, to Lupa’s jealous boyfriend (who is illustrating the patriarchal connection between jealousy and ideas of ownership. The topic of secrecy functions so well in the modern high school experience, where one’s secrets can make the difference between social inclusion and social ridicule (particularly when there is a person who has a bodily or cultural difference). I don’t want to give too much of this story away… but noses also feature heavily in Findon’s story.

 

Findon, while creating a completely distinctive and powerful narrative, is able to illustrate the endurance of a medieval tale, and its power to express a distinctly human condition that is open to re-tellings, re-imaginings, and re-mappings.

 

To discover more about The Horrors: Terrifying Tales book two, visit Red Deer press at http://www.reddeerpress.com .