Review: Classic Fairy Tales Get an Ursine Makeover in 'Burly Tales'

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Sunday August 1, 2021

Love's many enchantments are a recurring theme in "Burly Tales," an anthology that takes a fresh look at classic fairy tales through a gay Bear lens. The results are fresh, often funny, and gratifyingly romantic.

The book, edited by Steve Berman, gets off to a rousing start with James H. Moran's mashup of familiar stories "Three, to the Swizz'!," a tale that combines our COVID-era anxiousness to get out and socialize with the atavistic pleasures of fables heard in childhood. A trio of best buddies... they flirt with the collective nickname of the Billy Goats Gruff... head off to their favorite gay bar, as pandemic restrictions lift across the land. Along the way they encounter an all-too-modern troll. Wit wins the day in this swiftly-moving romp.

More old-school in concept and prose is "The Red Bear of Norroway," a hero's journey of enchantment and peril that sees a lonesome prince seeking out his soul mate — and, once he's found and lost him, undertaking a quest to reclaim his love.

Less fairy tale and more Hammer Horror is Jonathan Harper's "Something Old Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue," which forsakes mediaeval times for a slightly alternative take on an era that lands somewhere within the last century or so. Two orphans leave their farm when the elder sister, Amelia, is wedded to an older, widowered Duke — a classic case of May/December nuptials that rest as much, and probably more, on power and class differentials (and male privilege) as on attraction and consent. But as Amelia and her younger brother (who is only just starting to realize he Is gay) settle into their new lives at the Duke's mansion, a sinister dance of power and sex commences... a dance that revolves around the mansion's single forbidden room.

"Snow Melt and Rose Bloom," by John T. Fuller, is likewise situated in a slightly-not-here-and-now universe, one in which single mothers can raise their twin sons in peace in the safety of their remote cabins in the woods. In the case of Mama Anna and brothers Snow and Red, though, that isolation is intruded upon by a magical bear who is much more than he seems. With one of he twin brothers happily paired up already, will the other discover his own beauty within the beast from the woods beyond? It's a sweet romance that's given a little tart comedy when a nasty goblin happens along.

M. Yuan-Innes angles for a post-modern, and very snarky, approach with "The Three Little Prigs." When a heartbreaker called Wolff comes along, seducing first the naïve baby brother Hamlet and then conquers the stout, reliable Smokey, the eldest brother — a dom's dom and a wolf in his own right, albeit of the Wall Street variety — makes it his mission to intervene and put the predator in his place.

The comedy (and post-modern prankishness) only grows with "A Gian Problem," Charles Payseur's uproarious adventure in which a mild-mannered giant — the sort who owns a castle in the clouds, accessible to humans only via magical beanstalk — finds his home infested by hat most shuddersome of vermin: A human being. Worse, the old saying quickly proves true that where you see one, a hundred more are bound to be lurking. But this cloud realm has its own silver lining when the giant and his equally proportioned new friend the exterminator start to kindle a romance that not even a horde of human vermin can quench.

Evil queens can be mean and vain, especially when they are kings obsessed with their thick and fulsome beards. "The Most Luxuriant Beard of All" reinvents "Snow White," huntsman, seven dwarves, magical kiss, and all — and Disney only wishes it had a gay mirror as unflappable as the one in this story.

In "The Man Who Drew Cats," Alysha MacDonald draws on a different tradition, following a former Buddhist monk named Shiro into a magical love match with a demon. But this is no ordinary demon: It's a "tengu," a terrifying and capricious being who, despite toying with Shiro, seems to be looking out for, rather than planning to murder, him. Theirs is an unlikely alliance, but it might be the only thing that can save the land when an evil queen called the Goblin Rat and her band of demonic rodents arrive to wreak havoc...

Mark Ward's offering takes the form of a long poem that revisits "The Emperor's New Clothes," while Evey Brett's "El Muerto's Godson" tells a sweet and touching tale about love and death — and an apprentice to Death — that's set South of the border. Rob Rosen's "Lesson Learned" elicits smiles from the first paragraph, as we're introduced to the narrator: A randy male version of Rapunzel who's been locked away in a tower for sleeping with just about every man in sight.

With "Bears Moved In," Anne Zeddies brings the collection back to the present day with its smart phones, hookup apps, and gym bros, and gives a novel spin to the Goldilocks tale by reimagining Goldilocks as an aimless Gen Z guy named Auren (as in the "aurum," the Latin for "gold"... get it?), whose bed-hopping ranges from too small to too large to... well, you know the rest, but it's a light and zesty adventure boasting plenty of bearish action and a hint of magic.

Jeff Mann, no stranger to gay fantasy, provides a substantial afterword that reflects, with delight and erudition, on the enduring value of fairy tales. His comments are the cherry on the sundae, but these stories speak for themselves.

"Burly Tales," edited by Steve Berman, is available Aug. 1 from Lethe Press.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.