Today I Read…Hero is a Four Letter Word

Hero is a Four Letter WordToday I read Hero is a Four Letter Word by J.M. Frey. Frey is also the author of Triptych.

We look up to heroes. We place them on pedestals, crown them with laurels, and marvel at the tales of their great deeds. But what do the heroes see when they look in the mirror? In her first short story collection, J.M. Frey shows us three heroes behind their magic swords and capes. Sometimes the hero’s journey starts with figuring out who they are and what they’ll fight for.


J.M. Frey has previously explored the idea of the hero in the anthologies When the Hero Comes Home and When the Villain Comes Home, both edited by Gabrielle Harbowry and Ed Greenwood and published by Dragon Moon Press. Her stories from the two anthologies, The Once and Now-ish King and The Maddening Science are included in this collection, along with a previously unpublished short story, Another Four Letter Word.

As usual, Frey runs the full emotional gauntlet from laughter to heartbreak, with stops along the way at bitterness, regret, anger, determination, desire, and absurdity. Fans of rewritten myths and legends, both ancient and modern, will love her twist on feats of derring-do and what the heroes are really thinking behind their posing and finger-wagging at villains and exclamations of “You can’t do that! That’s naughty!” (All of the points to the first person in the comments to guess the reference.)

Heroes are born to be extraordinary. But these heroes are all the more extraordinary because they insist on being Destiny’s partner, not her pawn.


The first thing that Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Future (well, Now-ish) King did upon his rebirth into the world at the moment of Albion’s greatest need, was to open his shrivelled red mouth and squall out: “Oh hell,no.

Which startled his Mother quite badly, you’ll understand, as she had just put him to her breast for his first little feeding. She shook her head and glared balefully at the IV needle in the bend of her elbow, ignored her new son’s outburst, and went about her task.

The second thing that Arthur Pendragon, the Once and Now-ish King did upon his rebirth into the world at the moment of Albion’s greatest need, was to consume his body weight in breast milk. After which, he soiled his nappy, burped quite dramatically, and took a wee bit of a nap.

Getting born was hard work, you know.


“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Lady Carterhaugh,” he whispers. His eyes are gravity wells. As deep and as appealing as Da’s grave.

“Pleased to make yours, Liam,” she replies, enchanted far too easily by his smooth manners.

He raises her hand to his mouth, brushes a dry kiss across the back of it. Then, from somewhere behind him, he produces a flower. It is one of the late-blooming wild roses, two blossoms fully blown on a single stem.

Jennet can’t help it. The spell is broken. She throws back her head and guffaws.

He stands there, roses upheld, looking equal parts surprised and hurt.

“Oh, your face!” Jennet howls. “Did you think that would work?

“It always has,” he pouts. “Do ladies no longer like roses? Have they fallen out of fashion?”

“Do you hear yourself?” Jennet laughs. “You sound like a period drama!”

Liam drops her hand and turns away, obviously upset, and rubs his free palm on the thighs of his dark jeans.

“Oh, come on,” Jennet says, calming down. “Don’t get your feathers in a ruffle. It’s a very nice rose. And your manners are lovely. And I do appreciate you not throwing rocks at my windows.”

He turns back to face her, face twisted in a strange rictus of amusement and horror. “Ladies are not at all what they used to be,” he says, definitive.

“Nope,” Jennet agrees. “And thank the Lord for that.”

Liam runs a frustrated hand through his hair, and gold fluffs up like dandelion down. “You’re not making this easy, Jennet,” he huffs.

“What’s meant to be easy?” Jen counters. “Me?”

“Oh, no,” he says, eyes immediately round and apologetic. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“Tell me how you meant it, then, and choose your words carefully.” She pats her back pocket expressively.

“How is a man enchanted with a woman meant to behave, if not like this?”His arms spread in askance. The heads of the roses bob, as if to agree with his frustration.

“Well, threatening the safety of a woman by behaving like a horrible creeper is right out of fashion, now-a-days,” Jen says, and she can’t help the lilt of tease that slips into her voice at the end.

“And what then?” Liam asks, receptive to her smile. His frustration is ebbing, replaced with interest in her explanation.

“Most guys chat up women in the grocery store, or in a bar,” Jennet says. “Somewhere public, you know? Sometimes they even call a girl. Or message them on the internet. Send them cards, or knock on their doors. Anything but skulk around, alone in the forest with roses and cheesy lines.”

Liam grins puckishly and dips another theatrical bow. “But it worked, didn’t it?”

Jennet snorts. “Only because I decided to listen to you instead of brain you with a branch. Which I may yet regret.”


In the morning, I’m troubled. I think I’ve made a very bad choice, but I’m not sure how to rectify it. I am not even sure how to articulate it.

Rachel was right. I am lonely. I am desperately, painfully lonely. And I will be for the rest of my unnaturally long life. But Rachel is lonely, too. Desperate in her own way, desperate for the approval of a mother I can only assume was distant and busy in Rachel’s youth, and then too famous and busy in her adolescence. Rachel wants to be nothing like her mother, wants to hurt her, punish her, and yet…wants to impress her so very badly that she is willing to take the ultimate step, to profess love for a man her mother once hated, to ‘fix him,’ to ‘make him better.’ To make him, me, good.

Only, Rachel doesn’t understand. I don’t want to bebetter, or good, or saved. I just want to live my boring, in-extraordinary life in peace and quiet, and then die. I don’t want to be her experiment.


Today I Read…Midnight Snack and Other Fairy Tales

Today I read Midnight Snack and Other Fairy Tales by Diane Duane, a collection of rewritten and modernized folk and fairy tales. Midnight Snack

Since anthologies are really hard to summarize, the following story descriptions are from Diane Duane’s ebook website.

The stories in the collection include:

First Readthrough: How you do the casting for a fairy tale… and what can go wrong while you do.

The Dovrefell Cat: Your pet polar bear may sometimes be a problem… but there’s one night of the year when he shines.

…Under My Skin: Some first dates just don’t work out the way you think they will: not at all.

A Swiss Story: Lots of people from that part of the world have something from “during the War”. But not many have anything like this…

Blank Check: A most unusual client turns up at one of the world’s oldest banks with an impossible request… which nonetheless must be fulfilled.

Don’t Put That In Your Mouth, You Don’t Know Where It’s Been: A would-be worshipper of the Triple Goddess has her upcountry ritual disturbed by something very odd.

The House: A school project examining gingerbread as a structural element turns into something way more personal.

Cold Case: A cop who won’t take no for an answer meets a murder victim who’s even more stubborn than he is.

The title work, Midnight Snack: “Dad came down with the flu that week, so I had to go down to the subway and feed the unicorns…”

And completing the collection, a full-length feature film screenplay, Dead & Breakfast: a ghost story with computers.


I’ve always been fond of fairy tales, and I love rewritten versions. The basic stories are immortal, but sometimes they get the details a little wrong. Or if not wrong, then a product of the time. As Duane asks in the foreward below, *WHY* can’t the prince rescue a prince? And why can’t the princess rescue the prince? Why can’t the princess rescue the princess? I direct fellow questioners to Diane Duane’s Middle Kingdoms novels, Patricia C. Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and Mercedes Lackey’s 500 Kingdoms series. Princess Leia got rescued by Han and Luke and turned right around and rescued them from the firefight in the Death Star’s prison. And Jim C. Hines’ Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and Snow White from the Princess novels do the rescuing, not the being rescued, thankyouverymuch.

Okay, off the princess-heroine soapbox. The thing about fairy tales is that they entertain, but they also teach. There is always a moral, or a lesson, or a reminder.

My favourite story in this collection is “First Readthrough.” What if you were casting a fairy tale movie, but you took the characters a lot more seriously than I’d bet Hollywood does in reality? The story consultant has a point–sometimes trust is more important than love, because love cannot flourish without trust.

“…Under My Skin” features the clever heroine, the one who remembers the old tales and uses her wits to save herself and the prince. Well, the duke in this case. And it reminds you not to drink too much on a date, just in case he turns into a giant snake. You never know.

“Blank Check” reminds you to do your duty, no matter what you think the consequences may be. When you have no good choices, then do what you’re supposed to do.

“Cold Case” is about patience, and determination to see a thing through, no matter how long it takes.

And “Dont Put That In Your Mouth, You Don’t Know Where It’s Been” is about being careful what you ask for, and kindness to those in need, even to those different from you.



Fairy tales have been a big deal for me all my life.
At first it was a matter of sheer enjoyment. As an early and frequent raider of the local library in the little Nassau County town where I grew up, the entire fairy tale section, with the multicolored Andrew Lang [Insert Color Here] Fairy Books, was very basic material for me, inhaled as soon as found, and often returned to over the following years—even when I hit the age when a young reader gets selfconscious about being seen in the children’s library. (Readers of So You Want to Be a Wizard will hear a familiar theme here.)
As a result, over many years the whole cultural and psychological region occupied by folklore, fairy tale and legend became far more familiar territory to me than the merely physically-real Long Island. I soaked up what we would now think of as tropes through my skin. The brothers Grimm, the Comtesse d’Aulnoy and the other great popularizers (including Lang of course) became my best buds. Long after my yearsmates had gone on to popular fiction—those of them who bothered to read, anyway—I was still deep in this material, hunting down anthologies of folkloric and fairytale material from cultures well outside of the normal European stomping grounds and steeping myself in them.
At no point during this process did I realize I had also been eagerly ingesting what would eventually prove to be a gateway drug. I can, however, clearly remember the long-ago evening when, as I was being put to bed, I asked my Mom a leading question about the fairy tale she’d just read me: “Why does it always have to be a Prince rescuing a Princess? Why can’t a Prince rescue a Prince?
Mom kind of chuckled at me and told me that when I grew up, I’d understand. But when I grew up—well, got past eighteen, anyway—and revisited that memory, I was annoyed to discover that I still didn’t understand. In fact, the omission of routine relationship-and-rescue opportunities for same-sex fairy tale characters made it clear to me that something about the local storytelling system was broken. So, locally, I set about starting to fix it. I started writing the foundation material for what would later become my first novel, The Door into Fire, around the time I went into nursing school. It did take a decade or so to get that story sorted into a shape that was worth other people spending their time to read it. But what the restatement or reworking of that particular theme taught me was that fairy tales were not only my friends, but had opened a gateway to a whole new place from which to live my life.
Those old tales matter to me in some nontraditional modes as welll.While in psychiatric nursing practice I came across a mode of psychotherapy that took as a given the idea that people adopt elements of fairy tales as life plans, and often spend decades or indeed lifetimes living them out, for good or ill, unless they find (or are shown) the spellbreaker or “magical” act necessary to bring all correctly to fruition. That particular form of therapy,transactional analysis, survived a period during which it was considered too weird or crazy to be useful, and has now been accepted into the heartland of what are now (in this psychoactive-drug-crazy era) often referred to as “the talk-related therapies”. And there are any number of pop-psych books of greater or lesser usefulness comparing patterns in modern human lives to patterns laid down in fairy tale, mythology, folklore, and other parts of the lands of archetype. The power of these old storytelling structures, introduced to (or indeed drummed into) so many of us when we’re too young to think analytically about them, is finally being acknowledged as something to be reckoned with, and something that can be turned to our own therapeutic advantage.
But I have no patience with the idea of consuming fairy tales strictly because they’re good for you, like some kind of high-fiber additive for the soul. I also find them comforting, moving, and just plain fun. This is why the bookshelves on my side of the bedroom have the Lang books racked up within easy reach, along with big fat fairy tale books in various other languages (the Swiss ones have pride of place, as readers of A Wind from the South will probably have guessed). And this is why fairy tales continue to underlie, or haunt, a surprising amount of my writing: because I love them.
Occasionally when I’ve been asked to write short fiction, the fondness for fairy tale tropes comes out particularly strongly. In this collection are some stories I’ve written over the last twenty years that reach back most clearly to folkloric roots (or in some cases, to these tales’ close cousin, the ghost story… a good theme for this time of year).
I hope you have fun with what lies ahead! Because I did.
—Diane Duane
  County Wicklow, Ireland
  October 2012