Book Review: 'The Devil's Mother-in-law' by Kindra Ferriabough. Classical fiction.

Book Review: The Devil's Mother-in-law

Dipping your toes into the Classics can be frightening. Or, worse still, devastatingly boring. My induction into the Classics (the one that is ingrained indelibly in my memory, at least) was Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge, an encounter I still recall with horror. I was ready to resurrect Hardy just so I could murder him again, for myself and for the countless other poor students he has traumatised.

Similarly (and perhaps Hardy is also to blame here), I’ve never felt the urge to pick up the Brontë sisters, Dickens, Austen, or Eliot or even Shelley. Some scars run too deep. And I know I’m not alone in this; some genres just seem unapproachable.

Which is why, if a collection of shorts comes along that allows you to venture into the vast landscape of the Classics in a way that is non-threatening and non-committal, you would do well to take advantage of it.

The Devil’s Mother-in-law, complied by Kindra Ferriabough, is one such gateway. It’s comprised of 28 tales from the world over, all written between 1859–1924. They range from the simplistic and allegorical to the psychological and metaphorical. Many of the stories hail from a time when writing fulfilled little more than the function of entertainment and are brutally straightforward in nature. Others, while retaining the simplicity, dabble in allusion and metaphor. George MacDonald’s tale, The Gray Wolf, tells the story of a man who stumbles upon a beautiful woman who lives with her elderly mother in poverty on a remote island. The man is lost and they take him in for the night. In a none-too-subtle plot arc, the woman turns out to be a werewolf and attacks him after dark. Adventurous readers may see in this a metaphor for a fallen woman and a man’s instinct to seek her redemption, or perhaps an educated man’s desire to improve and lift an unfortunate woman from a state of savagery. Or, perhaps, it can simply be read as a supernatural tale. Whatever way you take it, chauvinism abounds, as it does through many of the tales. Racism too. Charles Grant Blairfindie Allen’s tale, The Beckoning Hand, may be shocking to many modern readers. What is important to remember is that these are, in many respects, artifacts and relics of a bygone time. It is not advisable to approach or view them through a modern lens.

Where the collection really gets interesting is with some of the big names of late-nineteenth, early twentieth century. H.G. Wells’s tale, The Story of the Late Mr. Elvesham, is excellent, and may be considered a direct influence (or was filched wholesale) for the episode ‘Transpose’ from Tales from the Loop, Nathaniel Halpern’s excellent sci-fi series based on the work of Simon Stålenhag.

Another short from the collection that has influenced literature and cinema both is Richard Connell’s The Most Dangerous Game. The story relates the tale of a hunter cast overboard from his yacht on a trip to Rio. Finding himself on a remote island owned by the delightful Cossack caricature General Zaroff, Sanger Rainsford falls prey to the general’s passion: hunting. Set loose about the island armed with only a knife, Rainsford must last three days on his wits to win the game as he’s pursued by the wily Zaroff. The tale may take credit for spawning a whole lineage of descendants, from Southern Comfort all the way to Battle Royale and The Hunger Games. It’s an excellent story, and well told.  

The Devil's Mother-in-law

Joyce is in there too, with his short The Sisters from the collection Dubliners, an intriguing and cryptic tale of the death of a priest told by a silent narrator, a young boy and acquaintance of the deceased. There’s something by one of my favourite authors, Mikhail Lermontov: Taman is a piece which works remarkably well as a short story but which in origin comprises part of his celebrated novel, A Hero of Our Time. There’s no need to get into the gist of the story, suffice to say that it’s a ‘classic’ for a reason. It was one of the greatest discoveries of my university years.

But for me the sweetest find of the collection was the eponymously titled The Devil’s Mother-in-law, by Spanish writer Cecilia Francisca Josefa Böhl und Lütkens y Ruiz de Larrea (what a mouthful), aka, Fernán Caballero. It’s a difficult enough task to find humour in the Classics. When I think back a hundred or few hundred years, the only name that comes to mind is Laurence Sterne, author of the fabulous The Life and Times of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. But on the whole, humour is hard to come across in the old stuff, right? Maybe my knowledge of the Classics is just too shallow. But on the whole, they feel a little on the stiff side. If we could go back to the late nineteenth century in the DeLorean, what message would you have for them, those classical writers? ‘Lighten up guys, won’t ya?’ might be something you’d say. ‘You know, we need a giggle now and again, not morning-to-night tragedy’. What’s even harder to find is humour from a female author. Which is why The Devil’s Mother-in-law is even more delightful. Yes––if you haven’t read it, do so, and marvel that there was someone 150 years ago who knew exactly how to put together a superb comic short. We could have done with more of it.

All in all, The Devil’s Mother-in-law is a superb collection and an excellent introduction to a difficult period in near-modern literature. If you’ve always been on the sidelines and afraid to venture in, then it’s maybe time for a rethink. Here is your ‘in’.

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Book review by Ultan Banan. Please note: flash fiction, nonfiction and all other content is the sole work of Black Tarn. Ask before republishing.

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