“The Kings of Oak and Holly” by Kenneth D. Woods from So Fey: Queer Fairy Fiction by Lethe Press (2009). Edited by Steve Berman.
Let’s get this out of the way right now. There are some serious issues with the production value of this collection. There were a few glitches in stories before this one, but this piece has sections which are rendered nearly unreadable for dropped sentences and repeated words. I’m not sure how this could have happened. Was the wrong file uploaded? Were illustrations in the original left out of the e-version, wreaking havoc on the text? I feel certain there’s a plausible explanation because I have read a lot of Lethe Press titles, far and away more than from any other independent publisher, and I have never found typos or mistakes of any kind in any of them. This story is rife with them. It’s baffling.*
Okay, on to the story at hand. This was a tough one for me. I liked the premise and the writing held my attention from start to finish, but overall I was left with a lot of questions.
First of all, I am familiar with the myths about the Oak King and the Holly King, which this story, at least on the surface, seems to draw upon. Many moons ago I was part of an outfit that performed the greater Pagan rituals for the general public at a local Unitarian Universalist church. So I kept stepping back, trying to see the unfolding tale less literally, but the story specifics kept pulling me in. Eventually I became convinced that this isn’t supposed to be read as an allegory, and that it isn’t possible, after all, to relate the characters of this story with the legendary ones. For instance, here the Oak and Holly Kings don’t seem to be aspects of one god, but separate, warring entities. Also, very near the end the concept is introduced that one of one of them will undergo actual, not symbolic, death. I can’t imagine how that would work within the framework of the myth. The explanation that another being will rise to take his place changes the stakes and undermines the idea that these are gods.
I had questions right from the beginning. I wanted to know what it was about Danny that so captivated the Oak King that he was willing to manifest himself as human in order to interact with him. Why him, and not the guy who wandered into the park before him? I also needed to know why there was a prohibition on human and faerie relationships in the first place. The story presents a good reason, but it comes very late. In general I wanted to be shown how and why the characters came to be in the situation they found themselves in, rather than simply being told that they were.
There was potential here for a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde sort of story, an examination of a character’s dual nature and the conflict caused by it, told on a grand scale. It’s a very intriguing idea. I wonder if the author has done more with some of these characters, and what else he’s written.
* Shortly after I put this post up I took it down again and contacted the publisher, who put me in touch with the person in charge of the electronic file for this anthology. I will be sending a list of the errors I’ve found to him so he can figure out what on earth has gone awry.