Sometimes falling in love with a story can feel like the real thing. You can tell right away you’re stumbling across something special, and what you find can tell you more about yourself than the thing itself.
Ursula Vernon’s “Razorback,” printed in the January edition of Apex Magazine, is a retelling of a Southern folktale. It’s not a cutting-edge sci-fi story like most Prose Dives tend to be, but don’t let that discourage you; there’s still something worthwhile to learn here. After all, this month is about stuff we love. And I didn’t realize it at the time, but after reading “Razorback” I can say I love a good witch story, especially when she’s the protagonist. Equal parts Bless Me, Ultima and Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching series, “Razorback” gave me the fuzzies in a way that’s just like gathering ‘round the campfire to hear a favorite tale.
Hold it right there, stranger. Best be readin’ the story first before you proceed. If’n you don’t, well, then it ain’t on me. Got no one to blame but yourself.
Sal is one of those good witches, like curanderas or shamans; she makes her living helping honest, hardworking folk, but she isn’t above busting someone’s chops if they deserve it. Like other mystical figures of this archetype, Sal must balance giving people aid but keeping her powers in check, lest she frighten the locals. The latter comes into play when she finds out that a troublesome man named Silas has killed Rawhead, the giant razorback hog who serves as her familiar. Whether Silas did so out of spite or some other misplaced motivation, the story is delightfully vague in a way only a Southern folktale can be. But the fact of the matter is that the deed was done, which provokes Sal to a point of no return.
Sal seeks out the help of Elizabeth Grey, another local witch, and she is faced with a decision: she can see Rawhead again, but for an unknown cost. Realizing it may mean even her death, Sal agrees, and her throat is slit by Elizabeth Grey. Sal awakes inside Rawhead’s corpse, sharing his mind and body, and as one being the giant pig returns to a tenuous state of undeath.
Silas, Rawhead’s murderer, appears, and Sal feels the vengeance rise within her. Together she/Rawhead kill Silas, but not without taking a bullet first. Together they make their way home, where they die for a final time on the porch.
If there’s anything that can sell me on a good ‘ol folktale, it’s the prose. Even a parable I’ve heard a thousand times can feel invigorating if the words draw me in.
The story is delivered via an unknown narrator, a storyteller on the outside looking in. For a folktale retelling, this works really, really well, as it gives the writing plenty of personality without being an actual character in the story. Like this, when describing the relationship between Sal and Rawhead:
“Well, stories always grow in the telling. Before long, they were saying Rawhead could talk, and after that they said he walked upright and sat in a rocking chair, same as a person.”
Followed up by:
“Couple of people said some other things, too, about Sal and Rawhead, but there are people who say any damn thing.”
The narrator goes on just the right amount of tangents like these that flesh the world out. There’s no need to go explicitly into detail about the state of technology, or the nature of entertainment — none of that matters in “Razorback.” Instead the story stands on its own as part of the world, and it’s largely thanks to the way each word is delivered.
For example, take the very first sentence of the story, the one after the author’s note:
“There was a witch who lived up in the mountains, and I never heard but that she was a good one.”
The phrasing of that second clause contains such a delightful turn of phrase, such a grasp of the vernacular, you can’t help but hear the Southern twang. The prose, delivered via its outside narrator, feels comfortable in its ability to tell a story, and it’s apparent to me that so does the author of “Razorback.” In crafting a story with such engaging prose, I couldn’t help but be sucked right in like I was part of my very own story circle.
Unlike other Prose Dives, which I tend to choose for their prophetic potential, “Razorback” seems very down to earth. It’s a modest tale — just a damn good yarn by most story’s standards, and it plays with some of the foundational themes found in fairy and folktales. There’s the quest for vengeance (Sal pursuing Silas after he kills Rawhead), and there’s the unintentional consequences of magic (Sal and Rawhead merging together). I don’t know how close “Razorback” sticks to its source material, but I’m willing to bet Vernon’s personal stamp on it sets a pretty high bar. If I ever come across the real tale, I’d be comparing it to “Razorback,” and not the other way around. And that’s because I feel this story is so strong, and I wouldn’t want to accept a lesser version.
What really ties the story together for me is the thematic elements regarding love. Nothing so smarmy as “true love conquers all” — remember, this is a story set in the no-nonsense South. As such, it’s a tale of revenge entwined with a tale of a deeply personal friendship. The lengths that Sal is willing to go to see Rawhead again — without knowledge of the consequences — is romantic in the most literary sense. But the way their union shakes out with the killing of Silas, followed by their death, makes it feel tragically realist. Kind of like the way many real Grimm fairy tales end, but with a little more “and that’s okay, that’s the way of things.” “Razorback”’s karmic ending feels appropriate to its setting, that here in the South, where everything’s harsh but fair, everyone got what they deserved. It isn’t a happy ending, but it is a great one.
I love stories that have endings that are kind of sad. “Razorback” earns that — Rawhead and Sal are dead, but the narrator implies they’ll be reborn as something else. I don’t usually find short stories these days where it gives that perfect mix of hard-won victory and depressing acceptance, but “Razorback” pulls it off so, so well.
The big takeaway from “Razorback” isn’t a forewarning or a lesson to be learned like other Prose Dives. Instead this story taught me something about myself. Selfish? Maybe. But I can’t control the lovely effect this story had on me.
Because of its more magic realism nature, this story revealed to me my love of witch stories and folktales. That may not seem like much of a revelation to you, or that those two things are mutually exclusive, but they’re distinct enough in my mind. And that matters, because for someone who tries to make the most of his time, knowing two specific genres to seek out in other stories seems very useful to me. So maybe you will too.
Folktales are just about the most important stories there are, I think. They’ve always been about things we can’t explain, things we fear, things we dredge up from the darkest depths of our imaginations. They resonate with us in a special kind of way. “Razorback” left an impression on me the way many of those classic Grimm stories did when reading them as a kid. “Razorback” isn’t exactly cautionary the way the Grimm tales are; the chance of merging with a pig familiar is much less than, say, getting lost in the woods. But “Razorback” manages to feel familiar in that same way, and that could not be more deserving of praise.