"The New Daughter"
I'm excited because APPARENTLY this one was made into a film starring Kevin Costner (which, with me, can only mean one thing) that had a limited release by Anchor Bay last month. Now I have to find it....
This story expands on a parent's fear of a child growing up. She leaves her toys behind, she rebels, she dabbles a bit on the edge. And what she goes through is something that parents can only understand on the surface. If they try to dig any deeper, they will hit a stone wall and their understanding will begin to crumble and fade. Connolly uses his gift for folklore to explain this change as related to the stories of faeries exchanging human children for changelings. This kind of abrupt change in a pre-teen girl must be paranormal, right? Right? I appreciated the father seeing a "red flicker" in his daughter's eyes. On the surface, it appears to be merely visual, and symbolic of her changeling nature. I think it's more than that, though. It seems (in the least disgusting way possible) to refer to menstruation, something that her father would not only have trouble understanding, but of which he would (like most fathers) avoid any kind of contemplation.
It's the same as it's been since the dawn of time: girl tries to grow up. Father tries to stop her. Father blames other people when she grows up anyway. And she does, for all intents and purposes, become his new daughter. And she knows, better than anyone, that no matter how vigilant her father is, her brother will one day grow up as well. It expresses the futility of parenting. You wish to do right by your children and, because you are their parents, everything else in the world seems somewhat malicious.
"The Ritual of the Bones"
This is a (hopefully) fanciful and disturbing exaggeration of the exploitation of the lower classes, for the benefit of the higher. As with many of the stories in this collection, Connolly has taken a common occurrence (like feeling alone in a new school or a little girl growing up) and dramatizes it to the point of a twilight zone-like-feel. The Montague School for Boys is almost four centuries old. At least, by that name.
The existence of the fossilized spider-like-creature under the school could make the ritual of the bones date back even further. The bones have been passed down the bloodlines for ages, keeping the power among the powerful. By bleeding a member of the lower class, the bones continue the mark of superiority. The word Montague (if you've ever taken an in-depth Romeo & Juliet class, you might know this) is french, meaning "pointed hill" which is highly symbolic given the preservation of the class structure even within the gates of the school.
I'm somewhat intrigued that Connolly has chosen a spider-like symbol yet again. In "The New Daughter" Louisa's doll is replaced with "a rough form made of straw and twigs", a homunculus with a distended stomach that is tightly woven, the strands through which her father spies a large spider. When he removes the figure from Louisa's arms, the spider curls up and dies. By the next morning, the figure itself has "fallen to pieces." I took this as being strongly symbolic of a father's lack of understanding, and of a girl's growth from needing playthings, to needing something...other.
I wonder, though, if Connolly had something a little different in mind considering the arachnoid presence in "The Ritual of the Bones." There is of course a very obvious reason for the fossil/creature to be a spider, since spiders do in fact drain their victims (and are, therefore, often related to vampiric stories). Unfortunately, I'm out of ideas on this one. I've done some pretty extensive searching using Google as a resource, and I can't come up with a good enough reason for the two spiders to be related. *Sigh*
"The Furnace Room"
We know, almost immediately, that our narrator is not to be trusted. He doesn't really remember how he came to this town, it was a bad time in his life, he was trying not to bring the past with him - this all makes him very suspect. The story develops in a very Hitchcock way, and feels even more like an Episode of the Twilight Zone (the original, not that crap from the 80s that they're always showing on the Chiller network. Bleh.) This story is about justice...or, at least, just punishment. Some sort of fate-like force brings our narrator to this town, gives him a job, and sets him up for his trial.
I love all the foreshadowing in this story: the narrator casually mentioning that people think his wife has left him, but he "knows better," the odor of burnt powder lingering on his clothing even after he's decided that what he saw was an illusion, and even in the old character of the town being covered by the gloss of tourism. All of this builds us up for the conclusion in which our narrator finds himself confronted his wife, whom he had murdered and buried in a shallow grave some time ago.
That from which he'd been running had now caught up to him. And the only way he could go, was down. Some of the symbolism is a little obvious, but the terror of the dead, dirt-covered wife holding the gun up to her husband's doomed temple is worth it. I wish someone would adapt this one. M. Night Shyamalan could potentially do it justice. Food for thought. Hmm.