Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, “The Erlking,” July 5:
This was creepy, haunting, and wonderful. It’s a sort of loose re-imagining of Goethe’s poem of the same name. Kate, the mother (whose parenting is a major trope in the story), is attending a sort of medieval fair with her daughter Ruthie (whose actual name is Ondine) at an elite private school.
As Ruthie looks at the items, Kate thinks about how nice the school is and wishes she had enrolled Ruthie there. She stresses over other issues involving her daughter, too, while completely forgetting to actually interact with her. She’s a mother so preoccupied with her daughter’s future and education that she ends up being more absent than present. Meanwhile, Ruthie (the story switches between their perspectives) catches sight of the Erlking, a man who is visible only to her, made of straw, and, Ruthie hopes, may have a surprise for her.
The story really gets creepy in the end, with its final sentence, a long crescendo that tells us all we need to know while still leaving it a bit vague: Ruthie will either disappear, be killed, or she will remain intact but be changed, corrupted from her interaction with the Erlking: “Her mother will keep looking at the tags hanging from the dolls’ feet… looking closely and not seeing the puddle getting bigger on the floor. When it happens, her mother will be holding her hand… which is impossible, actually, because Ruthie… is already gone.” This story is one of the finest in the series, not only because it stands out as the only horror tale, but also because it’s an imaginative, seriously affecting take on an older, classic work.