Dark Stories for Dark Times

A big bad wolf roams through the woods, looking for his next meal. The lady in red looks like an easy score, but, unexpectedly, she fights back. She’s sharp and cunning, one might even say a little wolf-like herself, and this wasn’t what the wolf signed up for. He slinks off into the darkness, pledging to find someone fleshier, softer, and easier in the future; or maybe she defeats him, transforming prey into predator and finishing the wolf off in a blaze of confidence and assertiveness. She isn’t going to let any mangy dog get the best of her.

Feminist retellings of fairytales are hardly new—the 1970s marked a sort of heyday of the period as parents read feminist adaptations to their children where the previously stiff, helpless female characters used logic and physical skills to defeat their patriarchal enemies. What goes around comes around in the publishing trade, and fairy tale adaptations are growing popular again, with a return to these 1970s roots, where stories that were often disempowering, stripping women of agency and authority, are turned on their heads to give readers a completely different perspective.

What’s also coming along with these new fairytales is something that particularly delights me: They are macabre. These are not, strictly speaking, stories for children.

Originally, many fairy tales were actually quite dark, disgusting, and unpleasant. Grimm’s Fairy Tales purported to collect traditional legends and stories, but many of them were altered in the recording, and continued to be so over the years to create sanitised stories that were considered appropriate for children. Notably, many of these stories were not intended for young listeners in the frist place, and they contained very mature elements. Discovering the true roots of these stories and restoring them is a fascinating pursuit, but so is taking the stories in an entirely new direction that includes macabre, frightening, explicit elements used in entirely different ways.

New fairytales are part of the new young adult movement, as well as being produced in books explicitly intended for adults. And they are intense and dark and scary and twisted, and I love every minute of them, because this, in my mind, is how fairytales should be. They should be frightening, because they are about facing and exploring fears, in my world. Maybe other people want to read light, nonthreatening stories, but I do not, and it seems like more and more readers agree, given the growing popularity of the genre.

Historical fairytales were laden not just with sexism but also racism and other social issues, and some of these issues have unfortunately been carried right over into the new adaptations. This genre is by no means perfect, and it’s still working out its kinks in some cases. It’s also, though, explicitly exploring subjects like rape and molestation that need to be probed at, especially for young adult readers who may be struggling with those issues in their own lives. While contemporary YA does an excellent job of this, there can be something soothing and distancing about reading them in a fairytale format, tiptoeing towards these issues rather than confronting them head on; sometimes contemporary YA is too easy to identify with, too frightening, too upsetting, and it’s hard to process.

Tender Morsels is probably the standout example of the new, terrifying, explicit, mature fairytale retelling, and a lot of people feel very strongly about it. It is, in many ways, a gross book. It deals with things that are ugly and foul and it does so explicitly, and very intensely. The layers upon layers created in the book and by the characters require careful sifting and thinking, and readers tend to take away wildly different messages from the text. Not all readings are favourable, and some people feel the book is not an entry in the new generation of feminist fairytales.

I disagree, primarily because I think Tender Morsels cuts to the heart of trauma and how far people are willing to go to bury it, push through it, pretend it didn’t happen. They are willing to create entirely new worlds to avoid trauma, even if that hurts the people around them. Fairy tales have classically been viewed as a form of escapism, and I love the fairy tale buried within the tale as a character attempts to escape her past. To me, it reads as a commentary on trauma, on social perceptions of trauma, and on fairytales themselves, and I think it’s a solid and fascinating commentary.

Another recent read was Cinder, which played with the dehumanisation of Cinderella and her role as an essential slave. In this version of the tale, the titular character is a cyborg, considered a second-class citizen with fewer rights than full humans, which means she can be used and abused with minimal penalties for her stepmother and stepsisters. This is Cinderella-as-slave, but also a resourceful, determined, focused, intent Cinderella, one who attempts to solve her situation through the means at her disposal.

It’s not a book without flaws; her female ‘family’ is heavily stereotyped and there’s an implication that interest in femme things makes women frivolous and cruel. There’s also the inevitable love story, which is far less interesting to me than watching Cinderella strive for self-determination, and seeing how race, class, and cultural barriers wrap around each other in her society. This is a dark story, though not as dark as Tender Morsels, and it brings up provocative questions about domestic service and society. That’s a lot to get out of a fairytale.

This feels like the next generation of fairytale adaptations, one that scares and challenges readers while taking them to a new and far-off place.