Why We Love Weird Fairy Tales
From the Tale of Tales to Michael Cunningham to Helen Oyeyemi...
For many readers, fairy tales serve as an introduction to storytelling. Perhaps that’s through short tales or fables recited by a parent as a child falls asleep; perhaps it’s through one of the numerous films that have adapted fairy tales, adding songs or an animal sidekick to spice things up. The more one learns about the history of the form, the more one discovers that a childhood introduction to fairy tales left out some of the grislier bits, the horrid fates that befell certain characters or subtexts deemed ill-suited for the ears of growing children. There are plenty of works of fiction that have mined this tension towards a compelling end: Angela Carter’s short fiction is (rightly) noted for taking stories that have phased into the archetypal and bringing them back into the ream of the visceral, the sensual, the haunted.
A different form of fairy tale strangeness can be found in the pages of Giambattista Basile’s The Tale of Tales, first published early in the 17th century. Here, one will find plenty of the stuff one might expect from the form: young men going off to seek their fortune, royal families suffering the effects of a curse, sinister ogres plotting grim deeds. Like the stories collected by the Brothers Grimm, The Tale of Tales is a group of dozens of stories assembled from across a nation and published after Basile’s death, in Naples. The Tale of Tales places 50 distinct narratives within a regimented framing structure. What emerges after a long immersion in this book isn’t a sense of mirth or levity: it’s a bit of shuddering at the surreal, sometimes viscerally so, images that can be found within. Though centuries old, several of the tales found in here contain sequences that wouldn’t be out of place in a more contemporary work—and in their visceral qualities, they resonate powerfully with their literary descendants.
This is not to say that The Tale of Tales is massively ahead of its time. The bizarre details of several of these stories (understandably emphasized in the trailer for a recent cinematic adaptation of the book) offer much to recommend. That said, there’s also a place for some caution in charging headlong into this work. While there are plenty of strange details and bizarre images for readers to savor, it’s also a book from 17th-century Europe, with all of the prejudices that that implies. Casual anti-Semitism plays a part in several stories, and the antagonist of the framing story is presented as a cringe-inducing racial caricature.
What makes The Tale of Tales memorable is twofold: the lunatic imagery used in many of these stories, and the occasionally tart tone taken by its narration. In an early story, “The Flea,” readers are told of a king who became fixated on a particularly well-proportioned flea and fed it blood over the course of several months until “it was bigger than a lamb.” Once he’s carefully nurtured the flea to supernaturally large proportions, he does what anyone might do in that situation: he has it killed and skinned in order to establish a guessing game to marry off his daughter, one which is won by a nearby ogre.
In the beginning of the British television series Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the horror writer title character urged viewers to “put conventional logic to one side.” It’s a mindset that could just as easily apply here, to glorious effect. “The Flea” makes it clear early on that cause and effect in these stories operate under a very peculiar set of rules. Elsewhere in the book, an irritated goose attaches itself to a man’s bare backside (in “The Goose”) and household objects give birth to smaller versions of themselves (in “The Enchanted Doe”).There are plenty of moral lessons theoretically contained in these stories—in fact, each ends with one. But the effect of so many in such close proximity creates a kind of signal noise: trying to come up with a single coherent ideology from all of them would be nearly impossible. What endures from these stories is instead their unique approach to logic, the ways in which physical laws are malleable, and the knowing, sometimes jaded attitude taken by the narration.
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Fairy tales are fair game for any number of modern storytellers: Kate Bernheimer has edited two anthologies’ worth of contemporary writers taking on the form, Joy Williams’s The Changeling is back in print, and a long-in-the-works film adaptation of the musical Into the Woods hit theaters late in 2014. And Angela Carter’s novels and short stories have supplied subsequent generations of writers with the materials to rethink and reimagine centuries-old stories. But what comes to mind when reading The Tale of Tales is an underutilized facet of reimagining fairy tales: of digging out the weirder aspects of them and finding the places where they can resonate. It’s one kind of achievement to add modern psychology or a sociopolitical charge to something familiar; it’s another to trace out how an old story’s bizarre workings can make their way into the light of the present day.
Michael Cunningham’s fiction occasionally revisits moments from literary history: Virginia Woolf was one of the characters in his acclaimed The Hours, and Walt Whitman figured prominently in his later novel Specimen Days. His latest book, A Wild Swan and Other Tales, finds him heading into the realm of reimagined fairy tales. Here, Cunningham adds psychological depth to figures who had been more archetypal in the original telling. The title story begins as a retelling of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Wild Swans,” in which 12 brothers are transformed into swans, and 11 1/2 of them are transformed back. The protagonist of the story is the unlucky one, who remains in possession of one wing in lieu of one of his arms. And from there, in a world that is at once archetypal and modern, he attempts to seek his fortune. This leads to a life of frustration and loneliness: “Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm.” It’s in the details like this and a description of the protagonist’s periodic loss of control of his wing, where Cunningham draws the story out of the realm of fairy tales and approaches the shores of body horror.
That quality recurs in “Little Man,” a retelling of Rumpelstiltskin told in the second person, which ends with the main character stamping his foot and splitting in half. The story’s final paragraph, a description of the protagonist’s life after being bisected, is unexpectedly haunting: “There are two of you now. Neither is sufficient unto itself, but you learn, over time, to join your two halves together, and hobble around.” There are plenty of metaphorically rich passages in Cunningham’s book, to be sure—finding the outcast’s life in the “happily ever after” makes for a powerful experience. The visceral specificity with which Cunningham charges some of these stories makes them idiosyncratic; it moves them away from the moral lessons that they may have been rooted in and remind readers of their own bodies, and of the fallibilities and flaws that they can contain.
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Other contemporary writers have also made interesting uses of the more esoteric storytelling devices found in fairy tales. The stories in Amber Sparks’s collection The Unfinished World and Other Stories cover a variety of styles, from a lengthy and skewed history of an estranged family in the silent film era to an unorthodox time travel story about a series of attempts to prevent the creation of a painting. But in some of these stories, the concepts and tropes of fairy tales are also up for debate. Early in “The Cemetery of Lost Faces,” for instance, a number of voices debate the merits of the fairy tale as storytelling paradigm. Do they end too early? Can an idyllic situation ever be accurately described to a fairy tale? Sparks ends this section with an unsettling image, a kind of metafictional beast lying in wait: “The happily-ever-after is just a false front. It hides the hungry darkness inside.”
Elsewhere in the collection, fairy-tale imagery and language morph into different configurations. The opening sentences of “La Belle de Nuit, La Belle de Jour” are a dreamlike reflection of familiar narratives: “This is the troubled edge of the kingdom. It is rumored that dragons sleep near, just off the coast of our dreams.” That blend of idyllic and dangerous ventures into a different permutation as the story (which also riffs on “The Wild Swans”) continues, with a curse placed on the narrator that causes bees to emerge from her throat. It’s a shockingly tactile image, memorably rendered by Sparks’s prose. And, like Cunningham, it scratches beneath the logic of fairy tale curses to reveal a genuinely horrific experience beneath.
Helen Oyeyemi has plenty of experience revisiting the raw materials of fairy tales: her 2014 novel Boy, Snow, Bird took elements of the plot of Snow White and applied them to a story of racial passing in mid-20th-century America. Her most recent book, the new collection What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours, abounds with the stuff of centuries-old stories: ghosts, mysterious keys, and secret societies all crop up over the course of things. Structurally, there are echoes of older forms of storytelling: the same kind of nestled narratives that feature in The Tale of Tales or One Thousand and One Nights make an appearance in the collection’s first story, “Books and Roses.”
As with much of Oyeyemi’s fiction, elements taken from centuries-old stories abut plotlines that address contemporary issues that lack any easy resolution. It’s a constant source of friction in her work: the way that stories that are generally associated with easy answers and morals that one can take out into world collide with settings and conflicts where those morals and resolutions are utterly inadequate. In “Is Your Blood as Red as This?”, the collection’s longest and most affecting story, there are elements that suggest whimsy—the setting is, in fact, a school for puppeteers—but they collide with questions of identity and depression. It’s a different kind of messiness, rendering itself around a constantly shifting ground. We may be familiar with fairy tales in this day and age; we may know what to expect from an encounter with the supernatural from what we’ve been told in stories. But these encounters and these scenarios are now governed by different rules, and the old powers and dangers that come from weird stories told in dimly-lit rooms have returned.
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In 2015, Joanna Walsh released a short book called Grow a Pair. In an interview that fall, she described it as “9.5 pornographic fairy tales.” This is an accurate description—but in its occasionally transgressive moments and in the anatomic flexibility shown by her characters, it also brings to mind some of the same eye-raising transformations that Basile chronicles in The Tale of Tales. In the opening story, a young woman plucks a set of male genitalia from where they’re growing on a plant in a garden. Transformations and reversals of fortune soon follow, both in this story and in those that come later in the collection.
A sense of play runs throughout the stories in Grow a Pair, which deal in numerous fairy-tale archetypes: mysterious forests, witches causing mischief, and the malleability of flesh. When, in a coda at the end of the book, a woman falls down a cliff and suddenly transforms into “a number of small, furry creatures,” it’s surprising in that it isn’t immediately sexual, the way that nearly every other such transformation in these stories is. But instead, it’s a way to end the book on a melancholy and surprisingly moving note of escape and solitude: the transformed woman finds satisfaction in her new state, but also a kind of disappointment.
Perhaps that’s one thing that bridges revisionist fairy tales and those that opt to channel the weird. They remind us that the larger world is inherently complex, that the lessons imparted by stories of wicked creatures and good-hearted men and women rarely apply in our world. Bodies that change in bizarre ways, shifting landscapes, and sudden decisions that upend the world around us? That’s a lot more familiar, and sets in motion an uneasily narrative attraction. Some stories stay compelling for centuries, even if the reasons why tend to shift.