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Old horrors in new skins: how do fairy tales make their way into modern fiction?

Aga Zano By Aga Zano Published on November 5, 2015

When the wolf got to the grandmother’s house, he killed her, made a latch cord of her tendons, a meat pie of her flesh and wine from her blood. Then, upon her arrival, Little Red Riding Hood pulled the latch, ate the pie and drank the wine. 

This morbid scene is not a modern rewriting of the beloved children’s classic. It is one of the early versions of the tale, it its folkloric shape, before having its claws trimmed and its fangs filed down in order to fit better into the world of children’s books. The original purpose of the folk tales was to amuse and to frighten, to unleash the imagination and to savour all the gruesome details.

The fairy tale is one of the most universal examples of culturally transmitted (and transmuted) texts that still function on many levels in every society today. These texts, passed on orally through generations, have travelled through regions and countries and have been tirelessly collected, appropriated, amended, rewritten and adapted for over six centuries. 

Nowadays, the genre that has for decades been associated mostly with children’s rooms, has been experiencing a rapid growth of popularity among adult audiences as well as in academic circles. Authors create their own versions of the tales remembered from their childhood, filmmakers produce movies based on the tales (such as recent blockbusters with Angelina Jolie, Kristen Stewart and Salma Hayek, to name just a few). Also, TV series creators include, transform and mix fairy tale elements in their productions: to mention fantasy-crime series Grimm, and ostentatiously kitschy Once Upon A Time.

Fairy tale themes are used (and abused) in a multitude of ways. Many of these rewritings seem to have one thing in common: the fascination with folktale horrors, and the urge to understand what lies at the core of the folk-tale fears. Why is that? The explanation given by H. P. Lovecraft, one of all-time masters of the genre, does not seem to have aged very much:

Because we remember pain and the menace of death more vividly than pleasure […], it has fallen to the lot of the darker and more maleficent side of cosmic mystery to figure chiefly in our popular supernatural folklore. This tendency, too, is naturally enhanced by the fact that uncertainty and danger are always closely allied; thus making any kind of an unknown world a world of peril and evil possibilities.

In other words, the two things that frighten us the most are suffering and the unknown. Almost no folktale characters receive the merciful gift of a sudden death. Instead, they are forced to dance to death in red-hot iron shoes, are rolled downhill in a barrel filled with nails, cooked alive or butchered into pieces. Even positive or neutral characters are not spared physical torment, and face (to name just a few) decapitation, severing of limbs, being eaten alive or raped. Yes, all these punishments come from the tales by our beloved brothers Grimm.

As for the other element described by Lovecraft – in the folk-tale universes the ‘unknown’ often takes the shape of the Freudian unheimlich, or uncanny. This concept, in short, refers to the objects (persons, situations) that are familiar and strange at the same time, which results in a cognitive dissonance and a disturbing feeling of being equally attracted to them and repulsed.

In the folk tales, this element appears often and in many forms: be it various figures of the devil or evil spirits, witches, human-like beasts (and beast-like humans). This effect is also achieved by the presence of some recurring themes (such as a bird or other creature giving away the villain’s secret), and certain images – for example, a key or an egg covered with bloodstains that are impossible to wash off.

Of course, folk and fairy tales made their way not only to movies and TV series, but also to contemporary literature. These rewritings are less available to wide audiences – but they also offer much deeper understanding of what lies at the core of every fairy tale: a healthy dose of unbounded horror. Out of numerous authors who did outstandingly good job on twisting fairy tales back to life, there are two Irishmen who deserve special recognition. One of them is a playwright and screenwriter Martin McDonagh, best known to wide audiences for his Academy Award-winning short film Six Shooter. The other is John Connolly, famous for his thriller series with Charlie Parker.

McDonagh’s creepy, Kafka-esque play The Pillowman and Connolly’s eerie coming of age novel The Book of Lost Things employ two very different strategies of achieving the same goal – which is to bring the fairy-tale horrors back to life. The Pillowman is constructed upon the themes of physical punishment and suffering, often found in tales by the Grimms or Charles Perrault – and while supernatural motifs are also present in the tales created by the main character, they are of secondary importance. Connolly, on the other hand, focuses on the haunting fear of the things unknown and beyond our understanding, rather than on the fear of physical suffering, although it is also not completely ignored. 

Let’s take a closer look at some examples from the source texts.

The Pillowman tells us a story of a writer, Katurian Katurian, interrogated by two police officers in a totalitarian state. The subject of this interrogation is highly suspicious similarity between Katurian’s short stories and recent brutal killings of children in one of the town’s districts. The plot consists largely of telling and relating of Katurian’s stories, many of which bear certain resemblance to famous fairy tales. One of the stories Katurian is most proud of refers directly to The Pied Piper of Hamelin: it tells a story of a little boy whose heart was as good and pure as his life was hard and sorrowful. One day, the boy meets a stranger who drives a cart full of small, empty animal cages. When the boy offers to share his modest meal with the driver, his kindness is rewarded. He takes out a meat cleaver, “severing all five of his muddy little toes”. This rather disturbing way of showing gratitude is, in fact, a plot twist: the crippled boy would not be later able to follow the Pied Piper when he kidnaps all the other children of Hamelin. 

Other little heroes and heroines from Katurian’s tales are not so lucky: we are told a story of a little girl, who kills her abusive father by giving him little figurines carved out of apples and filled with razors. On the night of her father’s death, little apple men wake the girl up and walk into her mouth, making her choke on her own blood. Another little girl believes herself to be the second coming of Jesus Christ himself, and her abusive foster parents torture her in a way that mirrors Christ’s Passion, and they bury the child alive at the end.

Perhaps the most important story in the play bears a strong resemblance to Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, or similar tale by brothers Grimm, Fitcher’s Bird. Various retellings of this tale tell the story of a woman whose husband-to-be gives her all she could ever wish for, except the permission to enter one room in his castle. When the curiosity wins over obedience, the woman discovers that the forbidden chamber is a room of torture, filled with blood and mutilated corpses. Similarly, the tale by Katurian (and of Katurian’s life) tells us the story of a little boy, whose parents gave him all the love and all the toys he could ever wish for, and strongly supported his creativity and love for writing. However, there was a room in the house he was never allowed to enter, from where the boy could hear the noises of most terrible torture every night. This has affected the style of his writing, making his stories better and better, but also – darker and darker. One day the boy discovers that the noises are not, as his parents insisted, the product of his exceptional imagination, but of his very real, and very cruelly tortured older brother.

It seems that Katurian cannot escape cruelty in his stories due to the extreme experiences he was put through by his parents – just like, in McDonagh’s perspective, it seems impossible to escape the horrors of the folklore heritage of the well-known tales that furnished our childhood:

I got the original Grimm’s Fairy Tales recently […]. In re-reading the Grimms, they’re pretty bloody dark. It was interesting to compare my memory, what I remembered about the fairy tales, and then to see the actual text. To be not quite sure if you were told a cleaned up version of it or if your child’s memory cleaned it up yourself... Little Red Riding Hood is a bloody dark story. […] I like the details. They cut the wolf open, took out Little Red Riding Hood and her friend. They put rocks in the wolf’s stomach, and sewed him back up with green wire. They watched him as he awoke, and waited until he jumped out of bed in fright at everybody watching him, and dropped down dead ‘cause the stones were grating against his intestines! I would love to write something as horrific as that if I could.

The influence with the Grimm’s tales is visible not only in the plot, with recurring folk-tale motifs, but also in the structure of the stories within the play. Violence and cruelty are depicted in a way very similar to the style of the tales by the Grimms: they are presented in a dry, reporting style, with little more care than if they were describing the weather. This way, McDonagh managed to successfully translate what he perceived the core of a folk-tale horror, that is: inescapable, extreme, yet still somehow nonchalant violence.

For John Connolly however, physical torment does not seem to be as fascinating and important element of the folk tales as the fear of the uncanny. The world created by Connolly, while dark and dangerous, carries much more resemblance to the world of folk tales – with their forests and castles – than the Kafkian reality of a totalitarian state described by McDonagh. The world of The Pillowman was reduced to physical pain – it showed us the world in which the only tales are the tales of suffering, and where suffering constitutes one’s very existence. 

David, the main character of Connolly’s novel, is not a writer but an avid reader, especially fond of the fairy tales he used to read with his mother. After her death, the boy finds a way to the alternative, fairy-tale world, and gets trapped inside it. And although it is a world full of wonders, they are not necessarily the kind of wonders one would particularly enjoy encountering. The world is heavily populated by Loups: dangerous crossbreed between a wolf and human that came to life when Little Red Riding Hood once captured and seduced a stray wolf. Loups exhibit cannibalistic tendencies (both towards humans and wolves) and are not limited by the boundaries of human morality. The leader of the pack walks on his hind legs and speaks with human voice.

This was more than an animal, for its ears were roughly human in shape [...], and its muzzle was shorter than a wolf’s. Its lips were drawn back from its fangs [...], but it was in its eyes that the struggle between wolf and man was clearest.

It is this struggle and impossibility to define the creature as one or another that frightens David the most – on the same basis as the humanoid creatures caused fear in the folk-tales, as something disturbingly familiar, and yet horribly strange. 

Another disquieting creature is the Crooked Man, whose appearance is constructed solely of deformity that constitutes otherness: his limbs are pale and twisted, and his face unnaturally long and ugly, reminding the reader of a typical folk-tale villain, whose wickedness would normally be marked by their repulsive appearance. However, it is the Crooked Man’s actions that frighten the reader more than his looks.

Torture and suffering in Connolly’s world seem much more sophisticated than the ones invented by McDonagh, although they are no less cruel and frightening. In the forest there lives a huntress who enjoys challenges of hunting creatures as clever as humans and as swift as wild animals – and she achieves it by beheading children and attaching their heads to the animals’ bodies – of course, apart from the trauma of being aware of their horrible mutilation, the victims are also hunted down and killed. The Crooked Man, on the other hand, prefers more refined kind of torture: just like his folk-tale equivalent figure of trickster, he most enjoys granting people’s wishes in the ways they would never expect: and most likely, would never have asked for in the first place. For example, paying his debtor back with gold – that is, molten gold, poured slowly into his stomach. He also enjoys psychological torment, which is perhaps even more unnerving to the reader, for it exposes what is often not mentioned in the folk stories: the price one pays for achieving their dream, and the trauma and guilt for what had to be done to achieve it. The king of the magic kingdom has once been a little English boy, who wished to be freed from his stepsister (as many little children do in various folk tales). The Crooked Man has fulfilled his wish and killed the girl, using her unlived life to prolong his own existence. In return, the boy became a king of the magic kingdom, and never came back to England, living a pointless life in the magical kingdom until old age.

What would have constituted a perfectly happy fairy-tale ending (the unwanted step-sibling dying a horrible death, and the surviving child becoming a king) turned out to be the most agonising punishment, giving the boy an unbearably long life filled with loneliness, guilt and remorse. Perhaps the most horrid scene of Connolly’s novel is when the old, frail king haggles with the Crooked Man, begging for death he has been refused for so long – not only does it affect deeply the modern reader, but it also exposes the unspoken horrors that hid behind many simple happy endings.

Connolly’s strategy is based on expansion of some fairy-tale motifs basing on the themes and well-known plots, rather than, as McDonagh did, on rediscovering the nonchalant horrors of the folk-tale brutality. Both authors, however, achieve a similar outcome – not only exposing the horrors and cruelty the folklore tales have been always filled with, but also translating these horrors in a contemporary reality, allowing us to be both frightened and fascinated by the darkness of our rich and dangerous folklore heritage. After all, nobody’s really into happy endings anymore. 

Translator, linguist, copywriter, literary agent. Enjoys bad puns, exploring ruined buildings and being the weird one.

1 Comments

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Damien McGloin
I for one miss the days when fairy tales were less about teaching children not to talk to strangers and more about how to torture wolves. Excellent article! 

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