I don’t know about you, but I have always loved scary stories. I loved Disney’s fairy tale movies as a kid, but I knew from reading that they didn’t tell the whole story. I knew that Snow White’s evil stepmother was supposed to dance herself to death in molten iron shoes. I loved brave Vasilisa and her encounter with Baba Yaga. I loved all the scary parts of real fairy tales as much as ghost stories. In real fairy tales, the prince doesn’t always save the princess, lots of times she saves herself.
One day, long after my childhood was over, I stumbled across a copy of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. I read it over and over. It was the first time I’d ever read a fairy tale re-telling and I wholeheartedly adored it. From cover to cover, each story is haunting, lyrical and downright terrifying. Carter digs into Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast and many others in such a way that feels true to the original tales, but also completely expands what you feel you already know.
In stories like “The Courtship of Mr Lyon” or “The Tiger’s Bride,” the source of the story is obvious (Beauty and the Beast), but Carter’s spin pulls out themes from the original tale and amplifies them. In other stories, like “The Lady of the House of Love” (Sleeping Beauty) Carter only loosely evokes the original tale, spinning something different, both beautiful and horrific. And perhaps this is the heart of Carter’s magic: humanity is sick and strong, horrendous and dazzlingly beautiful. We hurt one another deeply, but can love with the same depth. Fairy tales are always amplifications of human nature, using the supernatural or paranormal to tell us something about ourselves and Carter does this beautifully.
I taught The Bloody Chamber for many years in first-year writing courses. I watched with glee as students pulled apart the stories with fresh horror each semester. They were alternately horrified by the sometimes grotesque nature of Carter’s storytelling and fascinated by how the stories stuck with them.
It’s a testament to how powerful Carter’s writing is that when I ran into a young man I’d had in Fall semester his freshman year, the first thing he mentioned was that he tells people to read “The Snow Child”and “The Company of Wolves” if they want their minds blown. This was three years later and he was still deeply affected by the work. We chatted for almost twenty minutes about the things he still ponders from time to time about the book. Then, before he took off, he said that he and a group of my former students all got drunk together and waxed poetic about The Bloody Chamber; they didn’t know one another before that night, but bonded over reading the book in my class. That’s something, friends. Most of my first year students barely remember my name three years later, but Carter sticks with them.
Eventually I began teaching business writing, rather than freshman writing seminars and my days of reading Carter with the kiddos were over. It was a long time before I read another book that even remotely resembled Carter’s seminal work, but eventually I started picking up copies of scary fairy tale retellings from time to time and I always react with a shiver of delight when I hit on a particularly good collection. I dearly love novel-length retellings, but there’s something very powerful about short, scary fiction that I enjoy.
So, without further ado, whether you’re just hearing about The Bloody Chamber for the first time, or you’re a fan who’d like to read something similar, please let me suggest the two following works:
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, compiled and edited by Kate Bernheimer (great authors like Shelley Jackson, Aimee Bender, Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates all contributed)
Spinning houses and talking birds. Whispered secrets and borrowed hope. Here are new stories sewn from old skins, gathered by visionary editor Kate Bernheimer and inspired by everything from Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen” and “The Little Match Girl” to Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and “Cinderella” to the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel” and “Rumpelstiltskin” to fairy tales by Goethe and Calvino and from China, Japan, Vietnam, Russia, Norway, and Mexico. Fairy tales are our oldest literary tradition, and yet they chart the imaginative frontiers of the twenty-first century as powerfully as they evoke our earliest encounters with literature. This exhilarating collection restores their place in the literary canon.
There One Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Vanishings and apparitions, nightmares and twists of fate, mysterious ailments and supernatural interventions haunt these stories by the Russian master Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, heir to the spellbinding tradition of Gogol and Poe. Blending the miraculous with the macabre, and leavened by a mischievous gallows humor, these bewitching tales are like nothing being written in Russia-or anywhere else in the world-today.
I hope you’ll give some of these a try. Folks who love ghost stories, fairy tales, or just traveling down a dark path to see where it leads will all enjoy any of the selections I’ve mentioned here. Start with Carter, if you haven’t read her and move on. I can’t promise you’ll love every story, but I can probably guarantee there’s one you’ll want to talk over with a strong drink and some good friends. Invite me over when you’re ready.
Allison Carr Waechter has only days left of summer school teaching and wishes she could throw it all away and talk with her business writing students about “The Snow Child.” Alas, it’s personal branding and application materials for the next few days. Check on her on Twitter if you want to know how she’s holding up in the sweltering Missouri heat.