I love fairy tales. They are comforting and terrifying, illuminating and creepy, true and make-believe. Often they are all of these things at once. They tell us stories about ourselves, about the world around us, and about the way things are and can be.
They also frame the way we talk about all of the above. Research has shown that the plot elements, themes, motifs, and character archetypes color our written and verbal communications from a young age. Legends and folk tales shape our cultural assumptions and practices and the ways we deal with one another.
Practice, of course, shows that sometimes we overvalue the tendency to treat our lives as fairy tales. From the princess wedding industry to the violent othering of those unlike us to explain the ills of society, they can lead us into traps of preconception that sometimes do us and others great harm. Of course, this is most true when we assume that fairy tales are children’s stories, meant to have once-upon-a-time beginnings and happily-ever-after endings.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me is not that kind of fairy tale collection. This book, with contributions from Neil Gaiman, Francesca Lia Block, Kevin Brockmeier, Joyelle McSweeney, and Brian Evanson, among others, is definitely settling into its place among my “fractured” fairy tale collection. Many of the tales in this collection make the Grimm’s tales look like a Disney Princess book. Happily-ever-afters these are not.
Some of the stories, like Evanson’s Dapplegrim and Brockmeier’s A Day in the Life of Half of Rumplestiltskin, take the traditional versions of the tales and turn them into new stories still easily associated with their counterparts. Others, like Rikki Ducornet’s Green Air and Timothy Schaffert’s The Mermaid in the Tree are less easily assigned to a single tale, and some of the stories mix up so many different tales that it’s hard to identify their source material at all, until you read the author’s notes at the end of each story (not that this is unusual in fairy tale collections, of course). Tales with magical characters as well as completely realistic stories abound. One of my personal favorites is Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s The Erlking, with its mix of a child’s fantasy and an adult’s reality, but I won’t tell you what happens.
Several of the tales are viciously brutal, others are melancholy, and a few even have relatively happy endings, but there are no princes riding off into the sunset or knights come to save the day. Gaiman’s Orange probably comes the closest to either of those, but without spoiling the story, I can comfortably say that the sunset in question is less than romantic.
I don’t mean to scare you off. The stories are firmly in the horror genre, to be certain, but how many fairy tales really leave it? There’s certainly a tale for someone interested in any form of the genre. Gore fans, you’ll find material here. Likewise if you like the don’t-turn-out-the-lights creepiness or the realistic thriller.
My only warning is that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference from the beginning.
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales / Edited by Kate Bernheimer. Penguin, 28 September 2010. U.S. $17.00
Contributors include: Neil Gaiman, Francesca Lia Block, Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Kim Addonizio. Introduction by Gregory Maguire (from which this post’s title phrase comes).