A Tiny Hall of Mirrors

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).

Thumbnail image credit from Morguefile

27 replies on “A Tiny Hall of Mirrors”

Good post! It’s awlays a pleasure to find books of authors who are not too typical… I guess any other must strive to create non-usual stories, the typical, old are too ordinary already? I guess also that the best way to do that is not only find new turning points in the plots but to add new, unseen characters. Like weightless korks, glowing, living balls, Brown faces, fiery men, one-eyeds, night fruit, rock pieces, fish-keepers, etc. Some of these I used in my works I guess I’m right?
BTW I have a questions for all users: Do you use sites like, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to promote your works/blog, etc. and to help “remove” stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI – female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures of mythical creatures, good thoughts, poems from fantasy genre, etc? I’m allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hotest fire there’s a bit of water, etc). Best wishes! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of my water dragons’hunters).

Lovers of fairy tales might find ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ by Robert Darnton an interesting read. It’s a history of popular culture in early modern Europe, and includes a fascinating chapter on the historical significance of fairy tales, how they developed and spread, and how they varied throughout Europe in response to different social and economic pressures.

You know, I clicked on this link just because I love fairy tales, but before I even started reading my brain was going “Francesca Lia Block?” and “where to spend Valentine’s Day B&N gift card?” so thanks for answering all my queries of the morning so succinctly.

While I can’t wait to get my hands on this and read it the original Grimm fairy tales were pretty gruesome. Like that Cinderella’s (Aschenputtal in the original German) stepsisters cut off parts of their foot in order to fit into Cinderella’s slipper (which was a fur boot in the original and not a glass slipper) and it was only the talking birds who told the prince he had the wrong girl (he’s a dumb-butt) so he went back a few times before he got the right one. it’s so romantic: the prince riding away with Cinderella on the back of his horse wearing a fur boot filled with the blood of the stepsisters. And then at the prince and Cinderella’s wedding, those same cute talking birds poked out the stepsisters’ right eyes on the way down the aisle and then the birds poked out their left eyes after the ceremony so the last thing they ever saw was Cinderella getting married. I actually felt pretty bad for the stepsisters missing half a foot and blinded by enchanted birds.

Then there’s The Juniper Tree which is even more deliciously gory. Let’s just say the title of the reviewed book is an accurate description for what happens.

Most excellent :) Also, apologies for all the errors in my first post. I don’t do well typing before coffee and I was all excited because the Grimm fairy tales are one of the very few things I feel knowledgable about. I am quite excited to pick up this book for myself.

I need this book in my life ASAP. I have ‘Snow White, Blood Red’, ‘From the Beast to the Blonde’ and Angela Carter’s classic ‘Bloody Chamber’, but there can never be enough riffs on fairytales and their dark side to satisfy me.

Isn’t the title itself a bit from ‘My Ainsel’? The one with the boy whose mother kills him and makes him into a stew but he turns into a dove… something like that.

I avoid horror books, because I have a an overactive imagination and my husband can’t sleep with the lights on, so I probably shouldn’t read this. A new Neil Gaiman is a mighty temptation though…

Regardless, I am totally excited to see other fairy tale lovers here. I just finished “Rose Daughter” again. It’s one of my favorites because the Beast stays a beast instead of turning into some random handsome guy.

I have to read this book! Like you, I love fairy tales too, and I also really love Joyce Carol Oates and Francesca Lia Block (I remember loving her book The Rose and the Beast in junior high or high school) – and Kim Addonizio, I wouldn’t have expected to find her here but I can see her style really suiting the kinds of stories you’ve described.

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