Are you a sucker for a story that begins with “once upon a time”? This fall, two accomplished short-story writers are lending a kind of dark beauty to the season with their enthralling collections of modernized fairy tales.
Tuscon-based writer Kate Bernheimer has been called one of the fairy tale’s “living masters” —in addition to editing the World Fantasy Award-winning My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, she also founded and edits the literary journal Fairy Tale Review. Her second collection, How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales, is a remarkable compilation of stories: a girl’s relationship with her shadow, a librarian’s secret home, a solitary boy in a cardboard house.
The writing is deliberately sparse, intended, Bernheimer said, to leave “nonrepresentational space, meant to allow lucid encounters”—as fairy tales often do. The collection discusses various emotional tropes historically found in these iconic stories, like love, fear and hesitation. In “Babes in the Woods,” Bernheimer examines the tension between step-parents and step-children and explores physical and psychological abuse, using suspenseful language. A father remarries; his new wife dislikes his children, and she takes extreme measures to ensure their disappearances. Many of the stories in How a Mother Weaned Her Girl from Fairy Tales intersect with each other, pulling readers through the pages as they piece together the puzzle Bernheimer created.
Taking a slightly different tack, New York Times best-selling author Jean Thompson uses an easily digestible narrative style to twist classic fairy tales into more recognizable shapes in her new collection, The Witch: And Other Tales Re-Told. Hansel and Gretel are put in a foster home. Cinderella leaves her shoe behind after a drunken one-night stand. Red Riding Hood’s iPod is stolen at a mall food court.
While prototypical fairy tales often couch difficult situations in mythology or magic Thompson seeks to strip that layer away, exposing characters’ true struggles. In the story “Your Secret’s Safe With Me,” Thompson explores an unusual relationship between a young woman and her new husband. As their marriage progresses, the woman discovers a long trail of lies and deceits, and what emerges is a realization to which many readers can relate: the problem of not knowing someone as well as you thought.
Though the two books approach the modernization of fairy tales differently, readers of both will arrive at the same conclusion: The crises faced by a character in a classic fable are not always meant to be left behind in childhood. Rather, they can, and maybe should, be carried along through life, to give reassurance during troubled times, or at least lend poetry to where there would otherwise be none.
Haley Herfurth is a full-time writer and editor living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.