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December 9, 2013

Once Upon a Time Adults Read Fairy Tales, Too

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Whether you read fairy tales as a child or whether you’re simply aware of them because you are a person who is alive and does not live under a rock, fairy tales have played a role in your reading experience.

Unfortunately, when Disney sunk his claws into them, he did a disservice that lasted for decades: Most of our perceptions have been colored by his saccharine and censored interpretations. Because of him, the words “fairy tales” invoke images of childhood and whimsy and musical numbers that are too catchy for their own good.

Contrary to what Disney’s cultural stronghold would have you believe, the idea that fairy tales are for children is a relatively recent phenomenon. They used to function much in the way that adult books do: They were escapist, but they were also strange and frightening and often startlingly gory or sexual (for example, if your only exposure has been Disney, than you might not know that in the real Little Mermaid, the prince marries another woman and the mermaid considers murdering him but instead succumbs to a weird spiritual suicide… As for the real “Sleeping Beauty”….trust me, you don’t want to know. Unless you are a fan of necrophilia, in which case, go ahead and read that --- and also please get some therapy).

As all good books do, fairy tales explored the dark and primal aspects of human nature --- the deep corners of our psyches that we shy away from in ourselves. That is the true reason they have lasted in the cultural imagination for hundreds of years. Beneath their simplicity lies a world of social commentary and compelling darkness. Disney may have taken them away from the adult world, but there are plenty of modern authors who have taken them back.

So, here is a list of some of the best fairy tales for adults. Some are direct adaptations; some simply take fairy-tale elements for their own. (Disclaimer: this list is meant to be just a sample. And, I intentionally skipped the big shots like Tolkien and Angela Carter and Gregory Maguire in favor of hopefully spreading the word of some lesser-known titles).

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern
The one sentence description: The Prestige with teenagers instead of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.

The longer description: One of the most cinematic, atmospheric books of the last few years, the reader is transplanted directly into the strange and mysterious circus that appears without warning, only by night, and leaves town with the same suddenness. This book perfectly captures the haunting, dreamlike quality of fairy tales, complete with magic that is never quite explained. In most books, this might be annoying and I’d want an explanation, but Morgenstern makes the air of mystery work.

BRIAR ROSE by Jane Yolen
The one sentence description: A fairy tale that is less on the whimsical side and more on the historical side, it is a haunting rendition of “Sleeping Beauty” in which the “sleep” is induced by gas from concentration camps and the “dark forest” is a place of refuge from Nazis.

The longer description: This books jumps from past to present as the modern-day protagonist seeks to uncover her dead grandmother’s startling past. It is never overly moralistic or saccharine, but rather paints a harsh, tragic slice of history. It also covers an under-explored area of the holocaust: the persecution of homosexuals, as well as Jews. Although the book is not exactly “light,” it avoids being bleak. It is an utterly captivating, clever spin on an old story. Expect this one to stay with you long after you read it.

THE GREAT NIGHT by Chris Adrian
The one sentence description: A modern day spin on Shakespeare’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM, but the four lovers have been condensed into three, it occurs in a park in San Francisco, Puck is terrifying, and the language is modern prose (although somehow Adrian manages to make it just as lush and beautiful as Shakespeare).

The longer description: This book flawlessly moves between being funny, moving, heartbreaking, vulgar, sensual, and strange. The fairy characters are the only ones that share similarities with Shakespeare; the rest are Adrian’s own creations. The three characters at the forefront ground and humanize the story, and Adrian’s writing may make you want to laugh and cry at the same time (laugh that writing is capable of being that good; cry because yours will probably never attain that level). I don’t want to be biased and say this book is the best one on this list --- because all of them are truly great --- but, well, this book may be the best one on this list.

PRACTICAL MAGIC and THE PROBABLY FUTURE by Alice Hoffman
I was hesitant to include Alice Hoffman on this list for two reasons. The first is that she has many adult fairy-tale books; so it is difficult to choose just one. The second is that her books are very hit-or-miss: They’re either great and beautiful or maudlin and overwrought.

PRACTICAL MAGIC and THE PROBABLE FUTURE are two of her best, and they both contain all the best parts of adult fairy tales: magical realism, curses passed through generations, and murder and mayhem.

NEVERWHERE and THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman
It’s impossible to write a list of adult fairy tales without including Neil Gaiman. Like Hoffman, it was hard to pick one Gaiman book, so I kind of cheated and picked two. These are two of his best, or at least two that would be good to start with if you’ve never read him before.

If you are unfamiliar with him, a one-sentence introduction to Neil Gaiman: He’s the Tim Burton of the written word, both in terms of dark whimsical style and in terms of appearance --- if you look at pictures of the two men, they definitely share the same hairdresser. And that hairdresser may be Edward Scissorhands.

THE PRINCESS BRIDE by William Goldman
It may seems strange to include this book on the list because I said I wanted to avoid the big-shots in favor of giving some exposure to lesser-known titles --- and everyone and their mother has seen the movie. But, the book’s audience is far less expansive than the movie’s. This book is the rarest of rare gems: It is entirely different from the movie and yet they are equally good. My only explanation for this is that the author wrote the screenplay as well. The book contains all of the movie’s humor, sardonic wit, creativity and genuine charm, with some added twists and clever angles that I will be annoyingly vague about, because it’s best if you just read it.
 

I wanted to keep the list short, but if you are interested in more, here are some honorary mentions of authors to check out: Daphne Du Maurier, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Charles de Lint, Laura Whitcomb, Kristen Cashore, George RR Martin, Philip Pullman, Gregory Maguire, Louis Owens and Annette Curtis Klaus.

Also, although there are many excellent adult fairy tales out there, there are also some not-so-excellent. Here is a short list of three of the worst (I don’t feel guilty about listing them because all three are authors that are otherwise enormously successful and have written other works that are of a much higher quality).

WHITE AS SNOW by Tanith Lee
Lee is an otherwise darkly hypnotic writer who is worth exploring, but this particular work misses the mark. Beginning with graphic rape and ending with a dwarf orgy --- yes, you read that correctly --- this certainly captures the “dark and strange” aspect of fairy tales, although not in a good way.

The Sleeping Beauty trilogy by Anne Rice
Similarly, the Sleeping Beauty trilogy by Anne Rice contains graphic sadomasochism, ephebophilia (which I had to look up, and for those who also don’t know --- which is hopefully most people --- is the fetish of “sexual interest in adolescents”). The books contain other sexual fetishes I am afraid to look up, and very little plot. Of all Anne Rice’s work, this one apparently outsold INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.

THE PARTICULAR SADNESS OF LEMON CAKE by Aimee Bender
The book begins with an Alice Hoffman-like atmosphere of magical realism and melancholia --- a girl discovers she can taste people’s emotions in the food that they cook. That’s an intriguing sounding premise, right? And Bender is ordinarily a great writer. But the big payoff for all the mystery and intrigue about the protagonist’s missing brother is --- there is no other word for it --- lame. Spoiler alert, it turns out he has magically turned himself into a chair. Yes, you read that correctly, too.
 

Chairs and orgies aside, there are clearly a wide variety of approaches to adult fairy tales. And even the more questionable tales are rooted in history that is far richer, stranger and more compelling than anything that Disney could conjure.