Primal Fears and Haunted Paths: The Thin Line Between Fairy Tales and Horror Stories

In Through the Woods, Emily Carroll’s 2014 collection of comics, the narratives being told feel timeless. They echo the fairy tales of ages past; they feature dwindling families, majestic homes containing awful secrets, and ominous figures biding their time in order to carry out horrific deeds. Told one way, Carroll’s tales could be the sort of story one tells drowsy children as a kind of moral instruction or cautionary tale. Told the way they are in this book, with immersive images, distorted figures, and monstrous forms enveloped in the landscape, the effect is much closer to outright horror. It’s magnificently unnerving, meticulous in its storytelling, and a harrowing example of how hard it can be to discern the line between fairy tale and horror story.

There are certainly similarities in their roots: a fairy tale can act as an example of someone virtuous overcoming a terrifying enemy, or a tale of someone’s vices causing them to be devoured in a thematically appropriate way. Many (though not all) varieties of horror stories fall into similar categories–albeit with nastier creatures, potentially higher levels of gore, and the potential for a greater level of detail or complexity in the narrative, depending on a variety of factors. A lot can depend on the telling–and thus, the same story with the same narrative elements can play out like a harmless bedtime story in the voice of one teller, and a grotesque Gothic horror tale in the voice of another.

The three stories collected in Becky Cloonan’s graphic novel By Chance or Providence tap into a similar archetypal well as those in Carroll’s book, and Cloonan’s fantastically moody art adds depth to her characters and an ominous range to these stories’ tones, whether she’s writing about the strained bond between a woman and her husband, who mysteriously survived a tragedy at sea, or the strained life of a man sent into the woods to hunt a horrible creature who finds his own humanity draining away. Or take the Gentlemen, from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer episode “Hush.” They’re described at one point as “fairy tale monsters,” who carry out a timeless act–the stealing of people’s voices–and can be defeated in a suitably fairy tale-esque way. But the monsters themselves are absolutely terrifying: sepulchral beings with just enough familiarity to be recognizable, and just alien enoughto be terrifying. These are beings that operate under an older set of rules, ones that are comprehensible but unnerving.

The language of fairy tales is another aspect that can suddenly turn horrific. Unica Zürn’s short novel The Trumpets of Jericho begins as a surreal, menacing monologue on the nature of childbirth. It, too, has more than a little in common with fairy tales: there’s a sense of the phantasmagoric, of bodies in an unruly state of metamorphosis and unreality. There’s something timeless about it; there’s also something that recalls body horror, that sense of one’s own form transforming against one’s will.

In Joanna Walsh’s chapbook Grow A Pair: 9 1/2 Fairytales About Sex, Walsh uses the transformation of bodies common to fairy tales and adds an abundant eroticism into the mix. In the story “Simple Hans”–the title appears to be a riff on the Brothers Grimm’s “Clever Hans”–the narrator attempts to live his life according to the conventions of a fairy tale. “It was time for me to go and seek my fortune,” he says, and sets out on a journey that sets the story in motion. It ends with the narrator beheading a woman, and then being shocked when–contrary to fairy tale logic–nothing miraculous happens; no transformations or revivals take place. “This is the moment the good things happen in stories, but this is real life,” he says–and suddenly, a story playing out according to the flawed logic of one narrative becomes something much more horrific.

Victor LaValle’s novel The Changeling is among the deftest books to chart the territory between horror fiction and fairy tales. This is in part because that boundary is not only where the book can be found–it’s also one of the novel’s subjects. It traces the lives of Apollo Kagwa and his wife Emma, who become parents to a newborn son named Brian–at which point things take a turn for the horrific. Emma becomes convinced that Brian has been replaced, in the manner of–well, you can probably tell from the title. Apollo’s search for the truth takes him to uncharted parts of the city, into unpleasant parts of the past, and, eventually, into a more mythical realm.

The way that reality works in The Changeling is, ultimately, through a sort of layering process: the novel isn’t as overtly supernatural as LaValle’s earlier Big Machine, but neither is it as ambiguous as The Devil in Silver. It’s a novel that’s equally comfortable confronting the possibility of human monsters that dwell online as it does with (literally) wrestling with (literal) monsters. And it maintains a haunting balance: there is no “but who’s the real monster here?” narrative equivocating; instead, LaValle allows both human and inhuman antagonists an equally disquieting role in the narrative.

That the central characters of the novel are the parents of a small child adds yet another layer to the mingling of fairy tales and horror in this narrative. There are a host of ways in which fairy tales can be gradually turned into the stuff of horror; this knowing, almost metafictional embrace represents yet another way to approach it. Those same stories that reassured readers as a child might cause nightmares years later. In the hands of the right teller, almost anything is possible.

reel-thumbnailTobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn. He is the author of the short story collection Transitory (Civil Coping Mechanisms) and the novel Reel (Rare Bird Books).

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