Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fairy Tales and Horror: Fears in the Light, Comforts in the Dark
by Anthony Servante

Fairy Land

Welcome to the Darkness, dear readers, for our latest venture into the literary side of horror. This time out, the Servante of Darkness explores the darkness inherent in the traditional fairy tale, discusses the latest in fairy tales that maintain the element of “innocent fear”, where childhood anxieties are mitigated through metaphoric situations and creatures, analyzes the "adultifying" of fairy tales, focusing more on the drama than the fear, and examines the invasion of the fears in fairy form into our adult world. 

I will discuss by way of Karina Wilson The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) by Bruno Bettelheim and his assertions that these tales target children’s fears. Then we shall have a look-see at modern versions and interpretations of the fairy tale form, beginning with An Ill Wind Blows by Lori R. Lopez; Kayla, Enchanted: Dark Fairy Tales with a Modern Twist by Christine Sutton; Spindle's End (novelization of Sleeping Beauty) by Robin McKinley; Faerie Tale by Raymond E. Feist; and Once by James Herbert. Finally, we shall remember James Herbert and his influence on your host.

Let’s begin.

In The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales (1976) by Bruno Bettelheim, the author psycho-analyzes the subconscious effect that fairy tales hold for children, themes too intense to face without a cushion, the cushion that works such as the Brothers Grimm may provide. According to Karina Wilson in her June 1, 2012 Column, LURID: Grimmly Fiendish - The Horror in Fairy Tales, “These traditional fairy tales, with the darkness of abandonment, death, [supernatural creatures], and injuries, allowed children to grapple with their fears in remote, symbolic terms. For a child, the basic human predicament is terrifying. Children fear death, of a parent, of a sibling, especially a newborn infant. They fear abandonment. They fear the giant adults who tower above them. They fear the dark. They fear the things that lurk in [dark scary places: closets, backyards, new environments]. Fairy tales deal with all these fears, spinning them into a safe, fictional framework.”

Once upon a time, therefore, offers a sanctuary for children, a place where their subconscious fears dissipate like a mist in fog, or a droplet in the ocean.

Mother Goose rhymes also provide a similar place for children to feel safe from normal fears of youth and innocence. As adults, we understand that these rhymes tell dark tales in sing-song rhythms, with carefree characters. In London Bridge is Falling Down, the common interpretation has it that children were sacrificed to prevent a bridge from falling, but other meanings have it that “London Bridge” was simply in need of repair and may collapse at any moment, killing hundreds. In either case, the nursery rhyme offers a safe retreat for children to control their possible deaths by offering up sacrifices (think Children of the Corn) or by protesting the bridge’s ill condition to adults. “Jack and Jill” also has dire interpretations. The scariest has it that two children fetching water from the well were kidnapped and possibly killed; the Norse version of the poem has the kids taken away by the moon (Wiki).

Jack and Jill

Karina continues, “Fairy tales are horror stories at heart, not fantasy action adventures.  They function on a deep psychological level, tapping into our primal selves. Good struggled against Evil, but always won in the end.  Victory came through intelligence, not brute strength.  Those who sided with Good lived happily ever after, but those who cleaved to Evil were burned, pierced, broken, transformed and condemned, never to be seen again.” The grotesque elements inherent in the fairy tales were circumstantial to the kids (and still are—consider that children today view Family Guy and South Park innocently, without the horrors understood by adults); for every prince and princess, there was an evil witch or dangerous dragon.

The balance of good and evil, and the inevitable happy ending shone like a lighthouse for the imagination of the child on stormy seas. Adds Wilson, “Children over the aeons have made no objections to the macabre details: the cannibalism, the bloodshed, the amputations, the kidnappings, the murders, or the red-hot iron torture devices. The more monstrous the threat, the more grotesque the punishment, the easier the lesson was to understand and remember. When we read horror, we’re tapping into the things that fairy tales taught us, re-experiencing the powerlessness of a child.”  Here we must visit the horror novels at hand and discuss the elements that make them attractive to the child in adult readers.

We begin with Lori R. Lopez.

Lori R. Lopez

Lori R. Lopez is the author of works spanning multiple categories from Nonfiction to Fiction; novel to story to verse collection; children's fiction, storybooks and more, usually with a blend of genres such as Humor, Fantasy, Horror, Supernatural, Thriller, Epic-Adventure and so on. Her titles include OUT-OF-MIND EXPERIENCES, CHOCOLATE-COVERED EYES, DANCE OF THE CHUPACABRAS, THE MACABRE MIND OF LORI R. LOPEZ: THIRTEEN TORMENTOUS TALES, and her award-winning novel AN ILL WIND BLOWS.

The unique adventure AN ILL WIND BLOWS depicts one night when an ordinary person lacking confidence must battle a wicked wind. The stakes are high as she, along with friends and foes, travels through a magical storm world that culminates in a ghost town populated by more than just spirits. This is a story that keeps delivering action and fun throughout. It is more than a single tale in a single genre. The book blends Humor, Horror, and Fantasy.

Lori R. Lopez creates a whole new fairy tale for the modern age. She tackles the fears of her heroine with otherly world creatures and fantastic situations worthy of Grimm’s tales.

Arletta "Meezly" Trimble exemplifies the fairy tale heroine. She fears being alone, although she does have friends. But in typical tale fashion, she has suffered the loss of her parents, and is tossed into a cruel world. The escape from this sad fate begins with a letter from her father. Thus her journey begins; she enters a great vortex controlled by an evil creature.

In normal circumstances, Meezly's journey would simply be one of being placed in an orphanage or with “wicked” stepparents, but within Lori’s fairy tale structure, her heroine quests for answers and learns to control her own fate by taking on the challenges in this fantastical land (or wind as is the case). Although her fears are real, Measly must find the strength to solve the mystery of her parents’ disappearance.

Lori has created an old-fashioned fairy tale that utilizes the elements of the traditional form but with her own imaginative signature. She maintains the childhood fear element in developing her story, while utilizing fantastical creatures and situations to help direct our heroine to overcome her fears by empowering her with self-reliance. It is a story worthy of entering the Fairy Tale oeuvre.

While Lopez envisions a new version of the tale, our next two authors mimic the old form. Robin McKinley and Christine Sutton recycle traditional fairy tales with a modern spin.

Let’s turn to Robin McKinley first. Her fairy tale retells of the tale of Sleeping Beauty.

Robin McKinley

Robin McKinley has won various awards and citations for her writing, including the Newbery Medal for The Hero and the Crown and a Newbery Honor for The Blue Sword. Her other books include Sunshine; the New York Times bestseller Spindle's End; two novel-length retellings of the fairy tale Beauty and the Beast, Beauty and Rose Daughter; and a retelling of the Robin Hood legend, The Outlaws of Sherwood. She lives with her husband, the English writer Peter Dickinson.

Renowned fantasy writer Robin McKinley, author of the lush "Beauty and the Beast" retellings Beauty and Rose Daughter, has produced another re-mastered fairy tale, this time about the dreamy Sleeping Beauty. Much like in the original story, the infant princess, here named Rosie, is cursed by an evil fairy to die on her 21st birthday by pricking her finger on a spindle. That same day, Rosie is whisked away into hiding by a peasant fairy who raises her and conceals her royal identity. From that point on, McKinley's plot and characterization become wildly inventive. She imagines Rosie growing up into a strapping young woman who despises her golden hair, prefers leather breeches to ball gowns, and can communicate with animals. And on that fateful birthday, with no help from a prince, Rosie saves herself and her entire sleeping village from destruction, although she pays a realistic price. In a final master stroke, McKinley cleverly takes creative license when the spell-breaking kiss (made famous in "Sleeping Beauty") comes from a surprising source and is bestowed upon the character least expected.

Book review:
McKinley enjoys refashioning traditional fairy tales to suit an empowered heroine, rather than one who relies on her prince to rescue her. In essence, she pumps her children’s tales into adult stories by pumping them full of feminist steroids, so to speak. This is a welcomed retelling as young girls need a hero to identify with. My sister and I often complain about boys being issued toy guns and girls given toy dolls to play with, a case of the environment shaping the child, of assigning roles that the kids can grow into in a male-dominated society. By reaching into the childhood psyche of the adult with the fairy tale medium, Robin reverses roles with seamless ease within an entertaining story.

As young boys and girls begin to feel different about their roles as assigned to them by society, it is good to see literature that teaches them that “different” is okay. Girls can play with guns, and boys can play with dolls. In McKinley’s fairy tale world, her Sleeping Beauty flexes a bit of muscle and still remains attractive. That’s fine by me.

Now on to Christine Sutton.

Christine Sutton

Christine Sutton is an accomplished author in the fields of horror, thriller and horror/fantasy. When not writing, she enjoys expressing herself as a sculptor and artist. Christine lives in Central California.

Kayla Burkheart has had a hard life. When she finally decides to clean up her act and get her life back on track, she believes that she has it all. A new job, a man that she loves, and finally, a feeling of peace. As she embarks on a journey down a California highway, she finds herself being trailed by a menacing figure in a black car. This is only the beginning. She finds out that there is more to her life than she ever imagined possible. Join her on her journey through four tales, tinged with fairy tale magic and filled with werewolves, vampires, witches (good and bad) and all other manner of magic and monsters. With nods to Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Three Little Pigs, Hansel and Gretel and a few more, these are not the fairy tales you read as a child. Kayla's life is sometimes dark, often frightening and always, enchanted.

This book contains some language and adult situations. Not recommended for children.

Christine retells a number of fairy tales while reworking them into a modern day setting. She foreshadows what Feist and Herbert will do in their tales. The fear element emerges through Kayla’s encounters with the creatures and situations reserved for fairy tales. It is the tale of an adult reliving childhood anxieties, only in real backdrops, so that the dread becomes real as the fantasies taking flesh. Our heroine must drive a “red” car worth a lot of money to Texas; on the road she is followed by a “black” car, whose presence begins to menace her. Using the Red Riding Hood story, Sutton delves into the childhood fears one experiences when confronted by the unknown. Who hasn’t been unnerved by a prank call from a silent caller? With Snow White, our author touches on how fragile the truth can be for youngsters. A “mother-in-law” bewitches her son into canceling his wedding to Kayla (which is why she needed a lot of money) by lying about the future bride. Kayla must set the truth right to win back her man. In the third tale, Kayla takes on The Three Little Pigs tale with themes on some very gory alienation. Hansel and Gretel rounds out the quartet of novellas. I don’t know if Ms. Sutton plans to continue Kayla as a series; she has created a fine character here, and with the continued use of fairy tales to backdrop her adventures, it would be a series I’d recommend highly.

On to Raymond E. Feist.

Raymond E. Feist 

Raymond Elias Feist is an American author who primarily writes fantasy fiction. He is best known for The Riftwar Cycle series of novels and short stories. His books have been translated into multiple languages and have sold over 15 million copies.

Phil Hastings was a lucky man-he had money, a growing reputation as a screenwriter, a happy, loving family with three kids, and he'd just moved into the house of his dreams in rural of magic-and about to be altered irrevocably by a magic more real than any he dared imagine. For with the Magic came the Bad Thing, and the Faerie, and then the cool. . .and the resurrection of a primordial war with a forgotten people-a war that not only the Hastings but the whole human race could lose.

Feist poses the question: What if you placed real children in a real fairy tale? The creeps and fears kids experience in fictional tales would become real, I would think. This is the premise of Faerie Tale. The horrors in such tales invade the real world, converge on a real family. This is Disney by way of Gullermo Del Toro. The cushion for childhood fears has been lifted. It reminds me of seeing Arachnophobia for the first time at the Cinerama Dome. There were two kids in the row in front of me giggling and mocking their parents’ choice of movies. They hemmed and hawed throughout the film, causing more than one theater-goer to shush them. When the finale of the movie came, when the “general” spider fights to the death with Jeff Daniels, the two rowdy kids are cowering in terror, tears running down their face. This is what happens without the cushion for suspension of disbelief. The fears run rampant without sight of a happy ending. Where “once upon a time” leads to “happily ever after”, one can face the anxieties brought on by monsters and evil adults; however, in a world such as Faerie Tale, life exists between Once and After, there where only monsters exist without the hope that they will be vanquished.

When the creatures from Irish Lore make their appearance, it is not magical fantasy but terrific horror. As with Kayla’s adventures, the Hastings family enters fairy territory. Cute gives way to corruption. I always enjoy tales where fiction breaks the fifth wall, as it does here by having fairies living side by side with humans in New York, although they are generally unaware of their fantastical presence. When the Hastings become aware of their existence, the real fear begins, both for the family and the reader.

As a fan of Raymond Feist, I was dying to include this work into this piece about fairy tales and horror, but it itself is not a fairy tale; it takes elements of the tale and incorporates them into a modern story. The monsters in this horror book are fairies. I’d recommend the book to any reader of any age, even though there are those who may say the book is too intense for children. But, hey—fairy tales are for children. 

And now, James Herbert.

James Herbert

James John Herbert, OBE (8 April 1943 – 20 March 2013) was a best-selling English horror writer who originally worked as the art director of an advertising agency. A full-time writer, he also designed his own book covers and publicity. His books have sold 54 million copies worldwide, and have been translated into 34 languages, including Chinese and Russian.

James Herbert-Once: Remember the faery stories you were told as a child? Tales of tiny, magical, winged beings and elves, wicked witches and goblins. Demons ...What if one day you found out they were true? What if, when you became an adult, you discovered they were all based on fact? What if you met the fantasy and it was all so very real? That's what happened to Thom Kindred. The wonders were revealed to him. But so were the horrors, for not far behind the Good, there always lurks the Bad. And the Bad had designs on Thom. The Bad would show him real evil. He would see the hellhagges and the demons. He would be touched by perverted passion. And corruption. And he would encounter his own worst nightmare. The Bad would seek to destroy him. And only the magic of the little beings would be able to help him. Once, James Herbert's masterful novel of erotic love and darkest horror, will take you to a realm where fantasy and reality collide, where faerytales really can come true.

James Herbert in his novel “Once” also combines fantasy and reality, fairies and humans in a modern setting, reversing the fairy tale structure so that the fairy tale comes to us in our lives rather than we going to them in our story books. We are confronted by the unreal and must overcome our suspension of disbelief in fairies to deal with the real creatures. Often fans will romanticize encounters with vampires, the living dead, even Jason Voorhees, because they imagine meeting them would excite the senses, when, in reality, these creatures would terminate one’s senses. Only religious fanatics romanticize death.

Here in Once, Herbert demythifies the romanticizing of true horror. Feist does the same thing, but limits the extremes of the fantastical creatures, whereas Herbert does not. His fairies are rabid sexual animals. Witches have insatiable appetites, as do Pixies and Fairies. This adult element takes the mythic element into the human realm. If these creatures eat, drink, sleep, and fornicate, as we humans do, then they are not only similar to us—they are like us in good and evil. That’s what is scary about this book. It makes us look at ourselves a little too closely. Unlike the fairy tales of yore, which filter children’s fears through its story structure (Once upon a time to Happily ever after), here one’s confrontations with our fears only reveals the perverse in ourselves. What else is one to make of a masturbating fairy?

This one I cannot recommend for children, but adults will appreciate the grotesque extremes of fairy land.

As you all know by now, James Herbert passed away on March 20, 2013. As a teen I read his first book, The Rats, and became an instant fan, reading his every book thereafter. As I attended college, I studied “horror” because of authors like Herbert, F. Paul Wilson, and Graham Masterton, for they represented the second wave of dark fiction after the first wave, Lovecraft, Bradbury, Matheson, Bloch and others. To me, and in my writings, James Herbert ushered in the Silver Age of Horror, and I write on the subject today because of him. Thank you, sir, for the body of horrific work you leave us fans and future fans. Rest in Peace.

James Herbert R.I.P. 

Join us again soon, dear readers, as we discuss a new topic in literary horror. Till then, leave the darkness on.


  1. "Fantastic" article, Anthony!!! I am so honored to be in it with the amazing authors and books discussed! Thank you very much for your excellent remarks. It is a most interesting collection of works and insights. It is interesting how many adults like me have never outgrown fairytales and Nursery Rhymes. I was inspired to write prose and poetry by both forms of literature. Though I have yet to read the other books included here, I am quite intrigued to do so. Well done! :)

  2. This is a great article, Anthony, and makes me want to whip out my quill and pen a tale to match those of the great authors you have praised. I am well acquainted with the works of all the authors you have mentioned, especially Lori R. Lopez and the late, great James Herbert. Lori R. Lopez was one of my Women In Horror this year and spanked me badly in a contest the other year.

    I will be sure to spread the word about this wonderful post!

    Blaze McRob

    1. Thank you for reading and for the nice remarks, Blaze! :)