There are so many fairy tale retellings to choose from in the literary world, most especially in the YA section of the book shop. Ask for fairytale retelling recommendations and you’ll probably be awash with clamours of “The Lunar Chronicles!”, “Geekerella”, and “The Wrath and the Dawn!”. All well and good if you enjoy light reads wherein you know everything will turn out ok, with some romance and angst and action.
But what about the rest of us? I don’t mind a quick YA read every now and then, but my tastes more often lean towards something a little darker, with grit and grime and, arguably, a little more complexity and substance. Let’s not forget that fairytales of times past were gruesome warnings of the dangers of budding sexuality, talking to strangers, and greed. Many were far more fitting for adults than children before Disney said: “Hey, at the end of Snow White, let’s not make the Evil Queen dance to death in burning iron shoes.”
Let’s take back fairy tale retellings as something emphatically adult. Let’s throw out the cookie-cutter love interests, the clear divide between good and bad, the happy endings. Instead, let’s welcome back ambiguity, violence, fear, and the uncertainty that comes with not knowing how it will end. Below are 5 stories that are scary, unpleasant, and shocking, but undeniably enchanting and rewarding. Approach with caution.
1. The Child Thief
The Child Thief is based on J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. Maybe not quite a fairytale in it’s own right, but very close, and certainly fairytale-esque enough to earn its spot on this list. Taking inspiration from a line heavy in malicious implication from the original novel (“When they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out.”), author and illustrator Brom creates a tale that is frightening, violent, and fraught with dangers both mystical and mundane.
The story follows Nick, a young New Yorker who has run into some trouble with a merciless drug dealer and his gang. Luckily, he is ‘rescued’ by Peter, whisked away to Avalon/Neverland and initiated into his band of Devils/Lost Boys.
Brom borrows from the source material as well as folklore and legends from various cultures to present something twisted, despairing, and ambiguous, forcing us to question the morality of our heroes.
Approach with caution: Bad language, Game of Thrones-level violence, child abuse, torture.
2. White as Snow
Part of Terry Windling’s Fairy Tale Series, a wonderful collection of retellings all with gorgeous covers, White as Snow is possibly the most difficult book to enjoy and the greatest opinion-divider in this list. Based on Snow White and crossed with the myth of Hades and Persephone, Tanith Lee writes with lyrical beauty about ugly, terrible things. This is a story devoid of light, with characters who are colder than a corpse in an outside freezer. Lee focuses on the Wicked Queen’s story as well as the story of her daughter, a product of rape. It’s sensual and rich and as dark as snow is white.
Approach with caution: Bad language, violence, sex, (a lot of) rape.
3. Bitter Greens
If flat-out fantasy isn’t entirely for you, Bitter Greens may sate your appetite for a fresh and original fairy tale retelling. Based on Rapunzel, Bitter Greens is a historical fiction novel which follows three protagonists, each with their own stories to tell. The three characters and their tales are wonderfully interwoven, with the connections never feeling forced. First, we have Margherita, a young woman locked in a tower, yearning for freedom. Then, we have Selena, an enigmatic woman lost in magic. Finally, there’s Charlotte-Rose, a historical character who wrote Persinette, later adapted by the Brothers Grimm as Rapunzel.
Forsyth is a magnificently skilled writer who makes each character flawed and yet compelling. When transitioning between POVs, there was no character I didn’t like to hear from. The storytelling is rich and descriptive, with dark overtones of politics, dark magic, and doom, set against the sumptuous backdrops of Venice and Versailles.
Approach with caution: Sex, rape, some violence.
4. Snow, Glass, Apples
Looking for something short but not so sweet? Allow me to point you in the direction of Snow, Glass, Apples. At only 5000 words, you could (but probably shouldn’t) read this as a bedtime story. Gaiman is a master storyteller and has proved time and time again that for retellings, reworkings, and reimaginings, he’s the guy to go to. SGA is Snow White from the Wicked Queen’s perspective, with a wonderfully creepy twist. Dark, macabre, and with a truly unnerving ending, it’s one to read with the lights on.
Approach with caution: Creepy as frick.
Deerskin isn’t halfway as horrible as some of the other novels in this list, but it earns its place for one awful, awful scene. Based on Charles Perrault’s Donkeyskin, its protagonists are Princess Lissar and her dog, Ash. The princess’ parents are a beautiful couple adored by their Kingdom, and when the Queen becomes ill, both her people and her husband are stricken with grief. On her deathbed, the Queen (in an apparent spat of vanity) makes her husband promise he will never remarry, unless he finds someone more beautiful than herself. Unfortunately, Lissar grows up in her mother’s image, hauntingly beautiful, and her father can’t seem to take his eyes off her.
Yes, what you’re thinking happens does happen. Yes, it’s beyond terrible. Yes, it’s difficult to read. Stick with it.
Following this shocking premise, Lissar escapes into the wilderness with only her hound for company. She learns to heal, grow, and hope. She overcomes burdens and challenges, she forms friendships, and she becomes stronger. This is a beautiful, lyrical novel, slowly paced, all about loss and hope. I actually heard that this novel has been used as a recovery tool in some groups for those who have been abused. It’s an old favourite of mine, and one that I will never forget.
Approach with caution: Incest, rape, miscarriage.
Of course, these are just my very favourites from a whole host of dark retellings, and I am ALWAYS looking for new ones. Have any recommendations? Hit me up!