Bookshelf: Twisted Fairy Tales for the Modern Reader


Sometimes even the most literary among us need some suggestions. And who better to oblige than the authors themselves? Welcome to Bookshelf, wherein we ask authors to design us a fantasy library, giving us their recommendations for the perfect reading material on a variety of topics. This week, we are treated to a to-read list full of twisted fairy tales by Helen Oyeyemi, the author of four novels (including 2009’s wonderful White is for Witching ), the most recent of which, Mr. Fox , comes out this week from Riverhead Books.

We thought Oyeyemi perfect to suggest books about subversive witchery and remixed folklore, since Mr. Fox itself is in many ways a fantastic intertextual retelling of the Bluebeard tale, only here Bluebeard is a writer who keeps killing the same imaginary woman again and again. The novel also tackles the relationship between muse and artist, shows the way characters can both be and not be one another, themselves, someone else, and manages to subvert the classic fairy tale logic over and over again while still being wholly satisfying, funny, and perfectly dark. We asked Oyeyemi to suggest some of her own favorite twisted fairy tales, whether concerning wicked stepmothers, houses on chicken legs, or the king of the rats, so check out her picks after the jump and prepare to fall into another world.

Author photo by Saneesh Sukumaran.

Transformations , Anne Sexton

Snow White’s wicked step mother is made to wear red hot roller skates…

And so she danced until she was dead, a subterranean figure, her tongue flicking in and out like a gas jet. Meanwhile Snow White held court, rolling her china-blue doll eyes open and shut and sometimes referring to her mirror as women do.

Sexton asks: who really commands such narratives –s/he who is good or s/he who is interesting? These subversions are bitter, sardonic, and airily amoral; the effect is as bracing as the slap invariably administered to some hysterical dame or other in noir films.

Jane Eyre , Charlotte Bronte

“I must keep in good health, and not die.” True, Jane Eyre forms this resolution long before she realizes that the old boy she’s in love with kept his first wife locked in his attic. Nonetheless her will is adamant. Our heroine sanely and sedately follows her heart directly into the Bloody Chamber and closes the door behind her: ‘No woman was ever nearer her mate than I am: ever more absolutely bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh.’ To this I say – I see you, fellow strange woman, and I salute you.

Wide Sargasso Sea , Jean Rhys

Bluebeard’s first wife is rarely permitted to speak. When she does, her sorrow and her fury are incendiary. Antoinette Cosway flies from prison to prison –colonialism, male-dominated society and family, sexual passion, mental instability – those kinds of prison. She’s the first Mrs Rochester, the Creole madwoman in the attic so masterfully dehumanized by the single-minded second wife. This book is among the very best gothic tragedies in its own right. But as a letter delayed by a century, Rhys’ reply to Jane Eyre turns both books into twin shadows, each engaged with the secrets and silences of the other.

Baba Yaga Laid an Egg , Dubravka Ugresic

Dubravka Ugresic is a whistler in the dark, a thinker and storyteller with one foot in the absurd, another in the surreal, and a third foot…elsewhere, just elsewhere. Baba Yaga is a witch archetype who lives in a hut that stands on chicken legs. Sometimes she steals and eats children. Ugresic meets Yaga and takes the reader on a glorious romp that doubles as a confrontation of the values we attribute to youth and aging. The myth of the wicked hag will always be with us, but co-existence is possible…

King Rat , China Mieville

Here’s a story of musical enchantment with a tense, bruised sensibility– it deals with the horror of compulsion and leaves the wide-eyed wonder element to the traditionalists. The King of the Rats joins forces with Anansi and Loplop, King of the Birds, to do battle with the Pied Piper (of Hamelin and elsewhere) for the souls of drum’n’bass clubgoers citywide. Age old grudges are settled, and London’s most overlooked citizens (humans and pigeons and spiders, oh my…) rise up to save the day. Which is just so perfectly London it hurts. Also Mieville’s take on the Piper is bloody terrifying.

The Juniper Tree , Barbara Comyns

Gosh, Barbara Comyns’ novels. It’s her singular style – wistful and curious, fond of the world in general but appalled by the details, at times slipping into interludes of the bizarre. Like a sorceress who nonetheless keeps a firm eye on the price of eggs. The Juniper Tree is a fairy tale that haunts me because even at the end the evil in it is never wholly undone. Through her reimagining of the wicked stepmother figure, Comyns speculates convincingly as to how damage escalates despite all conscious attempts to limit itself.