Lesson No. 1: Introducing the Fairy Tale Grotesque with Brenda Mann Hammack

A Horrid Stew

Gingerbread houses are not the only settings a lost-or-questing traveler should avoid if s/he hopes to steer clear of child-eating cannibals as anyone who has encountered Grimm’s Grimmest (published by Chronicle Books) or Kate Bernheimer’s anthology, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me will already know. The title of the latter volume is inspired, after all, by “The Juniper Tree,” a nasty little tale, in which a woman decapitates her stepson and serves his body to his father in black sausage stew. 

Such fixings would be considered quite the delicacy among many of the anthropophagists, or human-flesh eaters, who inhabit the land of lore.  Baba Yaga of Slavic tradition prefers travel by mortar rather than by typical broomstick, likely so that the pestle she employs for steering can double as meat-grinder. The gates that surround her chicken-legged house are constructed of human metatarsals and jawbones.   And she frequently threatens to eat the protagonist should the latter fail to complete any of the impossible tasks assigned to her.  A better -known villain, the giant who occupies that beanstalk penthouse, regularly calls attention to his consummate skill in snuffling for human blood, savory as truffles.  He also expresses a keenness for ground bone, a possible thickening agent in stew.

But blood-hunger might be considered less horrific when it is encountered in nonhuman subjects.  In another one of the Grimm brothers’ collectibles, “The Robber Bridegroom,” a young woman discovers her fiancé and his friends preparing to have another female for supper in the most literal sense possible. The protagonist manages to escape without detection, snatching a stray finger to wield as proof of her intended’s ill intentions.


Historically, fairy tales are spattered with carnage.  Some serial killers wait until after their vows to slaughter wives.  In Charles Perrault’s “Bluebeard” and the Grimms’ “Fitcher’s Bird,” the protagonists discover their husbands’ murder rooms, but manage to survive, either because of a last-minute rescue or because feminine cleverness allows for the out-tricking of the homicidal trickster. Disney has not, yet, managed to transform these particular spousal murderers into beasts fit for redemption.   



However, many of the classic stories that have undergone Disneyfication originally contained acts of violence and vengeance that might surprise audiences who have only been exposed to fairy tales populated by sewing mice and singing candlesticks.  Stepsisters self-mutilate, hacking off heel or toes, in order to force over-sized feet into gold (not glass) slippers in the Grimm version of “Cinderella.”   Hitchcockian birds peck out the eyes of the step-siblings and their mother after their duplicity is exposed.  Although Snow White survives suffocating, poisoning, and choking, despite a limited learning curve, the promise of a happily-ever-after might seem questionable given that her prince fell in love with a supposed corpse in a glass casket.  Snow’s nemesis is forced to dance herself to death in burning shoes.    

So much for the usual qualities of goodness.  One might expect a capacity for forgiveness or, at least, a propensity to beg mercy even for enemies.   However, true brides’ rivals are often subjected to torturous executions in the Grimms’ fairy tales.  At the end of “The Goose Girl,” the “false bride” is “put stark naked into a barrel lined with sharp nails” and “dragged by two white horses up and down the street till she is dead.” 

Beni Montresor "Little Red Riding Hood" http://bookvart.livejournal.com/8670.html
Beni Montresor “Little Red Riding Hood”


But fairy tale protagonists don’t always get what they want or, even, what some might believe they need.  At least, when “The Little Match Girl” freezes to death or when “The Little Mermaid” attempts suicide, rather than slay the prince who failed to recognize or requite her romantic feelings, Hans Christian Andersen delivers a happily-ever-afterlife.  In his original tales, the meek may inherit the kingdom of heaven by earning their own souls.  In the mermaid’s case, a century of selfless acts may yield this reward.  Ultimately, Anderson’s mermaid does not have to rely on the fickle love of a human man in order to merit a soul.

Charles Perrault’s protagonists cannot always count on salvation.  In his “Little Red Riding Hood,” the child ends in the belly of the wolf, entrée to her grandmother’s appetizer.  The distracted young damsel is not delivered by woodsman, or other male Samaritan.   Perrault’s fairy tale concludes with a poem addressed to its intended audience of aristocratic young ladies:


Children, especially attractive, well bred young ladies

should never talk to strangers, for if they should

do so, they may well provide dinner for a wolf.

I say “wolf,” but there are various kinds of wolves.

There are also those who are charming, quiet, polite,

unassuming, complacent, and sweet, who pursue

young women at home and in the streets.

And unfortunately, it is these gentle wolves

who are the most dangerous ones of all.

While modern audience may be saved from such lectures, victims of human predators often experience the harrowing guilt that Perrault’s contemporaries expected of morally compromised females.  The  intended cautionary purpose is still applicable today as children, regardless of gender, require warning against reliance on the kindness of strangers.

Indeed, “Little Red Riding Hood” remains a popular feature in contemporary anthologies for children, although its altered forms tend to offer, at the very least, a potential for rescue.  Some versions allow the little girl enough gumption to recognize her danger in time to effect her own escape as well as the would-be defiler’s apprehension.  Michael Emberly’s Ruby, for example, recasts the traditional story with mice in the role of Little Red and family, a cat as a suitably suave villain, and a female mastiff in the role of the neighbor whom Ruby contacts via telephone when the wise child suspects the too-friendly cat of plotting home invasion.    

Emberly’s narrative is intended for very young children.  However, for the purposes of this workshop, I am more interested in revisions meant for adult or adolescent audiences.  

Michael Emberly's "Ruby"
Michael Emberly’s “Ruby”

 In emphasizing “grotesquerie” in the title for this lesson, I aim to signal my interest in more than the mere gore that is manifested by so many traditional folk tales.  As defined by John Ruskin, Wolfgang Keyser, and a number of literary critics, the term “grotesque” tends to allude to artistic constructs that stimulate repulsion, which is mitigated to some extent by humor.   And by “humor, I mean an almost hysterical hilarity.  In other words, when one encounters the grotesque, one’s perception of horror or disgust tends to be undermined by an awareness of the utter ridiculousness of the details.  

For example, the transformation of humans into wolves in the following video clip from Neil Jordan’s Company of Wolves (1984) is fairly typical of fairy tale grotesquerie.  Loosely based on one of three Red-Riding-Hood-themed narratives in Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, Jordan’s frame tale is set in an archetypal forest in the twentieth-century. However, the linked excerpt depicts one of the stories relayed within that wider frame.  In this scene, a scorned woman curses her seducer and his peers with mass lycanthropy. Onset does not require moonshine.  Click here to view:  Wedding Feast.

Neil Jordan's "Company of Wolves" (1984)
Neil Jordan’s “Company of Wolves” (1984)

Although today’s special effects artists often make mockeries of shape-changing scenes in werewolf story lines, some do attempt verisimilitude.  Jordan’s team finishes the feast episode with actual canines.  But what to make of the terrible prosthetic snout and claws that contribute to the ludicrous nature of the transformation of those gluttonous party guests? 

Lest one imagine that the more advanced computer-generated effects of the twenty-first century would lessen the unbelievability factor in animal-human conversion scenes, I want to share one recent example from the Netflix series Hemlock Grove.  The plot follows Peter Romancek, a roma (gypsy) werewolf, and Roman Godfrey, his upir (vampire) friend, as they attempt to uncover a serial killer, partially to save themselves from suspicion that could lead to the public discovery of their inherited conditions.  In the first episode of the current season, Peter deliberately triggers a partial change by daylight in order to frighten drug dealers.  As these hapless witnesses watch, the werewolf’s human jaws unhinge and a snout emerges through his gaping mouth. Then, the snout withdraws only to be replaced by one slimy human hand.  In a later episode, Roman saves Peter from permanent wolfdom after the latter has changed once too often on a “wrong moon.”  Roman’s supernatural strength enables him to wrench the wolf body apart in order to reach into the torso to pull Peter’s twitching, but fully intact human body from its outer pelt.

When I watched this episode, I could not help recalling the many “Red Riding Hood” variants, in which the child and her grandmother emerge unscathed from the wolf’s guts.  In the Grimms’ version, “Little Red Cap,” the hunter uses an axe to deliver the two females as if by Caesarian section.  Kiki Smith‘s lithograph “Born”  (2002) illustrates the celebratory moment of rebirth: 

Kiki Smith "Born" http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2003/kikismith/
Kiki Smith “Born”


 Although the very idea of steeping in a wolf’s intestinal juices and, then, arising unfazed from its disemboweled carcass already seems quite grotesque if one tries to imagine Little Red and her gran resting within anything less empty than nesting doll concavities, Kellie Wells’s contribution to Kate Bernheimer’s My Mother She Killed Me collection strikes me as epitomizing fairy tale grotesquerie.

 As Justin D. Edwards and Rune Graulund explain in their Routledge primer on the concept, the grotesque text wallows in transgression.  Subversion often manifests via inversions and/or reversions.  Down becomes upside; turvy becomes topsy.  

Wells’s “The Girl, the Wolf, the Crone” absolutely revels  in upsetting conventions even as the story retains enough of the original elements to serve as a recognizable variant, albeit an extremely perverse one.  In this plot, the child seems more rube than ingenue. Her cheeks are more flushed than her wardrobe. And such rosiness is not perceived as a virtue.  She might very well be suffering from rosacea, a condition sometimes associated with adult alcoholics, as the narrator and other characters repeatedly remark on the girl’s cheeks (“the appalling color of let blood,” “red as a carbuncle,” “so frightfully abloom” the huntsman thinks “she might be better off left to the vagaries of the wolf’s intestines”).

Even the wolf fails to perform the traditional role.  In Wells’s tale, the grandmother proves the mouthy old glutton by swallowing other characters whole.   Early on, Miss Red Cheeks  is warned to beware of those “primordial women” who haunt the forest with “faces like the bottom of a river.”  The simile brings to mind the Russian Rusalka, a kind of inland mermaid, but the titular crone is, perhaps, more akin to Baba Yaga with her too-long nose and cannibal appetite.

After beating the girl to the bedside of the sickly wolf she is meant to be feeding, the old woman turns archetypal devourer, though she’s only doing what’s expected since the beast hardly looks appetizing. Indeed, she thinks it “half-dead already, more moth-eaten pelt than glamorous savage, not even fit to be a stole.”   The wolf accepts his role, however, and, very obligingly, removes his pelt before slinging himself into the old woman’s maw. She, ungratefully, deems the meat “gamey,” spits his bones on the bed and complains of acid reflux.

Although Wells maintains the expected patterns from the standard tale (meeting with a trickster in the forest, a question-and-answer routine, an eventual savior), she manages to invest each element with outrageous black humor. Instead of commenting on large ears, eyes, claws, or teeth, the girl remarks on the impostor’s large breasts, blue hair, and opposable thumbs before noticing the scrapped bones.  Meanwhile, the old lady, who has attempted to disguise herself in the wolf’s shucked skin, responds to each exclamation with hilarious excuses. On the saggy dugs that won’t remain tucked: “The better to suckle you with, dear heart!”    To the girl’s objection that the supposed wolf couldn’t “properly terrorize woodland creatures with only raggedy fur and a pudding of flesh with which to spook them,” the mock wolf insists that she finds bones “much more percussive when not swimming inside” her body.

The above quotes convey something of the grotesque flavor of Wells’ revision.  However, the rescue scene is what truly tickled my gag-and-giggle reflex.   As in the previously mentioned scene in which a human is extracted from a wolf-body in Hemlock Grove, the girl is hauled up through the carnivore’s digestive tract, the woodsman using only one hand without much ado or bravado.  Then:

with the skill and boredom of a surgeon performing his one-thousandth appendectomy, he carefully plucked a quivering aspic of flesh from the throat of the wolf and decided the old woman, with her long nose and big ears, was likely beyond saving and he dropped the slop of her onto the floor and wiped the residual goo onto his gambeson, but when thick-nailed, corn-tumored toes poked through the fur as though it were a footed sleeper a size too small, the huntsman reached in again with the resentful finesse of a down-on-his-luck magician who believes he’s bound for a destiny far grander than the endless extraction of rabbits from hats, and he neatly skinned what turned out to be . . . a very old woman, ta-da!

The woodsman’s performance bears much of the carnivalesque, or carnival attitude, which often accompanies grotesque representations.  Wells is obviously having a grand time mucking about with the original plot.

And that is my agenda in this week’s lesson: to prompt you into taking liberties with the ripe materials of folk tale.  In the essay that Wells credits for inspiring her Riding Hood rewrite, “Fairy Tale is Form, Form is Fairy Tale,” Kate Bernheimer stresses the form’s extensive history of adaptation and mutation. Whether operating in realistic or fantastic theaters, artists and authors have an established record of looting the trove of folk lore. Creative borrowers often lift motifs and patterns in order to tap into the dark psychological depths that Carl Jung called the Collective Unconscious.  


Normalized Magic

While contributing to the ongoing scholarly conversation regarding the qualifications of fairy tale literature, Bernheimer identifies four distinctive elements  (what she calls “flatness, abstraction, intuitive logic, and normalized magic”).  For the current lesson, I am most intrigued by the latter concept.  (Feel free to read the entire essay for explanation of the other three attributes.) In the passage on the “natural” or “normalized” status of magic in fairy tale, Bernheimer remarks that the “day to day” tends to be “collapsed with the wondrous.  In a traditional fairy tale there is no need for a portal. Enchantment is not astounding. Magic is normal.”  In providing an anecdote to illustrate her point, Bernheimer turns to variants of “Little Red Riding Hood,” noting that the child does not react fearfully to the talking animal when she encounters him in the woods.  The reader might attribute the girl’s nonchalance to flightiness, to an inability to adhere to parental instructions, to a constitutional failure to initiate what ought to be an instinctive fight-or-flight reflex; however, a reader might also assume that encounters with clothed, chatty creatures are commonplace in a whimsical cosmos.

 Amber Sparks touches on a similar acceptance of magical happenstance  (“the animals that talk, the weather that wills itself into being, the people who can fly”) in a recent article on “domestic fabulism,” published in Electric Literature.  Although Sparks acknowledges this genre designation is sometimes conflated with “magic realism,” she stresses a familial, personal focus over the wider social, political vantage that some critics require before endorsing a text’s admission to the canon of magic realism.   In other words, Sparks would be likely to sanction Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate as an exemplar of “domestic fabulism.”  That novel is sometimes dismissed as too confined to the feminized home environment to merit admission to any Magical Realist Hall of Fame, a position I consider highly debatable. 

Sparks’s article also mentions Angela Carter’s revisionist fairy tales in passing.  Since the complete collection of The Bloody Chamber is available on line, I have included it in the “Selected Readings” section below with the three “Red Riding Hood” titles identified in case any workshop participants would like to peruse them for inspiration.  The shortest of the three, “The Werewolf,” is closest to Kellie Wells’ “The Girl, the Wolf, the  Crone” in its portrayal of a transgressive grandmother.

However, to clarify the relevance of these articles to the subject of fairy tale grotesquerie, I would like to quote an extended passage from Sparks’ description of  domestic fabulism as an

immersion, an exploration of self and situation – of the dread that lives and lurks at home, where we cannot escape it. It creates a double existence, an anxiety that ends, if it does, in a sort of forced catharsis – we must confront the thing that lives in our house, in our marriage, in our family, in our town – the succubus that sits on our throats when we dream. Domestic fabulism, it seems to me, is also on the rise. And that makes sense – that in an age beyond the age of exploration, in an age where the exotic has become the familiar – we might once again look to the fabulous in the small minutiae of our daily home lives. We live in an age of dread and anxiety – harm can come to us at any moment; we live in absolute awareness, where domestic stakes are higher than they’ve ever been. It’s a perfect time to turn ourselves inside out by turning the world around us outside in

I have added the above italics to underscore words that struck me as particularly germane to a grotesque context.  

Below, you will find several prompts that draw on the ideas and texts mentioned in my lesson.  You may choose one as a springboard for your own writing. You may also find inspiration in any of the embedded links or images that I have posted for the week. Although I would like to be able to recognize a connection with the theme of “fairy tale grotesquerie,” you do not have to constrain yourself to revamping the “Red Riding Hood” plot even though I have expended more energy in examining that story than I have in elucidating other examples.  The above links are merely intended to serve as shortcuts should you wish to refresh your memory of stories you have already encountered. You may also wish to visit variants that are totally new to you.  I will not be testing you on your familiarity with my sources.  However, I did not want to depend on anyone possessing extensive background since I meet far too many people who have only entered fairy tale via portals provided by Disney’s or Pixar’s studios. 


Discussion Assignment 

SurLaLune’s Fairy Tale database is a wonder cabinet that can provide access to illustrations, analogues, annotations, and bibliographies so I encourage you to explore.  Many of the above links to individual stories will take you to that site.  I encourage you to visit before determining the course you will take in your first draft.

Under this week’s discussion heading, I would like you to introduce yourself.  Tell us about your interest in folk tale (myth, tall tale, fairy tale, legend). Discuss specific stories that have resonated for you.  

You may also use this form to  share links to source materials that you think others in the workshop would appreciate.  Ask questions.  Provide counter examples if you like.

Although participation in the discussion forum is not required, I think you will get more out of the workshop if you interact with one another.  You can develop rapport here.  

If you wish to alert others to your agendas, or if you want to tell other participants what you are hoping to gain from their feedback, you can share this type of background here.  Some folks want to publish; some don’t.

You don’t want to stifle others’ arguments about your work by defending it or explaining too quickly in the workshop forum, but you might want to share pertinent context if, for example, you are writing a story that you expect to serve as a chapter in a novel.  Readers might need a little background on your larger project. You can always provide that kind of information in each week’s discussion section so that participants can read your story out of context as well. Some readers may prefer to ignore your explanation before entering into your fiction. That way they’ll be able to tell you if your shorter work can stand on its own as a publication in an anthology or magazine.


Writing Prompts  

 1. At the top of this lesson, I posted an image from Caitlin Hackett “Contemporary Mythology“, because her vulpine masquerader reminded me of the zoological composite that is Wells’ grandmother-in-wolf-suit.  One might take such fashion as the product of amateurish taxidermy.

If you find visual images helpful in provoking story, you may wish to explore more of Hackett’s art as you contemplate your first composition for this revisionist fairy tale workshop.  In the “About” section of her website, Hackett explains that her hybrid (“pseudo-mythical, mutated, and anthropomorphic”) creatures are designed to “capture the often volatile human-animal relationship.” She also alludes to her “sorrow over the loss of wild species and wild places.” Her agenda need not correspond with yours, but you may find her interests stimulating if you share them.

Despite Hackett’s mini-essay, we really don’t have much insight into individual images.  Lack of context can also prove liberating if you wish to craft a completely original story that borrows motifs or patterns from stories I’ve mentioned above.  Feel free to ignore Hackett’s titles or to use them as your own if you choose this prompt as springboard for this week’s composition.

2.  Francesca Lia Block’s “Wolf” might not be recognized as a fairy tale at all if it were not included in The Rose and the Beast: Fairy Tales Retold.  In this plot, a teenage girl flees to her grandmother’s house to escape her mother’s boyfriend.  Block’s wolf is a rapist of the Bastard-Out-of-Carolina variety.  Block’s revisions sometimes appeal to readers who prefer social realism.  The connections with “Little Red Riding Hood” are quite subtle.  

You (probably) do not have not read Block’s story to figure out how to write a contemporary tale that borrows grotesque elements from fairy tale; however, I did find an online file that contains two excerpts.  (The first very short piece is inspired by “Bluebeard.”)  

Grimm's Blutbad
Grimm’s Blutbad

If you choose this prompt, but you are not working with an extremely well known fairy tale, you might provide a link or a synopsis in the discussion forum.  If you are drawing on one of the classics (“Snow White,” “Cinderella,” “Sleeping Beauty”), you may not want to provide any explanation.  If you are working with a lesser-known version of a classic tale (say, for example, the “Sleeping Beauty” variant in which the comatose princess is impregnated), you can share the original if you like.  Much may depend on whether you hope to publish your story without an explanatory note. Some venues allow for such notes; some do not.

3.  The dark fairy tale has become a popular genre on television in recent years.  Episodes of ABC’s Grimm, for example, tend to begin with a quote from a fairy tale, but its monsters, called vessin, only possess some of the traditional character’s traits.  The werewolves (or Bluder Blutbad) can be nasty or nice, for example.  I mention this particular program, because its special effects team seems especially keen on bestowing grotesque appearances on various members of vessin-kind. “Red Riding Hood” is also the primary influence for the opening episode to season one.  

If you choose this prompt, you might write your own contemporary tale with a revitalized cast of grotesque villains (a wolf, an ogre, a step-relative, a cannibalistic witch, etc.).


Other Selected Readings 

“The Werewolf,” “In the Company of Wolves,” and “Wolf Alice” from The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter


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