Not every fairy tale is meant for children.
In fact, most fairy tales in their traditional forms — before they were Disneyfied, politically corrected and bleached of blood — would shock contemporary kids (and parents) down to their shoes. There's poetry in the fact that perhaps the best-known curators of fairy tales were the Brothers Grimm.
But those dark and merciless stories can also brim with magic and wonder, and even at their darkest they feed something in the human soul. Two new books of fairy tales and fables, aimed not at children but adult readers, work the kind of magic that raises a shiver at once scary and satisfying.
David Sedaris' latest, Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary, is unlike his previous books such as When You Are Engulfed in Flames and Me Talk Pretty One Day, collections of mordantly funny personal essays. This book consists of 16 animal fables, a 21st century take on Aesop. It's elegantly illustrated by Ian Falconer, the creator of the charming Olivia books about a bold little pig.
But do not mistake Squirrel for a child's book. Sedaris' humor has always had a wide stripe of the macabre, but here it's the dominant tone. Animal fables aren't really about animals, of course, but a way to satirize human behavior, and Sedaris does just that. In The Vigilant Rabbit, a group of woodland creatures creates a gated community for mutual safety, and the title character bars anyone different — even if that means sawing off the horn of a sleeping unicorn after it jumps the gate: "If I let you trot around with a weapon on your head, I'd have to let everybody do it." The story, of course, ends in quite a twist.
The self-absorbed title character in The Motherless Bear bemoans her orphan state to everyone she meets after her elderly mother dies — even the fellow bear she stumbles on, chained in a clearing in the woods, his teeth knocked out by the men who force him to perform. Worse than being motherless? She doesn't think so.
In The Crow and the Lamb, a ewe fretting over the strains of motherhood chats about raising children with a sympathetic crow, who offers her a meditation lesson — which in turn helps the crow feed her own hungry offspring.
Sedaris is in fine form in these fables, creating slyly appropriate voices for his critters and keeping the stories streamlined, with just enough well-chosen detail to surprise and engage us — right up until he makes us gasp.
The gasps may begin with the title of another collection, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales. This one is edited by Kate Bernheimer, a fiction writer and the founder and editor of Fairy Tale Review.
The book (which has a foreword by Gregory Maguire, of Wicked fame) gathers contemporary short stories inspired in one way or another by fairy tales. Its title comes from a bird's song in The Brother and the Bird, based on the Brothers Grimm story The Juniper Tree. Alissa Nutting recasts the grisly tale of a second wife so crazily jealous of her dead predecessor that she murders her stepson, tells her husband the boy has run away — and then cooks up meals from the frozen corpse. But her own daughter loved the stepbrother and may find magic strong enough to help him.
In that story as in many others in this book, the combination of age-old tales and familiar modern settings works to intensify the strangeness. In Kim Addonizio's Ever After, a dwarf, a former drunk who works in a Manhattan restaurant called Oz, schemes for years to gather six other dwarves, lost souls all, in his loft apartment because of a book he found in a trash bin, a fragmentary story about a beautiful fair-skinned maiden who transforms the lives of — well, you fill in the blanks.
Lydia Millet's Snow White, Rose Red transports that tale to a stately mansion in the Adirondacks inhabited by a real estate mogul, his wife and two sweet daughters. The girls befriend an almost-divorced, almost-homeless man, and since their anorexic mother "wasn't all there" and their workaholic father "wasn't there at all," he's soon living in the house. That means he's there to defend them when there's a threat — with unexpected results.
Other stories cross way over the line into other worlds; one of the most beautifully imagined is Timothy Schaffert's bizarre but moving The Mermaid in the Tree. It's based on Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid (the heartbreaking version, not the Disney one), set in a town where mermaids wash up on the beach so often there's an annual mermaid parade, with their preserved bodies in lifelike poses promenaded through town in oversized fishbowls. The young man who rescues a mermaid and falls in love with her, and the mortal girl who wants to win him back, are not exactly a prince and princess. And, it turns out, love with a mermaid has complications Disney never dreamed of.
The book collects stories by renowned mainstream fiction writers, such as Joyce Carol Oates, John Updike, Francine Prose and Joy Williams, as well as many by writers who specialize in fantasy. Bernheimer groups them by the country of origin of the fairy tale they are based on, including Germany, Denmark, Russia, France, Japan and Mexico. The stories range in length from Oates' twisted two-page Blue-bearded Lover to some that could stand as novellas.
But they all share a dreamlike, sometimes nightmarish quality, one that is not of this world yet helps us understand it better, even those parts we may not want to look at in the light. As fantasy master Neil Gaiman writes in the note after his story, Orange (which will make you extremely cautious about self-tanning lotion), "It is the mystery that lingers and not the explanation. The question and not the answer, that stays with us."
Colette Bancroft can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.