Pretty much all fairy tales have a measure of darkness to them. Full of dead or abusive parents, malevolent tricksters, suffering, and torturous deaths, we’ve somehow accepted these as appropriate stories for children. There’s some wisdom in that, I suppose – these cruelties are often in service of a greater lesson, and it’s never too early to prepare kids for an unfair world. But I do think it’s much more fun when we tease out those pitch-black threads from the fabric of the story and make something that’s decidedly not for children.
The stories in these books are a mixture of retellings of the stories we grew up with and original stories that capture those same feelings, but they’re the farthest thing from child-friendly. Read with care, and don’t risk your neck around any spindles.
The Bloody Chamber, Angela Carter
Angela Carter’s seminal collection of twisted, remixed fairy tales is absolutely essential for any fan of fairy tale retellings. These stories are shot through with gore, psychosexual tension, and a fiercely feminist streak of sexuality and independence. Elements from certain fairy tales turn up in places you won’t expect, highlighting thematic similarities and dissonances. The title story is the jewel of the collection, an especially creepy reimagining of the story of Bluebeard.
The Merry Spinster, Daniel M. Lavery
Fans of the much-lamented website The Toast will remember Ortberg’s series of Children’s Stories Made Horrific, bite-sized works of psychological terror frequently layered with dark humor. Ortberg (who now goes by Daniel Lavery) has a particular writing style and sense of humor that lend themselves well to the deliberately vague, often-distancing language of fairy tales. The quality of sinister familiarity inherent to both classic fairy tales and other beloved children’s stories is brought to the forefront here, especially in “The Six Boy-Coffins,” based on the German fairy tale “The Six Swans.”
The Shrike and the Shadows, Chantal Gadoury and A.M. Wright
On sale at the beginning of March, this new retelling of Hansel and Gretel follows Hans and Greta, orphan twins in a village troubled by a hungry witch in the adjacent woods. When the men of the village begin to go missing, with their hearts turning up on village doorsteps, the village panics, and the twins are forced to flee for their lives. But in the forest, fever dreams lurk behind every tree, and all paths lead to the Shrike…
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Petrushevskaya is one of Russia’s leading literary figures, and in this collection of translated stories, English-speaking audiences can enjoy her brilliance. These stories are magical, and Petrushevskaya’s prose is the sort that distracts you with its beauty as it slips a knife between your ribs. My favorite story here is “The Arm,” a brief and chilling tale about an army officer who ignores his late wife’s last request.
The Changeling, Victor LaValle
Victor LaValle’s modern take on the changeling story is also a portrait of New York City that’s at once lived-in and fantastical. Apollo Kagwa has a charmed life: a brilliant, beautiful wife who loves him, and a precious baby boy. But that life is turned upside down when he wakes up tied to a radiator and watches his wife commit an unthinkable act, sending him on a journey through New York to answer one question: why?
My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me: Forty New Fairy Tales, ed. Kate Bernheimer
This anthology features stories from legendary writers all across the genre spectrum: Neil Gaiman and Kelly Link share pages with Joyce Carol Oates, Joy Williams, and Francine Prose. And, in a slightly unusual departure from other anthologies and collections on this list, each story features a short afterword from the author, explaining why they selected the story they did, and what it means to them.
Black Heart, Ivory Bones, ed. Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling
Datlow is the doyenne of short-form horror, and in this entry of her long-running anthology series with Terri Windling, they showcase a number of distinctly grown-up takes on classic fairy tales, from Red Riding Hood to Cinderella and Rapunzel to Sleeping Beauty. Neil Gaiman makes another appearance here, as does Susanna Clarke.