Litstack Recs I Reading Like a Writer & Twisted Fairy Tales

by Lauren Alwan & Sharon Browning

Twisted Fairy Tales, by Maura McHugh

More Grimm Than Disney

books on writing craft
Maura McHugh

If you like your fairy tales to be more aligned with the Brothers Grimm than Disney, then do I have a gorgeous, entertaining book for you. Maura McHugh has taken twenty traditional fairy tales, some familiar and some less known, and has given them a decidedly dark treatment that soaks in the imagination like swampy, fetid mud squishing up between your toes:  you think you should be disgusted but it just feels so good!

One line from “The Seven Ravens” encapsulates it all:

The Morning Star also gave Una a chicken leg, for the door to the mountain would not open without a key of flesh.

Of course you know something will go awry with the chicken leg, right?

In this anthology, you have magical, you have beautiful, you have the macabre, and you have the just plain creepy. And it’s all so deliciously wonderful.

As with most books of fairy tales, the stories in Twisted Fairy Tales stay relatively short, with the longest of them going no more than 10 pages and most far shorter than that. The inclination, then, might be to rush through all 20 offerings, jumping from one tale to the next. But that would rob a reader of some enjoyment of the stories, for they work best when taken in small doses and are allowed to bubble in the imagination for a bit – dare I say somewhat like a cauldron boiling with a concoction that needs to seep in order to be fully effective?

Not Every Story Is a HEA

Another inclination may be to use these as bedtime stories for children who have an active imagination; they are the perfect length, after all. I would caution the reader to be wary of this – they are not gratuitously grotesque nor wantonly wicked, and they do not revel in evil for evil’s sake or anything heinously unfair. But not all of them end with a happily ever after (a few do!) and many of them don’t really teach good life lessons (unless revenge is a life lesson you value); these tales exist to entertain and twist what we already know, not offer some trite and tidy humanistic moral judgment on nefarious characters and situations. 

Here is a sample from the very first tale in the book:  “Snow White”. In this excerpt, Annabel (later to become what we know as “the evil queen”) turns to a magical mirror to comfort her fears about her yet unborn child:

Suddenly determined, Annabel picked up the silver comb from her dressing table and stabbed it into the heel of her palm. A row of ruby blood beads emerged on her white skin.

She flung the offering onto the mirror’s surface and lifted the mirror with her aching hand. She could feel the rustling of the flowers in the handle and the quiet murmur of voices from those that dwelled within. Then she uttered:

“Mirror, Mirror, tell no lies,
Will my child live and thrive?”

The blood on the glass slicked across to form a thin red surface. Tiny faces and mouths swam inside the pool. They spoke in a single chorus of shrill voices:

“Your child will be hale and healthy,
Your husband secure with love’s fidelity.”

Annabel released a long sigh. At last, she could rest easy. But the mirror stirred under her hand, as if it had heard her thoughts.

“Beware, lovely Queen, prettiest of them all,
Your reign will end when your beauty falls.”

The baby kicked in her belly, causing Annabel to start.

You see?  Familiar and yet… twisted. Or as the subtitle to the book states, “20 Classic Stories with a Dark and Dangerous Heart”. Not evil. Not gory. Dark and dangerous. And fun.

Art Punctuating the Prose

To add to the literary atmosphere that wafts from this book, is its beautiful and enticing look. Paired with Ms. McHugh’s tales are bold, dynamic illustrations by artist and graphic designer Jane Laurie, intermingled with dripping borders and antique-wash colored pages, and splatters of ink (and other, more suggestive spatters) punctuating the prose, making the book a thing of edgy and brooding beauty.  If I had a coffee table in my living room, this darkly gorgeous volume would definitely be on it!

—Sharon Browning

Related Posts