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Whether you read fairy tales as a child or whether you're simply aware of them because you are a person who is alive and does not live under a rock, fairy tales have played a role in your reading experience.
Unfortunately, when Disney sunk his claws into them, he did a disservice that lasted for decades: Most of our perceptions have been colored by his saccharine, censored interpretations. Because of him, the words "fairy tales" invoke images of childhood and whimsy and musical numbers that are too catchy for their own good.
Contrary to what Disney's cultural stronghold would have you believe, the idea that fairy tales are for children is a relatively recent phenomenon. They used to function much in the way that adult books do: They were escapist, but they were also strange and often startlingly gory or sexual (for example, if your only exposure has been Disney, than you might not know that in the real "Little Mermaid," the prince marries another woman and the mermaid almost murders him but instead succumbs to a weird watery suicide... As for the real "Sleeping Beauty"....trust me, you don't want to know. Unless you are a fan of necrophilia, in which case, go ahead and read that and also please get some therapy).
As all good books do, fairy tales explored the dark and primal aspects of human nature--the deep corners of our psyches that we shy away from. That is the true reason they have lasted in the cultural imagination for hundreds of years; beneath their simplicity lies a world of social commentary and compelling darkness. Disney may have taken them away from the adult world, but there are plenty of modern authors who have taken them back.
So, here is a list of some of the best fairy tales for adults. Some are direct adaptations; some simply take fairy-tale elements for their own. (Disclaimer: this list is meant to be just a sample. And, I intentionally skipped the big shots like Tolkien and Angela Carter and Gregory Maguire in favor of hopefully spreading the word of some lesser-known titles).
1. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
The one sentence description: The Prestige with teenagers instead of Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale.
The longer description: One of the most cinematic, atmospheric books of the last few years, the reader is transplanted directly into the strange and mysterious circus that appears without warning, only by night, and leaves town with the same suddenness. This book perfectly captures the dreamlike quality of fairy tales, complete with magic that is never quite explained. In most books, this might be annoying and I'd want an explanation, but Morgenstern makes the air of mystery work.
2. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
The one sentence description: a fairy tale that is less on the whimsical side and more on the historical side, it is a haunting rendition of "Sleeping Beauty" in which the "sleep" is induced by gas from concentration camps and the "dark forest" is a place of refuge from Nazis.
The longer description: This books jumps from past to present as the modern-day protagonist seeks to uncover her dead grandmother's startling past. It is never overly moralistic or saccharine, but rather paints a harsh, tragic slice of history. It also covers an under-explored area of the holocaust: the persecution of homosexuals as well as Jews. Although the book is not exactly "light," it is avoids being bleak. It is an utterly captivating, clever spin on an old story. Expect this one to stay with you long after you read it.
3. The Great Night by Chris Adrian
The one-sentence description: a modern day spin on Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream but the four lovers have been condensed into three, it occurs in a park in San Francisco, Puck is terrifying, and the language is modern prose (although somehow Adrian manages to make it just as beautiful as Shakespeare).
The longer description: This book flawlessly moves between being funny, moving, heartbreaking, vulgar, sensual, and strange. The fairy characters are the only ones that share similarities with Shakespeare; the rest are Adrian's own creations. The three protagonists ground and humanize the story, and Adrian's writing may make you want to laugh and cry at the same time (laugh that writing is capable of being that good; cry because yours will probably never attain that level). I don't want to be biased and say this book is the best one on this list--because all of them are truly great--but, well, this book may be the best one on this list.
4, 5. Practical Magic and The Probable Future by Alice Hoffman
I was hesitant to include Alice Hoffman on this list for two reasons. The first is that she has many adult fairy-tale books; so it is difficult to chose just one. The second is that her books are very hit-or-miss: they're either great and beautiful or maudlin and overwrought.
Practical Magic and The Probable Future are two of her best, and they both contain all the best parts of adult fairy tales: magical realism, curses that past through generations, and murder and mayhem.
6, 7. Neverwhere and The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Like Hoffman, it was hard to pick one Gaiman book so I kind of cheated and picked two. These are two of his best, or at least two that would be good to start with if you've never read him before, and it's impossible to write a list of adult fairy tales without including Neil Gaiman.
If you are unfamiliar with him, a one-sentence introduction to Neil Gaiman: the Tim Burton of the written word, both in terms of dark whimsical style and in terms of appearance-- if you look at pictures of the two men, they definitely share the same hairdresser. And that hairdresser may be Edward Scissorhands.
8. The Princess Bride by William Goldman
It may seems strange to include this book on the list because I said I wanted to avoid the big-shots in favor of giving some exposure to lesser-known titles-- and everyone and their mother has seen the movie. But, the book's audience is far less expansive than the film's. The book is the rarest of rare gems: It is entirely different from the movie and yet they are equally good. My only explanation for this is that the author wrote the screenplay as well. The book contains all of the movie's humor, sardonic wit, creativity, and genuine charm, with some added twists and clever angles that I will be annoyingly vague about, because it's best if you just read it.
9. Bone Game by Louis Owens
The one-sentence description: This is more steeped in Native American folklore than the Grimms or Hans Christen Anderson--yet it contains many familiar motifs, which only goes to show how fairy tales resonate across cultures.
The longer description: Don't be daunted by this book's obscurity. It has only eight reviews on Amazon while Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane has over a thousand. This book is no less worthy, and its lyricism will sweep you along for the ride in the tale of its anti-hero, an alcoholic professor who is trying to bury the past. We all know how these things work--nothing interesting happens if the past stays buried.
I wanted to keep the list short, but if you are interested in more, here are some honorary mentions of authors to check out: Daphne du Maurier, Tanith Lee, Angela Carter, Charles de Lint, Laura Whitcomb, Kristen Cashore, George R.R. Martin, Philip Pullman, Emma Donoghue.
Ultimately, between authors who resemble Edward Scissorhands and authors who resemble Santa (looking at you, George R.R Martin), the moral of the story seems to be that if you want to write an adult fairy tale, the key to success is looking like you crawled out of one. (At least, it can't hurt). What also can't hurt is that, between the Grimms, Anderson, and more, they all have a history to draw their stories from--a history that is far richer, stranger, and more compelling than anything that Disney could conjure.
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