Why Isn’t Modern Fairy Fiction Frightening? April 5, 2013Author: Beach Combing | in : Actualite, Contemporary , trackback
In appalling fevered sleeps during a recent bout of flu – an approximation of hell – Beach dreamt constantly of fairies and witches. This had nothing to do with two fairy horror books he had supplied himself with – Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy (1999) and A Kind of Enchantment (2012) – and everything, instead, to do with Keith Thomas’ Religion and the Decline of Magic, which he was finishing at the same time. Modern fairy stories are just not very scary, where as academic statements of fact can be…
Well, we have to qualify this almost immediately. There are several authors from before the Second World War who managed to play the fey card with shivers: Machen perhaps most important among them. But today it is practically impossible to write a scary fairy tale. Graham Joyce’s two books are proof by example of this: The Tooth Fairy is a kind of Donnie Darko growing up tale (and written very well), Enchantment is a rather studious attempt to follow a woman who walked with the fairies back into our world. They are both must-reads but not because they will give you frisons of horror; that is to say that Beach didn’t find a single page of either one menacing, though he certainly enjoyed them.
So how is it that Machen managed and Joyce failed? It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the quality of their writing: as we’ve hinted above Joyce is a gifted stylist with extraordinary imagination. For what it is worth these are our three points. I would be fascinated to know if anyone can come closer to an answer or whether anyone can give good reasons for just rejecting this approach full stop: drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
1) Fairies should not be seen or heard: if you are writing a modern horror novel about vampires then clearly the vampires are going to spend a lot of time interacting with their victims. Fairies though are supposed to stay outside our world, they are glimpsed. (Think the few spare facts we are given in Beowulf about Grendel). This means that any interaction is going to be brief and elusive, more the stuff of short stories than of book length angst. The only supernatural equivalent I can think of are ghosts: they too tend to do better in a short-story setting. How many ghost novels are there?
2) Fairies are kind: In the twentieth-century fairies have gone from ambivalent power-brokers of forest and lane to sugar-plum bumble bee bottom-wiggling nice… Machen and his kin in the 1930s enjoyed playing around with the beginning of this (particularly Algernon Blackwood). But they didn’t have to put up with Disney. It now takes a real effort to convince someone that the creature described on the page could splatter your guts all over a dry-stone wall. When Beach tells his daughter scary fairy stories before bed she sometimes says petulantly ‘but Dad these are fairies!’ [i.e. they wouldn’t hurt a fly]. She is four and, in her case, the battle between father and Disney has been going on since her birth. Disney has won.
3) Fairies lack a mythos. If you think about fairies, witches, vampires, ghosts and werewolves, fairies are the only one of these tribes who don’t have a clear set of rules associated with them. Sure the vampire rules were all canonized in the nineteenth century and are artificial, sure opinions differ over ghosts… But are fairies spirits of vegetation? Or are they some sort of rulers of a parallel dimension associated with the dead? Do fairies come out at night? Or do they dance in the sunniest glades? Back in nineteenth-century Donegal they had rules. But how many ten-year olds know that fairies can’t say the Lord’s prayer or that fairies can’t cross running water? GJ tries to deal with this in Enchantment by heading each chapter with a quotation from fairy literature. But this smacks of desperation and underlines our lack of a modern fairy system. He is reduced to teaching the reader.
Machen et alii had it easier simply because they stuck to short stories, thus disposing of the problem alluded to in (1): note in all the Machen short stories there are only half a dozen sentences that actually describe fairies, the fairies are always very much off stage. Then Machen et alii did not have to worry about (2) (which was still not a big issue). (3) was a problem but most authors went unashamedly down the vegetation root and let’s face it green things are terrifying. Get drunk, walk into a privet hedge and see what happens.
Our candidate for the most frightening post-war fairy episode is perhaps Neil Gaiman’s Midsummer Night’s Dreams where Shakespeare’s theatre crew get to play Midsummer Night’s Dream in front of the real fairy kingdom including all the characters in the play itself. But, no, damn it… Perhaps the cleverest? Gaiman is, in this instant, amusing not scary.
Bring on the scary fairies, bring them on!
5 April 2013: Chris from HauntedOhioBooks writes ‘Comments on why fairy fiction isn’t scary: 1) It is, as you say, all Disney and twee. And you can make up your own rules, since, as you rightly observe, they lack a mythos. I keep coming across chat boards for housewives who apparently have created whole kingdoms of fairy fan fiction, which slides over into Sci-fi. Sample (and less parody-able than most) synopsis: “Lucy meets Erza Scarlet, the strongest woman in all of Fairy Tail. She, along with Natsu, Happy, & Gray accompany Erza on a mission to stop the Dark guild known as Eisenwald from unleashing the death magic known as “Lullaby” upon the people of Fiore.” The authors debate how to name their fairies (usually some gorge-rising flower combination) and is there such thing as a violet elemental and what powers does it have and what would it wear? It’s, to paraphrase a style sheet for regency romance writers I once read, all about the clothes. 2) there’s too much sex. Search for “fairy” and all you get are sexy creatures in pastel chiffon silk clinging to their fairy mounds. Same ilk as Frazetta maids, although slimmed down a bit and done in sidewalk-chalk colors. Pointy ears, big eyes, floaty hair, and unnecessarily elaborate weaponry. Fairy fetish porn. Sylvia Townsend Warner in Kingdoms of Elfin may have done the best “recent” job in portraying a fairy world without a conscience. As I have previously remarked to you, the Gentry are the sociopaths of the Invisible World. Perhaps the author of the Dexter series needs to take on the pixies. BTW, just found this review about a book on possibly scary fairies. Haven’t read it. Thanks Chris! Beach doesn’t find Townsend Warner scary but she did manage to create a fairy universe that humans walk through at their peril.
6 April 2013: Next is Louis K who writes: You could always try and play a fairy in Changeling: the Dreaming: In which you can play a fairy, including a lot of scary ones (but with seelie and unseelie courts) And in this RPG you play a fairy hunter: And the last one. Apart from the first, you get a lot of lore about how to turn faeries: clothes inside out, sign of the cross, iron, running water (but not for the water born ones) which is always important in RPG books, as these can be major plot hooks, and/or weapons against faeries…(except for the one obscure creature that the players did not know, and that turns out to be immune against all the usual “antidotes”… And the Changeling series spawned a whole series of stories about faeries, and in most of them the faeries are definitely not nice…. And in the Discworld novel “Lords and Ladies” Terry Pratchet also points out that faeries are NOT NICE. So yes, there is a “counterstream” in popular (sub)culture in which faeries are no longer disgustingly cute, but begin to more or less resemble their old view. I also feel that the regional\national differences in faerie belief is not taken into account. What people in Ireland thought about faeries was, and is, different from what people in Scotland, England, the Netherlands, France, etc. think. Unfortunately, because of the pervasiveness of American culture (in which all those differences were forgotten, and all the beliefs taken together, we get a hotchpotch which is both not internally consistent, and is said to be universal…. Then Bast: My daughter used to read an author named Holly Black. Holly’s fae are not twee – one of the titles I remember is ‘Tithe’ – she wrote several in that vein. II picked up one of Miss Black’s books (sadly do not remember which one it was) and the fae lured mortals underground and did unpleasant things to them. I believe they enslaved the foolish mortals afterwards (if I remember correctly). Thanks Bast and Louis!
7 April 2013: LC writes: I wish there were more fairy folklore based fiction out there but few fantasy and horror authors seem to head in that direction unfortunately. I don’t remember the story very well now but I remember thinking at the time of reading that Raymond Feist’s ‘Faerie Tale’ was one of the best of the genre. Though mostly based on the movie ‘Don’t be Afraid of the Dark’ (which is the only fairy movie to give me a nightmare), I found Guillermo Del Toro’s book ‘Blackwood’s Guide to Dangerous Fairies’ to send a few shivers down my spine too. I think that years of fairies being portrayed as cute little friendly folk has taken it’s toll, and people no longer seem to consider fairies to be a serious threat. Whilst many people would admit to being scared of ghosts, monsters, demons etc, how many would admit to being scared of fairies? Horror stories prey on our deepest fears, but unfortunately few people seem to find the fairies scary. Borky writes: For the same reason I suggest Beach Lovecraft used to work far more than he does these days ie by the time Lovecraft died shortly before WWII the myth was being established we know every square inch of the Earth including the Arctic and Antarctic and since there’s no where left for anything to hide we KNOW there’s no Atlantis no fairies no vampires no nuffink. Reaching the Moon and Mars’s only made belief in that myth worse and science’s been doing much the same thing since the Post Enlightenment hence even vampires’re reduced to the level of horny teens leading to the current superstardom of the less explicable zombies. Thanks Laura and Borky!
3 September 2013: Southern Man writes: Beach you have neglected the word of Eddie Lenihan who is, in my opinion, faux folklore but brilliant fiction. JV writes in: you could try Karen Marie Monings Fever Series for fairy fiction reading, but the fairies are not frightening there either. I do like Mac Tonnies theories on crytoterriestrials and Michael Mott’s caverns, cauldrons, and concealed creatures. When you consider all the instances of fairy like creatures, quite a few of them labeled as ufo sightings or sightings of tiny space ships with little people, it makes a strange kind of sense. the underground goblins which seem like a relative of fairies in some way seem more frightening. Thanks JV and SM!