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Five Must-Read Scary Fairy Tale Retellings

Wednesday, November 3, 2021 | Books


When I search for horror recommendations, the unsettling and sinister world of fairy tales takes over. Fairy tales have a deep connection to horror; from child-hungry witches to poisonous apples, the childish stories are typically sinister, if not outright terrifying. The more these tales are retold and reevaluated, the greater the horror increases, and the eerie tone grows tenfold in the retelling. In celebration of spooky season and the coming of winter, I’ve decided to collect some of my favourite scary fairy tale retellings that are guarenteed to chill you to the bone.

“The Company of Wolves” by Angela Carter

“The Company of Wolves” from Angela Carter’s short story collection, The Bloody Chamber is a sinister retelling of Little Red Riding Hood. Carter focuses on the deadly implications of a young girl travelling alone in dark woods. The story is stuffed with haunting prose, animalistic threats, and a bold interrogation of an already creepy fairy tale. In this version, wolves are described as being monstrous and dangerous beings and the story is framed through mini-stories of people turning into wolves and wreaking havoc in their villages, regaled to the reader prior to meeting the protagonist. The protagonist is introduced as a brave girl travelling through the woods who makes a deal with a hunter: whoever can get to her grandmother’s house first wins a kiss.  Because she wants to kiss him, she takes her time getting to her grandmother. As planned, the hunter arrives first, tricking the grandmother before revealing himself to be a wolf. When the protagonist arrives she must face the wolf, which she does by boldly laughing at his threats to eat her and tries to seduce him instead. 

Carter’s Little Red is dauntless, she steps right into conflict with the wolf instead of yelling for help or being tricked like her past counterparts. “The Company of Wolves” dissects the relationship between the innocent red riding hood, and the predatory wolf, and this relationship is the sinister pull of Carter’s story. 

“The Merry Spinster” by Mallory Ortenberg

“The Merry Spinster,” released in Mallory Ortenberg’s 2018 short story collection of the same name, is a reexamination of the tale “Beauty and the Beast.” This retelling closely follows past iterations, but comments on the concept of the Beast’s ownership of Beauty thoroughly. Additionally, the story questions the constrictions of her captivity by interrogating his control of what Beauty does or sees. Ortenberg moves the story to a more contemporary setting with automobiles, and the Beast inhabiting a great house rather than an abandoned castle. The narrative follows a not-so-beautiful Beauty, who is described by her siblings as “mostly useless.” She is twenty-eight and looked down upon by her mother and siblings. One day, when her mother leaves town on business, she asks what her children would like her to bring back for them. Beauty asks for a rose. The mother gets lost in the night, ending up in the Beast’s (who is renamed Mr. Beale) large house for shelter. She eats his food, takes lodging and attempts to take roses from the garden before he stops her. Mr. Beale agrees to give her the roses, but asks for her daughter Beauty in return for them – a deal to which the mother agrees. Once Beauty arrives at the grand house, Mr. Beale makes a point of proposing to her every night, earning a polite “no” each time. 

As time goes on, Mr. Beale grows frustrated, saying that he will kill himself if Beauty doesn’t agree to be his wife. Her decision from this point forward changes their dynamic and could result in horrific consequences. Ortenberg expertly considers how “Beauty and the Beast” can translate into a more contemporary horror setting. The language used to describe Mr. Beal is unsettling, leaving the reader questioning exactly what kind of monster he is – if he is one at all. Fans of the gothic will love the constant sense of discovery within “The Merry Spinster.”

“Sleeping Beauty” by Soman Chainani

Soman Chainani’s 2021 fairy tale retelling collection titled Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales includes a new version of “The Sleeping Beauty in the Wood” or “Briar Rose” titled “Sleeping Beauty.” Chainani turns the story of a bedridden woman cursed out of spite into an ominous tale of a bloodthirsty demon. “Sleeping Beauty” centers on a prince who wakes every morning to a pounding headache, the smell of roses, and blood on his sheets. He believes it to be the work of demons, but the king and queen hardly believe him, saying that he is simply restless because he needs a wife. As his nightly terrors continue, the prince sets a trap for the demon, but instead finds a red-haired boy around his age caught in his snare. The boy breaks out, leaving his hand behind, which the prince returns, but something changes within him. Later, after he marries, he isolates himself to the tallest tower in the castle, blocking himself off from everyone, even his wife.

Chainani utilizes the symbols present within “Briar Rose” and transforms them into foreboding elements of his own story. “Sleeping Beauty” draws upon nightmare logic while still unfolding like a childhood storybook. Its intricate prose is both beautiful and frightening and the mysterious red-haired boy prompts endless questions, creating a nightmarish version of the figure of the sleeping beauty. Chainani’s endless horrific imagery makes for a frightening fairy tale that I know I’ll be re-reading for years. 

“Our Neighbors House” by Emily Carroll 

In Emily Carroll’s graphic novel Through the Woods, the story “Our Neighbors House” pulls from various fairy tales to create a hybrid of haunting visuals. Tales such as “Hansel and Gretel” and “Little Red Riding Hood” are sprinkled into the short narrative, actively adding to the macabre tone. Carroll’s story is accompanied by mystifying visuals that carry the story to a sinister place that puts the protagonist in possible danger. The story follows three sisters Mary, Beth, and Hannah, who are left alone in a secluded house while their father goes on a hunting trip. Before he leaves, he demands that if he does not return in three days the sisters should bundle up and trek to the neighbors house. Three days pass and their father does not return, Mary, the oldest, decides that they should keep waiting instead of following instructions. The next day, Mary tells her sisters that a man came to the door at night, that he had a wide hat and a toothy smile. By the next morning, she is gone. Hannah goes next, leaving Beth all alone. 

The illustrations expertly add to the mystery surrounding the sister’s disappearances, showing the dark trees outside in contrast to the warm, familiar house. Beth’s narration is ominous yet genuine at the same time. She knows that her sisters are gone and is understandably scared, but also speaks like she expects to find horrors outside the door. Carroll expertly utilizes the terrifying theme of disobeying orders and leaving children to fend for themselves in the woods to create an unforgettable spooky story. 

“Smartening Up” by Aoko Matsuda

Aoko Matsuda’s story collection is based on various figures in Japanese folklore and ghost stories and zones in on the monstrous woman figure in “Smartening Up.” The story is influenced by “The Maid of Dojo Temple” a folklore-based story that is typically performed in kabuki. The main figure of the tale is Kiyohime, a woman who’s intense hatred transforms her into a fire-breathing serpent. This notion of a woman’s emotions turning her into a monster is negotiated within “Smartening Up” and builds on the characterization of Kiyohime. Matsuda’s story follows a young woman, recently dumped, who, after receiving a laser hair removal treatment, is visited by her aunt’s ghost. Her aunt comes into her home immediately criticizing the hair removal procedure, saying that she is weakening the power of her hair. She criticizes her niece, sharing her admiration for the figure of Kiyohime, who turned into a snake and enacted revenge on a man who rejected her. She suggests that she will do the same, saying she’s working on her own revenge trick. After her aunt’s departure, the protagonist goes to a bathhouse. While washing herself there, she is possessed by a black mass, one she assumes is a demon. By the time she gets home, she is covered head-to-toe in long black hair, and decides to follow in her aunt’s and Kiyohime’s footsteps.

Since “The Maid of Dojo Temple” is directly referred to in the text, Matsuda is able to tackle the concept of what these stories mean to different people. The characters comment on women’s reactions to grief and rejection and how it is represented in folklore as creating literal monsters. The narrative’s emphasis on what negative emotions can transform a person into creates a terrifying outlook on heartbreak. 


Harleigh Keriazes
Harleigh Keriazes (@h_keriazes) is a writer/editor, as well as Intern at Rue Morgue. She frequently studies horror in the gothic, supernatural and fairy tales.