Welcome to another monthly installment of some of the best short stories to read for free online. Can you believe it has been over a year now since this series began? I have so enjoyed sharing these stories with friends and readers here. And I look forward to continuing to share many such collections.
Last October, I went the predictable route with a collection of horror stories for Halloween. This month, let’s turn to fairytale retellings, one of my favorite fiction sub-genres. As with many readers and writers, fairytales, with all their enchantment, magic, and fantasy aspects were my first thrilling introduction to storytelling. And these retellings for adults not only subvert the usual, tired tropes — the damsel in distress, the wicked witch, the handsome prince, the evil giant, etc. — but give us more complex and nuanced worlds and characters.
Many famous writers have tried their hand, through novels and short stories, at both revisionist retellings of ancient fairytales and creating original ones of their own. We’ll get to the latter another month. For now, let’s take a look at the traditional, well-known ones that have been retold and made entirely new by these writers: Angela Carter, Susan Scarf Merrell, Robert Coover, Jennifer Wortman, and Michael Cunningham.
This collection focuses on Western fairytales only because I have not had the time to explore fairytale retellings from other countries. We will definitely get to those in the near future, so watch this space. [Aside: I also searched for quite some time for one of Emma Donoghue’s stories online from her terrific collection, ‘Kissing the Witch: Old Tales in New Skins’, but no luck. I recommend you simply get the entire collection, it’s that good.]
Angela Carter is the grande dame of fairytale retellings. Her most popular one is ‘The Bloody Chamber’, a retelling of ‘Bluebeard’. However, as I am sharing another author’s Bluebeard retelling below, I have chosen this retelling of ‘Sleeping Beauty’ by Carter. Carter also retold ‘Snow White’ and ‘Red Riding Hood’ a few different ways in this famous collection. She has been a powerful influence for many other writers — from Salman Rushdie to Neil Gaiman to Kelly Link to Aimee Bender.
Here, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ is no innocent princess. Rather, she is a tarot-reading vampire who, with help of her loyal servants, seduces men to feed on them. A young soldier impresses her with his innocence and unsettles her. As for his kiss, well, you should read the story for yourself to find out what happens there.
What I liked most here is how Carter creates such a vivid and fantastic world — every detail is deliciously and delightfully presented. Her language is gripping and weaves a charm of its own. It’s not quite antiquated enough but not quite contemporary enough, so it takes us to an entirely different place as we read.
All day, she lies in her coffin in her négligé of blood-stained lace. When the sun drops behind the mountain, she yawns and stirs and puts on the only dress she has, her mother’s wedding dress, to sit and read her cards until she grows hungry. She loathes the food she eats; she would have liked to take the rabbits home with her, feed them on lettuce, pet them and make them a nest in her red-and-black chinoiserie escritoire, but hunger always overcomes her. She sinks her teeth into the neck where an artery throbs with fear; she will drop the deflated skin from which she has extracted all the nourishment with a small cry of both pain and disgust. And it is the same with the shepherd boys and gypsy lads who, ignorant or foolhardy, come to wash the dust from their feet in the water of the fountain; the Countess’s governess brings them into the drawing room where the cards on the table always show the Grim Reaper. The Countess herself will serve them coffee in tiny cracked, precious cups, and little sugar cakes. The hobbledehoys sit with a spilling cup in one hand and a biscuit in the other, gaping at the Countess in her satin finery as she pours from a silver pot and chatters distractedly to put them at their fatal ease. A certain desolate stillness of her eyes indicates she is inconsolable. She would like to caress their lean brown cheeks and stroke their ragged hair. When she takes them by the hand and leads them to her bedroom, they can scarcely believe their luck.
This is a retelling of the famous ‘Bluebeard’ folktale about a rich man who kills his wives when they disobey him. It has been passed down in Europe orally with slightly different variations. Here’s a bit more history/context. I had shared this story in the very first installment of this monthly series.
In the introduction, Rachel Pastan writes:
Exploring how the world is changing is central to Merrell’s motive, but what I love most about this story is how it sets modern questions in a world that still feels enchanted, crepuscular, alive with the unbounded possible. Partly she does this through the way she uses language. Her prose is both clean and incantatory, and she knows when to explain and when to leave a mystery. In a kind of prismatic sorcery, we see the old “Bluebeard” story in a new way, yet at the same time, we feel the hundred tenacious threads that connect our new world with the old one. In both, Merrell suggests, marriage can be perilous territory. A locked, bloody room inside which anything can happen.
So, in this version, the wife now has power and the husband has to obey her. It is also set in the present-day with emails, supermarkets, television, and so on. In addition to Merrell’s beautiful language and the contemporary setting, her knack for giving us the unexpected little turns and flourishes impressed me here. Not easy to manage.
I tell her I left the egg outside the room, the one he told me I was to carry always. “Death comes to anyone who drops the egg,” he said before he left on that first journey, a few months into our marriage. In his voice, I heard regret — eons of it. Not simply his own, but that of his brothers, his father, his uncles. (No one lives forever, not even Bluebeard.) His family has always preferred mine.
And me? The fact is, I forgot his orders. Or so I tell myself. Some weeks after his departure, I placed the egg on the table in the hall, watched it wobble for a moment, and went inside the room.
In this story, every time the princess kisses the frog, she gets a hallucinatory high, which makes her see him as a handsome prince in his wonderful kingdom. You can read more about the genesis of the story in this interview.
Drug addiction is an interesting and unexpected angle to take with this old tale, for sure. And the storytelling has more flourishes of realism than the above two. Still, I enjoyed how Coover went to some lengths to describe the kisses and, well, physical pleasures the princess experiences with both the frog and his prince version — fun to read.
Her suburban life began to pale by comparison, but whenever she asked the prince to transport her to his real kingdom he always took her back to the pond where she’d found him. He was very happy there. He’d crawl into the mud, digging in until only his protruding eyes peered out, his crown seeming to float on the surface. At home, his eyes were sometimes wide awake and popping; at other times, especially when he was eating, they sank away and almost disappeared. But at the pond he was always goggle-eyed. Now and then he would unfurl his tongue and burp and she would get into the mud with him. It wasn’t the same as the hallucinatory kingdom, but it was still very nice.
This is a piece of flash fiction and, I think, the brevity makes it even better. If you haven’t guessed already, it is a retelling of ‘Red Riding Hood’.
Wortman keeps a lot of the original elements of the story so that you might think you’re headed for the traditional ending. Not quite. And the real charm here is that we get to understand the story and the other characters a bit differently through this Red Riding Hood’s perspective. It’s that slight, skillful shifting of the kaleidoscope that creates entirely new patterns of meaning.
My grandmother is slowly dying and not of sound mind, her tongue spry even as her body lies weak. She speaks always of dangers, as if they crouch at her door. “Wolves everywhere,” she mutters. “Stay away.” Our land has few wolves. I have long wanted to see one.
“Grandmother,” I once asked. “Why red for my hood?”
“As it is written,” she said. “The wolves write the books!”
This is a retelling of ‘Rumpelstiltskin’ and from Cunningham’s collection of revisionist retellings: ‘A Wild Swan: And Other Tales‘. Like the Donoghue and Carter collections mentioned above, this one is worth getting in its entirety because it is a real treat.
Cunningham discusses the story in this interview and how, in his version, the dwarf is driven by a longing to have a child rather than by greed, as in the original. Beyond that, he does something new and different with the ending. The language is careful and precise, as you might expect if you’ve read this author’s work elsewhere. The second-person voice brings us up close to the protagonist so we become him, in a way.
Then there is a moment—a millimoment, the tiniest imaginable fraction of time—when the Queen thinks of giving her baby to you. You see it in her face. There’s a moment when she knows that she could rescue you as you once rescued her, when she imagines throwing it all away and going off with you and her child. She does not, could not, love you, but she remembers standing in the room on that first night, when the straw started turning to gold, when she understood that an impossible situation had been met with an impossible result, when she unthinkingly laid her hand on the sackcloth-covered gnarls of your shoulder, and she thinks (whoosh, by the time you’ve read whoosh, she’s no longer thinking it) that she could leave her heartless husband, she could live in the woods with you and the child. . . .
Oh, alright. Here’s another one by Cunningham again and this one is just a perfect, fun read. If you recall the original story, it sort of ends happily with the twelve princes, who had been turned into swans by a wicked stepmother, come back to their princely beings and lives, thanks to their young sister. Except, the twelfth brother is left with a swan’s wing in place of an arm because the sister had not managed to finish that last sleeve of her magic shirts for them all. Anyway, Cunningham gives us the “what-happens-after” version for that twelfth prince.
Finally he packed a few things and went out into the world. The world, however, proved no easier for him than the palace had been. He could only get the most menial of jobs. He had no marketable skills (princes don’t), and just one working hand. Every now and then a woman grew interested, but it always turned out that she was briefly drawn to some Leda fantasy or, worse, hoped her love could bring him back his arm. Nothing ever lasted. The wing was awkward on the subway, impossible in cabs. It had to be checked constantly for lice. And unless it was washed daily, feather by feather, it turned from the creamy white of a French tulip to a linty, dispiriting gray.
And here are some links to other retellings you may want to look into. Note: several are novels, rather than short stories.
Till next month, readers.