Reviews 2015

The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature: Essays on Stories from Grimm to Gaiman

The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature: Essays on Stories from Grimm to Gaiman. Ed. Joseph Abbruscato and Tanya Jones. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014. 199 pages. $40.00 (paperback).

This collection of ten essays focuses on novels that either re-vision particular fairy tales or work with fairy tale elements. There are references to classic fairy tales throughout, but none of the chapters provides detailed analysis of specific classic tales. As Joseph Abbruscato notes in the introduction, the essays engage "the structure of the modern, Gothic fairy tale, recurring themes and motifs, and the relationship between the reader and the dark fairy tale" (9). The classification "young adult" is treated broadly here, with works covered ranging from David Almond’s Skellig (1998) and Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008), both often classified as children’s books, to Robin McKinley’s Deerskin (1993) and John Connolly’s The Book of Lost Things (2006), both cross-over books written for adults but with an appeal for young adult readers. Other writers whose works are addressed include Orson Scott Card (not, somewhat surprisingly, his "Sleeping Beauty" novel Enchantment [1999], but Ender’s Game [1985]), Lemony Snicket, Terry Pratchett, Holly Black, Melissa Marr, and Merrie Haskell. Three of the essays treat the work of Gaiman: Tanya Jones and Lisa K. Perdigao on Coraline (2002), and Joseph Abbruscato on The Graveyard Book. The editors seem particularly concerned to emphasise the function of dark fairy tales as antidotes to the sanitization of the fairy tale most often associated with the work of the Disney Corporation.

The introduction does not provide a concrete definition of the Gothic fairy tale; the term "dark fairy tale" is often used interchangeably with "Gothic fairy tale," suggesting that the editors view the Gothic fairy tale as a literary tale that incorporates grim(m) elements from traditional tales before the latter were bowdlerised for child readers. It is not the same as the "anti-fairy tale," as defined in Anti-Tales (2011) by Catriona McAra and David Calvin, which "subverts, inverts, deconstructs, or satirises [elements of traditional tales] to present an alternate narrative interpretation, outcome, or morality" (4). Instead, the Gothic fairy tale interests the editors for its potential as a tool to assist young readers in their confrontations with fears, anxieties, and other psychological conflicts; while there is no specific overarching theoretical framework to the collection, most of the chapters reference psychoanalytical approaches to the fairy tale, making use of the work of Sigmund Freud and his follower Bruno Bettelheim, Carl Jung, Marie-Louise von Franz, and Sheldon Cashdan, among others.

Although the introduction identifies a link between the Gothic and the fairy tale, referencing the work of Karen Coats (Abbruscato 8), it is left to the first essay in the collection, Carys Crossen’s "'Something like you, something like a beast': Gothic Convention and Fairy Tale Elements in David Almond’s Skellig," to explore the intersection of Gothic and fairy tale in some detail. Crossen provides a useful listing of the Gothic motifs that work with the fairy tale aspects of Skellig: antiquated spaces/the hero’s encounter with the unfamiliar, secrets/puzzles to resolve, darkness, females in danger/journeys or quests to effect rescues, and anxieties about devolution. She argues persuasively that Almond uses the Gothic fairy tale to make a radical statement against the devolution or ossification of the mind and in favour of free thought. The positioning of this chapter is helpful to the reader approaching some of the following chapters that are less explicit in establishing a working definition of the Gothic fairy tale, such as Erin Wyble Newcomb’s "Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game: Authoring Home in Fairyland," which focuses heavily on fairy tale motifs used in the representation of Ender confronting his capacity for monstrousness, leaving the reader to make the connection between the monstrous and the Gothic.

Other essays in the collection that address the Gothic fairy tale directly include Perdigao’s on Coraline, which comes close to establishing a link between the Gothic fairy tale and the anti-fairy tale, as she addresses the ways in which Gaiman’s novel blurs boundaries between genres and exposes their workings in order to critique them. In "'Monstrosity will be called for': Holly Black’s and Melissa Marr’s Urban Gothic Fairy Tale Heroines," Rhonda Nicol explores how Black and Marr rework the tropes of Gothic fairy tales to transform and empower their heroines. Similarly, Carissa Turner Smith argues that Merrie Haskell, in The Princess Curse (2011), encourages readers to distance themselves from standard fairy tale narrative patterns and to welcome the uncertainty that arises when trying to forge a new path in life.

The introduction concludes that "merely having a small group of writers continuing to write the genre in proper fashion does not make for a full rehabilitation of fairy tales" (Abbruscato 10). There are, of course, other writers whose work is not examined here who might also have been considered, Donna Jo Napoli or Francesca Lia Block for instance. However, Abbruscato is correct in identifying this collection as part of a beginning. There is not a lot of scholarly discussion of the Gothic fairy tale for children and young adults; besides the aforementioned work by Karen Coats, the second edition of The Handbook of the Gothic (2009), edited by Marie Mulvey-Roberts, has two short pieces on the Gothic fairy tale (by Lucie Armitt) and Gothic in children’s literature (by Charles Butler and Allie O’Donovan). More recently, Michael Howarth has published a psychoanalytic study of the Gothic in children’s literature, applying the theories of Erik Erikson, which might make interesting reading alongside The Gothic Fairy Tale in Young Adult Literature. Certainly the latter serves to generate interest in this genre and makes a good starting point for further discussion.

Terri Doughty
Vancouver Island University, Canada

Works Cited

Coats, Karen. "Between Horror, Humour, and Hope: Neil Gaiman and the Psychic Work of the Gothic." The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Ed. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats, and Roderick McGillis. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Howarth, Michael. Under the Bed, Creeping: Psychoanalyzing the Gothic in Children’s Literature. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2014.

McAra, Catriona and David Calvin, eds. Anti-Tales: The Uses of Disenchantment. Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011

Mulvey-Roberts, Marie, ed. Handbook of the Gothic. 2nd edition. New York: New York UP; Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.