'Roses and Rot' Subverts The Stepmother Fairy Tale Trope In A Truly Terrifying Way

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot , a fairy tale reimagining that centers upon two sisters, Imogen and Marin, who escape their cruel mother and pursue their passions — Imogen as a writer, Marin as a dancer. Years later, they reunite at a prestigious artist colony, Melete, which feeds upon the magic and energy of the Fair Folk.

When I first thought about writing my novel Roses and Rot , I knew that I wanted it to have a lot of references to fairy tales. So when I thought about where the bad guys would come from, that was one of the places I turned. And one of the biggest bad guys in fairy tales is the Evil Stepmother. It is, after all, Cinderella’s stepmother who sends her down to the ashes, and Snow White’s stepmother who decides that the girl must be murdered for the simple crime of being the fairest. In some versions of Hansel and Gretel, it’s a new wife – a stepmother – who decides there isn’t enough food, and so the children must be left out in the woods. Evil, all of them.

Except.

I had grown to hate the trope. We live in an era where families look like a lot of different things, and I knew too many women who had become someone’s stepmother and who were awesome in that role, loving and kind, and the farthest thing from evil. The idea of writing another stepmother who was eeeevil, with no reason in the text other than it’s a fairy tale and so stepmothers are evil, well. I didn’t want to do it.

So I thought, who is the person who could hurt my main characters the most?

So I thought, who is the person who could hurt my main characters the most? Who could put the kind of pressure on them to make them into the people they needed to be in order for me to write this book? That was an easy one: their mother. So I made the evil closer to home, and closer to the heart. I wrote in my novel:

“Our happy family,” Marin said. She tossed the picture back in the box. “Do you think there’s any photo, from growing up, that doesn’t have some hideous memory attached to it? There has to be, right?”

I didn’t think so.

Marin stuffed everything back in the box, folded the flaps closed. We threw it in the trash. Marin shuddered. “She’s always going to be there, isn’t she?”

"I’m just glad she can’t be here,” I said. “It’s the one safe place.” Though not as safe as we had thought, not with packages that could show up to knock us off our feet one more time. No place had ever been as safe as we thought.

Yes, I know that the trope of the evil mother also exists, and there are many excellent mothers in the world. I have one of my own. I didn’t say it was a fully logical choice. But there were reasons behind it.

I couldn’t imagine it, growing up. How a stepmother could be worse then my real mother, than this woman who was supposed to love me, and who so clearly did not. I envied the girls in the fairy tales, sent by stepmothers to sleep in the ashes, or in the barn with the beasts.

It was that reason – that according to the stories we tell ourselves about what a family is, that a mother is supposed to be the person that loves you, supposed to be the biggest support and cheerleader – that made it even worse when their mother was the person that Imogen and Marin feared like some children fear the monster under the bed. The bad things hurt more, when they’re done by the person who is supposed to love you the most. And I needed the bad things that happened in the book to hurt, to hurt bad enough and to be frightening enough that Imogen and Marin would – as grown women, on their own, and with their own lives – still be willing to take an enormous risk, would see that risk as their only way to finally being free.

And the thing about mothers is, so much cultural weight has been put on them – Mother Earth, Mother Nature, the Mother Goddess, just to begin with – they have become an almost fairy tale figure, almost a trope unto themselves. The idea of motherhood has become such a freighted concept – weighted down with the idea of being the giver of life, the nurturer, the one who should sacrifice everything for her child – that I think that sometimes we forget that mothers are people who are separate from their children. Because while the betrayal of unlove, of neglect or abuse by any parent should be horrible, should be appalling in equal fashion, it seems that it is seen as somehow worse when it is a mother who does those things.

What’s bad for actual people can sometimes be good for fiction.

What’s bad for actual people can sometimes be good for fiction.

Because in the end, I wanted that cultural weight for this book. I wanted a character who was more of a trope than a person, someone who loomed above these women in the way a destiny to prick your finger on a spindle and die might loom. I needed someone who would not just offer the poisoned apple, but who would embody that poisoned fruit.

As much as Roses and Rot is a work of fantasy, as much as it engages with fairy tales and the impossible, I wanted a source of terror and stress that wasn’t simply possible, but recognizable. I wanted that evil to be as close to home as possible, to take away the safe space that home is meant to be and shove these women into the uncertain world of the story. And so I chose the mother, as the character who would set that in motion.

Because there is one thing that fairy tales understand, with their wicked stepmothers and fathers who eat their children and cruel sisters: if home is safe, you’ll never leave. And if you never leave, there isn’t a story.

You go into the woods to find your story. If you are brave, if you are fortunate, you walk out of them to find your life.

Kat Howard is the author of Roses and Rot , available everywhere now.

Images: Walt Disney Pictures