11 Short Fairy Tale Retellings You Can Read Online Right Now
Is it just me, or are fairy tales having a bit of a renaissance these days? Of course, fairy tales have been around for as long as we've had puberty, or storytelling, or dark, wolf-infested woods. They've never quite gone out of style. But for those who grew up in the '90s, watching aggressively sanitized fairy tale retellings, it was easy to write off princess stories and folktales as cutesy, childish relics of the past. Many probably felt "too old" for fairy tales by the time we were tweens or teens. No more. Fairy tale retellings have only grown darker and more nuanced, with many stories explicitly aimed at adults (or rather, aimed at that twisted, frightened, sexually confused young person within all of us). Here are a few short stories that stretch, re-mix, and reinvent classic fairy tale conventions. And you can read them online right now.
It's interesting, really, that we talk about modern fairy tales as "retellings" or "adaptations" when (in most cases) we don't actually have an original source. Even the Grimm Brothers just gathered up folktales that had been passed down for centuries via oral tradition, and added their own misogynistic spin on things. So these new (or new-ish) fairy tales are part of a long, long tradition of telling old stories for a contemporary audience:
'Instructions' by Neil Gaiman
"Instructions" is somewhere between a poem and a story. It's not exactly an adaptation of a specific fairy tale... it's more of an adaptation of every fairy tale. Or at least, it explores the dream-like logic that most classic fairy tales adhere to, giving instructions to you (the adventurer) on how to survive your journey into the land of witches, giants, and dragons.
'Seasons of Glass and Iron' by Amal El–Mohtar
Tabitha is cursed to walk the land in iron shoes, to wear out pair after pair on her bruised and blistered feet. Amira is destined to sit upon a high glass hill, weathering storms and extreme boredom as she waits for someone to climb up and marry her. Both are characters from fairy tales of old, but in "Seasons of Glass and Iron" they finally meet, and all at once their stories are intertwined as never before.
'The Faery Handbag' by Kelly Link
"The Faery Handbag" is a literal fairy tale in that actual fairies are involved. Or, at least, Genevieve's grandmother tells her that there is a community of fairies living in her handbag. She tells Genevieve all sorts of stories about these beings, and about her life back in the questionably real country of Baldeziwurlekistan, and it's left up to the reader to decide just how much is true.
'Hunting Monsters' by S.L. Huang
"Hunting Monsters" is set after the events of Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood. In this dark subversion of those stories, intelligent creatures called grundwirgen stalk the woods. Young Xiao Hong has always been taught to leave the grundwirgen alive—until her mother is arrested for murder, and her whole world comes crashing down.
'The Glass Bottle Trick' by Nalo Hopkinson
"The Glass Bottle Trick" is a Bluebeard retelling "of sorts." It follows beautiful Beatrice and her husband Samuel and, well... if you already know the story of Bluebeard, I don't have to tell you the rest. If you don't know the story, then just be warned that Nalo Hopkinson's smart, visceral adaptation is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).
'The Sea Hag' by Melissa Lee Shaw
We all know the story of that adorable little mermaid and her quest to give everything up for her man. "The Sea Hag" takes on a slightly different perspective: what did the ugly, old sea witch think of all of this? Why did she help the mermaid? What's her story? And was she really all that evil?
'As Good As New' by Charlie Jane Anders
"As Good as New" is kind of... weird, even for a fairy tale adaptation. It starts with a lonely survivor in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. But then failed-playwright-turned-med-student Marisol comes across a bottle and (naturally) meets a genie who can grant her three wishes in a bizarre, delightful take on an old, old trope.
'The 3 Snake Leaves' by Emily Carroll
Emily Carroll's artwork is so beautifully upsetting. She's an absolute master at creepy fairy tales, both adapted and original. "The 3 Snake Leaves" is one of her utterly gorgeous, deeply devastating online comics, with a slight "choose your own adventure" element for the adventurous reader.
'One True Love' by Malinda Lo
So many stories begin with a princess and a prophecy, with dead mothers and stepmothers and girls trapped in towers. "One True Love" is no exception, but Malinda Lo manages to breathe new life into an old story with the Princess Essylt and the soon to be queen Sadiya and their very different stepmother/stepdaughter relationship.
'Selkie Stories Are for Losers' by Sofia Samatar
Selkies are seal-like creatures from Scottish folklore, and most of their stories go the same way: a seal woman is trapped into marriage with a human man, with her seal skin hidden away, until she is able to get her skin back and return to the sea. "Selkie Stories Are for Losers" looks at the myth from an irreverent, modern perspective, as one young woman starts to wonder about the disappearance of her mother.
'The Frog's Princess' by Daniel Mallory Ortberg
You can probably guess which story "The Frog's Princess" is taking its cues from. In Daniel Mallory Ortberg's retelling of The Frog Prince, however, the frog is not too much of a prince, and he wants far more than just a simple kiss. It's an exploration of who owns beauty, with Ortberg's signature dark humor thrown into the mix.