I have been thinking a lot about the differences between folklore and fairy tales, particularly when it comes to media presentation—of happy endings and beautiful princesses and glorious and friendly mythical creatures. But when looking through history, folk tales are often far less idealistic and speak far more of harsh realities than neat conclusions, and what current-day folklore-inspired-tales may entail are the gritty shadows no one wants to turn to look at, the cruel whispers that snuff out waning candle lights and hopes, the clawing fingers that drag us backwards when all we want is to move on—and death.
Recently, I’ve read three works that perfectly express the essence of folklores, their whimsical yet psychological and meditative nature, of dream-like narratives but philosophical musings hidden in the bodies of magical places and people and creatures. But what all these novels/novellas have in common is their focus on death, whether as a cause, effect, or consequence.
Dark Woods, Deep Water by Jelena Dunato
Dark Woods, Deep Water, a debut novel by Croatian author Jelena Dunato, is a folkloric gothic dark fantasy that features curses and enchantments, unending cycles, eternal youth, and sacrifices. It speaks on the dangers of timelessness, the foreverness of mistakes, the mark it has on someone’s life, and the way choices become curses in and of themselves. It illustrates the unfairness of life and the fates it hands to those who are least deserving of misfortune and eloquently uses setting as a malevolent character—one that is both embraced and despised. But at the heart of the story is death—both literal and metaphorical.
The Salt Grows Heavy by Cassandra Khaw
The Salt Grows Heavy is a stunning novella by Malaysian author Cassandra Khaw. It is folkloric, it is body horror, and it is both vicious and whimsical. It showcases the horrors of fairy tales, of imperfect and horrendous characters that are more truthful than the virtuous princesses we see on screen and their happy endings. This is a story where children are not innocent but savage and cruel, where love is tainted and gnarly yet can also be so quiet and gentle even with such a gruesome and bloody backdrop and surrounding circumstances, and where flawed characters seek comfort in one another in both life and death. The Salt Grows Heavy is visceral, and it has a strange beauty that will brew darkness within you for a very long time.
Our Own Unique Affliction by Scott J. Moses
Our Own Unique Affliction is the debut novella of Japanese American author Scott J. Moses that aptly fits in both subgenres of grief and supernatural horror. Moses calls into question what it means to live forever, and especially, to live as vampires with memories and traumas dominating every moment and breath. There is the guilt of survival, of loss, and of seeking meaning after loss. There is an exploration of how people are shaped and reshaped by trauma and death, and of living forever when there is seemingly no one else to live for. To have to experience the torment of the past and question why we are still living. It is bleak and emotional and a unique take on vampires and what it means to become one and to remain one.
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