The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me”

Attention, grown-ups. If you’re going to read or write about fairy tales, you must be prepared to face the genre’s First Principle: These brutal fantasies are not for children, not really. Whether you’re secretly horrified to learn how many taboos have been packaged between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after,” or whether you’re the kind of adult who will happily snatch any chance to revisit that terrifying, enchanted terrain, you’ll be bewitched by the new anthology My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me . The 40 authors that Kate Bernheimer has gathered to rewrite and modernize classic fairy tales are experts at collating darkness and wonder.

Bernheimer is the founder and editor of Fairy Tale Review , a journal “dedicated to fairy tales as a contemporary art form.” She’s assembled a dazzling line-up of heavyweights to rehabilitate the old myths. So Kellie Wells takes on “Red Riding Hood” and John Updike revamps “Bluebeard.” Aimee Bender does a brilliant rendition of Charles Perrault’s “Donkeyskin,” in which the princess barely figures next to the gutsy craftspeople charged with coloring her sun-, moon-, and sky-hued dresses. Expect both lyric beauty and wickedness; overt sexuality (as opposed to the diffuse kind that hovers over most children’s stories); Hans Christian Andersen-style heartbreak; slapstick and sly humor. Also unabashed strangeness. In Francine Prose’s realist adaptation of “Hansel and Gretel,” for example, the witch is an avant-garde performance artist from Italy who photographs herself in flagrante with her cat.

Behind the bell sounds of the fairy story plod the banalities and disappointments of everyday life. Some of the saddest and scariest moments in these tales have nothing to do with magic. In Prose’s tale, the Gretel figure, Polly, confides that nothing “violent or dramatic” caused her marriage to unravel. “Before the wedding he’d liked me; afterwards he didn’t.” Similarly, real terror in “Baba Iaga and the Pelican Child,” by Joy Williams, comes not from chicken-footed cottages or talking dogs, but from the genteel British naturalist John James Audubon, who captures Baba Iaga’s beautiful pelican daughter and “pierces [her] with cruel rods,” before arranging the dead bird in a lifelike position so that he can draw her.

Bernheimer uses the term “fairy tale” inclusively. “Cupid and Psyche,” a Greek myth, moves online in Francesca Lia Block’s semisweet ode to cyber romance. Also represented are stories by Goethe, Yeats, and Italo Calvino, refracted through the minds of Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Jim Shepard, and Chris Adrian. (Bynum’s “The Erlking” and Shepard’s “Pleasure Boating in Lituya Bay” shine amid distinguished company.)

While traditional folklore leans on formulae, this collection aspires to a kind of lawlessness-how often do Russian wood spirits meet British ornithologists without blinking? If the individual stories weren’t so gorgeously stitched, their sum might feel a little haywire. But thanks to charmed language, Bernheimer’s contributors evade this pitfall with the nimbleness of a witch’s fingers.