Brian Keene’s History of Horror Fiction, Chapter Nine: Grimm and Gritty

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As the 1700s drew to a close, the public furor over The Castle of Otranto, The Monk, The Mysteries of Udolpho and other gothic horror novels continued. Societal keepers and the media of the time became concerned that commoners, particularly young people, were spending too much time engaged in reading, particularly such gruesome fare as The Monk. In our last chapter, we talked about how cancel culture came for Matthew Gregory Lewis, forcing him to revise further editions of The Monk, and to issue a public apology. 

Cover of early edition of Grimm Household TalesWhat then, must society have thought of a series of children’s tales coming out of Germany shortly after the turn of the century? Consider the following. One of these stories told the tale of four children between the ages of five and six who are playing. One child pretends to be a butcher. Another a cook, and another the cook’s assistant. The fourth child pretends to be a pig, at which point the other three children kill him and try to cook him. 

Was society pleased with such children’s tales?

They were not.

This was just one of the stories collected by brothers Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is their 1812 book Children’s and Household Tales. You’d think that a collection with such an innocuous title would have no place in our History of Horror Fiction but consider the brief synopsis I gave you above. Or consider another tale, in which two young brothers help their father slaughter a pig. Imitating what they’ve just seen, the older brother slices his younger brother’s throat. Their mother, who is inside the farmhouse giving the baby a bath, hears the younger child’s scream and runs outside. When she sees what has happened, she is overcome with rage. The mother grabs the knife from her younger son’s throat and stabs the older brother to death with it. When she goes back inside the house, she discovers that the unattended baby has drowned in the bathtub. Overcome with grief, the mother hangs herself. At the end of the day, the father comes back home from working in the field and finds everyone dead.   

Children’s and Household Tales was a collection of German and European folklore, begun as a scholarly effort to preserve stories that had been orally told from generation to generation — a practice that was threatened by the increased industrialization of the time. Jacob and Wilhelm believed that this was important to their Germanic culture, and that the tales reflected the old religions and faiths, which they thought would continue to survive via their work.

Cover of Household StoriesBeginning in 1806, the Brothers Grimm traveled Europe, interviewing everyone from poor peasants to the wealthy aristocrats, transcribing the folk tales they heard. You know many of these stories — Sleeping Beauty, Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hansel and Gretel, The Frog Prince, Rapunzel, Rumpelstiltskin, and countless others. But while readers of this column are probably familiar with the sanitized versions made safe for animated cartoons, the original versions — as evidenced in the examples I gave you earlier — were pure horror fiction filled with sex and violence. In Snow White, for example, the Queen is the title character’s mother rather than her stepmother, and she orders her Huntsman to kill Snow White and bring home the child’s lungs and liver so that she can eat them. A servant in The Goose Girl is stripped naked and pushed into a barrel studded with sharp nails pointing inwards and then rolled down the street. In The Frog Prince, the princess smashes the frog against a wall instead of kissing him. Rapunzel contains a clear sexual relationship between the main characters. All of the tales are very different than their modern counterparts. 

By 1810, the brothers began putting their collected stories in manuscript format. Jacob established the framework of each tale, and Wilhelm edited and rewrote the stories themselves.

When Children’s and Household Tales was finally published in 1812, it contained eighty-six stories, most of which resulted in a public outcry on par with the first reaction to Lewis’s The Monk. Critics denigrated the brothers for the violence and cruelty on display, and took issue with the book being marketed as appropriate for children (which it was clearly not). The brothers responded that this was why they had stated in the book’s Introduction that stories such as Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood were meant as “warning tales” for children.

Jacob died in 1815, but Wilhelm continued the work, and continued editing and rewriting the stories with each subsequent edition. He removed much of the earlier sex and violence, improved the plots, added dialogue, and worked in traditions from Norse, Greek, and Roman mythology, as well as old, pre-Christian Germanic faiths. 

Cover of modern version of Grimm's Fairy TalesEventually, Children’s and Household Tales became Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Today, these folkloric horror stories have been used and commercialized by everyone from Walt Disney’s animation studio to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. The collection has been translated into over one hundred different languages and are an indelible part of human culture. But consider, for a moment, the source of Jacob and Wilhelm’s collection.

The stories were folklore. They were oral traditions, passed down orally over the centuries. Remember back in chapter 2 of this series, when we visited the Upper Paleolithic era and met Thurg, the world’s first horror writer? Many of these are the same stories he was transcribing on the walls of his cave. The times may change, but the fears remain the same. By tracing those fears, you can draw a direct line from Thurg to the Brothers Grimm to the horror writers of today.

Brian Keene is the author of over fifty books, as well as hundreds of short stories and dozens of comic books. He also hosts the popular podcast The Horror Show with Brian Keene. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

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