I just finished reading Cynthia Pelayo’s Children of Chicago, another of this year’s Stoker Award nominees for Superior Achievement in a Novel. I want more. I want ten more books. I want Pelayo to go comb through every single fairy tale she’s ever read and mine each one for the horror lingering between the words and turn each one into a story.
OK, I might be a little biased. I did, after all, write The Grimm Chronicles, so I have a little experience with modern-day fairy tales. But Pelayo is playing with a story that I entirely forgot about: The Pied Piper. From the book’s description:
Chicago detective Lauren Medina’s latest call brings her to investigate a brutally murdered teenager in Humboldt Park—a crime eerily similar to the murder of her sister decades before. Unlike her straight-laced partner, she recognizes the crime, and the new graffiti popping up all over the city, for what it really means: the Pied Piper has returned.
Part horror story, part murder mystery, Children of Chicago expertly weaves the tale of the Pied Piper into something truly horrifying. I know what you’re thinking: OK, the original story was already horrifying … after all, the guy just took a bunch of people’s kids! Yes, point taken. But incorporating any sort of myth or fairy tale into an original story can be an absolute disaster. It requires an understanding of culture, history, and, yes, meaning.
Pelayo understands this. It’s obvious she spent time researching the fairy tale. And that hard work lurks in the shadows of her story even when the Pied Piper isn’t directly involved. Here’s Lauren Medina, entering a room in her house that she’s avoided for years because of her own sister’s disappearance years ago:
Laren pushed the door to the guest room that no one had ever slept in. It did not open into the never disturbed, plain room. Instead, she found herself staring at Diana’s music room, perfectly intact the way Lauren remembered on the last day. The small piano. The cases of musical instruments Diana had shooed her away from so many times. The dozens of harmonicas that Diana had collected over the years were all opened and tossed beneath what was making that thumping sound.
The body of her sister hanged from the ceiling fan in the middle of the room. A rope tied around her neck. Eyes bulging. Hair dripping wet. Her white polo shirt and khaki skirt–the school uniform she drowned in. Soaked.
Lauren Medina’s haunted by her past, by her childhood. Her character development is intimately connected to the Pied Piper, and it’s up to her to fix this bloody mess. Lauren Medina will need to hurry … because the body count is rising fast.
Dark Pathway: Incorporating a Tale
What Cynthia Pelayo does is no easy trick. In order to successfully use any sort of myth or fairy tale in your own original story, you need to understand and know your source material. That requires work. It requires research and critical thinking. So rather than give you a specific writing activity this time around, I thought it might be a good idea to provide some concrete tips if you choose to incorporate myths into your own writing.
Step 1: Think outside the box. The Greek myths and Grimm’s Fairy Tales are only the most well-known in our culture. Look outside of those! There are fairy tales from all around the world that are so incredible and unique. Ditto for monster myths. One myth I like to share with my writing classes is the myth of Hunter-Boy, which comes from Mongolia. (We’ll come back to this idea in Step 4)
Step 2: Examine the history of the myth. Where did it originate? Why? There are always reasons stories pop up in certain moments in history. Dig deep. Consider swinging by your local library to see if there are any books about the myth you’re examining.
Step 3: Research the culture surrounding the myth. What was life like for the people who told this story? Are there any connections to modern-day life? Similarities? Differences? In Children of Chicago, Cynthia Pelayo’s Pied Piper is still asking for payment, but the children he’s preying on live in modern-day Chicago.
Step 4: Check your privilege. Respect other cultures’ myths and stories. Make sure you understand the concept of appropriation and consider looking back in your own family history for myths and legends that have been passed down. For example, I went back through my family tree, all the way to Poland, which led me to some pretty interesting stories about the Baba Yaga. To learn more about appropriation and how it’s being discussed in this context, consider reading this excellent essay by L.L. McKinney.
Incorporating myths and fairy tales can be a ton of fun … give it a try with a story you’re working on now!
Ken Brosky is the author of The Beyond, a horror novel available through Timber Ghost Press. His work has been published in Grotesque and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, among others. He’s currently working on a screenplay and a new novel.