Friday, April 11, 2014

Off-Beat Fairy Tales: Beautiful Darkness

The week in off-beat fairy tales and other weird stories focuses on an actual fairy tale: Fabien Vehlmann and Kerascoet's Beautiful Darkness. Described by some as "Thumbelina meets Lord of the Flies", the book has a take-no-prisoners approach in coldly examining an environment in a manner that elicits gasps. One gets the sense that the authors took great delight in subverting reader expectation on every page as they raised the stakes on what kind of horrible and/or horrifying event they could cook up next. Vehlmann's best known English translation was the Jason-illustrated book Isle of 100,000 Graves, while Keraskoet is the illustration duo comprised of Marie Pommepuy and Sebastien Cosset, best known to English-speakers as the artists behind the lurid Miss Don't-Touch-Me series.

The book starts with one of the most terrifying and yet hilarious fake-outs ever. The kind fairy girl Aurora is aided by her friend Plim to help her impress the Prince who has come to visit her for tea and cake. That first page of interactions couldn't be any more steeped in stereotypical modern children's fairy tropes. If you've ever seen the Australian TV show The Fairies, you'll know precisely what I'm talking about. When something red drips from the ceiling into the cup and the ceiling itself caves in, the focus pulls back and there's chaos and mayhem everywhere as the host body for the fairies falls down dead. She's a little girl who dies in the middle of a forest for unknown reasons, but all of the creatures living inside of her must react to her death, one way or another.

This is a reverse-quest book in that it starts with a large cast that is slowly winnowed-down as the book proceeds. While there's plenty of unexpected gore and violence (a cat comes in the night to prey upon the fairy camp, a toad eats the Prince, a fairy who was part of a group of triplets gets dragged off to an ant hill), it's the character interaction that proves to be far more cruel and horrifying. Hierarchies based on little more than intimidation and personal charisma form to subvert the fairy utopia Aurora worked tirelessly to create, one that would end with her marrying the Prince. Her basic sense of kindness blinds her to the machinations of others, like the vain and cold-hearted Zelie. The authors suggest that some of the fairies correspond to potential aspects of their host who just died; Zelie bears a striking resemblance to a doll she carried, for example, and Aurora is the name of the company on a notebook she carried. While most of the fairies took to the forest and tried to negotiate a life with the animals therein, one fairy is unwilling to depart the corpse. In a series of scenes that start off as revolting (the fairy eats the maggots now inhabiting the decaying host body in a visceral fashion) and wind up as sad and pathetic, as she starts to dream that she was the girl and later finds herself quite isolated in the girl's eyesockets, shivering and afraid.

Seeing characters betray each other and seek to gain an advantage over each other at a moment's notice, as I mentioned earlier, is the truly disturbing characteristic of this book. The character of Plim embodies this sort of feckless self-advancement, as he is content to be lead thug for Zelie after bullying and intimidating any number of other characters into doing work for him or taking what's theirs. It takes a while for Aurora to learn that the others view her leadership as a benign organizer as a kind of joke when they all betray her affection for the Prince, leading her to leave. When the feckless fairies manage to find her safely snug in the cabin of a human, it looks like the pattern is going to repeat itself as Zellie installs herself as being in charge and immediately sets upon finding punishments for Aurora. Aurora ponders leaving this all behind but returns not because she has no other choice, but because the clever and industrious fairy has a plan. When she takes advantage of the fact that the other fairies believe her to be oblivious and overly trusting, Aurora leads them to a final fate that's fitting for them and for her, as the starry-eyed dreamer winds up finding her prince after all, after a fashion. Only in a fairy-tale such as this can such a brutal and vicious ending be construed as a happy one.

Visually, Kerascoet plies beautiful water colors on top of simply-rendered and cute characters. This makes the scenes of death, decay and violence all the more jarring. That's especially true when they visually reference stories like The Borrowers or The Wind In The Willows to give a sense of what happens when these tiny creatures meet actual forest predators and their desires. Even saintly Aurora is not immune to fits of violence, as when she claws the eyes out of a mouse who had betrayed her with her tiny, needle-like nails. That scene establishes her understanding of the forest as a place where one either adapts or gets killed and puts an end to her viewing herself as a benevolent, wise and admired figure and leads her to understand that there's a sucker born every minute--and that she's been a sucker. Without their mastery of the studied cuteness of each character and the subtle gradations in mood and emotion they express (the doll-like Zelie in particular is a masterpiece in terms of a character going from blank to malevolent with disarming speed), the narrative simply wouldn't work. Similarly, the final image of the book, when Aurora gets her happy ending, is that of the cabin in the snowy woods, a light blazing from a window. It's like something out of a pictorial depiction of "A Visit From St. Nicholas" or Norman Rockwell in the way it captures warmth, only the reader knows what lies beneath. Drawn & Quarterly certainly made sure that the visual impact of the book was not muted in its translation.

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