Continuing to Die: There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby comes with a fiendish subtitle — “Scary Fairy Tales.” The stories are divided into four sections — “Songs of the Eastern Slavs,” “Allegories,” “Requiems” and indeed “Fairy Tales” — but the borders are in fact blurred, the genres interchangeable, with no clear distinction between, say, an allegory and a requiem. (This does not matter a great deal when we remember that Animal Farm, a textbook allegory, also has the subtitle “A Fairy Story.”) This is emphasised by the fact that some of the stories in all four sections begin with the classic fairy-tale intro of “There once lived a woman…” or “There once lived a man…” Similarly misleading is the discovery that there is no such story as “There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbour’s Baby,” fairy tale or otherwise. The story it is based on, “Revenge,” has seemingly been rebranded with something more sensational.

Freud said that fairy tales can never be scary because they are simply too fantastic. We need a ‘conflict of judgement’ about the incredible things we read and whether they could ever be true…

If we ignore any quibbles with the contents, and accept that these stories are all scary fairy tales, we quickly find ourselves asking how they are scary and what makes them fairy tales. In the first instance, they are not scary in the slightest. Scary is Grimm-territory, such as “Stepmother,” in which the title’s wicked harridan suffocates her stepson in the cellar and then, “since it was evening,” slices him into pieces and cooks him over the fire. Like a child-friendly (or not) bite-sized version of the banquet scene in Titus Andronicus, she later serves him up to her unsuspecting husband for dinner. This is more than scary, it is downright nasty. With Petrushevskaya we are hard-pushed even to find a tale that is macabre. “The Cabbage-patch Mother” features a woman who has “a tiny droplet of a baby” that she carries around in a matchbox; “Marilena’s Secret” tells of a fat woman who was once comprised of two ballerinas, Maria and Lena, both of whom were rolled into one by a vengeful and lovelorn magician; and “The Black Coat” deals with a girl who does not remember who she is and has to make sense of the new reality imposed on her in an empty building full of vanishing rooms and self-erasing letters. Interesting ideas, but there is nothing scary here. Freud said that fairy tales can never be scary because they are simply too fantastic. We need a “conflict of judgement” about the incredible things we read and whether they could ever be true — “and this problem is eliminated from the outset by the postulates of the world of fairy tales.” Perhaps bizarre is a more suitable description.

In the second instance, Petrushevskaya has said she does write skazki, fairy tales, and having studied their form, knows that “fairy tales have to end happily.” Very few of her tales do. (Whilst “There’s Someone in the House” contains quintessential Petrushevskaya characteristics, its rosy ending is thoroughly atypical.) The most successful fairy tales are those that are possessed by the blackest of magic, but Petrushevskaya goes further, deeper, sharpening the relief so as to extract maximum darkness, and shelving all notions of good trumping evil — indeed dispensing with the two completely and instead letting the often stunned and guileless characters loose in hallucinatory realms devoid of laws and logic. They are less an updating of Grimm and Anderson and more a spin on Angela Carter and Kafka. How we react to the aforementioned broken-down summaries is akin to our response to the news that Gregor Samsa has woken one morning from uneasy dreams and transformed into a gigantic insect. Knee-jerk surprise can lead to amusement but it can just as frequently sour rapidly into disdain. This is due to the very divisive nature of fairy tales, or more correctly, fairy tales for adults. Fantasy for adults is a maligned genre but one that is still tolerated; fairy tales for adults demands a more impassioned defence, and stands a better chance of being taken seriously (and of being sold) when aided and abetted by marketing misnomers.

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