Nowadays, the term “dark fairytale” appears to have gained a certain kind of cachet, since it tend to be attached to a lot of media with a hype train a mile long. Of course, to define this term it is important to understand what its two components mean. I am certain folklorists and scholars can argue over the finer points of what makes a fairytale, but in general, a fairytale is a short story featuring fantastical elements like folkloric figures (hence “fairytale”, since fairies are out of folklore and myth), with clearly good and clearly evil characters, most of which fall into some kind of archetypical mould.
However, in many cases the oldest versions of fairytales were remarkably bloody and gory – a reflection, no doubt, of the dangers and difficulties of the lives of the people who told those stories in the first place. Take, for example, the Brothers Grimm version of Snow White, which features the Evil Queen eating the heart of a deer thinking it was Snow White’s, and said Evil Queen eventually punished by being forced to wear red-hot iron shoes and dancing herself to death. Compare that with the version that Disney put onscreen in 1937: no hearts are eaten and no Evil Queens are forced to dance to death. Since then, eliminating the bloodier details of fairytales has been de rigueur for Disney’s adaptations, and the subsequent popularity of such films has not only turned Disney into a media juggernaut, but has literally defined the term “fairytale” in popular culture.
This is where the term “dark” comes in. Since trends tend to swing back and forth like a pendulum, it was inevitable that the cotton-candy portrayals Disney is known for would cause an opposite reaction in the cultural landscape. Many SFF writers started creating fairytale-esque stories that returned “to the roots” of the fairytale, often taking well-known Disneyfied favourites (such as the aforementioned Snow White story) and going back to the original, gorier Brothers Grimm version, while simultaneously incorporating other elements that suit the “darker” mood. For example: among the most popular, darker retellings of Snow White are Neil Gaiman’s “Snow, Glass, Apples” and Tanith Lee’s White as Snow. These stories not only reference the Brothers Grimm version, but include such anti-Disney elements as vampirism (Gaiman) and references to the myth of Persephone and the Eleusinian Mysteries (Lee).
Due to the popularity of such stories, it should come as no surprise that they would eventually find their way to other media. Most notable of these is Guillermo del Toro’s stellar film Pan’s Labyrinth, which is not necessarily based on any fairytale, but contains most of the elements of a traditional fairytale, set against the very un-fairytale backdrop of the Spanish Civil War. While all of those elements qualify Pan’s Labyrinth as a dark fairytale, it’s all just window dressing: what makes Pan’s Labyrinth into a true dark fairytale is how it explores how a young woman comes of age in a time of war, and how the fantasy of the fairytale can allow a child to grow into a woman without succumbing to the darkness around her. It is the same with “Snow, Glass, Apples” and White as Snow: aside from returning to the roots of the fairytale, they also explore weighty themes and concepts that are beyond the scope of the traditional fairytale – even going so far as to question the nature of the fairytale itself.
That is most certainly the case with The Devourers by Indra Das. Set mostly in Kolkata, India, it tells the story of a young man named Alok, who meets a stranger who claims he is half-werewolf. Drawn in by the stranger’s mystique, Alok soon finds himself tangled in the stranger’s story: a story of blood and violence, of gods and mortals – and, at the heart of it all, a woman who defies all such categories to become a thing unto herself.
The first thing the reader will notice about this book is the beauty of its language. Part of the charm and beauty of fairytales is often down to the storyteller: the better the storyteller, the more likely the story is to stick around in a person’s memory, or perhaps to take root deeply enough to become a part of that person’s very self. That is why the Disney versions of fairytales have such a hold on popular culture: the minds behind Disney are, if nothing else, master storytellers.
The same can be said of Das, because his writing possesses the same hypnotic cadence the reader might expect of a born storyteller, married to the artistic sensibilities of a poet. Take the following excerpt for example, which comes from the novel’s first chapter:
My part in this story began the winter before winters started getting warmer, on a full-moon night so bright you could see your own shadow on an unlit rooftop. It was under that moon—slightly smudged by December mist clinging to the streets of Kolkata—that I met a man who told me he was half werewolf. He said this to me as if it were no different from being half Bengali, half Punjabi, half Parsi. Half werewolf under the full moon. Not the most subtle kind of irony, but a necessary one, if I’m to value the veracity of my recollections.
To set the stage, I must tell you where I was.
Think of a field breathing the cool of nighttime into the soles of your shoes. A large tent in front of you—cloth, canvas, and bamboo—lit from within. Electric lamps surrounding a wooden stage under the bare feet of bright-robed minstrels. This tent is where the rural bards of Bengal, the bauls, gather every winter to make music for city people. It’s raw music, at times both shrill and hoarse, stained with hashish smoke and the self-proclaimed madness of their sect. A celebration of what’s been lost, under the vigil of orange-eyed streetlights.
I am there, that night.
It is not quite the traditional “Once upon a time” of the standard fairytale, but it certainly gets the reader into a similar, appropriate mindset. To be sure, Kolkata is very much a real place, but given the way Das describes it in that very first paragraph, the reader can easily imagine it as the enchanted land “far, far away” that so often follows “Once upon a time.” And this beauty is threaded throughout the story, sometimes achingly beautiful, other times utterly sensual:
He walks to me. His body is bronzed in water, long hair clinging in sinuous tattoos to his shoulders and neck.
However, unlike in fairytales, where the beauty hides the ugliness or eliminates it completely, Das uses the beauty of his language to reveal the ugliness that lies just beneath the surface. If, at first, he paints Kolkata as a dream in moonlight, he later shows what is hidden by the shadows and the smoke and the storyteller’s craft:
I keep to the footpath, avoid the streaks of odorous water and garbage clotting the gutters. Steamy food-shacks offer passing clouds of warmth from winter’s chill, the heat of open-air cooking trapped under the blue plastic tarpaulins stretched over the sidewalks to shelter their customers. I pass hawkers selling snacks, sachets of supari, cigarettes, perfumes and colognes, pirated movies, discounted books and magazines, condoms both imported and not—all operating right beside less ephemeral retail outlets and eateries with glass walls that look into different worlds.
The imagery is no less vivid than the first description of Kolkata by moonlight, but this is certainly a far less savoury image than the first one. Still, it is a true image, just as much as the first, and by using the same quality of language in both instances, Das shows that both visions of Kolkata – the beautiful, fairytale image silvered under moonlight, and the grimier, dirtier image – actually coexist, and cannot be separated from the other.
This beautiful writing is also applied to the violence in this book. In fact, this is something some readers found off-putting the further they got into the story: there are quite a few violent and bloody scenes in this novel, a lot more than they were initially led to expect. Though the phrase “dark fairytale” is often considered an indicator that the story has some rather unsavoury content, I do not think the phrase does a very good job of conveying just how unsavoury that content can be in this novel. Here is an example:
Not a league from the child’s killing we found his mother lying on the ground, clothed in flies. There was a newborn babe clutched in her arms snaked in purple umbilicus. The woman’s thighs were scabbed in the sun-dried crust of the infant’s birth, her stomach still flaccid from its expelled weight. The babe sucked at her cold nipple. …
Makedon dashed that cherub’s head with a rock. A small mercy he did not play with it. …
This excerpt comes in fairly early in the novel, and might be a nasty shock to some readers who are not expecting it. Yet it is not the only scene of blood and violence in this story: there are plenty more similar scenes, plus rape. Some readers have found so much violence off-putting, and I completely understand the reaction – I, too, feel that there need not have been so many graphic scenes in this story, and rather feel that Das may have overdone it a touch by including as many as he has in this novel.
And yet, I understand why such scenes make an appearance – especially in a story like the kind Das tells. At its core, The Devourers is a story about the liminal spaces between places, genders, identities, beliefs – and the transition between them. It is, therefore, a story about transformations, and as everyone knows, transforming oneself is not an easy process, not is it painless – only recall the period known as puberty, when a person transitions from childhood into adulthood. I doubt there is a person out there who can truthfully say that puberty was an easy time for them, and anyone who says otherwise is either preternaturally lucky (highly unlikely, but still in the realm of possibility) or lying (far more likely and also entirely possible).
Fairytales, too, are about transformations: Cinderella transforms from maid to princess, the Little Mermaid from mermaid to human (per Disney’s version) or from mermaid to human to sea foam (per the original Hans Christian Andersen version). In dark fairytales, that transformation is generally portrayed as painful and difficult. Das is following in the latter tradition, albeit in a more graphic, visceral manner. While I find the amount of graphic violence to be somewhat questionable, there is no denying the punch-to-the-gut power that Das’ story has. Stories have the power to create change, to force transformations. Just as fairytales have the power to shape us as children, and therefore shape who we become, Das’ story has a similar power to shape the reader, no matter how briefly.
Overall, The Devourers is the very best kind of fairytale: beautifully told, with language the resonates in the reader’s head long after he or she has put the book down. However, for all the beauty of its language, it is still a very dark tale, and while graphic scenes of violence are not altogether unexpected in any kind of story, especially if they serve a specific purpose, the novel does seem to have a mite too many such scenes than are strictly necessary for the story. Underneath all that violence, though, is a heartrending tale about the beauty – and the pain – of change and transformation.