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Beyond "Happily Ever After:" 10 Dark Fairy Tale Books for Adults 

A poisoned apple is the least of these characters' worries. 

dark fairy tales for adults

When we think of fairy tales we often have certain images that instantly come to mind: a dashing prince, a stunning, but always humble, princess, supportive (and exceptionally well-trained) animal helpers, and of course, a “happily ever after.” 

These are the kind of stories that were our bread and butter as children, whether our parents read them to us before we drifted off to sleep or we were allowed to spend afternoons in front of the TV watching a Disney princess animated feature. These universal tales teach us from a young age to be clever, and kind and remind us that keeping a positive attitude through difficult times will always result in our wishes being granted and our dreams being fulfilled.

But what if I were to tell you that these fairy tales weren’t always as lighthearted as we might remember them? For instance, what if I told you Cinderella has an earlier 1634 Italian version in which the protagonist kills her wicked stepmother by slamming her head with a chest’s heavy lid? 

Or that the Brothers Grimm tale published in 1812, features two conniving stepsisters who in desperation decide to cut off pieces of their feet to fit properly into a fated slipper so that they could marry the prince, and whose treachery merely results in their eyes being pecked out by pigeons? 

Morbid, right? And, unquestionably unsuited for young ones, whose parents would like to prevent night terrors and bed-wetting. Thank goodness for the sweet bluebirds in Disney’s Cinderella, whose only crime is waking Cinderella up too early and interrupting her wonderful dream. These types of tales are comforting and feel like a reassuring hug that I bet all of us could use sometimes.  

However, when we leave childhood behind and we suddenly realize that the world can honestly be a pretty unforgiving, dangerous and unfair place, and no amount of wishing on stars or wells or singing very catchy tunes (No offense, Disney princesses.) is going to change that, we tend to crave fairy tales with a darker, sometimes more realistic edge that returns to the disturbing, original material. 

Luckily, authors have reimagined and reinvigorated fairy tales with creepy and terrifying plots in which protagonists must endure unimaginable horror and are granted steamier romances with sensual scenes that would place pure-as-driven snow, Snow White back into a coma. In these stories, not all characters get happy endings and some even have to work through years of trauma in support groups to cope with being swallowed by a wolf or attacked by a psychotic husband. Others find that their strength, which had been underestimated in other fairy tale accounts, is finally on full display. 

If you’re growing tired of the typical fairy tale blueprint, pick up these 10 dark fairy tale books that offer adults a more nuanced “ever-after.”    



By Robin McKinley

Beauty cannot stand her nickname. The name seems to mock her awkward, gangly body, especially when compared to her two beautiful sisters whom, according to her, are both far better suited for the title. Although far from stunning like her siblings, there is one quality Beauty proudly possesses: courage. So when her father breaks the dreadful news of an immense sacrifice that must be made to the Beast in an enchanted castle to prevent her father’s early demise, Beauty decides to become a prisoner of her own free will. Newberry Medal-winning author Robin McKinley takes a slightly darker spin on this beloved childhood classic, providing readers with a deeper understanding of Beauty and her family’s background.       

Snow White, Blood Red

Snow White, Blood Red

By Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling

These fairy tales are not for young ones, but they are perfect for adults who desire disturbingly unique nightmare fuel based on the stories that brought them comfort as kids. This collection includes stories from Neil Gaiman, Gahan Wilson, and Tanith Lee, to name a few notable authors who allowed their imaginations to run rampant and create chilling, warped, and erotic tales. 

What awaits readers within its pages is a story about a boy haunted by a malicious creature that follows him into adulthood and lies waiting under a bridge; another about a lonely amphibian who allows a therapist to learn of his private fantasies; and an isolated artist who welcomes seven circus performers into her home to appease her obsession. One fair warning: you may not be able to look at your favorite childhood fairy tale the same way ever again!  

Dead Upon a Time

Dead Upon a Time

By Elizabeth Paulson

One day Kate decides to make the long trek to her grandmother’s house in the woods, but when she arrives, she isn’t greeted by her loved one, nor is she greeted by a hungry wolf; instead, she finds only woven tapestries depicting disturbing scenes: a girl trapped in a room whose only sustenance is a basket full of apples, which contains one poisoned apple; another girl stuck in a room with lethal needles; and a pair of siblings locked in a cell that’s gradually raising in temperature. There’s no grandma in sight.

An outcast, Kate knows that the only person who might be willing to help her find her grandmother’s kidnapper and bring her grandmother safely home is another outsider—Jack, the boy who was daring enough to go up against a giant. After another victim is taken, the king becomes more invested in finding the kidnapper as tragedy strikes closer to home. Together, Kate and Jack must find the missing woman and take down the crook determined to destroy their happily ever after.   

Don't Call the Wolf

Don't Call the Wolf

By Aleksandra Ross

Inspired by the Polish fairy tale “The Glass Mountain,” Don’t Call the Wolf is about a strong young human-lynx queen who guards a dark forest overrun with monsters and ends up meeting a young soldier determined to find his missing brother, who went on a dangerous quest and never returned. They make a promise to each other: if he slays the Golden Dragon that has been terrorizing citizens for years, she will help him find his missing brother. Will both be able to keep their promises?  

Gilded Glass

Gilded Glass

By Kevin J. Anderson

A riveting anthology of 24 stories that focus on the theme of mirrors in fairy tales and myths, including tales from authors Sherrilyn Kenyon, Jonathan Maberry, Alan Dean Foster, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and more. In this collection, you’ll find diverse stories from various cultures that range from terrifying to comical about malevolent kings and beautiful women with dark secrets. These impressive fantasy authors ask us to think about a very important question: when we stare into a mirror, what might we see peering back at us? 

Black Thorn, White Rose

Black Thorn, White Rose

By Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling

World Fantasy Award-winning editors Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have collected another 18 short stories from acclaimed writers that skillfully reinvent beloved fairytales with dark, twisted, and even at times steamy takes on the original tales. Horrifying, heartwarming, and humorous these stories pay homage to the classic stories, but they are engaging and exciting for adult readers who may have grown slightly tired of the predictable fairytale “happily ever after.”

You’ll find beloved characters like Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, and the Gingerbread Man placed within modern-day settings, or whose stories are told from unexpected perspectives that provide insight into characters that took a backseat in the original tale.       

Queene of Light

Queene of Light

By Jennifer Armintrout

What if we lived in a world where creatures of myth and fairy tales lived among mortals? This is the reality for those in Queene of Light, whose people have decided to push magical beings Underground, where they can be kept separate and hidden away. But beneath their city, factions are being created: the Lightworld of faeries, dragons, and dwarves and the Darkworld of vampires, werewolves, angels, and demons.

A Death Angel whose job is to harvest mortal souls targets a half-faery, half-human assassin, but when they finally meet, immortality disappears. As they are drawn increasingly closer together, they find that their fiery hatred for one another may be morphing into feelings far different, but just as immensely passionate.   

the bloody chamber

The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories

By Angela Carter

Author Angela Carter is a masterful storyteller who has influenced contemporary writers such as Neil Gaiman, David Mitchell, and Audrey Niffenegger. In this collection of reimagined fairy tales, one of which even inspired Neil Jordan’s 1984 film The Company of Wolves, readers will find feminist retellings that allow female protagonists to act as their own heroes and permit them to discover the power that can be derived from their sensuality and pleasure.

Tales such as “Little Red Riding Hood,” “Bluebeard” and “Beauty and the Beast” have been revisited and made brand new with Angela Carter’s unique, imaginative prose.       

The Girl in Red

The Girl in Red

By Christina Henry

Little Red Riding Hood has grown up in Christina Henry’s The Girl in Red, and rather than being a naïve, innocent young girl, she is a young woman who is capable, courageous, and knows her way around an axe. Luckily for her, she’s confident with a weapon because she’ll have to know how to protect herself to survive her perilous journey through the woods to her grandmother’s house.

If the wild, deadly predators who have made the woods their home aren’t enough of a threat, she will also have to be wary of men with dark intentions and of catching the sickness that has already decimated most of the population. This apocalyptic retelling, with a formidable female protagonist who has a prosthetic limb, is both an amazing representation of those with disabilities and an exhilarating tale of resiliency amid unimaginable hardship. 

how to be eaten

How to Be Eaten

By Maria Adelmann

Have you ever wondered what happens to fairy tale characters after they survive their horrid ordeals? What happened to Hansel and Gretel after they escaped captivity? What about Little Red, who almost ended up being a wolf’s meal? The usual assumption is that these protagonists lead perfectly normal lives and get to enjoy their “happily ever after” from then on. But don’t you think that surviving such harrowing events may leave characters with some emotional scars? In How to Be Eaten, author Maria Adelmann provides readers with a more realistic fate for these traumatized characters. 

Five women meet in a basement support group in New York to process the residual pain they feel from their past experiences. Bernice talks about her dating history, particularly that of a sadistic, blue-bearded billionaire; Ruby discusses how she was once eaten by a wolf, whose pelt she now wears proudly; Gretel delves into her memories of being held against her own will in a candy house; Ashlee expresses her disappointment over her not-so-happily-ever-after upon winning a Bachelor-esque dating show; and Raina’s story astounds everyone in the room. This darkly comedic, witty novel explores how media manipulation affects female trauma in a world that often blames victims and how connections and storytelling can eventually lead to healing.