From reimagined fairy tales and folklore to updated versions of public domain books, horror retellings are always in style. Peruse a shelf in a library or bookstore, and you’ll find the titles instantly. The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein by Kiersten White. The Merry Spinster by Daniel M. Lavery. Through the Woods by Emily Carroll.
So what is it about these retellings that draw us in again and again? To be sure, there’s the familiarity. It’s almost like comfort food of the literary world: we can settle into a story and already have an idea of where it’s going. That can be a benefit both to the storyteller and the reader—because everyone presumably knows the basics, you don’t need to spend a tremendous amount of time with backstory. Instead, you can delve right into the heart of the story.
And what about the heart of a retelling? What does it mean to retell a story in the first place? How far can it stray from its source and still call itself an iteration of that same story? For me, that answer is simple: it can stray as far as it wants, especially if, by altering that source material, it helps us to explore a new aspect of the story that hasn’t been examined before.
Traditional vs. subversive horror retellings
Now there’s nothing wrong with a traditional retelling. There are plenty out there, and they can be a lot of fun. But I’ve always preferred the retellings that do something truly transformative with the material. After all, we already have the original story—why do we need it to be regurgitated to us? The retellings that have stuck with me as a reader are the ones that go a step beyond the source material, examining the familiar tale in ways that can both expand or entirely subvert the original.
As a storyteller, I approach it in much the same way. In my novel, Reluctant Immortals, I not only wanted to give the characters of Lucy Westenra from Dracula and Bertha Antoinetta Mason from Jane Eyre a chance to tell their side of their stories, but I also wanted to delve into what it means to be the characters that are left behind, the ones that are usually sidelined in favor of the more traditional heroines. This is a recurring problem with many of my favorite gothic stories—seeing the more daring women killed off before their time—and because it had irked me ever since I was a kid, it felt like the right way to craft my own retelling.
Classic horror retellings
Fortunately, I didn’t have to look far for inspiration. Horror has long been a haven for clever retellings. If you want a place to start, look no further than Angela Carter. She was without a doubt a genius of reinvention. In The Bloody Chamber, she subverts all expectations by rewriting fairy tales, including Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, and Beauty and the Beast, and transforming them into far more than the sum of their parts. Her versions of these tales are at once dark and strange and dripping with some of the most beautiful and fearsome prose ever put to the page. She knows these are familiar stories. They’re ones that many of us grew up loving. However, these tales simply didn’t include all of us. For Carter, the lack of female agency and perspective was a criminal oversight and one that she went about correcting with aplomb.
The Bloody Chamber
Modern horror retellings
As we move further into the twenty-first century, retellings are fortunately alive and well. In her debut novel, Wendy, Darling, from Titan Books, A.C. Wise retools the story of Peter Pan into a darkly fantastical world that centers the narrative in a feminist way by focusing on the character of Wendy and how there’s a strain of toxic masculinity in the original tale. In the book’s follow-up Hooked, which was released earlier this summer, she explores the backstory of Captain Hook from a queer perspective, and of course, knocks it out of the park once again.
Gothic classics are fertile ground for reworking. In their forthcoming novel, Unwieldy Creatures, Addie Tsai reimagines the story of Frankenstein with a gender-swapped biracial doctor and a nonbinary creation, all while dealing with themes of loss and love. This is such a wholly fresh reinterpretation of the source material, a concept that’s breathtaking in its originality.
We need stories like this. We need these new perspectives, because at the end of the day, we’re all part of this wonderful experiment of literature. As writers, we’re all building on what came before in our own unique way, and these retellings help us to discover and tease out new life from beloved tales.
As horror fans, many of us know what it’s like to not be seen. To be disregarded. To be forgotten. That’s one of the things that draws us to the genre, because horror embraces the outsider. And even though the traditional narratives often don’t include many of us, that doesn’t mean we can’t change that. Through retelling our genre’s well-worn stories, we find a way to put ourselves at the center of these tales, to explore who we are and the parts of ourselves that have long been missing from literature. These stories help us face every bit of danger and darkness in the world, whether that peril manifests itself in the guise of a phantom or in the form of xenophobia.
This is perhaps the greatest power of a retelling—they offer us a chance to remedy the omissions of the past and to see ourselves as we’ve always been: as real people who are alive and breathing and no longer invisible.