There’s always a woods in European fairy tales; a woods and a wall and a wizard and a wicked queen. There’s a pauper who falls in love with royalty and discovers they, too, were of royal blood all along. There’s an orphan and a giant (or an ogre) and some magic beans (or berries or baubles) and a bargain with a witch or a dying king. Sometimes there’s a wolf, and sometimes the wolf can talk. And there are plenty of goats and horses and unicorns and rogues and thieves and black knights and pirates; and the magic is always too big and the paths in the woods are too well-travelled and the waters of the lakes are far too blessed to be believed.
European fairy tales don’t work for the American midwest; the accents are all wrong, among other things, and the plot never thickens quite right in the humidity of our second summers.
There can still be a woods in our stories, but every path should be murky and dark and it shouldn’t make any damn difference which way you go— you’ll stumble and scrape your elbows and knees no matter what. And there are no “haunted woods” here, not in contrast anyway, because they’re all haunted where I’m from, with trees that move when you’re not watching and things that still live in the bluffs and darkness. The woods are not meant for us.
We’ll keep the woods, but we’ll have no witches living deep within them. We still have the huntsmen, I guess (looking rugged and wild and living “off the grid”, ready to cut out your tongue or offer you theirs), but the witches are strictly of an in-town variety here in the heartland. Our witches’ cottages aren’t hidden, either, but clear and apparent, staples of the community— ramshackle foursquares with low metal fences and crumbling porches, sitting just at the end of the block. Spinster sisters who put out the best holiday decorations but have no more kin to care for them; our witches and our evil queens can be hard to tell apart— but remember, it’s the queens who own the land and the banks and threaten your lease and livelihood. The witches have so much more than trifles to teach us, but we won’t listen; powerful women will always be ignored over here.
The woods are never safe, but neither are the fields— the miles of corn and soybeans, our own version of a bog of eternal sadness— seas of woe and rust, swallowing entire towns. Our wolves don’t talk because they’re too busy snarling, hungry and skinny, and they’ve taken to walking on two legs like people— Dogmen of Missouri, Beasts of Western Kentucky— because in our fables the natural isn’t merely subdued but subsumed.
We’ve already traded the wizard for the mad scientist, but somewhere along the way that scientist got mixed in with the dying king and out popped the Tech Guru (ew.). And as with the wizards they claim to know the ineffable and as with the kings they rule by dictum, but there are no bargains with tech gurus, only blood pacts we sign unwillingly and inescapably, and we get very little in return. There must be some vampire in them, as well. And then we traded old magic for big data, but I’m not sure there’s any connection, except that the new magic doesn’t think of itself as magic so the acolytes’ beliefs in their rituals and fetishes only makes the world duller, replacing the fantastical with the mundane, stirring an orgy of beige and gray and lifeless green.
In this fairy’s tales, the pauper can never be a secret prince because we claim we don’t have royal blood anymore, but we do, and princes can afford several of whatever we’ll never get ahold of (like a house or a horse or a good healthcare plan), and we aren’t even offered magic beans for our cow, she’s just taken from us when we can’t pay, ground down and fed to her sisters. Likewise, the orphans and ogres stay who they are—misunderstood only-children, optimistic and anxious— finding salvation in constancy rather than quests, dreadfully aware of the consequences of their birth. If Jack— or maybe his name should be Josh for our audience— stole a goose, he’d be shot before the first golden egg hit the ground.
Fairy tale tropes for a midwestern gothic are tantalizingly familiar, and when I think of home I see them all, their archetypes and allegories, characters we connect with in a malaise not beyond a garden wall, but right here, with us— in a place of enervated belief and heuristic magic.