Seanan McGuire (seanan_mcguire) wrote,
Seanan McGuire

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The Three Sisters: Fantasy, Horror, and Marchen.

As an urban fantasy author who grew up on a steady diet of fairy tales, horror movies, Disney princesses, Victorian Gothics, and other seeming contradictory influences, I'm pretty regularly asked "Well, can't you just make up your mind?" Unicorns aren't supposed to gore you; werewolves aren't supposed to save the day. Horror and fantasy aren't meant to exist on the same shelf, much less in the same story. And to this I say...

Once upon a time.

Once upon a time, there were three sisters, living in...well, not harmony, exactly, but living in the sort of uneasy cease-fire that comes naturally to a lot of siblings. Horror—we'll call her Rose Red, in honor of the color she tends to paint the landscape behind her—thought that her sisters played too nicely with their toys. They never stopped to smell the entrails. Fantasy, on the other hand—and let's call her Snow White, since that's a nice, familiar, fantasy name—wondered why Rose had to be so nasty all the time, and why her sisters couldn't see the virtue of sugar and spice and sleeping for a hundred years beneath the fairy hills. Meanwhile, stuck in the middle of it all, you had their poor sister Marchen—arguably the eldest, and somehow always the first to be forgotten—trying to hold it all together. We'll call her Lily Fair (and there's a reason for that), and she was constantly trying to strike a balance between the other two, or at least keep them from killing each other, because Lily understood something that people still have trouble with today: Lily understood that they were all telling the same story.

Sure, Rose's stories tended to wreak havoc on the poor woodland creatures, while Snow's tended to result in an unbearable overabundance of talking rabbits; sure, Lily's stories almost always came with morals, while the other two were perfectly content to just let a haunted castle be a haunted castle; but they were all sides of the same basic human need to imagine something more. Marchen contained all the horror and all the fantasy that anybody could want, and as long as Lily was in charge of that weird little trio, things held together.

But then, well, things changed. Marchen was reduced, cleansed and simplified, becoming "fairy tales" and getting regulated to the nursery, where they were taught alongside Mother Goose and her kin. The Fair Folk of the old stories began transforming into the Tinker Belles and Hot Topic decals of today. Little Red Riding Hood lived. Cinderella's sisters kept their eyes. And bit by bit, Lily lost control. Quite literally—the name "Lily Fair" isn't just a casual invention, but takes its source from the same tradition that gives us Rose and Snow. How many people have heard the story that it comes from? Not many. Like so many other stories that mixed the horrific with the fantastic, the tale that Lily came from was left behind when the decision was made to turn the darkest stories into tales for children.

Without Lily to provide balance and keep them together, Rose and Snow began rapidly drifting apart. While there were elements of horror in fantasy—Shelob, anyone?—they were reduced to the merely monstrous, becoming things for the glorious light to overcome, often to the strains of a gallant harper's jaunty airs. Meanwhile, while there might be fantasy in the horrific—even Frankenstein dreams of better things while making his monster, much as he'll later come to regret that particular plan—it became more and more fleeting, used to taunt the doomed while dragging them deeper down into the pit. Rose and Snow stopped speaking to one another. They didn't even exchange birthday cards anymore. And no one mentioned Lily, because who wants to go through that again?

And they all lived miserably ever after.

Only not, because "man" and "magpie" share letters for a reason. We never really let go of the older, twistier stories; we just put them on shelves for a little while, until we could figure out what to do with them. How to make the a functional part of our world again. Bit by bit, we've been rediscovering those old paths, and realizing that fairy tales really were urban fantasy, as we currently define it. "Fantasy set in what is essentially the real world, mingling with real people, in real situations." Well, once upon a time, "the real world" wasn't a city, it was a big, scary wood where there might be wolves, or robbers, or any one of a thousand other things. "Real people" weren't businessmen and police, they were woodcutters and tinkers and little old women whose granddaughters brought them baskets full of goodies. The world changed, the stories moved on...but the roots remained.

I see the current trend toward urban fantasy as, in some ways, the resurrection of Lily Fair. We always needed her; we always needed that middle ground, where the monsters and the fairy godmothers could get together and work out their problems without worrying about the curtains (they're stain-proof) or what the neighbors will think (they're all enchanted princes, anyway). Urban fantasy gives us that, and more, because it makes the trio whole again. I have made up my mind, thank you very much. I've decided to be a daughter of Lily Fair, who might not be as sweet, and might not be as sour, but is never, never boring.

This time, I think we're shooting for the happy ending.

(Originally posted as a guest blog for
Tags: contemplation, folklore is awesome
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