Spoiler and Trigger Warning: discussions of a child’s death, violence, and generally telling you exactly what is going to happen in this book
The purview of fairy tales is to teach us lessons through a deep, abiding sense of horror. We know that the wicked never prosper because Cinderella’s stepmother had to dance in a pair of red-hot shoes and her stepsisters had their feet mutilated. We know that the greatest beauty is grotesque as shown by Snow White’s blood red lips, snow-white skin, coal black hair, and the fact that she is lusted after when she is yet a child. We know that children’s innocence and naiveté have an end date because the Big Bad Wolf (and other Big Bad Wolves) are constantly waiting to attack and defile the Little Red Riding Hoods of the world. And these are things that we know and know unquestioningly throughout our lives because of the fairy tales we read as children.
Beautiful Darkness is just one such fairy tale.
Beautiful Darkness is a graphic novel adapted from the story by Marie Pommepuy and Fabien Vehlmann and illustrated by Kerascoët. The fairy tale starts like most do: life is peaceful and idyllic for Aurora, her prince Hector, and her good, loyal friend Plim. Then, out of no where and against all fairy tale logic, something horrifying happens. The walls and ceiling drip and coalesce in great, red globs, forcing the trio to run, split up, and burrow through the ceiling into the rainy night. All around Aurora, other people are burrowing up from their home into the rain, grasping hands, cowering under leaves, crying, and abandoning ship. And that is when we learn that their home is actually the body of a dead little girl.
It does not get much better after this.
Dozens of little people pour from the dead girl’s body, but by the end of the book there is only one left: Aurora. However, the journey to her solitude is long and fraught with catastrophes. Forest creatures come during the night and carry off several of the little people. Many die from poisonous berries, mushrooms, and plants. Some are eaten by their friends. Some are simply killed by their friends. And as time goes on, their personalities harden, crystallizing into black-and-white perspectives. Aurora is endlessly helpful and cheerful and that makes her the victim of the others’ selfishness. Zelie the helpless princess becomes ruthless and commanding, foregoing any humanity to achieve her happily ever after. Jane the outsider runs further and further away from the others, doing whatever she can to survive and even thrive. Plim the loyal friend hitches her wagon to Zelie and becomes bossy and cruel, taking advantage of others to further her own position. And the poor little blonde one burrows deeper and deeper into the body of the dead girl, refusing to venture outside or adapt to her new situation.
The reader spends much of the book trying to figure out what’s going on. Who is the dead girl? What happened to her? Who are these little people? How did they get there? What is the point of their story? Why are they all so endlessly selfish and shortsighted? And who is this bearded man in the woods that all the little people – except for the pragmatic Jane – seem so attracted to?
While much of the story does seem disjointed, it gains greater clarity when you understand that the little people are faucets of the dead’s girl’s personality. In the opening sequence, we literally seem them coming out of her, pouring out of her eye, nose, mouth, and clothing. If they weren’t anthropomorphized faucets of her personality, then how did they get there? Where did they come from? How did they build lives with dresses, shoes, and dances inside her body? We are never told, and none of the little people seem to have lives before the moment of the great collapse. Most are childlike and helpless and utterly unable to cope with the outside world. Those that do succeed because they grow hard but most fall to the wayside.
Thus, this particular fairy tale doesn’t have a moral; rather, it contains a life lesson: when we die, our bodies will return to nature, leaving only the smallest, most essential spark of ourselves. Beautiful Darkness tells the story of how this happens. First, our consciousness exits our body, trying to find purchase in the world. Then nature comes for us, decomposing our body and scattering our spirit. The strongest pieces of our spirit seek out remnants of our past; in this case, the bearded man in the forest. They latch onto him, foregoing their own safety for some security. And then we fade away.
So who is the bearded man? While we are never explicitly told, we do receive some clues. He is a loner who lives in the forest and who knows where the dead girl’s body is but never tells anyone. He drinks, has a gun, and is capable of capturing, killing, and skinning wild animals. He has a broken toy doll in his home, despite the fact that there is nothing else in there suitable for a child. Jane both hates and fears him, but Aurora and Zelie, who are attracted to princes, seek him out and want to be with him.
The most logical explanation is that he had something to do with the girl’s death, especially if we’re going by fairy tale tropes and the one image we have of the girl when she was still alive. Our Sleeping Beauty goes to the woods to nap, possibly after having had a bad day at school, ditching it, or avoiding home. She wakes in the late afternoon and begins to stumble back and is stopped by something that makes her scream. Her scream echoes through her body, terrifying the blonde little person that refuses to leave her dead body. Who else could she have encountered but the bearded man? Did he lure her to his home? Did he assault her? Did he kill her and ditch her body in the woods, knowing that she was lost and no one would ever find her? But was he kind for a moment? Did he offer her honey, which is why Aurora thinks his hair smells like it? Did he smile at her and reassure her that everything would be okay, which is why both Zelie and Aurora call him their prince? Did he strangle her, which is why the dead girl’s body is so blue and why Jane hates the bearded man? And is that why all the living little people seek him out – because he is their last connection to life and the being who brought them to life?
If all of that is true, we’re back on familiar ground. We have a little girl who disobeys her parents and wanders into a dangerous area. She encounters a dangerous man, who momentarily tricks her. Then he violently and abruptly changes her life forever and all the other members of the fairy tale – the little people – must now try to find their own happy ending, forging their spirits through violence and disaster. That is something we can understand, even if it is brutal.
What makes Beautiful Darkness even more haunting is its beautiful and playful art style. Kerascoët utilizes simple watercolor drawings (long the medium of children’s books) and a bright, natural palette to create scenes of horror – a bird forcibly feeding a little person, a little person puffing up with a rash, a fly wing-covered princess burying someone alive, forest creatures attacking and carrying off people, and little Aurora plucking out a mouse’s eyes. The scenes would be disturbing in and of themselves, but their wide-eyed and childlike beauty help heighten their horror.
If you have made it through the end of the book, you will remember it for years. Whenever someone asks you what your favorite fairy tale is, you will remember it, even if it isn’t. When someone asks if you’ve read any good books lately, you’ll pause over it. When someone tries to say that graphic novels can only be about superheroes, you’ll immediately demure. You may not like Beautiful Darkness, and you may never want to read it again, but you will remember it, which means that this fairy tale has done its job.