As someone who enjoys both fairy tales and horror stories, uncovering the darker side of popular folk and fairy tales fills me with a perverse sort of glee, almost a guilty pleasure. Here Comes a Chopper to Chop Off Your Head: The Dark Side of Childhood Rhymes and Stories is one of the more recent books on the market that tackles the “dark side” of traditional stories.
The book is divided into five main sections: “Sowing Superstition”, “Sex Education”, “History Lessons”, “Crime and Punishment”, and “Model Families”, each dealing with a particular theme in these stories and rhymes. The section on sex education covers stories which involve incest, chastity, and child marriage, while “History Lessons” is about corrupt monarchs and class issues. The chapter on model families, predictably, talks about the ubiquitous evil stepmother and child abandonment.
I would classify this book as more of a “coffee table” book, that is, a book you put on your coffee table for guests to look at and strike up a conversation (although unlike true coffee table books, it’s not large and isn’t full of pictures). Although the author does cite several old fairy tale treasuries and some notable writers on the subject, this is not an academic text by any means, and should be seen as more of a curiosity than an authority on the subject. Some of the origins the author posits for certain tales seem a little dubious to me, although, she does try to mention when theories regarding particular tales are dubious or have been debunked by scholars.
Otherwise, there’s not much new material here if you’re familiar with the subject matter already, although there are a couple of interesting variations of “Donkeyskin” that I’ve never heard of, as well as a bizarre version of “This Little Piggy Goes to Market”, you’ll still find “Bluebeard” and that one variant of “Little Red Riding Hood” that involves a striptease and cannibalism (seriously).
In terms of triggers, the book might as well be slapped with an “all the trigger warnings” tag: rape, murder, cannibalism, incest, particularly creative methods of execution, child abandonment, poverty and child labour, religious persecution, domestic abuse, I think you get the picture, and that’s just the major stuff I can remember. Tread carefully.
Honestly, I don’t know if I’d recommend this book. As I said, it’s a curiosity. If you can’t access the originals, it does quote from several 19th century fairy tale books, but it’s definitely not a scholarly book and should be taken with a grain of salt. If you’re interested in the topic, I would recommend Maria Tatar’s The Hard Facts of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, which was published by Princeton University Press.