A collection of dark fairytales from the world of The Hazel Wood, Melissa Albert’s Tales from the Hinterland has a horror story for every kind of reader.
Melissa Albert’s pair of dark YA novels, The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, told the story of Alice Proserpine, a young girl searching for her missing mother who discovers she shares a strange connection with a book of dark fairytales written by her grandmother, which focused on a strange realm known as the Hinterland.
(Not for nothing, but I’d read an entire book about these other Stories – their lives, their histories and their relationships with one another. Albert has a gift for making these fairytales feel somehow familiar and utterly alien at once.)
And, well, I got my wish.
Tales from the Hinterland is that book about those other stories, the dark fairytale tome compiled by Alice’s grandmother which became a cult hint to people like Ellory Finch now come to life for readers in our world. It’s filled with strange, creepy stories featuring characters readers of Albert’s previous works will recognize, along with horrifying new tales filled with blood, revenge, and women who want more than what they’re offered by both life and fate.
Many of them meet tragic or terrifying ends, but all of their stories are compelling ones and will satisfy any reader hungry for some magic in this cold, dark winter.
Here’s an attempt to rank these dark tales, from my personal most to least favorite. (Though, to be fair, they’re all compelling and fun reads in their own ways.)
Fans who have read The Night Country will find this story familiar as it also appears there. Sort of. In Albert’s novel, the tale is told by Ilsa herself, and it lands differently quite a bit differently here, thanks to the distance provided by an omniscient storyteller.
It is still equal parts tragedy and horror, a young girl asked to bear too much who finally decides that she can bear no more. Her attempt to take things – even death itself – into her own hands is both heroic and haunting, and Isla is a monstrously tragic figure who ultimately becomes that which she would destroy.
The Clockwork Bride
There’s just something entirely scary about clockwork toys – the ways they move on their own and often look alive, even when they aren’t. Full of living tin soldiers, dancing ballet figures and toy rabbits, there’s a lot that’s deeply creepy about this story, and that’s before a young girl has to promise her future daughter in marriage to a monstrous toymaker in order to save her brother’s life.
Yet, that future daughter is precisely the sort of heroine that Albert is best at writing – one who doesn’t accept her fate, who wants to belong to herself alone, and who becomes something entirely other in order to avoid doing otherwise.
The Skinned Maiden
One of the darkest of the Tales from the Hinterland’s offerings, this story follows an unwed prince who discovers a magical woman who exists inside a bearskin. When she rejects his offer of marriage, he steals her skin and things get bloodier and deadlier from there.
This is the grisliest of Albert’s tales, involving everything from blood and body horror, to imprisonment and assault. It’s also one of the most cathartic, in the end.
The Sea Cellar
A story of an elder daughter gambled away to a mysterious house so that the rest of her family may prosper, this is the Tales from the Hinterland story that has stuck with me the longest. The house, you see, is a lodestone for missing girls, as dozens go in and never come out.
The younger daughter, determined to find out what happened to her sister, decides to offer herself to the house so that she can discover the truth. A haunting story about the things we’re willing to sacrifice.
If you want to sample Tales from the Hinterland before committing to the entire book, you can actually read the entirety of “Twice-Killed Katherine” over at Tor.com right now.
This story is another that will be familiar to those who read The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, but it’s still a twisty, lyrical ride about the illegitimate daughter of an enchanter who dies but does not stop living and the tragedies that come afterward.
The Mother and the Dagger
A story about wanting something with all your heart and cheating your way out of a bargain you made to get it, “The Mother and the Dagger” is dark with a capital D. In it, a queen from a land of magic marries the king of a land that despises it, and things get messy when she turns to the forbidden arts to help her conceive the child she’s so desperate for.
Unfortunately, when she refuses to follow the rules of a deal she made with a dark witch, monstrous consequences follow. A story of lost children, singing bones, and the frightening old woman who lives in the woods – though which of those things you’ll find more distubring will be up to you.
The Door That Wasn’t There
The first installment in Tales from the Hinterland, “The Door That Wasn’t There” sets the tone for all the stories that follow it.
Dark, desperate, and very bloody, this tale follows the tale of two sisters who are locked in a room by their wicked stepmother and the lengths to which they will go – and the lives they’ll take – to get out of it.
Hansa the Traveler
“Hansa the Traveler” is probably the prettiest of the stories in Tales from the Hinterland and one of the few that has something like a happy ending. (For a given definition of “happy,” of course.) Hansa is another character who will be familiar to readers of Albert’s other works, and the bittersweet story here makes her fate in those books feel all the more tragic.
In short: This is the tale of a daughter of the moon who sneaks from her grandmother’s cottage to sail to the end of the world and find her mother, a star.
Death and the Woodwife
A princess born from grief and thorns catches the eye of Death’s heir and she must use her wits along with her mother’s unusual gifts to outwit him and free herself. One of the only stories in this collection to have a fairly happy ending or something like one.
The opening segment of this story is positively haunting – a mini tale about a queen who watches all of her children die only to build a massive thorn-filled monument to them – and so weirdly tragic it almost overshadows the rest of it.
The House Under the Stairwell
In what feels like Albert’s spin on the Brother’s Grimm’s Twelve Dancing Princesses, this story follows three sisters who complete a ritual that causes dreams which will show them the man they’ll marry.
But for one sister, her promised prince is a nightmare, a lion in a mask that is determined to claim her, as he has many women before her, and use her blood to keep his magical realm alive.
Readers of Albert’s other works will also know quite a bit about the story of Alice Three-Times, as it appears in pieces in both The Hazel Wood and The Night Country.
A child born with all-black eyes, grows up three times in her life and seeks revenge on all who wronged her. Yet the much-vaunted ending to Alice’s tale readers have long been expecting and which we finally see here is something of a damp squib and the story ends in a foreboding, but somehow all too predictable way.
Jenny and the Night Women
While this story is well written, it’s also the installment in Tales from the Hinterland that features the most unlikeable protagonist. Which, is fine, none of the women in these stories are exactly traditional heroines, but it’s very difficult to care what, exactly, happens to Jenny when the story itself repeatedly underlines what a bad person and general lost cause she is.
That said, the concept of the Night Women is terrifying, and the grisly details of the story, which see Jenny get precisely what she wished for and immediately regret it, are both shocking and beautifully written.
Tales from the Hinterland is available now. Let us know if you add it to your January reading list – and what your favorite of its stories is!