By Allen Houston
In the beginning was the Void and then Satan created the Earth because, hey, he was bored and needed a good chuckle. At least that’s Jim Knipfel’s take in These Children Who Come At You With Knives his recent collection of deranged and twisted fairy tales.
Knipfel, a long-time former NY Press writer who penned the column Slackjaw, delves deep into the dark heart of the Brothers Grimm and the traditional fairy tale mythos and returns with a cast of characters that include a pissed-off gnome, a serial killer horse, a maggot in a red sombrero and the world’s crappiest snowman.
There is no happily ever after in these stories. But, there is a nodding wink to the chaos and randomness of our brief existence. Oh, and there are lots and lots of belly laughs.
Talking with Knipfel you get the sense that he’s the type of person who thrives on the strange and weird. You also get the sense that he wouldn’t have it any other way.
NYPress: This book is a departure for you. After writing three memoirs as well as novels, what got you in to the idea of writing short fiction/fairy tales?
Jim Knipfel: Back in 1997 I was, approached by a photographer friend, who had a knack for getting very strange commissions, brought to him by wealthy
eccentrics. He was hired by a New York Lawyer who had an enormous collection of sock monkeys. He hired my friend to do portraits of them, particularly 1940’s era Lana Turner style shots. Later, he decided to create a book from the photos and he asked me to write a brief bio on one of the photos.
The photo that he gave me to write about was of a microcephalic sock monkey wearing a Nehru jacket. I wrote the story and was very happy with it. A couple of months later I found out that the publisher had decided to publish the photos without the story. Instead of letting the story flounder I decided that the easiest way to publish it was to write 13 others. That story became Schotzie in the new collection. In the end, the whole thing was an accident.
Did you read a lot Brother’s Grimm, Hans Christian Anderson and other fairy tales as you were working on the book?
I did. I also grew up with my parents reading me a lot of fairy tales. I was lucky enough to be born at a time when parents would still read those particularly nasty fairy tales before the world became such a PC place. Those stories were brutal and terrifying and lead to my life long interest in horror movies and medical anomalies.
Many of those old fairy tales are replete with murder, incest, torture and other un-Disney like things. Were there any fairy tales that you read as kid so particularly awful that they stood out to you?
Two specific ones come to mind. Three Billy Goats was nightmare inducing. Eyes were gauged out, limbs were flying everywhere. It was terrifying. Another was Five Chinese Brothers. In that story, one of the brothers is charged with a crime and is going to be executed. What no one knows is that the brothers all have special powers. One has an iron neck, one has legs that stretch super long, one can withstand fire and so on. Every time they try and kill the brother one of his brothers swaps places with him and uses his special power to survive. What bothered me about the story was the idea that there was this family of human freaks with physically abnormalities walking around.
You also turn one of the oldest world creation stories upside down. In your telling Satan not God creates the world. And he really doesn’t appear to be too bad of a guy. He allows humans to do whatever they want with the caveat “But try not to be too much of a shit while you’re at it”. What were you aiming to do by flipping the creation story on its head?
The idea here is that we are living in this world without rules or morality and without reward or punishment for the deserving and sometimes the asshole wins and sometimes good people end up being destroyed. The idea that Satan wasn’t out to destroy us, that he just wants to be entertained comes from the Satanic Bible. I’m not a member but that’s where it comes from.
There are a lot of characters in the stories that believe they are special or destined for greatness, only to be beaten down by society or the randomness of life—Gerdie the chicken, Gerard the gnome and Slim from The Toothpick, come to mind.
One of the interesting things about fairy tales is how people believe there are moral lessons inside of them. That’s bullshit. There are no moral lessons unless you want to inflict one upon them. I dare people to go back and find a message in those old stories. What’s the meaning of Rumpelstiltskein or Sleeping Beauty? I have no idea
Stench, The Crappy Snowman, probably sums up the collection best to me. It’s the story of a snowman that comes to life and then realizes that living is…awful.
Stench is based on a true story. When I was 4 or 5 years old, I actually built Stench in my backyard. There wasn’t very much snow, so he was equally covered in mud and he had a dog turd for a nose and he was covered in cigarette butts. That was the saddest snowman that I ever built and that image has stuck with me over the years.
What kind of reaction has the book received so far?
All of the reviews have been shockingly positive which I was not expecting at all. The one person who didn’t like them was coming from such a perspective that the things that repulsed her about my stories, amused me. So there really wasn’t any winning her over.
What are you working on next?
I’m waiting on the edits for a novel that will come out next summer and I’m finishing up a couple of screenplays, and I still write my column, Slackjaw, every week at Electron Press.