“The Gingerbread Girl” by Stephen King is a long short story by American writer Stephen King. Find it in Just After Sunset (2008). King divided scenes into chapters. Each chapter has its own title: a creepy quotation from somewhere inside that chapter. I like the technique.
I also like the idea of turning a popular children’s fairy tale into the horror genre, and I think most all of them can be rewritten King-style! But how is that done? Which parts of classic fairytale pop up frequently in contemporary popular fiction?
VLADIMIR PROPP’S FUNCTIONS OF FAIRYTALE
In 1928 Vladimir Propp studied fairy tales and found 31 “functions“. Propp defines ‘function’ as an act of a character, understood from the point of view of its significance for the course of the action. He listed every single element that occurred across fairy tale, though not every one occurs in every single fairytale. However! Where they do occur, they tend to occur in the same order.
Propp’s work was translated into English much later in the century: Morphology of the Folktale (1968).
Since Stephen King has taken a fairy tale and converted it for the Stephen King horror universe, I thought it would be interesting to use Propp’s taxonomy and see which fairytale functions King has retained in a contemporary fairy tale re-visioning, and how he has modernised them.
Aside from its fairy tale roots, Stephen King’s “Gingerbread Girl” is not especially similar to “The Gingerbread Man”, so I won’t be doing a direct comparison. The main similarity is in fact running. Both are running from trauma. With “The Gingerbread Man” as palimpsest, readers will know the stakes, because the fairy tale does not exactly end well for The Gingerbread Man, comically snapped up by the greedy fox who offers to transport him across a river.
Here are Vladimir Propp’s 31 ‘functions’ (or plot points) of fairy tale:
- ABSENTATION: A family member leaves home.
- INTERDICTION: The main character is given an ‘interdiction’ or warning.
- VIOLATION: The main character doesn’t listen and fails to heed the warning.
- RECONNAISSANCE: The villain attempts to contact the main character and obtain information about them.
- DELIVERY: This is the part where the villain receives information about the intended victim. In a classic fairytale, this information may come from an unexpected source, e.g. from a normally inanimate object that busts out talking.
- TRICKERY: The villain fools the victim. This deception allows the villain to take possession of the victim and their belongings. Typically, the villain assumes a disguise. This might involve transmogrification. In fairytales, villains might try charm and persuasion, or they might go straight for magical means of deception.
- COMPLICITY: The victim is successfully deceived and unwittingly helps the villain. They might simply agree to go along with whatever the villain suggests. Rule of fairytale: Deceitful proposals are always accepted and fulfilled. Main characters might become mechanical at this point, succumbing to the magic, e.g. falling asleep via the magic potion.
- VILLAINY: At this point the villain causes harm or injury to a member of the family. Everything that has happened previously has been building up to this moment. The first seven functions of a fairytale lead to this eighth one. There is much variation in how villains cause harm to their victims, but many relate to theft. Turning the victim into an animal first is pretty common. Ordering someone thrown into the sea is also a pretty common crime. Villains often cause multiple harms at once. (Two or three.)
- LACK: One family member of a family lacks something or desires something. In this way, lack and need are inextricably linked. Modern storytellers use various terms to describe ‘lack’. You’ll hear ‘psychic wound’ and ‘ghost‘. However, in fairy tales, the lack or insufficiency is an external thing. For example, the main character lacks/needs a magical sabre or steed or something like that. In any case, this lack will provoke the quest. This part of the fairy tale may happen right at the start, and in contemporary stories, that’s where you’ll typically find it. Over the years, this part of a plot has shifted up. In fairy tales, the main character is either approached with a request and is now aware of the lack, or goes out to remedy the lack of their own accord.
- MEDIATION: Misfortune or lack is made known to the main character (who is either a Seeker or a Victim-hero). Joseph Campbell’s Call To Adventure. These guys (mostly masculo-coded) are called Seekers. Parents give their blessing to sons who go out into the world. The other type of main character is a ‘Victim-Hero’. Whereas a Seeker goes off to rescue someone else who is passive within the story (e.g. a damsel in distress), a Victim-hero is the star of their own fairy tale.
- COUNTERACTION: In a fairy tale starring a Seeker, this Seeker-hero decides upon counteraction. In other words, villainous plans require counterplans in order for there to be story-worthy conflict.
- DONOR TESTS THE MAIN CHARACTER: Donor means ‘provider’. The main character has been tested, and now receives a magical helper. Joseph Campbell talks about mentors. The difference is, donors can be fake allies as well as genuine helpers. This person is often a fairy godmother, or a talking animal/object who the main character has helped.
- MAIN CHARACTER REACTS: The main character either passes or fails the test. The fairytale main character is mostly very black and white in their response: They’re either very clearly not okay with the turn of events or very clearly fine with it. Rules of fairy tale: Heroes free captives, show mercy to supplicants and settle disputes.
- PROVISION OF MAGICAL AID: The main character has a magical agent such as an animal, ring containing a helper, weapon, musical instrument etc. A donor (provider) may have given it to them. Another common way to get yourself a magical animal: Obtain the power of an animal by turning yourself into that animal.
- TRANSFERENCE TO ANOTHER KINGDOM: The transference might be from one real-life setting to another, for instance from a poor house to a ball in a lavish castle. It might be to a vault underground or perhaps they are spirited away into the forest, which is basically a symbol for the unconscious, where all your deepest fears are realised.
- BATTLE: Main character and villain join in direct combat. In modern stories there is always a battle but it this battle takes all forms, including metaphorical. (I call it the big struggle.) The main character will come close to death, either actually or spiritually (possibly both).
- BRANDING: The main character is marked. In a fairy tale, this is a visible marker that the main character has changed. (Or, the mark is made in lieu of real change.)
- VICTORY: Main character defeats villain. In a fairy tale, heroes are not defeated. Fairytales are not tragedies.
- INITIAL MISFORTUNE IS REMEDIED: The spell is undone, lost treasure is found etc. This ties up the ‘external problem’ for the main character but not the internal problem, which is emotional.
- RETURN OF MAIN CHARACTER: The main character makes a start on returning home.
- PURSUIT OF MAIN CHARACTER: The main character has got the ‘treasure’ but someone is still after them. At this point there may be flying involved.
- RESCUE OF MAIN CHARACTER: Where the main character is female, enter the big, strong male ‘woodcutter’.
- UNRECOGNIZED RETURN OF MAIN CHARACTER: Sure, the main character has returned home but no one knows they’re a hero, yet!
- UNFOUNDED CLAIMS ARE PRESENTED BY A FALSE HERO: This baddie appears near the end of a story in order to claim to be the hero or heroine and is, therefore, usually of the same sex as the hero or heroine.
- ANOTHER DIFFICULT TASK IS PROPOSED TO THE MAIN CHARACTER: The main character has already successfully managed one task. But can they do it again?
- SOLUTION: The second difficult task isn’t supposed to take ages to complete.
- RECOGNITION OF MAIN CHARACTER: Not just the personal validation that a job was well done, but public recognition.
- EXPOSURE OF FALSE HERO/VILLAIN: The villain is unmasked.
- TRANSFIGURATION: The main character may already have a branding, but now they are given a whole new appearance which affords them prestige in their community.
- PUNISHMENT OF VILLAIN: In traditional fairy tales, the punishment will be in line with the misdemeanour, whatever that means for the society where the fairy tale is told.
- WEDDING: Guy gets the girl. Or maybe he gets back on his horse ready for another adventure. In traditional tales, the only happy ending for a woman is marriage.
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE GINGERBREAD GIRL”
SPHERE ONE: INTRODUCTION
In which Emmy is introduced as a Victim-Hero with a psychic wound of baby loss and a disintegrating life.
Emmy’s baby has died of sudden infant death syndrome so she takes up running marathon distances to cope with the pain of loss. This is Emmy’s ‘ghost‘ or ‘psychic wound’ — the trauma she brings with her at the beginning of the story. With woman characters, the thing ruining their life is very often the loss of a child. Note that in traditional fairy tale, this is plot point number nine, but in contemporary stories authors take it up to the top.
If we divide the main characters of fairy tale into two groups, Emmy is a so-called Victim-Hero. Femme-coded characters tend to be Victim-Heroes whereas masculo-coded heroes tend to be Seekers, who leave home in search of adventure and a reason to be a hero.
I have absolutely no doubt that Stephen King means this as a feminist re-visioning of fairy tale. The plot will show that Emmy saves herself without any help from anyone. Also, she is presented as a rational character, clearly and on the page, counterbalancing a long history of emotional femme-coded horror victims who collapse and scream, blithely entering spaces the audience knows to be lethal:
Even as her rational mind was telling her that was bullshit, the part of her that specialized in rationalization was nodding frantically.“Gingerbread Girl” by Stephen King
Emmy’s marriage breaks down. She decides to move to a key island off the coast of Florida in the Stephen King parallel universe. In Vermillion Key, her father lives nearby. Processing her loss, she continues to run along the beach for miles each day.
Then Deke Hollis turns up. Deke is an old fellow who runs the drawbridge between Vermillion and the mainland. He is friends with Emmy’s Dad and warns Emmy to steer clear of Jim Pickering. Pickering lives at number 366 (not so far from the devil’s number) and always has a different ‘niece’ with him (young, attractive women). He made his money in computers.
You have to wonder, why isn’t the community rallying round to put a stop to the old guy’s abuses. Actually, no wonder. This is a good example of a pre #MeToo milieu, where such abuses are considered tolerable, and where the onus is on women to protect their own damn selves.
The implied moral lesson: A young woman should not be running alone in this town.
Right after that, Emmy investigates something she shouldn’t.
She finds a dead body in the open trunk of Pickering’s Mercedes. The body has been stabbed. There’s blood and shit everywhere. At first she thinks it’s a movie prop.
Something hits her. She blacks out.
SPHERE TWO: THE BODY OF THE STORY
In which Emmy is abducted by a psychopath and has to get away
Next, Emmy finds herself bound up in Pickering’s house. He’s torturing her, threatening to cut out her eye-ball. (We don’t know what drives him. This guy is a Minotaur opponent. He’s bad for bad’s sake. A psychopath.)
‘To Em, he looked like he was trying to play creep-mouse with her. He also looked crazy.’“Gingerbread Girl” by Stephen King
For some reason he decides not to kill her then and there. He leaves the room. The storytelling reason for Pickering’s departure is clear: The pace slows right down as King describes Emmy’s attempt to escape in fine detail. Her strong legs push against the duct tape securing her to the chair. She hears a sucking noise as it lifts. Tension is sustained because at any moment the serial killer will re-enter the room.
In the next chapter, the escape attempt continues. Emmy has almost broken free when Pickering arrives home. There is a scuffle. The crazy guy gets mad because he falls against the fridge and hurts his head. Emmy thumps him good with the arm of her chair. Finally, she stabs him.
Emmy’s physical fitness has saved her. There’s no need for a masculine figure to enter the story.
Emmy explores the villains’ house. She finds photographs in his bedroom and so on. But Pickering’s not quite dead. He’s coming to get her. With him on the other side of a door, Emmy throws a piece of furniture through the window and escapes through the jagged hole.
In horror, villains are robotic. They’re almost impossible to kill because the keep coming back to life. (Comedic figures are also robotic, which is why horror can so easily slip into comedy.)
In Chapter 9 there’s a bit of back story about what a tom-boy Em had been as a girl. This comes in handy as she jumps ten feet to the patio from the window. Pickering appears above her but quickly disappears. He’s coming after her. She runs away. This is more of Vladimir Propp’s plot point number nine (the lack) but contemporary writers introduce it right at he beginning then revisit (partly in case we’ve forgotten, partly to add sympathetic detail).
SPHERE THREE: THE DONOR SEQUENCE
In which Emmy meets a potential helper but unfortunately he’s no help at all.
PURSUIT OF MAIN CHARACTER
At the beginning of Chapter 10 Emmy is still running. We’re not sure if this is continuous action or if there has been a time-jump to a more serene time. But after a few sentences we realise the villain is still chasing her. He chases her along the beach but she is fitter than he is.
Eventually Emmy meets a Latino kid who only speaks Spanish. Each of them try to explain in broken Spanish what’s going on. Unfortunately, the language barrier prevents this stranger from becoming Emmy’s fairytale donor (provider). The kid gets stabbed in the mouth.
King includes a nod to “The Gingerbread Man” fairy tale:
She tried as hard as she could and knew it wasn’t going to be enough. She could outrun an old lady, she could outrun an old man, she could outrun her poor sad husband, but she couldn’t outrun the mad bastard behind her.“Gingerbread Girl” by Stephen King
TRANSFERENCE TO ANOTHER KINGDOM
In fairy tale, the main character may be transferred from one real-life setting to another (e.g. from a poor house to a ball at a lavish castle). Or it might be to a vault underground. Perhaps they are spirited away to the forest (the symbolic subconscious).
Stephen King takes Emmy into the water. We could say all sorts of symbolic things about this decision. Characters who enter the water are frequently re-entering the womb in preparation for a rebirth.
Pickering is gradually being exposed as a man who was probably once formidable but who has aged out of his ability to overpower young women. This is actually very realistic. The most violent domestic abusers tend to calm down a bit around the age of forty, not because of any spiritual rebirth but because they can’t be bothered anymore. They get too sore. They’ve lost their massive strength advantage. Perhaps the young people in his home even match him in strength. By the time a man is 60 years old, he has the strength equivalent of a 21-year-old woman (talking averages here, of course).
Pickering almost dies chasing Emmy into the surf. But because he is a robotic horror villain he resurfaces just as she hopes he has drowned.
Finally he sinks with a glub. Emmy is happy and applauds.
A truncated section in which Emmy returns home, safe but forever changed. She receives no recognition for her bravery.
RETURN OF THE MAIN CHARACTER
King has made use of horror tropes all through this story, yet at the end, hopes to persuade us (for fun’s sake) that this is realism:
In a horror movie, Pickering would make one last stand: either come roaring out of the surf or be waiting for her, dripping but still his old lively self, in the bedroom closet when she got back. But this wasn’t a horror movie, it was her life.“Gingerbread Girl” by Stephen King
Emmy walks home.
The reader is invited to wonder what happened next and extrapolate our own endings to suit ourselves. Did the police contact her? Did she get back with her husband?
HOW DID STEPHEN KING MODERNISE THE FAIRYTALE FORM FOR A CONTEMPOARY AUDIENCE IN “GINGERBREAD GIRL”?
- Like almost all contemporary storytellers, King shows us Emmy’s psychological wound early in the story. In the first sentence, in fact. Many storytellers vaguely hint at trauma and explain it further down, which is actually in line with fairy tale because the ‘Lack’ is function number nine. Audiences don’t want to hear every bit of a character’s trauma up front. Just hint at it. Explain later. Launch into the action.
- Fairy tales take place in a separate, fairy tale realm but Stephen King is well-known for creating realistic American settings which sit in a parallel universe.
- Although Emmy starts out as your classic Victim-Hero, she saves herself. In a more subversive story than this, a femme-coded main character might think and feel her way out of a problem rather than relying on brute strength, which is still a masculine way of winning (and can only really work for women in a 5-10 year period of young adulthood, when women are typically at peak strength).
- Stephen King still needs a plot, though. So he takes the Donor sequence (or ‘sphere’ as Propp might say) and makes the guy unable to help his female main character.
- Audiences no longer have huge appetite for fully-fleshed Hero’s Return sequences, where the hero gets accolades. We don’t need to see people standing around clapping for Em. We should be doing the clapping (on the inside.) Audiences are also expected to fill in some gaps regarding what happens to Em next.