The setting of Beautiful Darkness, the graphic fairy tale by Fabien Vehlmann and illustrator Kerascoët, is not a charming castle or faraway wonderland populated by anthropomorphic daydreams, but the corpse of a young girl. Struck down inexplicably in the book's opening panels, she is presented to us as a Tennelian cadaver laid out on the forest floor. The book's characters--small, toylike creatures in the girl's body--soon crawl from her mouth and nose and circle around her, blissfully unaware of what this means for them, or who she even is. (In fact, the cause of her death is never disclosed and, in a perverse way, it doesn't seem to matter.) Instead, they line up for bits of cookie, then disperse into the wild and unmapped brush around them, almost all of them lost in their own enchanted delusions.
Soon, they begin to die one by one, and in horrifying ways. One creature, desperate for food, climbs into the nest of a bird and sits among the hatchlings; when the mother-bird returns and prepares to regurgitate the morning's catch, her beak pierces the creature's tender organs, causing it to vomit blood before dying in the high branches. Another, even more famished, feasts on maggots from the corpse before crawling deep into her soft skull, where it finds shelter but is also haunted by the girl's own memories; eventually, the story drifts away from this creature, and we can only assume it dies within the bone-walls she has come to call her home. There is cannibalism, the torture of small animals, a live entombment, and a half-dozen other instances of nature's vicious indifference towards the small figures, who have gone from the warm protections of a child's anatomy to a cold, Darwinian world of predators and prey.
Throughout much of the story, this reality exists in spite of the blind optimism of its protagonist, a blond-haired girl named Aurora, who is borne of pure fairy-tale obligation: the wholesome daughter and watchful granddaughter, the princess-in-waiting, the sugar-toothed dreamer in a world of cynics and wickedness, the defining version of just what we've come to expect from Disneyfied bedtime stories. She is pre-ball Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty before the curse, Snow White before the apple has been bitten. She is Alice searching for her way into Wonderland, forever testing the balance between too large and too small, all without ever becoming frustrated when the equilibrium escapes her. Throughout much of the book Aurora works to keep order, once even arranging a party between her fellow creatures and some of the forest's wild animals--an attempt, she says, to encourage friendships between both parties, which ends in predictable failure. Soon, the others begin to take advantage of her, dismissing her attempts to adapt and using her goodwill to feed and shelter themselves.
This is, the author and illustrator tell us, the nature of humanity: we are selfish, cold-hearted animals fit to live among the rabid tail-and-claw underclass, and the fairy tales we tell ourselves and our children--the very same stories represented in Aurora's blond hair and sunny demeanor--are not only worthless but delusions in themselves. To create a story as graphic and cold as this one, and to populate it with small creatures the size and appearance of both toys and people, is to juxtapose the fantasies we have of ourselves--as veritable royalty, or of overlooked beauty awaiting the midnight carriage and glass slippers--with the truth behind our masks. The message of Beautiful Darkness--a contrast in itself, it could be argued--is that the behavior Aurora faces, even when she's exhausting herself to help others, is the same behavior we exhibit to one another, not just in times of hardship, but in all aspects of daily life.
In the end, Aurora--our bastion of morality and humanitarianism, this personification of our own fantastical ideas of ourselves, left standing alone among supposed degenerates--gives in to the darker angels of her nature and lashes out, first at a furry companion and then at those who wronged her time and again. She does so not around the girl's corpse, which has now rotted away into a heap of bones, but the warmth of a cottage--the home of a nameless woodsman whose shelves are littered with broken keepsakes, including a clock and child's doll. In a way, the authors might argue that in taking revenge, Aurora fulfills her destiny by becoming the harshest creature of all--by ripping away the mask of fantasy and embracing the ugliness beneath. And when she does, we smile...and we tell ourselves we're glad the villains got what was coming to them, even as those spinning this story know that we smile because the virtuous Aurora has joined our ranks. She has awoken from her slumber and joined the shadows of a much different and deeper sleep.
Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of this entire story, however, is that Aurora has not wandered far in order to find the woodman's cottage. Which means that, just a few dozen feet from his door, are the bones of that very young girl. Which begs the questions, did this man know her in life? Was he her father, or perhaps an older brother, or uncle? Why is it that this one man, so thoroughly involved in the wilderness beyond his front door, never once stumbled upon her body, or at least noticed the smell of rot in the forest air? And why would a man, so obviously alone, have a broken doll on his shelves when there is no evidence that he has children of his own? The question arises that, perhaps, this man is callous, or even ignorant. Or perhaps he knows she is there, that he is the one who felled her body as he might fell one of the surrounding trees. Or perhaps, in this world--this dark and honest anti-fantasy--we must live with the unknown, the mysterious, the unpursued. Perhaps it is time we accept that, sometimes, unhappily ever after is the best we can do.