Fausterella: Or, How to Mash Up Two Very Different Things
There’ll always be a special place in my heart for mash-ups. I love seeing the threads of two different stories come together to make something new, even if it seems like they won’t fit at first glance. It’s like pineapple on pizza (which is nice, don’t fight me) – both of the individual components have a slightly different flavour when you put them together.
But some mash-ups are more daunting than others. When I first had the idea for my debut novel, The Shadow in the Glass, I knew exactly what I wanted it to be: a cross between Doctor Faustus and Cinderella. This seemed like a great idea and I was very pleased with myself for a whole five minutes – but then I realised that I was actually going to have to make these two very different stories fit together.
My first port of call was Cinderella. Like many other people I’d grown up hearing versions of this story. It seemed like a sweet, simple tale of the good being rewarded and the wicked being punished – worlds away from selling souls in exchange for terrible power. But like many other fairy tales, there is darkness in Cinderella too. Fairy tales are full of manipulation, mutilation, and murder, and Cinderella is no exception. In many versions of the story, Cinderella’s fairy godmother is replaced with the bones of a dead cow, often a gift from Cinderella’s mother, that sometimes hauls itself out of the grave to answer Cinderella’s call. In the version told by the Brothers Grimm, Cinderella’s stepsisters slice off pieces of their own feet in an attempt to make the glass slipper fit, and their eyes are pecked out by birds as punishment. The version which stuck with me was the tale as told by Giambattista Basile, where Cinderella is tricked into killing her stepmother by the woman who becomes Stepmother #2. Good, kind, sweet Cinderella commits murder in the opening paragraphs, and as soon as I read them, I was fascinated. Lacing Cinderella with a certain amount of darkness didn’t seem quite so daunting once I realised that the darkness was already there.
Of course, if you’re looking for darkness, you’ll find plenty of it in Doctor Faustus. I’d expect nothing less, from a story about a demonic bargain. Faustus sells his soul in exchange for awesome power in the first act – and then, surprisingly, does very little with it. After a lot of grandiose speeches about making himself king of the world, Faustus spends the rest of the play travelling around, impressing nobles and occasionally pranking the Pope. Once his soul has been sold, he doesn’t really have all that many goals left to achieve – unlike Cinderella, who we know from the beginning of the story wants to go to the ball and get away from her stepmother and stepsisters. That was when I started to ask myself the question that became The Shadow in the Glass: what if, instead of waiting for her fairy godmother, Cinderella had been the one to make Faustus’s bargain?
Once I’d had that thought I couldn’t get it out of my head. I started seeing all kinds of similarities between the stories, but two really stood out. The first was the nature of bargains. Faustus’s bargain was clear: he had sold his soul in exchange for his magic. Cinderella’s bargain was a little more implicit: in exchange for her good behaviour, she had been rewarded with a handsome prince. That fairy godmother hadn’t just turned up out of the blue, after all, and in the versions of the story where the fairy godmother was replaced with the bones of a dead cow, the magical help that Cinderella received only came after years of looking after the calf. The second thing was the nature of Cinderella’s godmother and Faustus’s demon. Both were the catalysts that set their stories into motion, both possessed some degree of magical power, and both were kept shrouded in a certain amount of mystery. The more I thought about them, the more I realised they had in common – and the same was true for their respective stories. The two tales might not be shaped in exactly the same way, but when I realised that all I needed to do was make sure the fairy godmother had an agenda of her own, the pieces of the two stories fit together perfectly.
Doctor Faustus and Cinderella are two very different stories. But they have more in common than you might think, although you might not see it at first glance. When I started breaking down the stories into their common themes, the similarities became clear, and it got a lot easier to mesh the two together. I ended up with something which I hope will make readers look at both stories in a slightly different light – but if there’s one thing I’ve learned from writing my book, it’s that you should always be careful what you wish for…