“‘A bad fairy tale has some simple goddamn moral. A great fairy tale tells the truth.'”
The Changeling by Victor LaValle is a self-described (dark) fairy tale set in present-day New York City. I have always loved fairy tales — Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm, Mother Goose, Neil Gaiman, the comic book Fables — so I snatched this book up when it was released.
Make no mistake, this is no children’s story. Originally, fairy tales were stories shared by adults and concerned adult anxieties. Stories about changelings, for example, expressed the worst fears of parents: an inability to protect their children, something being wrong with their children, or inadvertently doing something to endanger their children. This book carries on the tradition of that type of story into the present-day Internet age.
However, the style of the book is not simply that of a traditional fairy tale set in modern times. The book is actually a combination of genres: horror, fantasy, psychological thriller, and social commentary. What does that mean? I acknowledge that vague description isn’t very informative. After all, there are a lot of different types of horror, fantasy, psychological thrillers, and social commentaries. The conundrum is that to reveal further details risks spoiling at least some of the narrative. Some reviewers have gotten around this catch-22 by naming combinations of other works that approximate the feel of The Changeling. If I were to play that game, I would say that The Changeling basically reads like 1970s-era Stephen King (but not as scary) mixed with a Dennis Lehane thriller (but with less richly drawn characters) mixed with the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (but not as witty) mixed with American Gods (but not as creative) mixed with a decent episode of Black-ish (but not as funny) mixed with Black Mirror (but more grounded). It’s a fun game to play, but I doubt the comparison is all that useful or accurate, based as it is on my own feelings and memories of so many other things. It’s probably most accurate to say that The Changeling is its own kind of thing. Of course, that doesn’t help someone with limited funds and time decide whether or not to invest them in this book.
So, if comparisons aren’t much help, let us focus on the basic components of The Changeling itself. The book is pretty damn creepy with occasional bits of bloody violence. It’s easy to read. The language is clear, sometimes clever, occasionally beautiful. The plot is easy to follow, but it does take a while to really get going. There are subtle Easter eggs for the folklore experts, but prior knowledge of folktales is not a requirement for enjoyment. The author makes some important points regarding the dangers present in the modern world.
The problem is that the author is pretty heavy-handed about those points. The book would have benefited from a bit more subtext rather than explicit…text. Other negatives include thin characterizations and a plot that is overloaded with info dumps. These are the reasons that I did not love the The Changeling.
I did really like it, though. If you are in the mood for something original that provides thrills, sadness, and fear, I would recommend you try it out. Avoid it if you’re a genre purist or looking for a detailed character study.
Rating: 4 stars