Never Afters Story Notes (Part 5): By the Moon’s Good Grace

This is the fifth of six posts concerning my Never Afters novella series, published by Brain Jar Press in 2022. Each title re-visions a well-known fairy tale, originally written as the creative component of my PhD thesis. Dark, powerful, and brimming with magic, the Never Afters tales weave a world in which the fairy-tale girls grow up to find both love and heartbreak, family and friendship, loss and forgiveness.

Cover of By the Moon's Good Grace by Kirstyn McDermott. The illustration is of a howling black wolf against a red background.

Women. Girls. In fairy tales, they often become problems for each other, rather than partners in problem solving. In writing my Never Afters tales I wanted to investigate and illuminate the possibilities of female collaboration and friendship within fairy-tale narratives. There is complexity and depth to be mined in such relationships, in contrast to the tempting simplicity of unexamined antagonism. There is, importantly for the girls and women within the tales, for the girls and women who read them, who write them, immense personal and political value.

“By the Moon’s Good Grace” was the first Never Afters story I wrote and it draws from the tale-cycle commonly known as “Little Red Riding Hood”. The first literary version of this story was written by Charles Perrault in 1697, and although he was undoubtedly influenced by earlier oral traditions, he was the first teller to attach the colour red to the tale, possibly for its sinful connotations. In 1812, the Brothers Grimm included their own version – “Little Red Cap” – in their now famous collection of folktales, revising and sanitising it in later editions so that by 1857 the “wolf” was referred to only as an “old sinner”. As fairy-tale scholar Sandra Beckett convincingly argues, there is no fairy tale that has been reinterpreted, recontextualised and retold as much as Little Red Riding Hood nor one that has attracted such a wealth of criticism and commentary. Creating my own re-visioning of the tale, as you can imagine, was no small challenge.

Little Red Riding Hood by Warwick Goble. Illustration of a girl in a red hooded cloak being greeted by a wolf.

Conceptually, “By the Moon’s Good Grace” began with an image. A girl crouching in a riverbed, scooping rocks out of the belly of a dead wolf. A girl crawling inside the belly, inside the skin, and becoming a wolf herself. The solidity of stone, the fluidity of water, the vitality of the beast. A werewolf of sorts. (Like many of new initial inspirations, this never quite made it into the final version of the tale.) Of the many, many illustrations of Little Red Riding Hood, it is this one by Warwick Goble that I kept pinned to my desk, which in turn kept me pinned to the story. A girl on the cusp of adolescence, wearing a flowing red cape. She seems unafraid of the wolf and the wolf, in turn, does not appear menacing. It appears interested. Solicitous, even submissive. The girl almost seems to recognise the wolf, to recognise a possible connection with the creature. Or, at least, that’s what I saw. And with this recognition – hers and mine – my story shifted.

Thoughts about werewolves, thoughts about wolves, led me away from motifs of infection, bites, aggression. Away from metaphors of rape and sexual violence, of female sexuality and punishment for expression of such – themes which form the backbone of the Little Red Riding Hood tale in its earlier forms and in many later retellings. These are fine themes to explore, and Little Red Riding Hood is a more than suitable vehicle, but I suspected the tale has more to give. Pondering my lines of research, I realised this story needs to be one about kinship. About mothers and daughters, grandmothers and aunts, about how women pass vital information down to each other through familial lines, how they protect each other. My werewolves – my Wolves as I simply call them – needed to be family.

I am constantly surprised by the fruits my creative process delivers. Much of my “writing” is done in my head. I conceptualise, work and rework, run down paths, retreat and retread, and generally worry at a story for a significant length of time before actually sitting down to begin composition. I need to feel a sense of the piece, a tone and thematic purpose, and to find a clear direction before I start. This process continues throughout; when not physically writing, I’m constantly constructing the story in my head. Winnowing what I’ve already written, planning revisions, deciding where I need to go next. Deciding precisely what it is the story needs to say.

Almost on a whim, I decided to spend a day researching real-life wolves, to see if I could negotiate around the concept of the “Alpha male” and pack hierarchies in what is female-centred story. To my delight, I discovered that what we think we know about wolves is wrong. Most 20th century studies into dominance structures in wolf packs were based around wolves in captivity, where disparate individuals are forced into pack formation and must learn to construct artificial hierarchies. In the wild, researchers over the last couple of decades have discovered, wolf packs are familial. The so-called “alpha male and alpha female” are leaders of their pack by simple virtue of the fact that they are, essentially, mum and dad. Wild wolves are familial. My Wolves are familial. This folded so elegantly into my creative work, so significantly changed its flow, that I could scarcely believe the truth of it. At last I knew where the story was headed and precisely what it wanted to be. All I needed to do was follow its path.

The night after the tumultuous events at her grandmother’s house, Little Red ventures into the woods to find her missing grandmother. Instead, she discovers a stranger who claims to be her aunt … and learns a startling secret. Her family are wolves, changing form in phase with the moon, and the beast slain in grandmother’s cottage means she’ll not be home again.

With the full moon overhead, Red learns she can undergo the change herself, but life as a wolf is not so easy as it might appear. The villagers distrust fanged beast and fell magic in equal measure, and every transformation places her family in peril. The secret her grandmother kept close could now bring death to her mother, her aunt, and even Red herself. There are paths that need to be chosen, and no decision will come without sacrifice.

By the Moon’s Good Grace will be released on 25 October 2022 and is available for pre-order now from Brain Jar Press.

You can also subscribe to the Never Afters series and get each chapbook delivered monthly and at a discount.

Or you can also purchase from the following outlets:

Apple Books
Barnes & Noble
Google Play
Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon AUS
Amazon CA
Amazon DE
Books2Read (Covers All Ebook Retailers)

The other posts in this series can be found here:
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 1): Burnt Sugar
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 2): The New Wife
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 3): After Midnight
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 4): Braid
Never Afters Story Notes (Part 6): Winterbloom