I wanted to write about the dehumanization of people who are different and about the oppression of conformity. I wanted to write about a shapeshifting fey monster that was mysterious, intimidating, and dangerous, but I wanted most of the evil in the story to come from human beings— the same way it does in real life.
Strangers With Faces You Know
In “The New Mother,” an 1882 children’s story by Lucy Clifford, sisters Blue Eyes and Turkey are warned that if they do not stop misbehaving, their mother will abandon them and leave in her stead the titular “new mother,” a quasi-mechanical being with glass eyes and a wooden tail that thumps on the floor. Inevitably, this comes to pass, though the story ends before the reader learns anything further about what the new mother is, where she comes from, whether she is there to harm the children or merely to act as a subpar, uncanny replacement guardian while their original mother escapes her naughty offspring.
I don’t know exactly where or when I first read this story. I was probably five or six, and I seem to remember encountering it in a library book, alone. The story has been reprinted numerous times over the past 140 years, in some cases with illustrations, but the version I read didn’t have any pictures. What grabbed me about it, what scared me and made it stick in my mind, was the vagueness, the unanswered questions. It was clear that the new mother wasn’t human, but then, what was she? Did she look like the old mother, apart from the glass eyes and wooden tail? Was she entirely different, perhaps nothing like a woman or a person at all? I couldn’t form a clear mental image of her, but the specificity of that wooden tail thumping on the floor wouldn’t let me forget her, either. I felt like I could hear it, an irregular and hollow percussion.
That was my first encounter with one of my favorite subgenres of horror: stories of changelings and other inhuman substitutes. Whether the imposter figure is a fairy, an alien, a robot, or something else altogether, these books, movies, and myths speak to a complicated tangle of interpersonal anxieties.
On one hand, obviously, there’s the fear of the familiar stranger. You think you know your siblings, your parents, your friends, your spouse, but there’s always the chance you’re wrong. Like a child following their dad around in a store who suddenly sees their dad already in the checkout aisle and realizes they’ve actually been following a complete stranger who sort of resembles their dad from the back, one might at any moment have the security and comfort of knowing someone ripped away by a revelation, by a perceptual shift. In a moment, the people closest to you can become ciphers. You can no longer be sure what they mean to you, what you mean to them, what they’ll do to you.
On top of this, there’s the fear of perceiving a threat, an intrusion, and not being believed when you try to alert others. In the older changeling stories, this is usually less of an issue— the possibility of a replacement is taken for granted in the world of the fiction, treated as both matter-of-fact and serious. But more modern iterations, like The Stepford Wives and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, often spend a good deal of narrative time on characters’ efforts to convince the people around them that something is wrong. They’re brushed off at every turn, whether because of a town-wide conspiracy (as in Stepford) or because the force replicating people is extremely subtle and clever (as in Body Snatchers). These dismissals play heavily on the ways real people, especially women and children, are brushed off when they try to report that those close to them aren’t acting the way they should, that something at home is dangerous.
Why are you afraid of a family member? You love her, right, and you know that she loves you?
Gosh, are you sure? Him? Maybe you misunderstood something. Maybe you’re overreacting. Maybe you’re hysterical.
Alongside these fears, there is the history of European fairy changeling stories as an explanation for, and a way to dehumanize, people with disabilities. Your child won’t make eye contact or speak? That’s not your real child, that’s a changeling. Your wife’s gentle personality seems to have changed for the worse after a blow to the head, and she’s having trouble doing the housework she used to? Again, not your wife, but a changeling. For centuries, many people genuinely and literally believed in these fairy replacements. They sometimes tortured, neglected, or even killed suspected changelings. If you are a disabled reader or writer, it’s impossible to engage with this subgenre of horror and not feel sympathy for changeling characters, if only based on that dark legacy.
Fortunately, modern iterations on the theme have mostly moved away from the disability metaphor (or, if they use it, are very much on the side of the changeling, as in YA novels like Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song and Brenna Yovanoff’s The Replacement). Instead, works like the aforementioned Body Snatchers and Stepford Wives make of their inhuman substitutes a metaphor for oppressive, self-annihilating conformity. The 70s film versions of Stepford and Body Snatchers both spend their first half letting the audience get to know a cast of vibrant, eccentric characters so that it’s all the more tragic and horrifying to see them replaced by doppelgängers who lack every trait, every quirk and flaw, that made them unique, interesting, or lovable.
When I wrote my recently published novella The False Sister, I wanted to speak to each of these components of the changeling story. I wanted to write about the horror that can lurk under the surface of seemingly idyllic domesticity. I wanted to write about the anxiety of being a child realizing he might not know or understand his own family the way he thought he did, that his family members might not be good or safe people. I wanted to write about the dehumanization of people who are different and about the oppression of conformity. I wanted to write about a shapeshifting fey monster that was mysterious, intimidating, and dangerous, but I wanted most of the evil in the story to come from human beings— the same way it does in real life.
I feel I succeeded in my aims, and I hope readers will agree. But if they don’t, there will be plenty of fiction working with these tropes and themes for many years to come, commenting on previous works in the subgenre and taking it in bold new directions. I can’t wait to be scared by all those wooden tales thumping on the floor.
The False Sister by Briar Ripley Page
It’s 1994, and Jesse Greer’s troubled older sister, Crys, has run away from home. Shy, socially awkward Jesse assumes that she has returned to her old haunts in the big city – until he discovers Crys’ remains in the woods behind his family’s house. Traumatised, Jesse runs to his parents for help, only to find that Crys has returned home, alive.
Briar Ripley Page
Bio: Briar Ripley Page is the author of several short stories and novellas. His latest book is The False Sister, out now from Knight Errant Press [insert link]. Originally from Appalachia, Briar currently lives in London with his spouse and two horrible cats. Find Briar online at briarripleypage.xyz.