BOOKS: Helter Skelter


“Look down at me and you see a fool; look up at me and you see a god; look straight at me and you see yourself” — Charles Manson

BY JESSICA DURKIN Author and noted misanthrope Jim Knipfel re-invents the fairy tale for modern times with this wonderfully bizarre and twisted collection of short stories. He takes the supernatural elements of fairy tales and places them into an urban, modern-day setting. He amuses, confuses, and ultimately delights in this book of brutal satire that tightrope walks the borderline between fantasy and reality.

Knipfel , who got his start back in the ’80s at a local alt-weekly that later morphed into Philadelphia Weekly, explores the worst impulses of human nature in these mock fables: Sloth, gluttony, lust, envy, etc.  Message? Look how awful and toxic humans can be, especially when left up to their own devices. It starts off with “World Without End, Amen,” which satirizes organized religion and Biblical creation myth by recasting Satan as the creator of the universe. Satan is bored with the Void and so he creates land, plants, and animals. When he tires of that, he creates man from “the shit his animals had left on the ground” to entertain him. Here, Knipfel traces the origins of humanity back to a steaming pile of shit. This is his way of saying that humans are borne of the inevitability of natural processes not the benevolence of some fantastical being.

A modern-day fairytale comes to life in “The Boy Who Came to His Senses” starring Marvin the Numbskull who meets a girl named Oswalda in a bar who seems to really take a shine to him. They go back to her apartment where she reveals that she is a princess and that in order to gain her father’s permission to marry her he must perform certain outrageous tasks — such as defeating Ogg Vorbis, an evil troll living along the fetid Gowanus Canal. After encountering the beast, Marvin does not even attempt to fight the troll, unlike many tales where the underdog becomes the hero and marries the princess, Marvin realizes how ridiculous this is and “comes to his senses” as the title suggests and ditches Oswalda. Here Knipfel seems to poke fun at the indignities people willingly suffer in the pursuit of “true love.” Other stories take the form of morality tales. In “Six-Leggity Beasties” young Billy Crumply gets turned into a cockroach by a witch for being a lazy and disrespectful person. Others, like “Stench, The Crappy Snowman,” explore the pain of being alive when you know that sooner or later you are going to die.

In the last story in the collection, “These Children Who Come at You With Knives,” the town of Happyland is invaded by dirty, unruly children. Thankfully a strange man comes to town who plays magical music that leads them away. Problem solved right? Hold on, careful what you wish for. It turns out the Pied Piper is actually the evil gnome who failed to take over the world in an earlier story in the book, and is taking another bite at the apple by training these children to kill for him. The lesson here is fear the unknown and demonize the other — in this case the wild children — at your peril.  Had the townspeople attempted to reach out and understand these feral children, maybe they wouldn’t now be, as per the collection’s title, coming at them with knives.

A Q&A With Jim Knipfel

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