Jul/Aug 2020  •   Humor & Satire

A Grimm Convention

by Linda McMullen

I didn't even want to organize the damn thing, but—to be frank—I didn't want mine to be the failure that finally doomed it. Modernity had already done a fine job of rendering us irrelevant. I could at least avoid sounding the knell. Let that be some other woman's curse next year, or the year after.

Or better yet, some man's.

We ladies could do with a bit of burden-sharing.

I had to argue with the hotel manager about hoisting our banner.

"This is not the image we're trying to project," he declared. I found this a bit rich: the hotel was nestled in a "red light district-adjacent" street in Vegas, and, two weeks before, the EEOC had named the hotel in a class-action lawsuit based on gender discrimination.

The conference package and room rates had been unusually reasonable.

"Are you trying to project an image of a company that can't fulfill a contract with a female customer?" I asked, sweetly. The hairs of my forearm shrieked as they succumbed to a sticky-but-invisible quagmire atop the check-in counter.

The manager snorted like an irate mustang and ordered the staff to unfurl our standard: "Fairy Tale Villains' Annual Retreat and Spa Weekend"

I stood across the street to look; a half-rueful wave of pride overtook me. Then I took in the entire picture: the sagging awning, the tectonic sidewalk, the lurid lights of the chapel next door illuminating their stained-glass Elvis. I sighed, went back in, and retreated to the pool. There, I carefully draped my reclining chair in a towel brought from home—thank you, Yelp—and went over the conference agenda one more time. The carefully-tailored program was, without question, missing something. The witches, the wicked fairies, the ogres, and the rest of our ilk were becoming... outmoded. In the age of GPS and cell-phone traceability, there were no more unmapped wonders or "here there be dragons" zones, no more impenetrable forests, no more magic spells...

How could anyone lose themselves, let alone their souls?

We had fought modernity tooth and nail, reinventing ourselves in celluloid, for a time. Then the men in charge decided the outward battle against evil had been won... and the films shifted toward the internal female struggle and supposedly-empowered "non-princess" heroines singing their feelings.

And still the men used up more of the oxygen.

In the new stories, we villains were no longer sovereign agents but mere foils, humiliated victims of our own hubris. The ebbing attendance at our annual gathering was proof. Our royal contingent had expressed their objections to the increasing presence of—well, I was going to say trolls, but that would be an unconscionable insult to the superb tormentors of upstart billy goats, and too much of a compliment to online flame-throwers—so, I'll say fools. Bumbling ones, not Shakespeare's wiseacres. So, of late, the grandes dames of wickedness have drawn away their velvet skirts. The wicked queen put it best in her famous open letter, one of the treasures of the dark web: "Dignity and malevolence have succumbed to buffoonery and mendacity."

I certainly couldn't have put it better.

But who was I, to try to stop the march of progress? No one knew my name; hardly anyone had heard my story. The Three Little Men in the Wood only appeared in dusty fairy books. (Ugh, that title. The story wasn't theirs, the tension always belonged to The Three Underbilled Women: my mother, my stepsister, and me). Anyway, as I say, I had devolved into an anonymous tormenter, all hopes of a Disney contract shattered. And two or three years ago, I hit bottom: I spoke up at a conference, and Rapunzel's witch responded by referring to me as a "cut-rate villainess."

So, fine. I never had any magic powers; I took care of myself, unlike my sainted Stepford-wife-in-the-making stepsister. I was that young woman who couldn't be bothered to share her lunch or shovel snow from someone else's walk, the one later cursed with amphibians and reptiles falling from her lips with every word.

(A few centuries of this got tiresome, so eventually I went to a reputable ENT and told him, "I have a little frog in my throat." "That's not funny," he replied, calling the nurse to capture the frog, lizard, snake, toad, newt, turtle, skink, and salamander now gamboling about his office. Anyway, he told me to pick up some Prilosec at Walgreens. "At the very least it'll help with your heartburn," he managed, still eyeing the creatures askance—but fortunately for me, a magical curse was no match for omeprazole, and that was that. America is an incredible place.)

My eyes narrowed as I considered the pool's algae blossoms. How could I inspire my fellow evildoers when our tales were forever outshone by routine abominations in the nation's capital?

"It is time to reclaim the story," I whispered to myself.

Hansel and Gretel's (Mother? Stepmother? She won't ever say) arrived first, having walked from the bus stop 13 blocks away, toting a fraying case and three plastic Walmart bags. "How're things?" I asked.

She simply glared at me. "The room is comped, right?"

"Yes." Thanks to a trust created once upon a time by the Old Man himself, now nearly depleted.

Then Rumplestiltskin turned up; he was actually already in town, stealing children's hearts every night by tearing himself in two for Cirque de Soleil. "This is it, huh?"

"Cocktails are at six by the pool," I said. I felt glad to have a man turn up—they're underrepresented in the field, and they don't always come to these things—but his manners have always lacked a certain something. Presence, for example. "Your majesty," I added, graciously, as she strode forward, and I dropped a deep curtsey. She dipped her chin graciously, and I... well, I managed to maintain my composure. They always say, "Never meet your heroines," but she... she was the woman who finally got rid of that chirping, naïve Snow White (don't believe the stories). She remains the epitome of villainy to me: evil, refinement, and beauty entwined.

When she had gone up to her room, I hustled off to the ballroom to hide my glowing face and triple-check the bunting and balloons.

Hosting a gathering including so many different classes of people/non-humans remained an amorphous, multifaceted, pick-your-resumé-buzzword challenge, but the cocktail party went off well enough. I managed to greet everyone, although Cinderella's catty stepsisters pretended not to remember me (they cornered the market on least congenial last year, too). The witches cheerfully abused the hotel cocktails and supplied some of their own wicked brews for everyone. Griselda remembered to behave herself... instead of pretending she was greater than God (unlike the retreat last year, in Atlantic City) or swearing like a fishwife (the year before, in Cologne) or verbally emasculating her husband (Frankfurt). And only one person mentioned Hans.

It was Cinderella's stepmother.

That bitch.

"Are you still... involved, with that young man?" she asked me. The remark had the form of a question, and approximately a glacier's worth of ice behind it.

"No," I said. "Oh, excuse me, the nixie looks parched. I'm going to go get her another round."

I offered a brief toast to "restoring the gravitas of villainy" that received approving nods.

I had dinner afterward with Ethelinde; she had reinvented herself as a "relationship consultant," which I was fairly certain was a tortured euphemism for "dominatrix." I wasn't judging; she had had a particularly difficult time—a near-fatal illness, and a husband who insisted his snake-oil treatment had saved her (though, of course, he claimed it was snake leaves).

She was knocking back her fourth glass of wine. Professionally speaking, I had begun to regret inviting her to give the opening keynote. But her tongue had finally loosened, which, personally I was happy to see... because she remained one of the few who hadn't repulsed me after—

"So what happened?" I asked, quietly.

"Oh—Reynold," she sighed. "He kept insisting I owed him my life. It felt... just... fatiguing." She finished the last of her wine and ordered another. "And then there was Klaus... my darling captain... he made me feel... alive again." The fifth glass went down in one swallow. "But then Reynold found out."

Klaus had been executed, I had heard. Royal edict.

"So what about now?"

She shrugged. "I was a princess, once, you know. Now I just make do." She tried to lean toward me, but it was more of a lurch. "So what happened with—"

"Nothing," I said.

The next morning, I woke when the first sunbeam pierced the curtains. Too glorious a day to be inside, of course, but that was my luck.

I looked over the ballroom one more time, its tarnished abalone finish barely concealed by my inexpensive decorations. But—there were comfortable seats for the royals in the first row—the coffee was hot and the juice was cold—and people actually started arriving early, chatting in small groups and looking better than ambivalent. More than I had dared to hope for.

I introduced Ethelinde, who—to my amazement—delivered a dazzling speech on "The Villainy of Now." Her best line evoked applause even from the wicked queen: "Now is the moment when we reclaim our power and our prowess. Now!"

Death led the first session; he gave a chilling but impressive account of his activities over the last year, noting with glee that the human race was succumbing to its worst impulses at an unprecedented rate. I was, I admit, very glad to see him out. "I've got an appointment in Samarra," he said with a skeletal grin.

It just gets funnier every year.

I offered a session on "e-Vil(lainy)" and bringing our group's copious talents online. So many of us—particularly the witches and our anthropomorphic colleagues—were late adaptors. But I laced my presentation with real-life successes: the evil fairy of Sleeping Beauty and her millions of Twitter followers (@thirteenthguest), the Big Bad Wolf's controversial food/relationship blog ("The Better to Eat With You"), and, of course, the wicked queen's official online beauty magazine Magic Mirror (and its undeclared pro-ana counterpart, www.blackmagicmirror.net). Lunch was insipid but punctual, and Jack's giant droned on just a bit during an otherwise solid presentation on learning to outsmart your hero, and then we returned to the ballroom for Bruna's presentation on Ironic Villainy.

"Hellfire and damnation," she began. Good, I thought, jolt the crowd out of their postprandial torpor. "Well. Congressman Einhardt didn't use those words, but that was his implicit promise: that he was a godly man, and that hellfire and damnation would be the fate of those too worldly to vote for him."

Words have always been Bruna's gift, even in her story—she bullied that mewling Goose Girl into giving up her birthright, her horse, even her clothes.

Good for her.

"I told him I came from nothing and just needed a chance. He hired me as an intern."

Everyone could picture it: a prim, white button-down, a tailored pin-striped pencil skirt over slim legs. The Big Bad Wolf emitted a faint whine.

"I told him I hadn't always been perfect. He wanted to save me. He told me about his God, his wife, and his children. I listened. Then he was up for reelection, campaigning on a platform of family values. We worked late... he took me up on the roof to show me 'a canopy of stars.'"

Knowing smiles.

"He would put his hand on my waist one moment and repent the next." The corners of her lips twitched upward, like a cat's. "I shut the door of his office and pulled down his trousers. Five minutes on my knees bought me six months of complete bliss." Cheers, one wolf-whistle. "I had an apartment on Capitol Hill, a hired car, and a maid. It was..." She closed her eyes; the effect was good. "And then, one evening, he announced he wanted to work things out with his wife." Hisses. "Well. I wasn't about to let everything go, just like that. I realized I could... lean in to the prevailing rage... and get back at him. So, I staged a huge fight in front of my nosy neighbors and put out feelers to CNN, ABC, NBC, CBS, and Fox. I told them I had another #MeToo story to share—an entitled, hypocritical, 'virtuous' Congressman harassing a young woman in dire straits. The story ran the next day. His wife promptly divorced him and took the kids."

A slow clap.

"Isn't this supposed to be the year of the woman?" she grinned, and then she sat down to thunderous applause.

"How are you planning to top that?" Griselda whispered.

"Watch and learn," I replied.

And then he strode in.

The Old One.

We leapt to our feet, all of us, royalty and peasants alike; I curtsied deeply and escorted him to the front of the room. He barely acknowledged me, but I understood that was his way.

"Your majesties, ladies and gentlemen, anthropomorphic colleagues, he needs no introduction, but I am delighted to announce a surprise visit from the fallen angel himself. Without further ado, I give you... The Devil."

We would have clapped as long as necessary, of course; he let the ovation run on until it felt manifestly longer than Bruna's and then allowed us to retake our seats.

He glowered.

"I have come today not to grace this perfunctory reunion," he said, "but to disturb it." An anxious prickle down my spine. "For years—last year, in Atlantic City, and in Cologne, and in Frankfurt before that—all I've seen are brutes and mongrels, gnawing on scraps of evil, while overall human progress continues unabated." He stared down Ethelinde. His gaze clearly made Jack's giant feel small. Then he turned to Bruna. "And you! Wasting six months on one fatuous junior Senator..." He cast his malicious gaze out over the crowd. "And the rest of you commended her success."

I hid my face.

"So I have come here to remind you of what you are, and what you can be. Core principles!" he cried, slamming his fist onto the podium. "One: Evil is the root of all. All. The so-called heroes whine that there was light in the beginning, but I am here to remind all of you that the light came second. Second. Because it was created to drive out the darkness!"

His voice was thunder.

"Two: We are the damned. But we will not, we will never, serve."

Resolute expressions.

"And three: we are stronger, smarter, and better... we do not lower ourselves to fraternizing with heroes." He spat the word. And looked straight at me. "Verena."

And I—I who prided myself on my staunch professionalism—blushed. And it was not an ingenue-having-her-hand-kissed-for-the-first-time blush, but a sweaty and repulsive embarrassment that would not have looked out of place on a half-devoured Riding Hood.

I muttered, "It's over."

I wasn't over it.


Not Iron Hans, or Strong Hans, or Foolish Hans, or Hans My Hedgehog, but Gambling Hans. We met in Atlantic City last year. I had gone for the convention, of course; and he was there, because—well, that's obvious. He approached me at the bar with incandescent swagger. "What's your poison?" he asked.

"I'm not that kind of villainess," I said.

He sat down next to me and ordered me a glass of Riesling. "It's good," he said. "Semi-sweet."

I arched an eyebrow. "Shouldn't you be wooing some hapless princess?"

"I'm a protagonist, not a hero," he grinned.

And then I went and said it. "Go on."

He was tired of playing the Vice in the morality play, of being the whipping boy of the so-called good guys, of having his soul dashed to pieces.

"I get it," I said. "I'm fed up with being treated like a snake in the grass, too."

He gambled that I would invite him up to my room that night. He won.

We were inseparable afterward—we went to Paris and London, Macau and Monte Carlo. It wasn't perfect, but he never expected me to be anything other than exactly what I was.

He got nabbed during a layover in Rome—taken from the airport for an interview with The Big Man. He returned, wan, his usual slick suit rumpled. "He's made it very clear," he said. "It's you... or my luck."

"That's... vile."

"He said he's saving me."

"Sounds like some moralizing bullshit."

He smiled, thinly. "I've thought about it. I really—we can make this work, Verena—"

I kissed him fiercely, sealing my lips around his mouth like a succubus... and then I let him go. "I can't ask you to do that," I said.

And I couldn't.

He'd never ask the same of me.

"Verena, really, I—"

"I'll see you around," I said. He gave me one last look, and left.

"So that's why we're in Vegas this year," observed Griselda.

"Oh, shut up," I said.

"You're so selfish..." murmured Cinderella's stepmother.

"That's literally my job," I retorted.

"Silence!" yelled Old Nick. "I grow weary of failure. Your collective failure. You're on the verge of obsolescence, and you're bickering among yourselves like cartoon villains." He turned to me. "Verena, you're responsible for this disgrace. Bring me an idea for how you're going to restore evil to its rightful place by tomorrow morning—or else."

I could already feel the flames... My colleagues, hardened villains all, trembled like the boy who had finally discovered the shivers.

I managed not to collapse into the nearest chair until after he had gone. One shrunken balloon drifted down from the net above our heads.

I picked at the brown-edged buffet salad alone; no one would have dared to join me, even if they wanted to. Which they didn't. I thought about leaving—about running toward the Strip and poking my head into every cheap gaming house and casino, giving up villainy, for—

But it didn't work like that. Nick would find me.

And no policeman, no president, no power on earth would offer any protection.

And Heaven? Not my scene.

I dug out my notebook with all of my discarded ideas for the agenda—each one worse than the one before. I thought about famous villains from history. I Googled the great stories... everything from Medea to Game of Thrones.

Not one iota of inspiration.

I retreated to my room and put on the TV. Rank scandal and corruption in Washington, pompous windbags, taxing the poor to feed the rich, what else was new? I sighed and turned it off again.

I paced, I reflected, I went to the spa and got an overpriced massage. And still nothing.

I was beginning to see what Hunter S. Thompson was getting at when he defamed this despoiled town. I saw the indifferent lights bleach the casinos' sandy facades.

And then I watched a malign day dawn.

I washed, a bit pointlessly—I knew I would eventually have a hell of a time getting the smell of brimstone out of my clothes—and slithered downstairs for breakfast. I was tired of bagels, but then supposed it didn't matter. The others looked away.

We reconvened in the ballroom. An awful tang curdled in the back of my throat, as if my amphibious reflux had started up again. She gave the first presentation—I could no more focus on her elegant iniquity than I could breathe. I put my head between my knees.

The Old One strode in for the last few moments of her presentation. The Queen's voice faltered almost imperceptibly:

There are... fewer monarchs, now; fewer arranged marriages; fewer witches. These are familiar elements, but we must change with the times. We can take comfort in the fact that, while institutional shapes may change, the essential ingredients of evil remain: greed, callousness, and an insatiable desire for power.

The television. The balloons. The podium.

A glimmer of an idea.

When she had finished, she glanced my way; I hoped for concern, but her expression was the same one I had registered on finding a cockroach in the tub that morning.

I found a dangling string and—heart pounding—took my place at the podium.

"Thank you, your highness," I said, then bowed my head to him. "Your Evilness, it truly is an honor to have you with us this morning. I want to say thank you to you all for attending this event, and I can say I've been inspired by each and every one of you. Ethelinde, you reminded me to always do the necessary. Bruna, you showed me the importance of following national trends. And your highness, your point about adapting to modern power structures was spot-on." I took a deep breath.

The Old One leaned forward.

"I'm running for office!" I announced.

And I dropped the balloons.