“The Witch and Other Tales Re-Told” by Jean Thompson (2014)

Adding to the long tradition of retelling well-known fairytales with a twist, Jean Thompson undertakes the task of modernizing the stories we all know so well (including Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard, and Cinderella). Following in the footsteps of so many proves to be a difficult challenge for Thompson, especially when her work takes such clear inspiration from greats the likes of Angela Carter, whose The Bloody Chamber is a masterpiece in updating these tales but doing so with a non-conformist twist. Thompson sees fairytales as bastions of truths, and so to shed light on their archetypal nature, she sheds them of their magic and supernatural characteristics and tosses them into the twenty-first century.

Like all collection of short stories some prove to be more successful than others. In a twist of irony, the strongest tale is the only one that blurrs the lines of the real with the supernatural and veers into the realm of magic realism: the last story titled Prince. It is also her most innocent and sweet story, in which a mentally ill woman forms a bond with a stray dog.

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The other stories are not as pleasant or heart-warming. As most know, original incarnations of fairytales were much more dark and grim than the versions modern audiences associate with Disney and their childhoods – death and gore were prevalent. No one can, or should, fault Thompson with adhering to that tradition. The issue lies, instead, with how the macabre is introduced. When the story ends less than well it consistently happens lazily and in too much of an unforeseen way. What Thompson is not successful in doing is creating a sense of dread, instead of lending a sense of twisted anticipation so that the unhappily ever after comes to a logical conclusion, the author opts for a jolting surprise (Faith and The Curse). Eliminating all reference to magic also overly grounds the stories, to the point that many are rendered unbelievable due to over-the-top plot devices in order to mirror the fairytale that serves as the inspiration and not cause the reader to have to guess what the muse may have been (Inamorata and You Secret’s Safe With Me).

Another qualm the book evokes, although this one appears to be completely unintentional and therefore alarming, is Thompson’s treatment of minorities. Only four characters that could be defined as people of color appear in the work (at least, only four that are identified as such). Two are latino teenage boys who each speak one or two lines (in the story Candy), while the others are two black women – one American the other African, respectively appearing in the stories The Witch and Your Secret’s Safe With Me. Not one of them speaks English well or grammatically, unlike mostly every other character in the book, including the narrator(s) of the stories. The latino boys speak what could only be described as a ‘street slang’, or at least someone’s imagining of it. The African woman, who is meant to be a world-famous supermodel, speaks with a vaguely tribal cadence and grammatical structure, while the black woman who helps the two child protagonists in the story that gives this collection its title, is a more offensive mammy-like character that seems ripped out of a stereotypes for dummies book. It would be important to note that they, also, have one or two lines a piece and then disappear from the story. The inclusion of these characters is bizarre because they are either unimportant plot devices or worse become symbols of radicalized difference whose bodies are solely objects of exotic desire.

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Jean Thompson

All this said, the mundane settings in these stories do highlight the archetypal dangers that Thompson is trying to criticize or warn about: The Witch does shed light on the problems of the foster care system and Candy is an effective warning of modern stranger danger and the evils of the internet. The language employed by the author, much less ostentatious than Angela Carter’s, renders this book readable and approachable. It is overall not bad, but perhaps in an effort to ground the tales some whimsy and even some danger seems to be missing.

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