Sunday, December 10, 2017

A Wattpad Review: Caitlin E. Jones’ Shoppe Walpurgis

One of the fasting-growing subgenres of fantasy is the fairy-tale retelling, which has spawned a number of popular books and a slew of indie fiction. One of the biggest criticisms of these stories, however, is how little is left to tell: since everyone knows the story, there’s no real surprise left to uncover for the readers (and isn’t narrative drama one of the true hallmarks of the novel?). To make it work, an author has to take a familiar story and treat it like a myth that can be transported to different characters and lands and help us see something about our own world through the ‘old’ frame. Most re-tellings, frankly, feel a bit like literary exercises, a chance for the author to stretch their wings even though they have nowhere in particular to go. We might even enjoy the trip, but once we’re there, the book is instantly forgotten and we can only remember the original tale—which, frankly, taught us a lot more to begin with. 

Such is not the case with the most recent and exciting fairy tale re-telling I came across this month, Shoppe Walpurgis. Sadly, you can only find it right now on Wattpad, which isn’t exactly synonymous with quality or talent; but Caitlin E. Jones proves that a good story can blossom in any soil, and here is the story that makes you think twice both about fairy tale-retellings and about Wattpad itself. Jones’ story dips into the seemingly bottomless waters of Grimms’ Fairy Tales to find the storybook classic, Hansel and Gretel, famous for its encounter with a witch in a gingerbread house. On the surface, this is one of the hardest stories to re-tell, since the story doesn’t translate into a modern setting very well (who lives in an edible house?). Jones side-stepped this issue by updating the story but keeping it in the past: in this case, in turn-of-the—last-century Berlin, circa 1900, where the technology of the modernity is slowly encroaching upon the mysteries and magic of the ancient world.

The title itself captures the balancing act of the story: Shoppe suggesting the old-time stores still found in quaint European villages, and Walpurgis suggesting the pagan Walpgurgis Night (famous from Goethe’s Faust) when witches meet on the highest hill in the land to practice their unholy rites. In the story, Hansel and Gretel are replaced by Adelaide (or Ada) and Alaric, orphans on the streets of Berlin, who take up with a clan of child-thieves for protection. Adelaide begins the story by breaking the clan’s truce with the local baker, who gives them stale bread out of charity; dazzled by the sweets in his shop, she steals a cake and gobbles it up on the spot, a sin that would earn her divine retribution in the original stories. Here, however, her brother steps in to save her, since he knows about a secret source of charity hidden deep within the tunnels of the U-Bahn: a kindly, if cryptic, old woman who doles out sweets to the poor urchins of the city. The woman requires no payment until the fateful Walpurgis night which is right around the corner...

When Ada begins dreaming of the woman and her terrible voice, she realizes that this was no act of kindness—all the more so, as her dead mother begins warning her of the coming Walpurgisnacht. As Jones writes,

“Faster than horses, Adelaide was out of bed. She did not bother checking the rest of the hideout, shuffling into her boat, boots, and other warm things. She passed the central room and saw the sack Alaric had come in with, now emptied save for a few smears of icing. The other children slept around the room in a sugary stupor, as though spellbound. This was odd, since Jakob sent them out so early most days.

But those weren’t normal sweets...She could still feel sweet stickiness all over her apron, sick with herself. The woman in the wall haunted the corners of her mind against the rush—no, this was no woman. There was a name for this monster in the world outside of Berlin. A witch.”

The story clever juxtaposes the childrens’ Northern/country upbringing with the cynical polish of the city, as represented by Jakob, the leader of the gang. While he continually puts down their provincial ways, it is this very sense of tradition which makes Ada aware of the witch and the terrible price she will exact for her goods (which, if you know the story, you can easily figure out). But in the modern world, such terrors no longer exist; indeed, modern man only fears two things—not making enough money and not having a fashionable enough address. Jakob is clearly someone moving up in the world, a future politician once he shakes off the soot of the streets. Even her brother, eager to make his way in the world, becomes blind to the woman’s age-old tricks and becomes her captive. It is up to Ada to find a way to rescue him and maintain their innocence in the face of the city’s bitter “experience.”

What makes this story more than a tired retelling is how well Jones understands the historical period. Placing the story circa 1900 is no accident or concession to gaslamp fantasy: rather, it plays with the crucial shift between new and old, which the fin de sicle (turn of the century) truly embodied. Once we enter a world of subways and electric lights and radios, how can we return to a world of innocence and family and wisdom? The Romantic poets of the previous century were obsessed with these theme, seeing the Industrial Revolution as the end of pastoral England and all its charms.

A hundred years later, many writers were up in arms about the same themes—notably Tolkein, who in his famous Lord of the Rings trilogy imagined the terrible cost of enslaving our souls to technology. Something of this theme echoes in Shoppe Walpurgis, though in an ironic way; here, the witch merely finds a way to sell her wares in the city more expeditiously. After all, with so many desperate souls crowding the city from the provinces, all of them eager for a taste of city life, she only needs to set up shop and tell them to take a number!

Jones is quite alive to this friction between new and old, and how ancient evils merely adapt themselves to modern vices. Because of this, the story has an old-world quality itself, reading like an affectionate cross between Dickens and Bronte. The prose is quick and inviting, able to create loving detail but never luxuriating in it (unlike her 19th century predecessors). If anything, the story ends far too quickly and you’re left wanting more, and imagining a future book full of chapter after chapter of such retellings, or perhaps a story where Adelaide and Alaric skip from one Grimms’ Tale to the next. Keep watching Wattpad for future installments of this and her other excellent fiction!

Here’s a link to her work on Wattpad:

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