The Other World, It Whispers: a bewitching collection of WTF

Once upon a time, long before Peppa Pig snorted her way into the hearts and minds of children everywhere, fairy tales provided the foundation for our moral compass: a light introduction to good versus evil, bravery versus injustice and the perfect platform to reinforce archaic gender stereotypes.  

Via the dark yarns of the Grimms, Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault we learned that women were ice maidens, or driven mad by vanity; they were cannibilistic childless bitches; helpless victims with exceptionally long blond hair or near-fatal narcolepsy. Men on the other hand were kings, huntsmen, long-suffering fathers tricked into marriage by a money-grabbing evil stepmother-in-waiting or simply the sought-after prince who saves the girl, dragging her into a life of riches and respect. Everybody wants to marry a prince; no woman in the story books ever climbed the corporate ladder to become a successful CEO.

But this was another era. Society in the 17th and 18th Centuries had a different outlook and agenda. In fact, we’re talking about a period when women were burned as witches in real life, so who can blame the Grimms for adding a more colourful spin to a very common and popular legal process?

But, just as Jesus’ antics of dishing out loaves and fishes to 5000 hungry festivallers would never wash with today’s avocado-loving gluten-free crowds, so too have olden fairy tales necessitated a refresh to keep up with the priorities and tastes of the modern western world.  These days for example, the tale of a mermaid happy to literally relinquish the power of speech to win over a dude she’s only just met sounds more like self-harm than a genuine love story.

Disney’s 2014 release Maleficent (a live-action Sleeping Beauty produced by Angelina Jolie) gave it a stab, attempting to provide an alternative view of the ‘wicked’ witch. Not lonely, angry and resentful of stunning youth but betrayed and forced into a mid-life crisis and spiteful spells by a bastard lover who cut off her wings. It was an ‘alright’ film, not great. Audiences were ready for a new perspective but you always get the feeling that Jolie’s vehicles are more about her being a badass rather than promoting feminism in a broader sense.

Stephanie Victoire romantically tackles a range of modern crises

And so enters The Other World, It Whispers, stage right, to modernise the fairy tale format and offer a new lens through which to analyse the mental and physical struggles of humankind.  Across nine stories our exciting author Stephanie Victoire romantically tackles a range of modern crises including gender dysphoria, drug addiction, male insecurity, sexuality and paedophilia. The often brutal subject matter is handled with complete grace as we dance through the extraordinary situations of a range of extraordinary creatures, yet every one remaining relevant thanks to its raw and overt emotion.  

The female protagonists boast multi-dimensions, smarts, and at the very least self-awareness, as opposed to the traditional spinster scorned.  The quasi-heroine Clementine in ‘The Bouquet Witch’ is a captivating combination of weak and willful, born as an outcast yet relentlessly hopeful. Victoire ensures that the topic of love remains front and centre throughout, sometimes unrequited, other times destined for failure. Whether between a man and a woman or same-sex, it’s clear the author believes that love and lust are the source of both our soulful spark and inner anguish.

A further highlight is ‘The Shanty’, a heartbreaking tale of an ocean-obsessed young boy tormented by his reality of living with the wrong gender.  As a transparent tale of a child battling his own nature this feels the most necessary – and the saddest – of all Victoire’s stories.  ‘Dark Arts and Deities’ is probably the most akin to a good old fashioned romp, as a young witch enters a messed up small town whose inhabitants are determined to punish her for ruffling feathers and exposing some rather dark goings on.  It’s a hugely entertaining few pages featuring a number of well-known mythical characters, complete with a tearjerker twist at the end.  

Across The Other World, It Whispers the narrative remains vivid and fresh

Surprisingly, some tales such as ‘The Cemetery Pilgrimage’ don’t feel dark enough, despite being set in a graveyard on Hallowe’en.  But this story of a lost man seeking the souls of some of the world’s greatest minds has some of the punchiest, most interesting lines: “He had felt death enter the room and then exit again, like a student walking into the wrong class.” The way Victoire fuses old storytelling structures with a twenty-first century setting and psyche is both endearing and at times unexpectedly witty.  Across The Other World, It Whispers the narrative remains vivid and fresh, with Victoire using her own brand of literary witchcraft to conjure up a flurry of powerful and disturbing scenes.

The sign of a good short story is when you get to the end and think: “what the fuck just happened?” Be warned, Victoire certainly doesn’t shy away from a death or two. Without a doubt, this book has so many WTF moments that reading each story at least twice is essential.   Upon my second completion I realised that perhaps what’s most powerful about this collection of short stories is its gender neutrality: in short, men and women are just as messed up as each other. We all make mistakes, lie, feel trapped, struggle with our own identities and seek revenge, regardless of the genitalia we were gifted at birth. As depressing as this may sound, it’s a far more significant move towards equality in fairy tale literature than any other I’ve seen. So I’ll take it.

If you enter The Other World, It Whispers in the right frame of mind, it’s an absolute masterpiece: addictive, hurtful and relatable, despite its many mysterious backdrops. A timely progression of folklore designed to grab your heart, treat it to a quick game of keepie-uppies and then lob it into a swamp to soak for a while before returning the organ, utterly affected, back into your body. This book is a head fuck of the highest order, and it’s beautiful.

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