REVIEW: Cottage in the Woods by Gisele Peterson

Wednesday , 12, April 2017 18 Comments

One of things Sci Phi Journal does with their stories is append a little “Food for Thought” section at the end where they unpack a little of the point of the story. I think this is a little bit risky, personally. After all, there are plenty of people that will read a story and enjoy it for what it is. But if Lord of the Rings had a note at the end telling you what the story’s supposed to make you think about World War II…? Or if X-Men comics ended with a message that broke down exactly how that particular tale applied to, say, actual civil rights issues…? That’d necessarily be pushing it!

Now, Sci Phi doesn’t go that far, but for me it comes pretty close with this:

How does wealth and beauty affect our justice system?

You know, I’m not even going to attempt to answer that one. A half-dozen high profile miscarriages of justice pulse through my brain as I think about it. Maybe it does for you, too. But here’s the thing. We’re probably not thinking about the the same sorts of court cases! Of course, I read that and I’m not even sure which court cases I’m supposed to be thinking about right then. And it’s that supposition that really rankles.

The next one goes beyond flirting with a politically charged topic but instead tackles something much deeper:

In fairy tales ugly equals evil, is this attitude still prevalent today?

Now… I’m maybe reading too much into this, but it’s almost as if there is a really prevalent attitude running wild and the editor and the story writer agree that it’s not right and I’m supposed to read this and then I’ll be better or something. And that really rankles, let me tell you!

But never mind that. Let’s look at the first part of that question. “In fairy tales ugly equals evil.”

Is that even the case? And… who even comes away from fairy tales with that impression? I’m positively baffled that anyone would. Where does one even begin with something like this? Well, it’s safest to start with something real.

  • Virtue is beautiful.
  • Vice is ugly.

That is an objective fact. Something as hard and as enduring as the Pythagorean Theorem.

And fairy tales as most people tend to think of them are the domain of old wives. And these old wives have things they want to convey to children in an entertaining way. Things like… your stepmother wants to kill you. But they can’t just come right out and say that sort of thing, so you end up with these really freaky stories.

Now we don’t know who these old wives are, really, so this is all speculation on my part. But those times that they lived in, they were really tough. Survival absolutely depended on children acquiring virtues. The consequences for vice…? Well, it was just like today, but with tighter margins. So these old wives are telling and retelling and embellishing these folk tales and you end up with Cinderella being pretty and the evil stepsisters being ugly.

At least… that’s what I want to say.

And then I want to make the point that ugly people are bad in fairy tales because the old wives wanted to make vice unappealing to their listeners. Just like they made beautiful people good in order to try make virtue appealing to children.

But the old wives never really had to do that, did they? Sure, Disney went out of their way to make Cinderella the picture of beauty and grace. And the wicked stepsisters clumsy and goofy looking. But it isn’t like that in the Brothers Grimm version. There the stepsisters are “beautiful and fair of face, but vile and black of heart.” Likewise, the description of the old woman from Hansel and Gretel doesn’t really dwell too much on how she looked. They instead the Brothers Grimm say that “witches have red eyes and cannot see very far, but they have a sense of smell like animals, and know when humans are approaching.”

Now that’s a funny thing because I’ve always had the impression that witches were just normal women that meddle in the occult. But this is something else entirely different. And here we have this incredibly famous story that I’ve never really paid close attention to… and right there in it witches are not even human at all! The beastliness of their red eyes and keen smell…? It’s not there to signify that they are merely “evil”. Witches are something else entirely: alien beings utterly inimical to humanity, dwelling on the borders of the domains of Law, awaiting their chance to do ill to whomever falls into their clutches!

Now, nobody really thinks of witches this way anymore. And yes, this is clearly a relic of a culture that ceased to exist a long time ago. But the people that told these sorts of stories were certainly keen on warning people about something. And this goes way beyond being a cautionary tale about not taking candy from strangers.

No, there’s something deeply significant about witches, something primal. And it’s strange, but people just can’t seem to let it lie, either. There’s something about this that offends them. And then they have to go fix the stories. Revise them. Flip the script. Reinterpret witches in entirely different light the way that this story does. So The Wicked Witch of the West and Maleficent both end up getting these makeovers as the old style witches just sort of evaporate.

When I ponder these things, I have an entirely different set of questions I’d like answered than the ones posed by Sci Phi:

What if the old wives really were on to something with this…?

And why do people go out of their way to suppress their perspective?

  • Anthony M says:

    To be fair to our esteemed editor, the Food for Thoughts are written at least mostly by the story writer. Originally – he can clarify if I’m remembering this wrong – Jason wrote a lot of them, but there were some complaints that they didn’t really reflect the themes of the stories the way the authors would have preferred, so now he’s taken to just editing what the author writes.

    So my guess – and this is just a guess, from what I know of Jason – is that the author wrote the Food for Thought, and since it was a viewpoint the author was trying to get across Jason let him do it.

    I don’t know if he’d necessarily agree.

    • Jeffro says:

      Who wrote the questions and why they are done the way that they are is extraneous to the point I’m making here.

      • Anthony M says:

        I know. You just mentioned that it felt like something the editor might have been trying to get across too. I’m just saying that that’s not necessarily the case.

      • Anthony M says:

        Your greater point is of course correct. I made a very similar one in my “Stardust” review.

        • Jeffro says:

          Okay, awesome. I had hoped this would be a no-brainer!

        • cirsova says:

          It’s tough to straddle the line between fighting against ‘death of the author’ and ‘no one wants you to explain the joke’.

          One thing I’ve noticed in Thrilling is that often times to fill in a bit of extra space between stories, they have little essay spots ranging from “serious deep thinks” to “ain’t this tidbit cool?”; sometimes they can be tied back to the story (though do not explicitly refer to them), though often they stand alone. It’s actually been part of what’s made me really enjoy Thrilling’s format.

  • deuce says:

    “Revising” fairy tales is just another front in the culture war. It was never THAT popular a sub-genre and I think it will become less so. We can always hope, anyway.

  • Gaiseric says:

    That’s curious; I’d never noticed that detail about Hansel and Gretel either. And I’d always thought that making the Hag in D&D what it was was very odd, because I guess I’d had the wicked Queen from Snow White in mind as the iconic hag or something.

    Gary Gygax knew what he was doing all right there.

  • Hooc Ott says:

    “In fairy tales ugly equals evil, is this attitude still prevalent today?”

    Two things:

    Fairy tales are older then Methuselah. The smith and the devil for example came from 6000 years ago and sprawled to places as far a field as India and Ireland. When you are dealing with something that old that crosses 100s of cultures and languages it kind of erks me when the whole “now-a-days is different cuz X is a social construct” rears its ugly head.

    The second thing, which assumes that the ugly = evil thing is universal and I don’t agree with that, is it is pretty easy to see how it can come about.

    Ugliness is associated with age. Baby boomers eat their children. One day the boomers will be dead and the inheritors of society will remember that. They will remember their elders being evil and selfish and destructive. Fair youth remember their ugly elders being evil. The link between ugly and evil is established.

    You can already see it happening today. Memes of crazy eyed Hillary are forever and McCain’s twisted lips is now etched in my brain.

    Boomers probably are not unique in history. A generation of pure suck in a given society I am sure has come along on a fairly regular basis. So one would expect new tales spoken of ugly evils and old tales remembered of evil uglies to be natural and regular.

  • In Snow White, the beautiful but evil queen is so beautiful that she has no rival in the land until Snow White grows up. That is the driver of the plot.

    Contrariwise, the whole point of Beauty and the Beast is that the beast’s ugly surface hides a handsome prince.

    And Princess Aura, daughter of Ming the Merciless, is always portrayed in drawing or film as beautiful but evil. Likewise for Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that is her real name) in Maltese Falcon.

    So while making the villains ugly is a useful shortcut for a writer, it is by no means the only one to use.

  • Jon Mollison says:

    They know. Deep down, *they know*.

    You know who doesn’t want you to believe that monsters exist? Monsters. Makes it so much easier to grab your toes when you dangle them over the bed at night.

    Now scale that up to the societal level and look at the world around you.

  • instasetting says:

    You can have whimsically weird or oddly good like pixies to represent the neuroatypical who are good; and hags to represent the neuroatypical who are evil.

    Another thing is that giants in history tended to be evil and violent (Goliath being one of them).

    Take a dash of Metaphor, a sprinkle of Real History, some Poetic License, and some iconic Weird Guy from History (like St. Nicholas or some bad guy), and let stew for a thousand years.

  • cs7850 says:

    For a beautiful witch there is the example of Circe from Homer’s Odyssey, the nymphomaniac herbalist who lives in a house in the middle of the woods, poisoning wayfarers with food, a beautiful woman.

  • DanH says:

    Nymphomaniac herbalist….Hmmmm.

  • Jill says:

    All archetypes are primal. The intriguing question you bring up is *what kind of primal being are witches?* Old crone? Or something more, like an untamed wolf spirit?

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