Review: Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold

A short story collection that I love is Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber. Her finely crafted feminist reworkings of well-known fairy- and folktales remain as bold and luminous today as when they were first published in 1979. It’s a collection of stories that has stayed with me. Hag came highly recommended to me on the basis of its similarities to Carter’s work and upon reading this my interest was piqued immediately. It too is a short story collection of modern reimaginings, with emphasis on British and Irish folktales, each told by an exciting contemporary female author.

The illuminating introduction by the curator of this collection, Professor Carolyne Larrington of Oxford University, explains that each author was paired with an original folktale according to their own personal histories, in particular where they themselves originate from in the British Isles. This gave real character, heart and authenticity to the stories and I enjoyed them all the more for it.

I felt engaged with every story in this collection, but I especially enjoyed Daisy Johnson’s clever ‘A Retelling’, which begins with the author researching the Green Children of Woolpit with a family trip to its origins and ends with an uncanny visitation. Kirsty Logan’s compelling Selkie story ‘Between Sea and Sky’ is spread beautifully over two narratives, that of Skye and her son Muir, who is at home both at sea and on dry land. The slick darkness of ‘The Dampness is Spreading’ by Emma Glass affected me particularly as I only recently gave birth to my second child and the realness of that experience is still very present. This story describes so well the utter rawness of birthing, then gives way to the fantastical, culminating in a shocking birth that no experienced midwife could ever be prepared for.

These tales are very much about women’s lives, which I loved. All of contemporary female experience is here, bound to tales that have lasted an age. Readers, should they wish to, are able to compare the reworked tales with the original source material, found at the back of the book. I was interested to see how far these tales had been stretched and altered for a modern audience, or if the authors had stuck firmly to their given text, so I appreciated the inclusion of the origins of each reworked tale.

Making these comparisons put me in mind of how folktales really come alive when read aloud – there are differences and embellishments made in each retelling of them. I was interested to read in the introduction to these stories that Hag was actually first conceived as a podcast series, which is very fitting, as the origins of these tales would have been passed down the ages by word of mouth. I love the image of women as storytellers, weaving words and controlling the narrative.

This anthology is brimming with a magical and sublime female energy, coupled with the fantastical and strange. It’s not a stretch to imagine each tale being told in the dark of night to a rapt audience, settled around a crackling fire. Come, sit and listen. A thoroughly enjoyable and recommended read.

Hag: Forgotten Folktales Retold is available from Virago.

Holly Sismore is an MA English graduate, book hoarder and horror fan. She is never without a book, her babies and an unquenchable thirst for the uncanny. She shares her current and recommended reads on Instagram @hollywyrd.

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