On the wall of Jean Thompson's childhood dentist's office, she tells us in an author's note, there hung a map of "The Land of Enchantment," where, among enchanted landmarks, one might find a dark cave marked: "Do Not Go in Here." But that, of course, in the Land of Make Believe, is where we want to go: the Beast's castle, Bluebeard's locked room, the gingerbread house, the giant's lair. And that is where Thompson takes us in her new collection, which uses old familiar tales "as a kind of scaffolding for new stories."
Here, though, the dark cave is one we know — the laptop-lit bedroom where a girl flirts with danger online, the basement where an unhinged foster mother locks up her two little charges, an intimate stranger's secret past and … pretty much all of adolescence. The dangers are, in fact, so familiar that one might miss the foreboding peculiar to fairy tales where anything might happen.
In "The Witch," the shape of the original tales imposes a sort of order, occasionally so binding that an ending, strangely, feels at once preordained and random — as in "The Curse" (Sleeping Beauty), where a daughter pays for the sins of the father — or in "Three," the tale of a choice between gifts progressively more humble (like the caskets of gold, silver and lead in "The Merchant of Venice"), where a snippet of the source story is appended, as if in explanation.
But whatever is lost is more than compensated for by the pleasure of mapping each story's coordinates in folklore (how Little Red Riding Hood becomes a bored teenager with a bad-boy crush and questionable Internet habits, and Bluebeard an overbearing public intellectual), and of seeing how Thompson takes off from the source and recasts the forces of fate as human nature. ("The world is made up of questions," Thompson's "Gretel" observes. "Each of us has to live with our own answers.")
These are not recountings, a la Angela Carter, but "something looser," as Thompson says. They revisit the primeval fears that fairy tales tap and try to tease out why the characters do the strange things they do — transformed, in our day, to "bad choices" and "poor decisions." And that is something Thompson does especially well. She has a clear, strong sense of how all sorts of people work, sometimes a mystery even to themselves, and her smart, spare style, conveying these inner workings in an almost matter-of-fact way, is a sly modern counterpart of the age-old storyteller's voice, simply reporting the way things are, however strange.
Ellen Akins is a writer in Wisconsin. She teaches in the MFA program at Fairleigh Dickinson University.