I’d already picked this season’s theme of folk and fairytale retellings when I discovered the Book Smugglers — an indie publisher currently publishing a series of short stories based on… subversive fairytales! I’ve enjoyed all of them but so far Hunting Monsters by SL Huang is my favourite. You can read it online or purchase from ebook retailers. I recommend reading the story before my review as it contains mild spoilers.
“Isn’t she a trifle young for a firearm?” said my mother.
“Too young? Ha. Seven is almost too old,” said Auntie Rosa. She reached down and ruffled my hair as I ran my fingers along the stock over and over again, marvelling at the living smoothness of the wood. “Happy Birthday, child. Careful not to shoot any grundwirgen.”
Xiao Hong lives with her mother Mei and her Auntie Rosa, two formidable hunters. She knows the most important rule about hunting: you must never shoot a grundwirgen, a human in animal form, because doing so is tantamount to murder. But just after her fifteenth birthday, her mother is arrested for murder — accused of killing a grundwirgen. The past has caught up with Rosa and Mei, and Xiao Hong must come to terms with the grey area between good and evil.
Considering Hunting Monsters is only a few thousand words long, you get a lot of fairytale for your money. Beauty and the Beast, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood, and Snow White and Rose Red all make an appearance here. However, each of these stories is presented slightly differently to how you’ve seen them before, and I really enjoyed the way that in doing so, the reader is forced to confront some of the more troubling aspects of fairytales. In the author’s own words: “How would Little Red Riding Hood react after what happened to her as a child — what kind of woman would she grow up to be?” And what if Beauty and the Beast wasn’t a love story (as in the Disney version) but rather about psychological manipulation and Stockholm syndrome — how would Beauty deal with this afterwards?
We never usually ask these questions because the woman at the centre of the story can be a bit of a cipher — she might well be beautiful but she won’t have much agency of her own, and her story ends with marriage to a prince. It’s worth considering what fairytales are — one theory goes that they were originally stories told to young women by elder women, to teach them about the realities of life. So you weren’t necessarily meant to care about Beauty as a character, rather put yourself in her place. A good retelling can inject some personality into these characters, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see them as well rounded adult women dealing with the aftermath, as here. For Rosa, at least, that means hunting monsters. The counterpoint to respecting a grundwirgen as human is: you should judge them as you would a human too. The Beast is a monster not because of his animal state but because of his treatment of Beauty.
I was pleased to see the inclusion of some more diverse characters than is normal in a traditional western-European fairytale — the concept of Snow White and Rose Red actually makes a lot more sense when they’re a mixed race lesbian couple than in the version where they’re sisters.
As much as I love them, it can feel like fairytale retellings are wherever you look, but Hunting Monsters stands out as a truly subversive example that tells you something new about the fairytale form instead of rehashing the same tropes over again.