The countdown to Halloween marches on and today we have another installment in the Creepy Kid Lit Collection. This classic is the third Roald Dahl story I’ve reviewed and definitely the scariest. It was adapted to the big screen in the 90s, providing nightmare fuel to kids like me. Turns out, the movie’s horror holds up because I tried watching it with my son tonight and he noped out after the big reveal of the Grand High Witch’s true face.
By now, you may have guessed that I’m referring to The Witches, Dahl’s 1983 twisted children’s fantasy of a young, unnamed boy who, after losing his parents in a tragic accident, is cared for by his Norwegian grandmother. In this world, witches are real and they walk amongst us, masquerading as everyday women under their wigs, masks and gloves. They have eyes that glow, mouths filled with blue spit and large nostrils that allow them to sniff out kids. But contrary to what you’d expect, witches are drawn to children who regularly bathe. Smelly, unbathed children are at much less risk of being sniffed out. Their sole objective is to rid the world of children, usually through mean-spirited acts, rather than death.
Fortunately, Grandmama is a witch expert and she teaches the boy everything she knows, to keep him safe from their evil grasp. And it’s a good thing, too, as he’s approached by a witch one day when he’s working on his treehouse alone. Taking note of her hat, gloves and flashing eyes, he’s able to evade her offers of a small snake (weird bribe, but okay) and return to the safety of his home. Once home, his Grandmama confirms that his assumptions were correct; that he had deftly avoided the clutches of a witch!
Having moved to England as the boy’s parents will required, the pair are excited to vacation in Norway for the summer. Unfortunately, as the departure date draws closer, Grandmama is struck with a case of pneumonia. Luckily, she recovers with the expert care of a nurse, however her doctor advises that a trip to Norway is out of the question. He doesn’t feel she is healthy enough for the journey and suggests a relaxing trip to the English seaside instead.
The two arrive at the Hotel Magnificent, where the boy quickly learns that he will need to entertain himself for the duration of the stay. His grandmother gave him two white mice for his birthday and he’s intent on teaching them tricks. There’s one small problem, though. Mice aren’t allowed at the Hotel Magnificent and they’ve already been spotted once by a housekeeper. Warned by the manager that if caught, the mice will be drowned in a bucket (intense, jeez!), the boy sets out one morning to find a private space to teach the mice to walk a tightrope. After exploring several spaces within the hotel, he finds the large, empty ballroom.
There’s a sign at the entrance, stating that the space has been reserved for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. He figures that with a name like that, even if he’s discovered in the room, it won’t be a big deal. This certainly sounds like a dignified group of child-protecting women, if ever there was such a thing. Feeling certain of this idea, he settles himself behind a large folding screen situated in the rear of the room, near the entrance doors.
He plays happily with his mice for some time, but suddenly hears voices at the double doors. In bursts what seems to be hundreds of well-dressed women, accompanied by the hotel’s manager. Afraid of being caught with the mice, he stays hidden behind the screen. His plan is to sneak out once the manager leaves. But before he can make his escape, one of the women locks the doors, using heavy chains. He has no choice but to stay put until these fine women finish their meeting.
From his hiding spot, he’s able to watch the proceedings as they unfold. A young woman takes the stage. She is impeccably dressed and quite poised. She commands the attention of the entire room, though there’s an air of terror amongst the audience members. They seem terrified of this woman. But why? He soon learns why, as the woman commands the others to remove their wigs. At once, the audience is revealed to be full of bald women. Then they started removing their gloves, revealing fingers topped by large claws. Lastly, off came their shoes, showing stump like feet without toes. Immediately, the boy realizes that he’s unwittingly found himself trapped in the ballroom during the annual meeting of England’s witches!!!
Frozen in fear behind the screen, he remembers what his Grandmama told him about the finely tuned sense of smell witches possess. He starts to mentally calculate how many days it’s been since his last bath. Certain that it’s been several days, he resolves to stay planted in his hiding spot. From his vantage point, he learns that the woman on stage is the Grand High Witch, leader of all the world’s witches. The others revere her, yet are terrified of her power. She has the ability to shoot sparks from her fingers, vaporizing one witch who dares to speak during the meeting.
After regaining control of the room, the Grand High Witch explains that she has created a concoction that will cause the children of England to turn into mice within a day of ingestion. This plan is that each witch will leave the annual meeting, quit their jobs and immediately purchase sweet shops in their respective towns. They will then sell chocolates laced with the mice-creating potion to unsuspecting children. When they turn into mice the next day, those around them will be alarmed, killing them to rid the area of the vermin. And there you have it, a fairly quick and clean way to get rid of children.
I feel like I’ve already said too much so I’ll leave the rest of the story to those who dare to read the book. Yes, children are turned into mice. Yes, daring feats of espionage and sabotage take place. But do the mice become children again? Are they captured and killed by the hotel staff? Will life ever be the same again for the poor young boy and his loving Grandmama? Join the legion of readers who have already enjoyed this dark and twisted tale… but you might consider holding off on the movie version for a couple more years. Just saying!