The Witches

Author: Roald Dahl

Artist: Quentin Blake

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1983

I read it: October 2016


Roald Dahl has no hesitation about exposition when it comes to his mini-mythologies. He’s perfectly comfortable with telling before showing.

The first pages in this children’s horror classic make up “A Note About Witches” where the author clearly states the existence and danger of REAL WITCHES. It’s also a quick introduction to his signature humor and macabre style, such as this little bit of woe about our helpless state: “Oh, if only there were a way of telling for sure whether a woman was a witch or not, then we could round them all up and put them in the meatgrinder.” Um, well, I guess we know what we’re getting into here.

The story proper introduces us to a young boy and his kindly, wise, tough Norwegian grandmother. She knows all the ins and outs of witches, because they were historically concentrated in Norway. The pair move to England after the boy’s parents die, and the grandmother proceeds to explain that England has its own witch infestation, and then she relates all the physical abnormalities to look for if you want to spot one.

Economically, the boy soon encounters his first witch while on summer vacation. Soon after that, he and his grandmother go visit a lavish hotel where most of the book’s action takes place. Indeed, of the 200 pages total, 120 of them are consecutively spent just within the ballroom of the hotel, where the boy stumbles upon an annual meeting of the witches. It’s an obvious yet still delightful display of each of the gruesome attributes the boy had previously learned from his grandmother. Here we also meet The Grand High Witch, who speaks in a cartoonish almost-Russian, Dahl playing with language similar to how he did in The BFG.

Somewhat conveniently, the boy is turned into a mouse after harboring dreams of running a mouse circus. He quickly takes a liking to his new form and quite enjoys being an acrobatic rodent. Dahl briefly philosophizes about the positive side: “When mice grow up, they don’t ever have to go to war and fight against other mice. Mice, I felt pretty certain, all like each other. People don’t.”

Although the witches never get to carry out their plan of turning all of England’s children into mice, there’s plenty of horror in the speculation of it. This is enhanced by Quentin Blake’s sketches, such as the picture of a nice schoolteacher sweeping dead mice (the bodies of her former students) into a pile. The witches’ gruesome faces droop from their bones and it’s easy to imagine these pictures spooking a young reader.

There’s no need to relay the ending, but the whole book is a swift, detailed, imaginative little gross-out adventure. Watch out for those witches.

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