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from saturday's books section

Charles Perrault

When I was 12, or thereabouts, I developed a habit of sneaking into my father's study every Sunday, pulling a book off the shelves and daring myself to open it and stare at the frontispiece, on which appeared a mass of appalling images, all of whom were characters in the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen that filled the rest of the volume.

It was a wartime edition, and illustrated by a Hungarian refugee: The children all had staring eyes, heads too large for their slender necks, and emaciated bodies; the magical creatures, such as the Snow Queen, had a certain ghastly elegance of cruelty.

It was, however, the Marsh King, with his huge, hairy, spider-like body, and the Girl Who Trod on a Loaf, frozen on a pedestal with flies crawling across her open eyes, that terrified me most. I didn't enjoy the terror. It wasn't at all the kind of festive horror that fills residential streets on Halloween, with faux tombstones, cotton-candy spider webs and breezy skeletons hung from trees to welcome or entice the candy-seekers.

I truly dreaded these images, yet compelled myself to confront them every week, as though they were a medicinal dose of reality cutting through the blandishments of suburbia, or the inextricable backbone of whatever life in its entirety comprised, an enemy I preferred to glimpse rather than pretend away.

This new edition of The Complete Fairy Tales by Charles Perrault (1628-1703) is a mix of the seductively repellent and the decorously charming. The former is provided mostly by the illustrations: Gustave Doré's engravings are allowed to bleed into the edges of each page, assuming even more menacing proportions than if they had been contained within a border. And while the best-known engraving is that featured on the book's cover: Little Red Riding Hood staring quizzically at the wolf-in-a-nightcap who is just about to devour her (in Perrault's version there is no doughty woodsman who breaks through the door in the nick of time to chop off the wolf's head), the most horrific by far is that of the rage-engorged ogre bending over the bed in which his seven little daughters sleep, a carving knife poised at their throats.

The incidental details of a ravaged crow carcass on the daughters' bed - one poppet even has a few bird bones protruding from her unsuspecting mouth - does nothing to diminish the subtext of this story: Grownups murder and eat children, even their own. Pace Bruno Bettelheim, who theorized that the darkest fairy tales permit children to deal with their deepest fears and their impermissible feelings - resentment, even hatred of a cruel parent, for example - the catharsis offered by a tale such as Hop o' My Thumb is partial, at best.

While Perrault's versions of these many-times-told tales are sometimes tidied - thus Sleeping Beauty is not raped by her Prince but awakened in suitably courtly fashion - elements of nightmare keep breaking through: The Prince's mother, who happens to be an ogress ravenous for fresh meat, orders Beauty and her children to be killed and boiled up, with a sauce of onions and mustard. This time, a trusty steward intervenes to save the lives of the innocent, though Perrault adds in an aside that when the ogress, learning that her victims have escaped her appetite, throws herself into a boiling cauldron, the prince, now a king, "was upset; she was his mother; but he soon consoled himself with his beautiful wife and children."

Perrault observes the proprieties of his time and place, both of which are generously glossed in translator Christopher Betts's introduction: A mild misogyny pervades the tales, as does respect for rank and contempt for the lowly (Cinderella's stepsisters nickname her "Cinderbum" from her habit of sitting among the ashes on the hearth). Exceptions, of course, are made for those few rare souls of humble birth who, given the luck of meeting up with talking cats, manage to raise themselves to high estate. The morals appended to each tale are sometimes tongue-in-cheek, but most often supportive of the worldly wisdom of the status quo.

English scholar Betts has succeeded marvellously in turning Perrault's rhymed tales - Patient Griselda, Donkey-Skin and Three Silly Wishes - into sprightly verse; his touch is markedly heavier in the footnotes appended to the volume. The general reader may not lust to know the precise nature of the door-fastening - bolt or latch? - on the door of Red Ridinghood's grandmother's house. And Vladimir Nabokov would dismiss Betts's categorical statement that Cinderella's glass slipper was not, originally, made of squirrel fur ( vair) but was always glass ( verre).

This volume, with its scholarly apparatus, is not, of course, designed for child readers, or even adults who prefer the Disney versions that may have brightened their childhoods. I myself prefer the versions of these tales provided by the Brothers Grimm, or the alternative, rawer versions Betts provides in compressed form in his appendix. But for those who find themselves haunted by the unexpurgated fairy tales they may have been lucky enough to hear as children (however traumatic the illustrations), or by such contemporary treatments of the genre as Guillermo del Toro's magnificent film Pan's Labyrinth, this version of Perrault's charming and sophisticated retellings will be, if not indispensable, then welcome reading.

Janice Kulyk Keefer's latest book is The Ladies Lending Library. She is a professor of English at the University of Guelph.