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The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman review – a story that didn’t need to be told

The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman is a novel based on a true story. Well, true in that the story is a genuine bit of local folklore, one that seems to have captured the attention of the internet, but that’s where the truth probably ends. The legend goes that in the early 1900s, in Kentucky, a young girl called Mary Evelyn Ford and her mother were believed to be witches by the local townsfolk. Rather than let the law deal with the pair, the townsfolk burned them. The mother was buried far away from the town in a forest, while the daughter was buried in Pilot Knob Cemetery. The young girl is said to be buried in a lead-lined coffin, covered in gravel and concrete, with the grave surrounded by an iron fence of interlocking crosses to keep her from rising again.

The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman book cover
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A “fictionalised” version of this story is how The Remaking begins (now 1951 in Pilot’s Creek), the first of four parts, each part retelling the story progressively further into the future. The first retelling occurs in 1971 when director Lee Ketchum makes a film to tell the “story he’d be born to tell”. Ketchum grew up in Pilot’s Creek and has wanted to tell the story of the “Little Witch Girl”, now called Jessica, ever since he was told it as a kid, “Jessica Ford was his muse. If he didn’t make this movie, somebody else surely would.” The second retelling happens in 1995. Amber, who was the child actor who played Jessica in the 1971 film, agrees to appear in a remake, this time as the girl’s mother, in an attempt to understand the strange things she saw and that happened to her twenty-odd years ago. The story is finally retold in 2016 on a true-crime podcast, which tries to get to the bottom of the mysteries that occurred on the set of that 1995 remake – were they cursed? Was Amber driven mad?

The idea of a story being retold, over and over again, to disastrous consequences, is a neat one. Can a story be cursed? The idea here is that the stories of marginalised groups, like the women who were accused of witchcraft, are often appropriated. Those stories are retold through the generations not to give a voice to those who were mistreated (for example) but to give the storytellers inspiration for their own gain. Along the way, the original stories are lost. In The Remaking, the little witch girl and her mother haunt those retelling the story, for they want to tell the story their way: “You men always try to tell our story. You men always get it wrong.”

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Unfortunately, this point is quickly undermined by The Remaking being an example of a man trying to tell a story and getting it wrong. That true story I opened this review with, having dug around a little, has incredibly little truth in it. No girl and her mother were burned in a Kentucky town. All Chapman has done is appropriate the story of two real women who were not burned for being witches. The very foundational story on which The Remaking is built crumbles away. And even if it were true, I don’t think this novel is the sensitive way it deserves to be told. A much better example of a witch revenge story is Kate Pullinger’s Weird Sister, based on a well-documented witchcraft trial and is a far better read.

Weird Sister is a great example of a tightly-written book, one that’s clearly been cut until there was nothing superfluous. The Remaking would have benefited from a much more heavy-handed editor, as the action is slowed by exposition and the internal voices of the cast of cookie-cutter characters: the failed childhood actor turned overbearing and selfish mother who forces their child into the world of acting being the first dull example. None of the characters are interesting or surprising, so hearing their internal philosophising drag on is especially painful.

The tagline on the front cover of The Remaking states “some stories refuse to die” – despite the concept having promise, this story probably should.

The Remaking by Clay McLeod Chapman is published by Quirk Books. Buy the book.

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