火曜日, 7月 20, 2004

Scary Children's Books/ Unexpected Watership Down Connections

     These wouldn't be frightening to an adult. They aren't Silent Hill, or even Stephen King. A child of the pre-Goosebumps Books generation, I didn't go out of my way to read scary books, so this list will be very short.   I'll put these in chronological order of when I encountered them, NOT in the order of perceived scariness.

Sublist: Books That Scared Me When I Was A Child

1) The Tar Baby     Read it online! 
      The only story in fairy tale collections I had as a kid that scared me, although Andersen's The Snow Queen (read to me on the day my brother was born) was a little creepy also.  
      There is just something grotesque about a baby made out of tar and wearing clothes, especially since the rabbit inexplicably didn't realize the thing wasn't alive and kept talking to it, expecting it to answer. The story becomes even more nightmarish as the rabbit becomes stuck in the tar, unable to extricate himself. This story has been interpreted in various ways, often in terms of race relations, with the baby representing constructs of white culture that ensnare African-Americans. The term "tar baby" can also be used in business or literary contexts for any kind of trap, seemingly innocuous in itself, in which we become mired by our own efforts, which is particularly awful since we have only ourselves to blame. 
      I instinctively hated this story when I was very young, refusing to allow my parents to read it to me. Ironically, though, my very favorite book from later childhood on, Watership Down, is in many ways indebted to the Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox stories of Uncle Remus.  Consider Watership Down, Chapter 5, page 32 where El-ahrairah is introduced as a folklore hero who also happens to be a trickster rabbit: 

"Uncle Remus may well have heard of him, for some of El-ahrairah's adventures are those of Brer Rabbit."  
    In fact, Watership Down contains a reference to this very story.  In Chapter 48, Dea ex Machina, Doctor Adams spares Hazel's life and returns him safely to the downs, saying:  

"Yes, he has got something the matter with that leg, you see," said Doctor Adams.  "But he could perfectly well live for years, as far as that goes. Born and bred in a briar patch, Brer Fox."  

    "Doctor Adams" is clearly an appearance by the none other than the novel's author, Richard Adams.  This is kind of funny and rather postmodern, like when the author appears on the train near the end of The French Lieutenant's Woman. I know I'm getting off topic here, but I have one more thing to say about this.  I read a news article recently that said that Richard Adams, the author, is in favor of exterminating the rabbits living in his native area of English countryside. This would mean killing the very rabbits that inspired his phenomenal bestseller and catapulted him to fame. According to the article, the elderly Mr. Adams is sick of always being known as the rabbit guy. He thinks the rabbit population is way out of control. "If I saw a rabbit in my garden, I'd shoot it," commented the writer.
     It took me a few days to get over the shock.  The betrayal!  This is the danger that comes from taking an allegory too literally.  How could he of all people, their creator, betray Hazel and Fiver?  The present Richard Adams would not in fact be the kindly "Doctor Adams," but some more sinister figure, in league with the builders who destroyed the Sandleford warren in the hellish "For El-ahrairah To Cry" chapter.  It gives me shivers.

2) The Witches of Worm
    Zilpha Keatley Snyder 

     Snyder was one of my favorite children's book authors. A prolific writer, she won Newbery awards for The Egypt Game, The Headless Cupid, and The Witches of Worm, and she is still writing today. I think I read all her books that were available in my childhood, including her very decent fantasy trilogy beginning with Below the Root. Although several of her books deal with supernatural and occult themes, The Witches of Worm is the only one that stands out in my mind as being really creepy. It is about a girl named Jessica who rescues a hairless blind kitten. The kitten, whom she names "Worm," is actually a kind of demon. The atmospheric, suspenseful writing makes this an absorbing, unique story.

3) The Doll House Murders 

      A girl named Amy is staying at her aunt's house, where her great-grandparents were murdered. In the attic, she finds an old dollhouse that is an exact replica of the house where she is staying. The dolls move to new positions every night, re-enacting the events of the night of the murders.  Kind of frightening for a kid.

4) Rosemary's Baby  

      So was this. I think I got both these books at my elementary school library.

5) Frankenstein     Read it now!
    Mary Shelley 

     For some reason this was the only book of the five that I never finished. That seems strange in retrospect because I loved Mary Shelley and Frankenstein isn't even that scary, though it is a little hard to read compared with the others. I remember reading biographies of Mary Shelley and giving a presentation on her life for a class in 8th grade. After that I tried reading Frankenstein, but I put it down in the middle when the monster suggests that Dr. Frankenstein make him a bride. The creepiness had built up gradually over many chapters and suddenly I just couldn't read any further.  Yet I continued to idolize the author for her romantic, tragic life.

   I am trying to understand what scares me and desensitize myself to it so that I can finish playing Silent Hill. That game (yes, I'm still on the first game) is like a scary book that you can't bear to read for long periods of time because the tension is unbearable. But I've never actually read a book that was that scary. Even scary movies I can generally watch all the way through without constantly pausing them to catch my breath and remind myself of reality. Not so with Silent Hill games, making them an irresistable challenge to me, but also driving me crazy in the process. Maybe if I go back and finish Frankenstein, I'll have the strength to continue.