The Horror of Children’s Stories

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This is repost from an earlier one. It’s still relevant though.

Picture this: a little girl has just thrown a bucket water over a Witch. What happens next is quite disturbing.

With these words the Witch fell down in a brown, melted shapeless mass and began to spread over the clean boards of the kitchen floor. Seeing that she had really melted away to nothing, Dorothy drew another bucket of water and threw it over the mess. She then swept it all out the door. After picking out the silver shoe, which was all that was left of the old woman, she cleaned and dried it with a cloth, and put it on her foot again.”

Now let’s get this straight… a little girl calmly melts an old woman, sweeps the gooey slime she has become out of the door like so much swill, and then calmly cleans her shoe like this sort of thing happened every day.

You might think the extract is taken from the latest gore-filled treat from Permuted Press, but it’s actually from L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, published in 1900. A children’s book. Of course, if you are only familiar with the 1939 Judy Garland film, you may remember the witch-melting scene was a little more wholesome. Certainly in the movie Dorothy didn’t have to clean up the disgusting sewage of what used to be a human being like she was doing a simple household chore. And in the movie version Dorothy felt pretty upset about the whole thing as well, even though the witch was evil and had tried to kill her.

Take another story: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. Now there are no violent scenes in that timeless classic, surely? Admittedly the Queen of Hearts threatens everyone with having their heads chopped off, but no one is unfortunate to actually have it done. But most of the violence of the Alice books is more subtle. According to Hugh Haughton in his introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Carroll’s books (1998), there is an underlying theme of eating and being eaten in the book. The characters are in more danger of being consumed by other characters than anything the Queen of Hearts might threaten. Alice eats and drinks various substances and changes size; the baby oysters are consumed by the Walrus and the Carpenter; the Hatter is obsessed by tea and bread and butter. There is also, of course, more overt violence: the Duchess physically abuses her baby son, the March Hare and the Hatter try to drown the Dormouse in tea, and the terrifying Giant Crow threatens Alice in the forest.

It doesn’t end with those books. In Peter Pan by J.M Barrie, the fairy Tinker Bell is a right bitch. Her first act on seeing Wendy is to get Tootles to shoot her with an arrow in an attempt to kill her. He almost succeeds. Tootles is so distraught he asks Peter to kill him.

Now, the point is that these are probably not events most people recall when remembering these tales. But they are there in the original books.

There have, of course, been many criticisms of traditional fairy tales as being too violent. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel and so forth contain considerable murder and mayhem. The difference between them and the more modern stories I’ve referred to is that these stories are folk tales, handed down over many years and added to, extended and changed over generations before being recorded by people like the Brothers Grimm. They were not written specifically for children. The adventures of Alice, Dorothy and Peter Pan were.

So what do we make if this? Are these stories in their original forms just too violent? I say “in their original forms” because each of those I mentioned has been “toned down” when made into films. Disney and Warner Brothers made a point of changing things so the stories were more wholesome for tender readers (or, in their case, viewers). Dorothy melts the Wicked Witch, but feels bad about it at least. Admittedly, modern versions of Alice (I refer specifically to the recent Tim Burton CGI extravaganza) may take liberties with the plot in which they do present a more dangerous version of Wonderland than the Disney version. But this is a modern trend, I submit, and I’ll mention it again later.

My point is (and I’ve taken a while making it) is that there is a wealth of trauma available to writers in children’s tales. Quite often where you wouldn’t expect it. In The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Toad not only steals a motor vehicle, he is actually in involved in numerous car accidents and is thrown in prison as a result. And I’m sure most of us remember the Narnia series by C. S Lewis, which tells of children not only fighting in wars but killing their adversaries with barely a nod at any feelings of guilt afterwards.

Writers might well find ideas in these tales. And that’s a good thing. While I’m not condoning the exposure of children to violence, death and horror, it certainly can entertain the adult reader and inspire the adult writer.

Back when these stories were written, I submit the world was a more violent place. There was no such thing as being an adolescent. One went from the caterpillar stage of childhood to the butterfly stage of adulthood without any inconvenient chrysalis stage of adolescence in between. People grew up earlier. Children’s books were violent because life was violent. It still is these days, but we don’t like to admit it and try to protect our children from its excesses. An example of this is the scene in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland where the Duchess throws her baby boy to Alice (who only just manages to catch him) after singing a song about how beating a child was a justifiable punishment for it sneezing. This would hardly have raised an eyebrow back in 1865. Children were beaten. The world was perhaps no better or worse than it is today, but violence was condoned more and seen as an acceptable solution to social and domestic problems. Carroll was using violence as nonsense, and perhaps as a comment on the philosophy of child-rearing at the time: the air in the Duchess’s house was full of pepper, the baby sneezed as a result, and so the Duchess beat him. Problem solved.

We would not condone such a practice today, even as nonsense, which is why this incident has not, my knowledge, been incorporated into any film adaptations of Alice so far ( I don’t include the Burton film there, as it is so far removed from the original story as to be a separate entity).

Burton’s film does, however, seek to make an adult vision of Wonderland (with a bit of Looking-Glass Land added into it). And that is how the horror of children’s stories can be used to good effect. Tales like Frank Beddor’s The Looking-Glass Wars is a classic use of a classic to create something new and insightful.

So horror is there in children’s stories. If you sit and read the originals and wonder why they all seem so different to what you thought they were about, or what you remembered when you read them as a kid, then I hope you can take a whole new delight in these children’s stories for grown-ups. And, as a writer, that they inspire you in your own tales of horror and fantasy.

Road Beasts

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I stand on the corner and watch the

Cars rush by.

 The drivers, in cocoons of metal and glass,

Windows up, the world shut out,

Air conditioning on, radio LOUD,

Listening to the drive-time DJ

Serve his daily dose of stereo bubble-gum.

 Where are they going, these car junkies?

What is so important

They risk their lives to bet there?

 See the drivers:

A man, his face set in anger,

Huddles over his steering-wheel

Like he has to hold it on,

Fumes the traffic is too slow,

Mouths his frustration:

“For God’s sake hurry up!”

To the other drivers, who cannot hear.

 A woman, her back-seat driving child

Swaddled in safety harness, safety seat,

Safety-nappy, dummy,

Thumbs a text message on her phone

As the car inches forward at the lights

Like her child’s life was merely incidental.

 A young man, out to impress,

His penis-exhaust throbbing,

One arm propped out the window,

The other reluctantly, insolently,

Resting lightly on the steering-wheel,

A cigarette set in the corner of his mouth

At just the right angle to make the girls notice.

 Road beasts, the cars, pass by,

Spewing, roaring, rushing, purring like cats,

Chugging, crawling,

Deep-chested booms and stutters,

Carrying cargoes of the helpless.

 What would we do without them?

No way to get from here to our next bit

Of mindless triviality.

 I stand on the corner and watch the cars rush by,

And I wonder to myself

Oh, why? Why? Why?

 

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

 

Is 2016 over yet?

It’s been quite a year for me.

In January my mother died. Diagnosed with kidney cancer in December last year, she was given four to six months to live. She refused any treatment — at 88 years old, she figured enough was enough. Besides, her brain had given way to Alzheimer’s disease and she knew she didn’t have long to go before she wasn’t herself anymore. So she was happy enough to go. It only took a month from the diagnosis before she passed away in hospital.

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After that life became different. I grieved for my mother, obviously, but the truth also struck me that I was now an orphan. And since I’d spent the previous five years as Mum’s carer and working part-time, the loss of her struck rather hard. Despite all my care and attention, looking after her as her brain died from the Alzheimer’s, she still didn’t make it. I continued to live in her apartment, and still do, since it came to me under her will.

But life wasn’t the same. Not just the loss of my mother, but just about everything else as well. Although I am now “my own man”, as some people have commented, I am still surrounded by Mum’s furniture, possessions and memories. Being my own man, no longer responsible for her basically 24 hours a day, has taken some getting used to.

Then there were other things. My workload (I’m a tutor and help schoolkids with their studies after hours) dropped off. One of my major employers halved my working hours–their right to do so, but it still made inroads into my income. And I didn’t feel much like working anyway. I kept saying to myself, and others, “I just need to get my head together”. I’ve been getting my head together for ten months now. Next year, I have promised myself, I will get back to serious work.

It’s been a weird year writing, too. After having three novels and six short stories published in 2015, this year’s haul is one self-published novel and one short story. That may sound a lot by some people’s standards, but my publisher dumped me this year as well, which is why the one novel was self-published. This didn’t make me feel good at the time. It still doesn’t.

And then last month I almost caused a serious motor vehicle accident. My fault entirely.

The thing that really sent me downhill just a short time ago was Trump winning the US election. I’m Australian, but who the US President is matters to the rest of the world, and Trump’s denial of climate change is a serious issue.

So I took a couple of weeks away from everything. No news. No social media. No conversations with people about anything remotely controversial. I dug out some storage cartons which held some of my old books. I hadn’t seen these in six years since I’d moved in with Mum. I found a lot of old friends among the books and decided to take a couple of weeks off reading, writing, working and ignoring the rest of the world.

That’s where I am now. I put myself down for the National Novel Writing Month again this year (NaNoWriMo) and haven’t kept up with it. I don’t see the need to turn my latest book into some sort of internalised competition. It will arrive in due course when it’s supposed to.

So here I am, just me and the cat and my laptop, and hoping that the year will finish up as soon as possible and I can maybe see something better next year.

To all who have wished me the best, thank you. To all you I have perhaps let down a little, maybe broken a promise or something, I apologise. I’ve been a very angry person for a long while now. My mother’s deteriorating health was one cause of that. My own stubborn character is another. I’m trying to be a nicer person.

Russell Proctor    http://www.russellproctor.com

 

An Apology and a Warning

I almost caused a traffic accident yesterday.

My fault entirely. I did a lane change without checking or signalling and a man in a 4WD behind me had to slam on his brakes so much they squealed. I have no idea how close we came to colliding. He pulled up beside me at the next set of lights and quite rightly abused me for the total idiot I was.

To him, and to any other drivers in the vicinity who may have been alarmed or also had to take evasive action, I deeply apologise. It must have been very scary for the guy in the 4WD. Had we collided the total blame would have been mine. He saved both of us.

Why I did it was simply because I didn’t think. Through a single moment of impatience I put someone else’s life at risk.

I find lately that driving is becoming more and more stressful for me. Perhaps I should give it away, although that will have repercussions for work having to use public transport. It’s not just a “go to work and come home at the end of the day” thing for what I do.

But I get impatient when driving. I need to curb that, to consider others more. I must do that or cause a major accident sometime.

That was the apology. But there are some things, not related to driving, that I will not curb my impatience about, and certainly won’t apologise for.

There are things that make me mad about the way some people act. And if this sounds hypocritical, given my episode in the car yesterday, then that’s what it is. I don’t care. Being hypocritical does not make me wrong.

One of the major things about people that gets me mad is ignorance. Let’s face it, we have the capacity these days to find out more stuff about stuff than ever before. And some people choose not to. They blindly go on wallowing in ignorance for some reason, choosing to believe something simply because they want to, in the face of all facts to the contrary.

Another thing is pretension. I hate it. Some people spend all the time thinking the universe revolves around them, that they must be the centre of attention at all times, that they are one of “the beautiful people” and we must worship them. My cat does that. But then he’s a cat, he doesn’t know any better (and he’s cute as a button, which makes up for it). People should know better.

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Other things: The selfish rich. “Trickle-down economics”. Conspiracy theorists. Braggarts. People who are cruel to animals or children. People who insist their way is the only way. People who know you are behind them on the escalator wanting to get through and refuse to move aside.

All of these and more.

My sociophobia doesn’t help. I hate being in a crowd. I’ve been known to choose not to do the shopping because there would be too many people in the supermarket. I hate waiting in a queue. I walk quickly, and have done so ever since I was a hurried (and harried) articled clerk for a law firm and had to move around the city in very quick time. I walk faster than most people. That makes walking along a crowded street a frustrating experience.

I know some of this is my fault. But here is the warning part of this post: those things that aren’t my fault I will continue to get mad about, continue to criticise, continue to harp on. They deserve my ire.

So I apologise for those things that are my fault. Even if I don’t know they are.

But the other stuff, not so.

 

Russell Proctor   www.russellproctor.com

 

 

The Past and the Present

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Ok, so here’s a revelation: unlike every other language in the world, the English language has only  two tense forms. Past and present.

An example of past tense: The girl walked to the shop.

An example of present tense: The girl walks to the shop.

Simple, no? But wait, you say, what about all those other tenses that put fine shades of meaning to our deathless prose? Future? Conditional? Surely they are there, I’ve used them myself!

Yes, they are, but they use the past and present forms. English expresses the other tenses by the use of auxiliary verbs. So the future tense is formed by adding the auxiliary verb will to the present tense.  She will walk to the shop.

There are arguably (and that’s one of the things I love about the English language, that people can actually argue about the grammar of it) eighteen English tenses:

  1. Present simple. She walks.
  2. Present continuous. She is walking.
  3. Past simple. She walked.
  4. Past continuous. She was walking.
  5. Present perfect simple. She has walked.
  6. Present perfect continuous. She has been walking.
  7. Past perfect simple. She had walked.
  8. Past perfect continuous. She had been walking.
  9. Future simple. She will walk.
  10. Future continuous. She will be walking.
  11. Future perfect simple. She will have walked.
  12. Future perfect continuous. She will have been walking.
  13. Conditional simple. She could/would  walk.
  14. Conditional continuous. She could/would be walking.
  15. Conditional perfect simple. She could/would have walked.
  16. Conditional perfect continuous. She could/would have been walking.
  17. Imperative. Walk!
  18. Infinitive. To walk is a pleasant activity.

Notice something? All of the tenses are based on just two forms of the verb. Walk and walked. With a host of auxiliary verbs such as has, have, been, will, be, could, etc these two forms create all the other tenses.

“Ah!” I hear you say, “but there is a third tense form in that list. The  -ing form.”

Well, yes, there is. But actually, no, there isn’t. Walked is the past tense, but walking is…well, what is it?

The  – ing form is the present participle. English has two tenses and two participles. With a regular verb, like walk, the past tense is formed by adding -ed. Walked. But with an irregular verb, like sing, things get more complicated.

Walk (Regular verb)

Present tense: Walk (I walk)

Past tense: Walked (Yesterday I walked)

Present participle: Walking (I am walking)

Past participle: Walked (I had walked)

Sing (Irregular verb)

Present tense: Sing (I sing)

Past tense: Sang (Yesterday I sang)

Present participle: Singing ( I am singing)

Past participle: Sung (I had sung)

So we use the auxiliary verbs with the participles. Of course, with regular verbs the past participle is the same as the past tense. But not with the irregular verbs. And there are many  irregular verbs in English.

So, you know all this. Or at least, you do because you get the tenses right every day, you just don’t know the grammatical mechanics behind it all. So what’s my point?

For some reason, some writers want to write in the present tense.

Why? This tendency seems particularly endemic to YA and teen writing. But it has crept (creeps/is creeping/has been creeping/will have crept…another beautifully irregular verb) into other demographics as well.

It’s actually harder to write in the present tense than in the past. So why do it? To make the action more immediate, I hear some writers say. How is it more immediate? I just don’t get it.

Call me old-fashioned if you will, but present tense writing smacks of pretension in my opinion, except when used for specific effect. For instance, I’ve used present tense to describe a dream sequence. It is also used in dialogue. A lot of dialogue is in present tense except during recount.

But it’s worse than just my opinion. As a teacher I’ve noticed that many students today think that you are supposed to write in the present tense. Or, even worse, they get confused and start writing in the past tense, switch to the present and then back again. Even the other tenses get mixed up because kids these days see present and past tense writing used so randomly.

So stop it guys! Use it for special effect, like a dream sequence, but not otherwise. I know, Charlotte Bronte slips into present tense occasionally in Jane Eyre, and then back to past, but she was Charlotte Bronte.

Russell Proctor  http://www.russellproctor.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greatest Sin of All

The world has never been easy. Let’s face it, there’s a lot out there that’s downright dangerous,  misunderstood and unknown. Even walking to the bus stop can get you killed these days. Terrorism, poverty, global warming, pollution…Homo sapiens has done a pretty good job screwing up a planet that had been just great for billions of years. And we’ve only been doing it since the last few thousand years, since we stopped being hunters and gatherers and settled down into communities.

And there are many reasons why we’ve done that. Not settled down, I mean screwed up the planet. But there is one thing that drives the destructive gene in human beings, that is the seed, as it were, for all the other stupidity we’ve managed to pull off since we climbed down from the trees and decided walking on two legs was a good idea (which it wasn’t).

I’m talking about ignorance.

You know what that is. We’ve all been guilty of it. Hell, I’ve managed to look pretty dumb on the odd occasion. But by ignorance I don’t mean just not knowing something. I mean deliberately deciding not to know something.

There are four types of ignorance. I mention these in my novel Plato’s Cave, but here they are again:

(1)   What we know we don’t know. For example, we know that we don’t know if there is life on other planets.

(2)   What we don’t know we don’t know. Until we know about it, we can’t actually know that we don’t know something.

(3)   What we think we know, but don’t. Maybe apples don’t really grow on trees, it just looks that way. We’ve been fooling ourselves with appearances.

(4)   What we don’t think we know, but do. Maybe we already possess the key to time travel. We just haven’t realised it yet.

Those types of ignorance are fine because they allow the possibility that our ignorance will one day be lifted. If we keep asking enough of the right sort of questions and keep looking for the answers in a practical way, there’s a chance our ignorance will change to knowledge. In other words, the four types of ignorance listed above are scientific. Used properly, they have the ability to lead a sufficiently curious anthropoid ape towards the truth.

But there is another type of ignorance that actually lies beneath these four. And that is the type I’m calling the greatest sin of all.

(5) What we choose not to know.

For many reasons, there are people who deliberately decide not to know about something. The knowledge they eschew might conflict with their own personal beliefs. If they accepted the truth, it would contradict what they choose to believe, and that keeps them ignorant. Or, they might think that discovering the truth is too much like hard work. Or it requires them to associate with people they don’t wish to acknowledge. There are many reasons. None of them are legitimate.

This is what makes that type of ignorance a sin.

A few examples:

  1.  Homophobes choose to be ignorant about why people are LGBT. They think there is a choice in the matter, that gay people somehow, at some point in their lives, choose to be gay. The homophobes don’t want to know that gay people are gay because they are gay. They were born that way. Maybe homophobes object on religious grounds. Maybe they think gay people have some kind of hidden plan to steal children because they can’t have their own. Or that there is some kind of  “gay agenda”. (If there is I missed the memo). All poppycock of course. It’s worth remembering that the word “homophobe” means “fear of man”. That’s what their hatred stems from. Fear. Not knowledge.
  2. Literature.  Love it or hate it, it’s still a necessary part of our lives. I am a teacher and when I teach poetry I tell my students that there are only two types of people who read poetry: other poets, and students who are forced to read it by their teachers. That’s not true, of course, but it breaks the ice. I then tell them that the reason people don’t like reading poetry is because it forces them to think. And who wants to do that? Then I ask them what pop songs they like and get some responses. Their interest in poetry usually shifts after I explain to them that songs are just poetry set to music. They already like poetry, they just weren’t aware of it (see types of ignorance number 4 above). So too with other types of literature. Reading helps relieve ignorance. But some people choose not to read because it interferes with their decision not to think about things, or it’s too much hard work.
  3. Global warming. Most people accept global warming. A few don’t. A dangerous few. They have chosen to be ignorant for commercial reasons. Because the fact of global warming interferes with their desire to make enormous wads of cash they refuse to accept the truth. These people unfortunately have the capacity to influence politicians who decide to accept their dangerous disbelief because it keeps them in power.

There are many other examples. War. Religion. Conspiracy theories. World hunger. Terrorism. Astrology. All of these stem, ultimately, from deliberate ignorance.

That’s why I became a teacher. I help take some of the ignorance away from the world. Sometimes I despair when I go on the internet and find someone touting homeopathy, or warning that the world will end next Tuesday week. But I keep trying, because deliberate ignorance can be fought and defeated.

Russell Proctor   http://www.russellproctor.com