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.

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The Red King is Coming

My new novel, The Red King, Volume 1 in ‘The Jabberwocky Book’ horror-fantasy series, is out in March 2015.

For more information, and to subscribe to ‘The Jabberwocky Book’ newsletter, fill out the form below. Giveaways,  extra information and insights.

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Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

10 Books to Keep No Matter What

 

A church near us is having a rummage sale. A flyer was put in our letter box asking for any donations, so I decided to go through my collection of books and see if there were any I didn’t need any longer.

That sounds almost sacrilegious: of course I need books! But lately I have managed to fill six bookcases, and some of them I know I’ll never read again, so it’s better that other people get the chance to read them than they just take up room on my bookshelves. There is some sanity in these things to cling to.

So I spent a day going through my books and seeing which ones I could bear to part with, and which I knew I would never desert. It was a great day, not painful at all, but certainly full of memories as I pulled volume after volume off the shelves, flicked through them, and recalled what I did and didn’t like about them.

The decision became not which ones do I donate, but which do I keep? So I made that my benchmark.

I won’t tell you which ones I donated – rather, the interesting question became why I wanted to keep certain books. What is it about them that makes me want to hang onto them?

So in no particular order, just as they came off the shelves, here are a few I decided to keep, and the reasons why:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams.

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This one was easy. It’s actually the first four instalments of his trilogy (and if you don’t understand that reference, it’s probably because you haven’t read them). But I always figured the first one was the best. After all, Earth is destroyed in the first few chapters, and towards the end our hero discovers the answer to life, the universe and everything. That’s an enormous task for one average-length book. Funny, very witty, and also deeply wise, this book has always been a favourite of mine. Adams managed to turn conventional science-fiction on its head and created something quite unique. His quirky insights to the human condition, in particular the absurdity of our never-ending quest for meaning in a meaningless universe, are inspirational far beyond his original intentions.

Moby-Dick, Herman Melville

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This is a very misunderstood book. Let’s face it, it isn’t exactly easy to read, and Melville breaks off the narrative a lot to digress on aspects of whaling that frankly have nothing to do with the plot. In some ways it’s the great American novel, in others it’s a handbook on whaling. Whole chapters are devoted to stream-of-consciousness musings by the characters, of whom there are a multitude. Melville makes errors too, patently declaring that a whale is a fish – even arguing the point at length. But the narrative, when it’s there, is tremendous. The last hundred or so pages bowl along madly. I’ve read this book a couple of times at least, and it’s one of those amazing stories in which you find different things with each read. Just don’t expect it to flow from A to B like a conventional novel – the deliberate, almost continuous, narrative collapse disallows that.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass , Lewis Carroll.

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Two separate books, often confused as one, and often confused as to content as well. Hollywood consistently seems to mix the books up, placing characters from one into the other and playing with the order of events. The dream adventures of a seven-year old girl have bewitched people for over a hundred years. What is so fascinating about these books? They are far from being the total nonsense they are often taken for. Experts have determined that mathematical concepts are contained in Wonderland’s chapters, and of course Looking-Glass is based on a chess game. I myself have used these books as inspiration for my horror/fantasy series The Jabberwocky Book. They remain as timeless as they are haunting. There is something about Alice’s adventures that touch deeply hidden parts of the human psyche. Or something. Maybe it’s just magic.

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte.

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Come on, I have to mention this one, even though I am a guy. But it’s a girl’s book, I hear you declare. It’s a romance, isn’t it? Boy meets girl sort of stuff. Yes, it is. And then there’s the rest. Betrayal, violence, the supernatural, storms aplenty and not a single bit of bodice-ripping.  It’s a powerful tale of two families torn apart by the incursion of the Other, which is a Gothic concept Mary Shelley demonstrated so well in Frankenstein. Something from outside intrudes into the natural order of things and tears it apart. The tragic tale of Cathy and Heathcliff has repercussions for us all. This was Emily Bronte’s only book – she was much less productive than either of her sisters. But in my opinion this is the book that outshines the others.  Emily was one strange puppy if this is what was going on in her head.

Where Eagles Dare, Alistair MacLean.

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All right then, here’s a boy’s book. In World War II a brave bunch of British (and one American) commandos infiltrate the headquarters of the Nazi Alpenkorps in the heart of Germany to rescue a captured American General. Or do they? Is there something else going on? If I was ever to write a book about how to write a thriller, this is the example I would base it on. Absolutely gripping from the first page to the last, with many twists and turns that will have your head snapping. And the movie was good too. Nazis are great to use as an enemy – no reader will take offence. I’ve read this one a number of times, and even though not knowing the real nature of the commandos’ mission is the key to the surprise element of the book, it’s still great to read even when you do know it. It’s just that good.

A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle

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This book has its faults. It’s a bit…well, gooey. The nice people are really nice and the bad people are really bad and there’s an underlying Christian overtone that rankles (if an overtone can be said to underlie something – not a good description, I guess).  But I love the story anyway for its unusual and even daring experimentation. And any author who has the courage to literally begin a book with the words ‘It was a dark and stormy night’ deserves respect. The tale of Meg and Charles Wallace and Calvin rescuing Meg’s father from the clutches of an oversized pulsating brain from another planet could have been really, really trite. But L’Engle does it really well, despite the gooiness. I have to say the subsequent books in the series were nowhere near as good, which is a great pity since this one is a gem – a sticky one, but a gem.

The Oxford English Dictionary

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It comes in many forms, and is also available in CD form or online. all of which is good. I’m not trying to promote the Oxford over any other language’s dictionaries, of course, it’s just that English is the only language I know. This book certainly has all the words, even if it is a bit light on plot. I confess to reading dictionaries for fun. That is, dipping into them and finding out new words. I use it a lot when writing too, of course. It’s a pity that a lot of people don’t use this book more often than they do. As a teacher, I encourage my students to use it, but many don’t even seem to consider doing so. Which is a shame.

Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, Mervyn Peake.

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I’m putting three books together on this one, which is a cheat, but I did it with little Alice above, and these books do need to be considered as a whole, even though the third one was left unfinished when Mervyn Peake died. To me, Peake was an incredible influence. I was captivated by Titus Groan when I first read it as a teenager. Writing with an artist’s eye, Peake’s descriptions of setting and people were second to none. And the convoluted, Gothic plot about the mad castle of Gormenghast and its madder inhabitants resonates with me profoundly. Only…I don’t know why. As an unfinished work, it of course lacks cohesion. There are unfinished sub-plots, extraneous characters and many unanswered questions. But there is no denying the trilogy’s power.

The Night Land, William Hope Hodgson,

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Another weird work that I have found very influential. And another flawed one, like the Gormenghast series and A Wrinkle in Time. But aren’t all books flawed in some way? Nothing is perfect. This is a spectacular vision of a dark – literally – and immensely remote future of an Earth after the Sun has died. Hodgson was a horror writer of some note during his lifetime, but his works haven’t resonated well with modern audiences. This is a shame, because the imaginative journey in this one is staggering. Very long, over 200,000 words, with basically just two characters, one of whom isn’t in the first half of the book. And chilling. Very, very scary. It’s a pity Hodgson was killed in the First World War – he could have done so much more with a mind like his.

Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky

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I wouldn’t want to be accused of only adding English-speaking authors here. This was another much-loved book from my youth. The tale of a double-murder from the point of view of the murderer himself is a great picture of a man who isn’t innately bad, but who is forced to extremes for the purposes of survival. And of course, the redemption at the end, just so everyone goes home in a good mood. I had to read it in translation, of course, but it was a good translation, and there’s nothing wrong with reading a good translation.

 

There are so many other books I could have added, but these were just some I sorted through for the jumble sale. None of these are going there. They will remain on my shelves for as long as I’m around, and maybe after.

 

You will, of course, have your own list, and that’s good too. I’d be interested in hearing from anyone’s own list of books they will never get rid of.

 

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

 

Them’s Writing Words

I write in the mornings. I have to: I work in the afternoons and evenings. But I think I’d write in the mornings anyway, given that my mind is then fresh and I have some kind of enthusiasm going for me.

Now I have book contracts out there, I have deadlines. And meeting the deadline is what turns things into a need to churn out a certain number of words a day. I often hear other writers say how many words they do per day: 2,000, 3,000 – even one who boasted she’d done 22,000 in one weekend. Some do 20,000 words a week. Some can churn out a novel in six weeks.

I set myself at 1,000 words a day for five days a week. After 1,000 words my brain starts to scream at me to stop the pain, although the most I did once was 4,000 in one sitting. My first book, ‘Days of Iron’, too me ten years to write. It’s still due for another edit. It could be better.

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Nicholas Monsarrat, author of ‘The Tribe That Lost Its Head’ and ‘The Master Mariner’, wrote 600 words a day. He did this after consuming two beers for breakfast. R. F. Delderfield wrote 23 pages a day. Georges Simenon, 20 pages. Jack London, between 1,000 and 1500 per day; Stephen King, 2,000. It took J. R. R. Tolkein eleven years to write ‘The Lord of the Rings’, which is a hefty 670,000 words. That works out to 245 words a day.

Every writer has their goal of words per day. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter, as long as the thing gets done.

Apart from words per day, writers have their own schedules for drafting, research, editing. I tend to research as I go. My current series, ‘The Jabberwocky Book’, (https://www.facebook.com/writerproctor) needs a lot of research as it’s set in London in 1901. While I’ve been to London, I wasn’t there in 1901. A lot has changed. In the first novel of the series, ‘The Red King’, there is a scene set in a hansom cab – an action scene involving an escape from kidnappers. My heroine (Dorothy Gale from ‘The Wizard of Oz’) fights off an attacker while the cab barrels along the road late at night. Only thing was, some of the things she did to escape were not possible in a hansom cab. I had to research about the design of cabs in order to re-write the scene. The second book, ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’, is set in New York. I have to research carefully as to what buildings were in existence back then.

Research is vital. I read a book recently in which the hero reads ‘Ulysses’ by James Joyce. Problem is, the book was set in the Nineteenth Century and ‘Ulysses’ was first published in 1922. Readers will pick up things like that. So, I research as I go. I’ll write something and then stop to do research when the story goes in a certain direction.

Editing is another thing writers have to plan for. I edit my books several times over, changing things a lot the first few times, not so much in the end. And I still find things I wish to change even after the book is out. Getting friends to read what you’ve written and giving advice is another essential thing, although sometimes they take too long.

So, writing is hard work, and the results are not guaranteed. But, of course, we continue to do it. Simply because we have to.

So I write in the mornings and work in the evenings. It’s a good life. I allow myself Sundays off, sometimes. Often I’m doing research or whatever, or trying out other ideas. Or writing a poem.

So, back to the grind. I haven’t done my 1,000 words yet. And I need to research a few things about cathedrals.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com

The Red King Characters 1

I’m writing a book series, ‘The Jabberwocky Book’ about the grown-up adventures of Alice Liddell from ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Dorothy Gale from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, fighting supernatural forces in Edwardian London.

The first volume is titled ‘The Red King’ and is due out later this year.

The second is ‘An Unkindness of Ravens’, and the third will be ‘The Looking-Glass War’.

All three will be horror/fantasy adventures of the two girls – with Alice all grown up and married. They are assisted by the son of Inspector Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

I thought I would introduce you to some of the characters from the book. Today, we have our two chief protagonists, Alice and Dorothy.

Alice is now 45 years old, married and living a respectable life in London society. Unfortunately, her dreams won’t let her forget the fantastic adventures she had as a little girl. Except now, they are nightmares.

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Dorothy is still just a teenager, fresh from two adventures in the Land of Oz, but realising that Edwardian society in England can be just as peculiar and dangerous to a simple farm girl from Kansas.

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Look for more about the series in later posts.

Russell Proctor http://www.russellproctor.com