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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Alice in Wonderland v The Red King

I am in the process of writing a new horror/fantasy series, The Jabberwocky Book. It’s a mash-up featuring Alice Liddell from Alice in Wonderland and Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz.

London is being stalked by a supernatural serial killer from Alice’s past, the Red King she met in Looking-Glass Land (Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There). Only our intrepid heroines can stop him, aided by the son of Inspector Lestrade from the Sherlock Holmes stories.

Reaction to the first book, The Red King, has been very positive. I am now writing the second in the series, titled An Unkindness of Ravens. The third volume, tying up the whole story, is to be called The Looking-Glass War.

I thought I might publish the first two chapters of The Red King here, to give a taste of what is to come.

The Red King should be out later this year. Keep watching!

1

The Queen is dead.

 Long live the King.

The Red King smiled at his wife’s corpse as her blood made a widening pool on the floor. A good kill: he had spared the Queen too much suffering, just a quick thrust through her heart with the Bandersnatch knife. Best to do the deed quickly; he at least owed her that.

Through the tower window, from out of the Forest of Forget, came the clash of metal and the thud of battle-horses’ hooves as the Knights hurried towards the castle.
Curse them! They would know the Red Queen was dead; all the Land would tremble at her passing. The animals in the forest would know, the creatures on the river would know, as would the people in the towns scattered across the chessboard fields. But he was ahead of them all. His escape was ready.
He left the corpse where it was, crossed the room to a thick tapestry on one wall and quickly pulled it aside. Behind was a disused fireplace with a mirror hung above it. A shiver passed through him as the temperature in the room suddenly dropped. He gripped the edges of the Looking-Glass, long crooked fingers wrapped far around the wooden frame, and stared at his reflection for a moment, smiling. He had been asleep too long – for an age and more. This was a good day, the best day. No more sharing the throne, no more chess game. No more Queen.
He closed his eyes and breathed deeply, waiting for the last few seconds of the last ten years to run out. The timing was so delicate, so fine…
Under his fingers, the Looking-Glass’s wooden frame shivered for a moment, and was still. The sign.
The King opened his eyes and looked deeply into the mirror. His reflection blurred and faded, colours swirled and shifted, coalesced again to form the drawing room of a comfortable house. His image was nowhere to be seen; the glass reflected neither the throne room, nor the tapestries on the walls. The Looking-Glass’s surface was cold, very cold – there were only a few moments to act. The other side of the mirror waited, but it would not wait for long.
Something behind him – a bright flash of light? He turned his head, but there was no one else alive in the room. Three loud explosions like thunder, in quick succession, filled the air around him. Then silence.
He tensed, suddenly afraid. Had the Knights arrived already? Were they pounding the castle with cannons? But no, that was not possible; the sounds must have been in his head. It was nerves; fear; adrenalin from the murder of his wife playing tricks on him. Fear was irrational, something felt by weaklings, not Kings.
He smiled and faced the Looking-Glass again. It was time to pass through…
Yet still he paused: was this right? Was it the way? While the Knights were in the forest surrounding the castle all was safe, for there they could not remember anything. The trees sucked away memory, drinking it through their roots, using it to confound those wandering beneath them. Even their own names were lost. But when the Knights eventually emerged from beneath the brooding trees they would remember their quest. Then mercy would remain the one thing still forgotten.
He glanced back again at the body of the Queen, at her open, staring eyes: so blue, so deeply, brightly blue – he had never noticed their lustre before. But she was quite dead. Yes, escape through the Looking-Glass was the right thing to do, the only thing. There was no ruling the Land now. The Knights would see the deed and rip out his heart for what had been done to the Queen.

But they would be too late: the Looking-Glass was ready, and once the King passed through, the Knights could not follow. Let the silly creatures hunt all they liked. Now, he was free, and ready to begin again.
He used a chair to climb onto the mantelpiece of the large fireplace over which the Looking-Glass hung, took a deep breath, and stepped through. A moment of darkness as realities collided, a moment of disorientation as his body adjusted to being in a new universe, and he was there. No problem at all – a child could do it.
Once, long ago, a child had.
A room in a house surrounded him now instead of the castle. Richly furnished, with dark blue wallpaper; a fireplace filled with black, cold ashes; a heavy panelled door, ornately carved. Early dawn peeked through the curtains. So this was the world on the other side of the Looking-Glass. The King climbed down from the mantelpiece.
Sudden weakness hit him. His legs were unable to support his weight. Somehow, form and substance vanished here. He grabbed the corner of the fireplace and rocked slightly. An effect of the transition between worlds, perhaps. Life-force drained away.

He looked at his hands. They were transparent. He was becoming a ghost, fading away to nothing. Panic hit him. He turned back to the Looking-Glass, but it was already too late; its power was gone in the transference. There was no return that way, not yet, not until the power built up again in ten years’ time.
The King’s body faded, washed out, until just a shadow remained, an outline of darkness on the carpet, the wan sunlight through the window the only illumination to give any sign of his reality. Was this how forms existed in the other world? It was not right, not the way it should be.
Suddenly, the door opened. He swung to face it, white teeth bared in a snarl, one hand reaching for the Bandersnatch knife in his belt. But his scowl turned to open-mouthed astonishment.
It was her! Older, taller, but there was no mistake – the same long blond hair, the same pale face: the girl in his dreams, the Yellow Child, the one who had dared to become a queen. She stopped with one hand on the doorknob, the other hand holding a lighted candle, looking into the room.
The King drew the knife silently from its sheath, but it, too, was merely a thing of shadow. The blade that just a few minutes ago had sliced between the ribs of the Red Queen could do this woman no harm. He groped backwards towards a small table on which a heavy vase sat, but his hand went through it. Like the rest of him, like the knife, it was as insubstantial as a wraith’s.
The woman stood, peering into the room, the candle held high. Then she saw his faint ghostly outline, made more definite by the candlelight. She could see him: a dim, blurred shape. But there was enough form yet left to define the face and the robes and the crown on his head. They were familiar, coming back to her memory after many years.
Their eyes met for a fraction of a second, and she nodded slowly.
‘You,’ she mouthed silently, and glanced at the drawn knife in his hand. But still she did not move or try to protect herself.
He screamed, a howl of anger and frustration and defiance, but no sound reached the woman. His mist-like body could not distort the air enough to be heard. The Yellow Child just stood and glared back at his mutely howling face. He rushed towards her, and at the last moment she flinched, holding the candle up between them. As his face came close to hers, he took on a more solid form. There was a moment when he might have been corporeal enough to grab her, to ask what was happening, why he was a ghost…

…Alice woke, body twisted under the bedclothes, one arm held up as if to ward off a blow. The bedroom was in darkness, just a thin stream of moonlight leaking through the thick curtains. On the dressing table, a clock ticked loudly: four o’clock in the morning.
She sat up as the last shreds of the nightmare fell away, ran a hand through her long blonde hair and sighed out a breath. Then she rose and crossed to the window. The curtains were slightly drawn. Outside, London lay in the quiet of dawn, still asleep, unaware. Alice remembered her vision.
He was here, the Red King. But why? Why, after all these years, could the Land not remain just a dream? The time was right: ten years. Ten years since the Looking-Glass had last spat out something from the ragged edges of the mind…
Softly, in the darkness of the bedroom, Alice began to cry.

2

There were new worlds everywhere, Dorothy Gale decided. New worlds to go with a new century.
Most strange were the worlds next door, the ones that lay only a few days’ travel away. You didn’t arrive by riding a cyclone or even falling down a rabbit hole, but by boarding a ship and spending a few uneventful days at sea. She stood outside Waterloo railway station and stared about her at the swarm of London, capital of the Old World: as far from Kansas as it was possible to be, she reckoned, without actually going back again. Wonders were nothing new, of course, but even the Emerald City’s grandeur had a rival in this seething metropolis.
Dorothy was used to arriving in a new land unceremoniously, dumped there with no resources; the last time had been by shipwreck with only a hen for company. But this was somehow more disconcerting, arriving with a suitcase borrowed from her cousin and a few other pieces of luggage that Aunt Em had insisted she would need. The train journey from Kansas to New York, the voyage across the Atlantic, another rail trip from Dover where the great ocean liner had docked: it had been an interesting four weeks. But it was not how she was used to travelling at all. Even though it was the way everyone else travelled – the way, indeed, one was meant to travel – it somehow felt wrong.
‘Miss Gale?’
A tall man stood beside her. He was middle-aged, dressed in pin-striped trousers and black jacket, a thin moustache across his upper lip which literally looked like it had been drawn there. She backed away from him a step or two, hugging her handbag close to her chest.
‘I am Cartwright,’ said the man. He attempted to smile, but in Cartwright’s case this was never more than a sucking in of his upper lip so that his moustache disappeared. He nodded self-consciously. ‘Mrs Hargreaves’ butler. I presume you are Miss Dorothy Gale?’
Dorothy nodded. She had never met a butler before: not, at least, a private one to an English person. She had seen pictures of them, and had noticed several valets and maids travelling with their employers on the ship. But a real-life butler who actually came to pick her up at the station – that was another new experience in this new world.
For his part, Cartwright surveyed the young girl dubiously. He was not an expert on young girls, or females of any sort for that matter. The girl’s freckles and bright expression indicated nothing to his mind other than a fairly gormless naivety. The plain blue travelling dress likewise hinted at simple tastes and modest means. The red braids – well, best just to ignore them completely.
‘It is my duty to escort you to Mrs Hargreaves’ home,’ said Cartwright, sallying forth despite his doubts. ‘She sends her apologies that she is unable to meet you in person, and that you had to find your own way from Dover.’
‘Thank you, Mr Cartwright.’ Dorothy found her voice at last, and performed a curtsey.
‘Please, Miss Gale, call me Cartwright. No “mister” is needed.’ The girl was from America, after all. Kansas, apparently. From what he had heard of the place, they had no sense of class at all, no bearing, as his father would have said. Kansas was part of the Corn Belt, whatever that was. Full of farmers, no doubt, all decked out in overalls with pitchforks in their gnarled but honest hands. It sounded ghastly. He performed his sucked-in smile again, the moustache re-appearing afterwards like a moist caterpillar. ‘And I assure you that it is not necessary to curtsey to me.’
‘I didn’t know if I should do that,’ she said. ‘You bein’ my first butler an’ all.’
He sighed patiently. ‘You’re a guest. A curtsey is inappropriate.’ He turned to her suitcase. ‘Is this your luggage? Permit me to obtain the services of a boy who can assist us with that. And we’ll need a growler.’
‘A what?’
‘A cab big enough to take your luggage. The omnibus will be too crowded. Please wait here.’ He strode off, leaving a faint whiff of moral indignation in the air.
A few minutes later he returned with a small but brawny lad in tow and a Clarence cab drawn up ready to receive them. The boy helped the cabbie to load Dorothy’s luggage onto the growler and took the coin Cartwright handed him.
They rattled along in silence for a while, Cartwright staring out of the window with all the aloofness Dorothy had heard they should possess. She shuffled her feet and fidgeted with her purse. Eventually she could stand it no longer.
‘Have you been workin’ with Mrs Hargreaves long?’ she asked.
There was a moment’s pause as Cartwright considered the dangers of entering into idle conversation with a guest.
‘Two years,’ he replied eventually. ‘Mister Hargreaves was good enough to take me in. Now, please refrain from talking. I’ve been asked to acquaint you with certain rules before you meet my employer. So be patient and listen attentively.’
Dorothy had briefly been to school, where she had learned the basics of reading and writing, until Uncle Henry could no longer afford to send her. The teacher had acted just like Cartwright, and said the same sort of things. It had annoyed her then, too.
The butler reached into a breast pocket and extracted a carefully folded piece of paper and a pencil. Dorothy could see lines of meticulous script. Cartwright cleared his throat.
‘Number one,’ he read. ‘On no account –.’
‘Excuse me,’ said Dorothy politely, ‘but are these Mrs Hargreaves’ rules?’
The child would apparently continue to ask questions, despite his enjoinment to sit still and be quiet. How odd. ‘Not all of them. Some are mine. Number one –.’
‘Which ones are yours and which are hers?’
‘Number one. On no account are you to enter the cellar.’ He made a small, neat tick next to that item on the list. ‘Number two –.’
‘Why would I want to go into the cellar?’
They crossed the Thames on Westminster Bridge and headed for Trafalgar Square, then onto Mayfair. Some rows of houses on either side momentarily distracted Dorothy, who gazed out at the identical buildings, all attached to each other, surrounded by high steel railings. What a strange way to live. And so little grass or trees anywhere. Again she thought with a touch of nostalgia about the tiny one-roomed farmhouse she used to share with her Aunt and Uncle. That was odd – she had never felt sentimental about that rickety old shack before. It was far away now, of course, carried off by a tornado.
‘Number two…’
But Dorothy was only half listening as she continued to look at the city passing by. There were quite a few rules Cartwright was reading out, mostly about her not going to places in Mrs Hargreaves’ house that Cartwright did not want her going, times of meals and so forth. It sounded like an enormous house. After the first dozen mundane regulations, however, there were a couple more peculiar ones.
‘Number thirteen,’ said Cartwright, turning the page over. ‘On no account are you to play chess or cards, or request to do so. Do you have any chess sets or cards in your luggage?’
‘Don’t play either of them. Uncle Henry plays cards occasionally, but Aunt Em gets mad if she finds out. She reckons he loses too much money.’
‘I am not interested in your family’s distractions. I am interested in you.’
‘I can understand Mrs Hargreaves not likin’ cards or chess. But why can’t I play ’em if I want to?’
Answering foolish questions was none of Cartwright’s concern, particularly questions to which he did not know the answer. Mrs Hargreaves had forbidden chess and cards – that was reason enough in that weird household. He ticked number thirteen a little more firmly than the others.
‘Number fourteen. Mrs Hargreaves serves tea at four-fifteen each Tuesday, Thursday and Friday afternoon. You will be prompt in attendance as Darjeeling is not pleasant lukewarm. Besides, she often has ladies in attendance who don’t like waiting for guests.’
Dorothy refrained from asking what Darjeeling was.
He double-checked both sides of the paper, made sure that each item on the list had a tick beside it, folded it and slipped it back into his pocket. Another job done. ‘Any questions?’ he asked.
‘I’m allowed to ask questions now?’ she asked.
‘Of course.’
‘In that case, Mr Cartwright, I don’t have any.’
The butler sighed heavily and gazed out of the window for the first time since the journey began, sucking in his moustache thoughtfully. Then he let it out again with a dull pop of wet lips. Dorothy only just prevented herself from laughing.
The rest of the ride continued in silence.