Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Dark Side...

Imagine this scenario. You walk into a decrepit, deserted house, moving cautiously through an empty kitchen, a dirty bathroom with a "dead spider the size of a small cat" in the tub, and down a desolate hallway (Gaiman Coraline 126). You enter what used to be a bedroom with a "large metal ring" in the center of the floor (127). You realize, grimly, that this ring opens a trapdoor, a door that you have to open to discover what's inside. "Terribly slowly, stiffly, heavily," the trapdoor lifts to reveal a set of stairs leading down into utter darkness, and terribly slowly you make your way down those stairs, into the darkness and the stench, which smells of damp soil and rotting bread-dough. You feel along the walls and find a light switch, which turns on a naked bulb that sways dimly from the ceiling, revealing crude drawings of eyes on the peeling walls, cardboard boxes filled with molding newspapers, and a pile of curtains - with a foot protruding from underneath. You pull back the curtains, and there, on the floor, is a bloated, swollen doppleganger of your father. The thing turns its head to look at you, and its "mouth open[s] in the mouthless face, strands of pale stuff sticking to the lips, and [in] a voice that no longer even faintly resemble[s your] father's," it whispers your name (129). After a few painful moments, in which you discover that this zombie version of your father now stands between you and the cellar stairs, between you and escape, the "white, and huge, and swollen" thing dashes across the cellar towards you, "its toothless mouth open wide" (131). You realize you're left with two choices: "scream, and try to run away, and be chased around a badly lit cellar by the huge grub-thing" until it catches you and devours you - or draw on your own resources and do "something else" (131).

This seems like a lovely scene right out of the pages of your favorite children's book, right? Something you might read to your kiddos before sending them off to dreamland? Though it seems to be drawn more from the latest horror flick haunting the screens at the local cinema, the scene, in fact, comes from the popular children's book Coraline, written by Neil Gaiman and published in 2002. This book, chock-full of props from the horror genre, is not an anomaly in the world of children's literature either. In many of the world's most popular and well-known children's tales, terrifying characters often rear their ugly heads. From the child-devouring Baba Yaga in "Hansel and Gretel" to the biting, snatching Jabberwock in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass to R.L. Stine's Goosebumps series, horror elements are everywhere in the child's literary world. Consider the fairy tales written by the Grimm Brothers and Charles Perrault, for instance: Little Snow-White's evil stepmother wants to consume her innocent stepdaughter's heart for dinner; Little Red Riding Hood is devoured by a wolf for straying too far from the path and must be cut from the wolf's stomach by the huntsman; Bluebeard's dead wives are ranged along the walls in various states of murdered disarray.

What are scenes this frightening, so sensory and so ghastly, doing in books most often picked up by tween readers (my daughter read Coraline when she was 7 - and adored it)? Mainly, they must be truly terrifying in order to be successful; the children reading Coraline must be good and scared as Coraline sets foot into the Other Mother's world so that they can glean the true lesson that the book tries to teach (and Coraline, like any good fairy tale, has a moral). The child reading Coraline learns that you can only defeat your dragons by facing your fears, being brave when you don't want to be brave at all, a lesson that can translate from the haunted corridors of Coraline's gothic house to the schoolyard and the child's own dark bedroom. She also learns that she has to rely on her own intelligence to defeat the evil being. The moral? "Be wise. Be brave. Be tricky," as spoken by one of the ghost children Coraline meets who was not wise or brave or tricky enough (167).

Talking about the appeal of his novel for young children, Gaiman mused that "It was a story, I learned when people began to read it, that children read as an adventure, but which gave adults nightmares" ("Questions and Answers"). The horror that appears in Coraline heightens the delicious intensity of the adventure. As Coraline herself muses after she is told by her neighbors that she is in peril, danger can sound intriguing to a kid who is bored out of her wits: "In danger? thought Coraline to herself. It sounded exciting. It didn't sound like a bad thing. Not really" (31). For young readers, most likely also bored out of their skulls, the fantasy of the novel makes the danger safe. Like an adult getting pleasure out of the ax-wielding Jack chasing his son through the maze at the close of The Shining, who knows that the little boy will most likely escape (and he does, like Coraline, through his own cunning), the child reading Coraline knows that when he or she closes the book, he or she closes the door to the Other World. When the house lights go up, the Overlook and the Other World go dark. Nonetheless, we will continue to wonder what's on the other side of the wall and wait for our next adventure to the dark side.

Check out Gaiman's Coraline here. Make sure you read it in the dark, with a flashlight.

Tomorrow, a post of a different color - a children's book-themed baby shower.  You won't want to miss it.
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