Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Wuggly-Ump ...

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From the child-devouring Baba Yaga in "Hansel and Gretel" to the biting, snatching Jabberwock in Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass to the innumerable ghouls and goblins currently haunting the shelves of the local Barnes and Noble, gothic and horror elements are everywhere in the child's literary world. Consider the fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault, for instance, in which horrific elements are central to many of the stories: Little Snow-White's evil step-mother wants to consume the lungs and liver of her innocent step-daughter for dinner; a young girl watches another girl be chopped into pieces as she is prepared to be eaten; Bluebeard's dead wives are ranged along the walls of his secret chamber, their throats slit and their voices forever silenced. To take up contemporary currents in children's and young adult literature, today's most popular books depend heavily on the gothic tradition and the conventions of dark fantasy. Harry Potter, Twilight, A Series of Unfortunate Events, Coraline and The Graveyard Book, A Tale Dark and Grimm. The latest novels to hit the scene, The Hunger Games trilogy, make the entire world a haunted house, a scary space that must be navigated by the heroine if she is to survive. 

Typically, the monstrous in these books serves to allow the child reading to slay the dragon, to step into the world of the book and triumphantly defeat the monstrous, much as Alice leaps into a book in the Looking-Glass World to defeat the Jabberwock. In these types of books, the horrific rarely triumps, and the hero/heroine, in confronting it, is pressed further on his or her journey toward a more experienced, savvy personhood. In other texts that employ elements from the gothic and horror genres, however, the world becomes a Wonderland of terror and the inclusion of the ghastly borders on playful. 

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Tomorrow, I leave for DC with my oldest daughter in tow to present on one of the authors whose work falls into this latter category, Edward Gorey. His work is unsettling. Often sadistic and mean-spirited. Downright funny ... sometimes. Rhymes that bounce over the darker substance boiling below. I love his work, and I am utterly disturbed by it at the very same time. It's a delicate sort of horror; think picture books for goths. 

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My favorite, perhaps, is the tale of the Wuggly-Ump. This bone-crunching monster lives in a lair where he munches on mud, umbrellas, gunny-sacks, etc. Until one day, like the witch in "Hansel and Gretel," he decides that he has developed a taste for children. And he sets off hurtling across the hills, "Kerbash, Kerplump," in search of some tender morsels. Kids probably just find the Wuggly-Ump a tad scary, like Carroll's Jabberwock. For me, the Ump represents the onset of adulthood, which devours the unsuspecting children; the wolf at the door that consumes and alters you indefinitely. Terrifying. 

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Gorey, in fact, probably would have hated the fact that I wrote a paper about his books at all. At least I didn't use the word "macabre." He hated that as well. Wish me luck! ~Alice

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