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Picturebook Study: The Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean

The Wolves In The Walls

The main child character has a naturalistic hand but basically dots for eyes. The wolf is depicted as an outline but has naturalistic wolf eyes. Lucy is an inverse of the wolf. Which parts of Lucy are wolflike and which parts of the wolf are Lucy?

Have you ever had something living in your walls or in your roof space, or cellar?

Apparently the story was inspired by his own daughter, who heard rats in the walls at night. (So do we — they’re actually mice…) Hearing rodents in the walls isn’t all that uncommon. And rodents are most active at night. It really is quite disturbing to hear two a.m. scrabbling right behind your head: You’re not quite sure they’re rodents, they’re so close to you, yet you can’t see them. And it’s not easy to do much about them, either. You have to wait for them to come out and eat the bait you’ve placed elsewhere.

A PICTUREBOOK FOR OLDER READERS

There are few picturebooks for older readers, and even fewer published today, with children encouraged to read chapter books earlier than ever before. This picture book is longer than your typical toddler-targeted picturebook and is aimed at readers who might otherwise be reading a chapter of a chapter book. Themes are commensurately dark, under the assumption that an older reader can cope, and isn’t necessarily going to wake up at midnight from nightmares.

There’s a good reason why this book is a bit longer: It’s an example of the horror genre in picture book format.

Am I the only one who thought this is a mishmash of H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls” and the classic wolf-riddled admonitory bedtime stories like “Little Red Riding Hood” and “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”?

Goodreads reviewer

Does Gaiman’s story have anything to do with Lovecraft’s The Rats In The Walls? That is a story set almost 100 years ago in a renovated castle. This is a modern, warm house with modern technology such as computer games, and a 1950s mother figure in the kitchen making jam. What could possibly go wrong? In Lovecraft’s story he gathers a posse of experts from England who know all about medieval stuff and they find a terrifying grotto below the basement which is the scene of a horrendous ancient civilisation in which creatures (including humans) were kept in cages to be eaten by an army of rats.

While I don’t think this picturebook has all that much in common with Lovecraft’s story, there are some tropes common in horror:

  • The hero hears strange goings-on but no one else in the house believes them.
  • The strange goings-on happen in the middle of the night.
  • Though Lucy lives in a modern, suburban house, the long shot of the house at midnight shows us it’s perched atop a bit of a hill and now it looks like a castle. We can well imagine that this house has a vast, labyrinthine basement full of terrors.
  • Lucy has a beloved pig puppet whereas the narrator of The Rats In The Walls has a beloved black cat. (The pig functions as a kind of ‘Companion Cube‘ — a trope in which the character uses an inanimate object as a security blanket — being too  close to an inanimate thing is a sign of madness in horror.)
  • There’s a grizzly scene — skeletons of unlikely creatures in Lovecraft; faux-grizzliness with wolves with jam around their mouths in Gaiman and McKean

But there are very big differences, given the target audience:

  • Lovecraft’s story is about descent into madness; the picture book is the active imagination of a little girl
  • Lovecraft’s conclusion is without hope; Wolves in the Walls is a circular story book — at the end we find out that the story will repeat itself, this time with elephants.
  • Lovecraft’s skeletons and chimeras are truly terrifying; the wolves in the picture book have very humanlike interests (playing video games and eating jam), and are just as scared of humans as the humans are of them.

See: What Is The Horror Genre For?

In horror, light and dark are especially important.

Light = good.

Dark = evil.

This dichotomy is expertly exploited by the illustrator.

WOLVES AND HORROR AND CHRISTIAN SYMBOLISM

We also have wolves, which Christian thought — upon which western horror is based — has turned into villains. Wolves lead you towards the devil. Traditionally, at least. There’s a recent turnaround, now that wolves are endangered and we know more about them. Spoiler alert: Healthy wolves don’t hunt people, which ruins the entire plot of White Fang. These days you get picture books in which the wolves are the goodies, for example The Three Little Wolves and the Big, Bad Pig by Eugene Trivizas and Helen Oxenbury.

See also: Wolves In Children’s Literature

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

wolves-in-the-walls-staircase

Some illustrators share their styles with many others. Not so with Dave McKean, whose dark, spooky, yet patchwork style is unique. How to describe the artwork? In bulletpoints, I guess, since it’s a tall order:

  • Scenes are a mixture of photorealistic images (perhaps parts cropped from photos), line drawings and off-kilter textures. In other words, the pictures form a ‘chimera’, mixing reality with fiction. But which part is fiction and which is true? That’s the freaky part.
  • The collage effect is achieved by making no attempt to ‘line edges up’ or position textures so that they match real life perspective. A boy lying on a rug has realistic hair, an illustrated body, and the rug he lies on is a texture which doesn’t come out the other side of the boy’s body where you would expect it to.
  • A palette knife tool is used to suggest movement and also that a character is an inextricable part of the setting. In the picture above we see the knife applied to the girl’s hair.
  • Digital artists working in a more photorealistic style often make use of the multiply blend mode in order to make a many-layered illustration look cohesive. Here we have what looks like a glaze or coloured-wash. The pattern of the aforementioned rug extends right across the carpet; what makes it look like a rug is that it is a circle of different toned wash.
  • Photorealistic objects (or, photos) are also distorted with a palette knife, or digital equivalent. An illustrator such as Lauren Child also makes use of (stock?) photos in her illustrations to completely different effect. (Her childlike representations of Charlie and Lola look even more naive by contrast.)
  • The eyes of McKean’s characters look super spooky. Eyes are always important in illustrations of people and animals. Although dots for eyes are very common in picturebooks, when dots are used for eyes on more realistic (generic tending towards naturalistic) looking characters with that photorealistic hair and those contoured faces, we are reminded of the button-eyes of Coraline, or of dead birds we found on the ground as children, since the eyes are first to rot.
  • While the human characters and scenery are drawn in semi-naturalistic style, the wolves look like drawings of yesteryear, with black, sketchy outlines only. The humans are a part of the child reader’s world whereas these wolves are creatures from an ancient folklore. We are encouraged to forget the fact that wolves would never be found inside a house.
  • The crumpled paper background and dirty texture overlays lets us know that this is a story from an earlier time and the crumpledness equals some sort of frantic gesture.

Wolves In The Walls Wolves

  • When colour is added, it’s not necessarily in sync with the ink outlines. For example, a wolf rendered in outlines has a yellow splodge of paint in the eye area, and a square of semi-transparent green overlaid on its body. The wolf is neither square nor green; why this artistic choice? The wolves are coming out of the walls in the same way the colour is coming out of its rightful place. Worlds are blurring together.

the wolves came out of the walls

Values

Here’s an interesting project, completed by someone at Deviant Art: re-creating a double-spread of a picturebook in black and white only (values). Doing this would no doubt leave you with a good sense of page layout, and I guess that was the aim of the task:

Wolves In The Walls Silhouette Only

Font Choice and Placement

Inside the house everything was quiet

The placement of the text suggests terror and unease, askew on the page. There is also a variety of fonts. The font on the front cover looks like the scrawl of one crazed individual, perhaps one possessed by werewolves. Dialogue is rendered in a typewriter, serif style. It all works well together. Note that both of the interior fonts are quite different. It’s no good picking two that are basically the same.

Colour Temperature

night wolf howling

Wolves In Walls blue colour scheme

This is by the by…

But on the front cover we see the creators credited very specifically: Written by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Dave McKean. If you are an illustrator (especially) you’re probably aware of the unfortunate tendency to credit the writers of picturebooks but not the illustrators, who bring as much (if not more) to a story than the writer. Some picturebook creators do not like the word ‘author’ in relation to picturebooks, because a picturebook is ‘authored’ by both the writer and illustrator. In short, perhaps this method of crediting a picturebook’s co-creators is about to catch on? I hope so.

Lesson Plan: Write Your Own Urban Legend

Teenage girls really enjoy this one. Make sure you pick the right group of kids to do this with. (And the right school.)

AIM: Students will create an original story as an homage to a classic urban legend.

Note: It is tempting for students to rewrite the same old legend. You may find it works better for students to write a short excerpt only, as practice using language rather than practice structuring plot. Or you may specify that the ending must be different. Even better, the more creative students will come up with their own, original legends. That’s ideal. The others, at least, have somewhere to start and can’t moan about not having any ideas.

2 HOURS + HOMEWORK TIME or 3 HOURS IN CLASS

MATERIALS: A class set of urban legends.  (About 10 different legends for a class of 30.)

A short urban legend of the horror genre. These are readily available on the web. See Snopes.com for some great examples. These are American, and may need to be picked more judiciously outside America, as some are more popular internationally than others. I like:

Like any good writing teacher (!), I have done this exercise myself. I wrote a short story based on The Vanishing Hitchhiker. It was published in Eclecticism ezine, Issue #11, and is available for free here. During the rewrite, I took out the supernatural elements.

You might also use Jeffrey Archer’s Never Stop On The Motorway. I’m not sure if he wrote that story based on the Killer In The Backseat urban legend, or if the urban legend came about because of Archer’s short story.

OHP (or the modern equivalent!) of a short excerpt from the horror story

Creepy background music. I like Creepy Music Box, Creepy Dolls, Creepy Organ Music, Behold the Darkness, A bizarre jingle bells remakeO Willow Waly, the sound of rain and thunder, Sounds of Horror. (I’m sure you’ll find your own favourites on YouTube.)

LESSON ONE:

Teacher reads a short horror story.

Class brainstorms what sort of things scare them.

Individuals may share any experiences they have had where they felt scared.  (Teacher start by talking about own experiences).  Talk in pairs.  Share the best ones as a class.

Show OHP of excerpt from Horror Story.  Teacher leads a discussion of the language (short sentences at point of climax, emotive language, structure of an urban legend).

Near the end of the first period, teacher distributes Urban Legends to individuals.  Individuals read in silence without talking to next door neighbour.  They are given guidelines about how to write a short story based on the legend:

  1. You can rely on as little or as much material in the urban legend given to you as you like.
  2. You can change any detail and add any detail to make it a better story.
  3. You can choose to make the ending positive or funny but it must aim to make the readers scared.
  4. One part of the story must contain a very descriptive atmosphere that makes the readers’ hair stand on end.  You must make use of all five senses:
    1. Sight
    2. Touch
    3. Hearing
    4. Smell
    5. Taste
  5. You may like to include experiences you have had yourself.
  6. You may like to make the setting your own part of the world – not America or elsewhere.
  7. Include at least one scary character.
  8. Decide before you begin whether you are going to write in first, second or third person.

LESSON TWO:

Whilst listening to atmospheric music (or not) students write their own story. (I might also close all the light out of the classroom, but this can have unintended consequences.)

Related Links

For indepth discussions of all things supernatural, you might try listening to the Mysterious Universe podcast, produced by two guys in Sydney who are on the zeitgeist of urban legend creation. Bear in mind that their podcast is completely unscientific and made for entertainment. (Many of us continue to find ghost stories entertaining even though we don’t actually believe in ghosts… an interesting phenomenon in its own right.)

The creators Benjamin Grundy and Aaron Wright get so caught up with their research at times that they freely admit to half-believing their own spin. Anyway, there is more than enough material out there upon which to base a modern urban legend, and Mysterious Universe is a collection of the most bizarre in any given week here on Earth.

My favourite podcast of theirs is the one about the ‘Greys’: aliens who are actually robots programmed long, long ago by a highly evolved species in a distant universe… Anyway, have a listen to that if you’d like an hour of mind boggling entertainment. Their expert, Nigel Kerner, is the most eccentric interviewee I’ve ever had the privilege of listening to.

And then, after this is all done, you might want to listen to the Skeptic Check series of podcasts produced by SETI as part of the Are We Alone? series. These podcasts include a healthy dose of skepticism, and revel in scientific geekiness.

This lesson would lead very nicely to a unit in Advertising, I always think. And much discussion about skepticism and hype and spin and email hoaxes and refusing to believe everything you hear. As part of this discussion you might actually go back to the Mysterious Universe podcast, for a very interesting (and scientific) discussion with Professor Christopher Bader and Professor Joseph Baker, authors of Paranormal America, about why humans continue to believe in paranormal stories, even today.

I hope you have as much fun with this as I did.

Picturebook Study: The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen

The Dark cover

NOTES ON THE STORY

PLOT

As usual I’ll break the narrative down according to John Truby’s seven essential elements, which seem to apply to everything from advertisements to novels. Picture books are great for studying this structure, because it’s often made so very plain. You can sometimes even lift direct quotes to illustrate the steps:

Weakness/Need

Psychological Weakness: “Laszlo was afraid of the dark.”

In children’s books, characters don’t need a moral weakness. (In other words, a child character doesn’t have to be treating anyone else badly in order for us to find them a sufficiently interesting and engaging character.)

Desire

On the first page we can see what Laszlo desires: He is playing with his toy cars in peace and solitude on the floor, so he obviously wants to continue doing that without being afraid of anything.

Opponent

The Dark. “The dark lived in the same house as Laszlo”. Normally the opponent has to be another human or monster, but here the dark is anthropomorphised, and might as well be a monster: ‘Sometimes the dark hid in the cupboard’. Daniel Handler spends quite a bit of time describing this monster and what it does.

Plan

Lazlo’s trick for keeping the dark out of his bedroom is saying hello to it during the day.

Until the phrase ‘But one night’ the entire book is written in the iterative. Now we see the switch to the singulative.

lazlo's bedroom

Battle

But when the bulb on the night-light burns out (we assume at this point), the dark does come into his room. The dark challenges Laszlo to visit it in the basement, which requires a scary trip down several flights of stairs. (Why he doesn’t just turn that torch on and use it as his night-light I’m not sure. I don’t think we’re meant to think that’s a possibility, though I have to admit it bothers me some — I think it’s a minor weakness in the plot.)

Self-revelation

Laszlo’s self-revelation comes in the form of a lecture, delivered by the author, meant for the young reader. There’s a very Roald Dahl feel to it, because Dahl used to do the same thing (for example in The Twits, when the reader gets a — rather hypocritical — lecture about not judging people based on what they look like):

The Twits beauty

In The Dark we have:

You might be afraid of the dark, but the dark is not afraid of you. That’s why the dark is always close by.

Young readers are then told that every scary thing with dark insides is actually necessary and useful and, ‘without the dark, everything would be light, and you would never know if you needed a lightbulb’, which is of course the far more humorous thing to say rather than, ‘without the dark you wouldn’t get a good night’s sleep’, and is very Daniel Handler.

We assume Laszlo has achieved this revelation on his own without the help of a narrator, and now the open drawer in the basement looks like a smiling face. He has realised there is nothing at all to be afraid of.

The dark can be kind, helpful even.

The Dark, written by Lemony Snicket and illustrated by Jon Klassen, shows us the dark through Lazlo’s eyes, which at first is scary and menacing. But through the shadowy illustrations and the lovely one page monologue in the middle of the book, we realize that we need the dark, and by the end, we fall in love with the dark’s generosity.

Nerdy Book Club

New Equilibrium

‘The dark kept on living with Laszlo but it never bothered him again.’

We even have the very same image bookending the story — the one where he’s playing with his toys on the floor. But this time the sun is in a slightly different place and Laszlo doesn’t look worried. Also, he no longer feels the need to carry a torch everywhere. This small detail shows that he has now overcome his fear of darkness.

Symbolism

Darkness

Darkness is of course symbolic throughout the history of literature and folkore and everything that came before. Below is a  beautiful excerpt illustrating the dark in words by Joyce Carol Oates:

The house looked larger now in night than it did in day. A solid looming mass confused with the big oaks around it, immense as a mountain. The barns too were dark, heavy, hulking except where moonlight rippled over their tin roofs with a look like water because of the cloud shreds blowing through the sky. No horizon, solid dark dense-wooded ridges like the rim of a deep bowl, and me in the center of the bowl. The mountains were only visible by day. The tree lines. By night our white-painted fences and the barbed wire fences were invisible. In the barnyard, the humped haystack the manure pile, I wouldn’t have been able to identify if I didn’t know what they were. Glazed-brick silo shining with moonlight. Barns, chicken coop, the sheds for the storage of machinery, much of it old, broken-down and rusted machinery, the garage, carports–silent and mysterious in the night. On the far side of the driveway the orchard, mostly winesap apples, massed in the dark and the leaves quavering with wind and it came to me maybe I’m dead? a ghost? maybe I’m not here, at all?

—  from We Were The Mulvaneys

Fear of the dark is at its peak in early childhood, between the time we first learn of the daily dichotomy and the age at which we can logically comfort ourselves that the dark is simply the absence of light; no more, no less.

It’s that in-between period of literature that seeks to reassure rather than scare. There are no monsters here; just nothingness.

The House

As far as picture book houses go, this is a castle rather than an inviting, warm home. The floors are bare. Hard surfaces everywhere. It’s the oneiric house of Gaston Bachelard’s dreams (The Poetics of Space). Of course a house like this needs a cellar. A story like this needs a cellar, because cellars are always dark. From other stories we have learnt to be afraid of cellars — murders and criminals and all sorts can be found in a cellar, or at least suspected, and even when you take a torch down there, the place is still cast mainly in shadow.

(Interestingly, my version reads ‘flights of stairs’ rather than ‘sets of stairs’. Flights definitely feels nicer to me. Is ‘sets of stairs’ an Americanism?)

the dark house

 

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Illustrators have many different ways of illustrating the dark. For other examples, see my post Illustrating The Dark.

Geometry

Many modern books include plenty of white space — white is the neutral choice. But where black is chosen as a fill, the effect is dramatic. Here, of course, the black simply equals darkness. These areas of flat blackness emphasise the geometry of the pages. Here we have a rectangle and a couple of triangles, formed by the light from the torch. The triangles themselves almost form a monster’s mouth, with the bed-end resembling a grille of teeth. The effect of these strong, geometrical shapes is to complement the ‘cold windows’ and hard surfaces of this huge, unwelcoming house, which in real life might be nothing of the sort; this is the dream house of a little boy, and when you’re little, your house always seems much bigger in your mind.

thedark2

This kind of geometry really is well-suited to the horror genre in general.

by Levente Szabó

alternative film poster by Levente Szabó

Shadow

The verso image below includes a couple of interesting shadow. We can’t see what is casting the shadow in the foreground. Likewise, we don’t know exactly where that rectangle of light is coming from down the hallway. (We do know it’s from Lazlo’s bedroom, but we can’t see the bedroom.) All of this ‘off-the-page’ lighting lets us into Lazlo’s fear.

the dark hi he would say

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

It creeps all over the house.

I find it hovering in the dining-room, skulking in the parlor, hiding in the hall, lying in wait for me on the stairs.

The above is an excerpt from the feminist short story from 1892, The Yellow Wallpaper. Charlotte Perkins Gillman inverted the usual trope of the dark, gothic house and applied horror symbolism to yellow, a colour most often associated with sunshine and happiness. The attic at the top of this particular haunted house is an example of a well-lit room, which is quite unusual in horror. Then again, the author isn’t writing a straight horror story; she is writing an allegory for postpartum depression, pointing out how horrifying the condition can feel when you’re in it. She’s inverting the very hauntedness of the house, saying it’s not the house that’s haunted at all; it’s the people inside the house.

Picturebook Study: Some Things Are Scary by Florence Parry Heide and Robert Osborn

Some Things Are Scary Original Cover_800x595

This is a favourite from my own childhood, and now that my daughter loves it just as much, I appreciate its timelessness.

I only have the old version, published 1969 by Scholastic. The pictures by satirist Robert Osborn fit the story perfectly. (Osborn was a direct influence on the Dilbert cartoons.) It appears the book has been rewritten and reillustrated, and the later edition seems to include more modern fears. For example, the fear of a friend moving away, in a more mobile, modern world. This page doesn’t exist in the earlier edition:

by Jules Feiffer

illustration by Jules Feiffer

The hamster page doesn’t exist in the original, either:

hamster scary

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Florence Parry Heide (rhyming with tidy) sometimes wrote under the pen name of Alex B. Allen, when she collaborated with other authors. I’d love to sit down and ask her what was behind the choice of a male name — was it a response to industry sexism? (The same kind that made J.K. Rowling publish using initials rather than the ultra-feminine name of ‘Joanne’?)

She lived from 1919 until 2011, which confirms my theory that being a children’s author is almost a recipe for a long life. (Beverly Cleary, for instance, recently turned 100.) Florence started getting published at the age of 48, presumably after her children had become independent. (She had five all up.) I’m not sure how long she had been writing before getting published, but I guess she would have been quite busy running the household, so she may not have picked up the pen until she was in her late forties.

Over the course of her lifetime Florence wrote over 100 works, including poems and songs. She is best known for the Treehorn books, with Edward Gorey.

The Shrinking of Treehorn cover

INSPIRATION FOR THE STORY

Florence Parry Heide wrote SOME THINGS ARE SCARY, a humorous look at childhood bugaboos, more than thirty years ago. “I had finished another book and was in the mood to write something else,” she says. “I decided to get some kindling from the garage, reached into the kindling box and–good grief!–grabbed something soft and mushy. I fled back to the house, scared to death.” A brave return visit to the kindling box revealed the object of terror to be nothing more than a discarded wet sponge, but the thought remained: some things are scary. As she recalls, “What scared me as a child was that I’d never learn how to be a real grownup–and the fact is, I never did find out how it goes.”

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION

Here’s an example of what a great cartoonist can do in just a few lines:

 

some things are scary monster_800x592

In the older picture books colour was limited too, due to cost. The pages which make use of ‘stock scary’ are white crayon on black paper. (Witches,  pirates, skeletons and this scary monster, who bookends the narrative.)

When colour is used it’s loose and sketchy, as if a child has coloured the line drawings themselves. In fact this copy of the book does have some kid’s scribbles in it, but this is the illustrator’s. The unintended benefit of this style of cartooning is that it encourages kids to try drawing and colouring for themselves — art looks doable! (Of course, once you try it, it’s very hard.)

scary hug_800x571

NOTES ON THE WRITING

One way of eliciting a laugh is to juxtapose the ordinary with the ridiculous. This book does that perfectly: Receiving socks as a present does not compare to the level of fear you’d experience when being eaten by a huge reptile.

humour juxtaposition_800x440

The author’s syntax has a distinctively childlike quality to it, and it comes from ditching simple sentences in favour of an extra clause:

Holding onto someone’s hand

that isn’t your mother’s

when you thought it was

is scary [italics from the original]

The following is the page that elicits the biggest laugh from my daughter:

apple with a moustache_800x629

The even more hilarious thing is that after reading this book she did find an apple with a ‘moustache’ — certain imperfections in winter fruit do actually look like moustaches. I’m left with no doubt the author also once ate an apple with a moustache. It takes a genius writer to save these observations and position it in just the right part of the story — after many equally ridiculous scenarios, but which form genuine fears. This one is a scary example the child reader won’t have encountered before (probably).

Keep an eye out for a moustache next time you eat an apple.

 

Symbolism Of The Dream House

Symbolism Of The Dream House_2000x4000

See also: Buildings As Characters In Fiction

 

Picturebook Study: Blackdog by Levi Pinfold

Black Dog by Levi Pinfold, book jacket

The illustrations are so beautiful in this author/illustrator picture book I suspected the story wouldn’t quite reach the same level. Readers will have varied responses to this, but for me, the story is structurally fine but the message problematic: Readers are taught to face their fears head-on, using the metaphor of a big dog outside the house. The problem is, I’ve been trying to teach my kid the opposite when it comes to dogs, as there are a lot of dangerous ones in our neighbourhood: If a dog looks scary, it probably is! I’m therefore left wishing the dog could have been some mythical, non-existent creature. The final scene shows a young child hugging the dog in a way that dogs should never, ever be hugged, as it’s a sign of domination, and little kids tend to be right at eye-level too. Even when picture books are to be read at the metaphorical level, we can’t forget that the literal level doesn’t suddenly cease to exist. So for entirely practical/safety purposes I do have a couple of issues with this book.

ALLEGORY AND SYMBOL

There may be a good symbolic reason for using a black dog, however, as the black dog has been used as a metaphor for depression and other mental illness, i.e. The Black Dog Institute. I have absolutely no idea if this were intended by the author/illustrator, but because of the black dog connection I can’t read this book as anything other than an allegory for agoraphobia/anxiety. Would a reader outside Australia make the same connection? Doesn’t matter. Let’s look at the story through this lens and see if it holds up.

Agoraphobia isn’t contagious insofar as I know, so it would be unusual for an entire family to be simultaneously terrified of going outside. For this reason, I’m interpreting the family as ‘different aspects of the same individual’, in much the same way as the Winnie-the-Pooh characters are each different facets of a child’s single personality. Sometimes this person looks out of the window and is not quite so scared — other days the size of the menace is overwhelming. But there is one small part inside this individual which has sufficient bravery to face the world. This is the classic mouse tale trope, in which the smallest character is ironically the bravest. (And anyone who’s ever had a mouse infestation knows they’re not timid at all — mice are stupid brave for their size, relying on speed more than smarts!) This technique definitely lends the feel of ‘fable’ to this story, with thanks to Aesop and The Lion and the Mouse.

By going out into the world and practising exposure therapy the small child in this story shrinks the black dog down to size. Again, a metaphor for mental illness: mental illness is always a part of you, but it can be reduced to a manageable size.

A MINIATURE WORLD

blackdog levi pinfold

The presence of a massive dog temporarily turns this family into miniatures, of the type you’ve seen in The Borrowers and Stuart Little. There are specific narrative reasons for making use of miniatures.

A miniature has three main uses in a story:

1. It lets the audience see the world of the story as a whole.

2. It allows the author to express various aspects, or facets, of a character.

3. It shows the exercise of power, often of tyranny.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

All three reasons are at play here: We see the warm interior/foggy, cold exterior all at once; we see each member of the family react differently to the same event; we can easily imagine how scared we would be at this tyrannical creature outside our house.

JUXTAPOSITION OF SETTING

The snowy, ethereal setting is a brilliant choice, and is in stark contrast to the warm, but oddly grotesque interior:

Hope Family living room

There’s something steampunk about this house, and the scene of the bathroom and playground, with the rivets and steel, remind me very much of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

blackdog bathroom

The bathroom from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog

playground levi pinfold

The playground scene from Levi Pinfold’s Blackdog, in which the previously ‘elephant sized’ monster is now small enough to fit through an elephant’s trunk.

lost-thing

The Lost Thing by Shaun Tan

Though Pinfold has his own distinctive style, the colour choice, too, is very Shaun Tan, especially when you look at the accent colours. Pinfold makes use of inset thumbnails, too, and in this book we have tiny sepia drawings decorating the text. It’s tempting to skip over these thumbnails because the eye tends to linger on the full-colour spreads, but if you go back and examine them closely, these thumbnails offer the ‘alternative view’ of the story: While the full colour spreads in the first half of the story depict only the inside of the house and a little of what can be seen through the window, the thumbnails show us the massive dog outside in a long shot view of the tall, skinny house.

There’s something gothic about that house. It’s a three-storied structure with an attic which would never get approved by any local council, and must have therefore come from another era. This is the trope of the Terrifying House. But this house is both terrifying and warm.

Opposite the warm house, the terrifying house is usually a house that has gone over the line from cocoon to prison. In the best stories of this kind, the house is terrifying because it is an outgrowth of the great weakness and need of the character. This house is the hero’s biggest fear made manifest. In the extreme, the character’s mind has rotted in some way, and the house too is in ruins. But it is no less powerful a prison.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

It’s warm because it’s cosy, with the roaring fire and comfort of family. It’s cheery like a rainbow, in fact, with each room having its own dominant hue. This is more obvious when you view the various parts of this house together in a single image. Orange, yellow, green, pink…

each room different colour

But the accoutrements scattered around — the stone animals with their staring eyes, the cluttered chaos, the soap-holder that looks almost like a mechanical hand reaching into the dirty old bath, the red tricycle that will always scare anyone who ever watched Saw  — there’s something definitely spooky here. And of course your warm house is spooky… when you can never leave. The mother looks a lot like a Marionette as she clutches the jug in the orange image above.

WEATHER SYMBOLISM

Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing — as well as his other work — features industrial smoke and city smog, but here the outside world is shrouded in a clean, forest mist — a great choice given the accepted symbolism of fog and mist. In fiction, fog equals obfuscation and mystery. In Blackdog I think it also has connections to ‘mental fug’ and not being able to see more than a couple of metres ahead, but ploughing on anyway.

WEIRD THING I DON’T GET

What on earth is a Big Jeffy, though? I expected to be rewarded with the answer after looking closely at the pictures, and I did see much earlier in the story a child’s sketch of Jeffy on the sideboard, but in the end I resorted to the internet and learned that Big Jeffy is off Sesame Street. His inclusion in this story puzzles me. Big Jeffy is a member of Little Jerry and the Monotones, supplying bass back-up for the group. He is considered to be the fourth member of the band. Maybe the author is a particular fan of Sesame Street and will reference a muppet in every picture book?  Chris Van Allsburg puts a little white dog in all of his books. (It’s not even his own dog — it was his brother-in-law’s!) I haven’t read Pinfold’s other work so I can’t tell if they also include Sesame Street characters. Also, I wouldn’t be brave enough to try those guys on copyright. It’s possible that Pinfold’s Big Jeffy has no connection to the minor Sesame Street character at all.

 

 

What is the horror genre for?

Raison d’être

Horripilation is the term for the hair on the back of the neck that stands up when we are seized by intense fear. Raising those follicles is the goal of all horror films.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

Horror, along with Westerns and the entire SF category is highly metaphorical. The following quotes are from Carolyn Daniel.

Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman.

In all horror stories, the opponent wants to belong. They want to enter the human community but we won’t let them.

Features of Really Good Horror Stories

Use a unique structural flip. At some point there’s a flip between the human and the inhuman. At some point, the monster becomes the hero. This character who we thought was inhuman turns out to be the most humane of all and the human beings turn out to be inhumane, attacking what they don’t understand, what is different from themselves. This technique goes back to Frankenstein.

John Truby

How The Horror Genre Is Evolving

Horror fiction aims to evoke some combination of fear, fascination, and revulsion in its readers. This genre, like others, continues to develop, recently moving away from stories with a religious or supernatural basis to ones making use of medical or psychological ideologies.

The origin or horror can come from:

  • Whatever lies beyond death (Dracula)
  • Demonic forces (The Exorcist)
  • Fooling around with Mother Nature (Frankenstein)

Or the horror can be supernatural in a different sense, without religious connections at all but still not what we customarily think of as “natural”. It can, for example, be the super science of The Terminator or the biological horror that seems “unnatural” in Alien. Sometimes, what’s unnatural is merely a warped mind, as in Psycho and Friday the 13th.

— Howard Suber, The Power of Film

What’s This About Metaphor?

The horror genre is about the fear of the inhuman entering the human community. It is about crossing the boundaries of a civilized life—between living and dead, rational and irrational, moral and immoral—with destruction the inevitable result. Because horror asks the most fundamental question—what is human and what is inhuman?—the form has taken on a religious mind-set. In American and European horror stories, that religious mind-set is Christian. As a result, the character web and symbol web in these stories are almost completely determined by Christian cosmology.

Not all horror is from the West, of course. If you’ve ever watched Japanese horror, for example, you’ve probably noticed a distinct difference. Japanese horror does not make use of Christian symbolism because Japan has its own super creepy folklore from which to draw. Naturally, Japanese horror draws from western traditions and, increasingly, vice versa.

Japanese horror is Japanesehorror fiction in popular culture, noted for its unique thematic and conventional treatment of the horror genre in light of western treatments. Japanese horror tends to focus on psychological horror and tension building (suspense), particularly involving ghosts and poltergeists, while many contain themes of folk religion such as: possession, exorcism, shamanism, precognition, and yōkai.

— Wikipedia

Chinese horror is similar to Japanese though often includes some comedy elements. Given that certain tricks — such as mechanical behaviour — are used in both horror and in comedy, the link is more natural than at first it seems. A comedic scene can also heighten the terror that follows, and give the audience a break before enduring more.

Bollywood also produces horror films, and they include lots of singing and dancing!

Is Horror Addictive?

Maria Warner argues that the extremes of participatory performances such as rock concerts, orgiastic jubilation such as experienced at raves, and spectator entertainments such as horror films can be viewed as rites of passage, testing endurance. They “define…the living, impervious, sovereign self” as well as providing the ecstatic “high” of surviving. The adrenalin high Warner refers to may account for the addictive quality of these activities and narratives.

— Daniel, Voracious Children: Who eats whom in children’s literature

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives.

— Howard Suber

Different people watch horror movies for different reasons:

1. Gore-watching — low empathy, strong identification with the ‘baddie’

2. Thrill-watching — high empathy, high sensation seeking motivated by the suspense

3. Independent watching — high empathy for the victim and with positive feelings at the end of the story

4. Problem-watching — high empathy for the victim but negative feelings of helplessness at the end of the story.

The Target Audience Of Horror

Netflix is well aware of their target audience when it shows us three distinct categories of Horror:

Gory (Let The Right One In, Teeth, Let Me In, You’re Next) — believe it or not, Ten Little Indians was the play and 1965 film that started the Slasher genre. This film is itself not listed as horror on IMDb — it’s a blend of crime, mystery and thriller.

Supernatural (Splice, Insidious, End of Days, Mirrors)

Teen Screams (Troll Hunter, Hansel and Gretel, Playback, Hellraiser)

I haven’t yet come across the category for Middle-aged Woman Screams. However, as Howard Suber notes, some filmmakers have learnt how to harness the allure of horror and modify it for a different audience:

Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

What Most Horror Stories Have In Common

In most horror stories, the hero is reactive, and the main opponent, who pushes the action, is the devil or some version of the devil’s minion. The devil is the incarnation of evil, the bad father, who will lead humans to eternal damnation if not stopped. The moral argument in these stories is always couched in simple binary terms: the battle between good and evil.

— John Truby, Anatomy of Story

Common Symbols In The Horror Genre

Light and Dark is important in horror. We all know that light = good, dark = bad. (Compare to the white hat, black hat symbolism of Westerns.)

Since Christian symbols form the basis of horror stories from the West, we often have the cross, which has the power to turn back even Satan himself.

Before Christianity, though, there was horror in myth. In myth, animals were symbolic in a similarly binary way. Good animals:

  • horses
  • stags
  • bulls
  • rams
  • snakes (believe it or not)

In myth, if you came across these animals, they had the power to lead you to behave properly and become a better person. But this all changed once Christianity came along. The devil kind of ruined any sort of creature with horns.

In Christianity, Truby explains that the following animals represent ‘the lifting of sanctions, the success of passion and the body, and the path to hell:

  • wolves
  • apes
  • bats
  • snakes

‘And these symbols exert their greatest power in darkness.’

Dracula is the ultimate creature of the night. He lives off the blood of humans whom he kills or infects to make them his slaves. He sleeps in a coffin, and he will burn to death if he is exposed to sunlight.

John Truby

Sure enough, you’ll find the above animals are always scary — and never loveable — in modern horror stories. (Unless you’re watching a spoof, or reading a children’s book which is designed to be reassuring, while at the same time appealing to a dual audience by making use of horror symbolism.)

a scene from Winnie The Witch, a picture book for young readers in which Christian symbols are inverted

a scene from Winnie The Witch, a picture book for young readers in which Christian horror symbols are inverted. Note also that Winnie is drawn in bright colours. Winnie = light = good.

Other picture books make use of horror symbolism but are designed, ultimately, to comfort.

the dark jon klassen

Some picture books are genuinely horrific even though they are picture books.

The Wolves In The Walls

Mechanical Behaviour

This is commonly used in horror, as it is also used in comedy (refer to The I.T. Crowd: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” and in Meet The Parents, with the airport woman who won’t let Gaylord Focker board the plane early even though there is no one else waiting).

Examples of horrific mechanical behaviour:

  • Whenever the sun sets the Wolf Man/vampire appears
  • Bates in Psycho ‘can’t help’ himself, and becomes the cog in a horrible psychic machine

The Mechanical Behaviour Of Fussbudgets In Comedy

Fussbudgets, sticklers, officious types, whatever you want to call them — they are comedy gold. We’ve all had run-ins with them, which makes the comedy aspect universal.

TV Tropes calls these characters Sticklers For Procedure.

An essential component of the comedic fussbudget is ‘mechanical behaviour’. The scene above is from the film Meet The Parents. Note how both women behave like robots. If they really were robots they’d more appropriately fit into horror or sci-fi, but when the setting is realist, their fixed smiles, lack of emotion and recognisable, stock-standard responses enhance the humanity of the straight-man, our underdog hero, and for some reason we find mechanical behaviour in humans extremely funny. The adult equivalent of putting a hat on a dog.

Perhaps it’s even more funny when the mechanical person is a woman, as it often is (though not always, by any means). Is this perhaps because in real life we’d expect more emotion and empathy out of a woman than we would out of a man? In any case, when a woman behaves in this way there’s a distinctly Stepford Wives vibe to it.

We have a slight variation in Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

The audience, as well as Steve Martin’s character, is shown the robot’s human side first before she snaps into robotic mode. This makes the comedy all the sweeter when she slips out of it again at the end of the scene, and turns into a Jerkass who sticks to the rules just because she knows it will inconvenience someone who’s just been rude to her.

The ‘Computer Says No’ series of Little Britain sketches uses the same mechanical behaviour — the more sketches you watch the funnier they become, because you know the line that’s coming. But here is the first one:

These are all examples of extreme robotic behaviour, but if we widen the definition, it includes any situation in which X occurs and Character does Y. Catherine Tate’s creation Lauren is funny because we know, after any provocation at all, she will embellish the initial slight and eventually she will ask, ‘Am I bovvered?’ and  ‘Are you disrespecting my family?’

What Is A Flaneur?

In French it’s spelt like this: flâneur, though not if you’re writing in English.

As described by James Wood in How Fiction Works, the flaneur is

the loafer, usually a young man, who walks the streets with no great urgency, seeing, looking, reflecting.

Flânerie describes aimless behaviour.

Wood also uses the great phrases ‘porous scout’ and ‘Noah’s dove’ to describe this authorial stand-in.

We know this type from Baudelaire, from the all-seeing narrator of Rilke’s autobiographical novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Briggs, and from Walter Benjamin’s writings about Baudelaire.

Flaneur

The flaneur hangs around cities. There’s not so much for him to do in the country. You won’t find Jane Austen’s characters wandering around aimlessly. But these guys aren’t actually aimless: they wander around with the purpose of deconstructing social life in order to form a critique.

The flaneur is a wandering narrator who is at once an outsider and native to a particular urban environment.

For more on the flaneur, see the Wikipedia article

THE FLANEUR IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Middle Grade Novels

Since the flaneur loves busy, interesting cities like New York, some critics have made a subcategory of American children’s literature set in New York where we might find the kidlit version of the flaneur. Eric L. Tribunella finds the flaneur in:

Although Tribunella published that paper in 2010, he cites examples from the Second Golden Age of children’s literature, which started after WW2 and ended around 1970.

Picturebooks

Do modern young audiences have any time for the flaneur? When it comes to picture books, there is a subcategory designed to take the reader through a city, as an armchair tourist. Some critics have said that this is the picturebook version of the flaneur, in which the reader is the flaneur, not necessarily a character inside the story. Again, look out for American picture books, particularly those set in New York or Los Angeles.

Young Adult Novels

In modern teen fiction, might we consider the mall instead of the city as a place where young flaneurs hang out?

In stories where teens hang out in malls — and often in real life too — teens are not welcome. The mall has the feeling of a safe, cloistered space and mall designers go out of their way to make shoppers feel as comfortable as if they were at home: modern malls are carpeted and warm and play calming music. Comfortable big furniture is provided as islands of refuge. Yet when teenagers congregate in malls they are not genuinely welcome unless they happen to have the disposable income of adults. Therefore, the mall in young adult literature is a setting which functions as a symbol of teenagehood itself: that liminal space between childhood and adulthood.

weetzie bat covers

Some critics describe the ‘postmodern flaneur’. For example in Weetzie-Bat (1989), the debut punk-rock fairytale novel by Francesca Lia Block, we have a narrator who is both part of her urban environment but also narrates as if she’s an outsider. By this interpretation, the flaneur in children’s literature is unlikely to go away, since the entire category of YA makes heavy use of that feeling of being an outsider trying to find your place.

 

Iterative vs Singular Time In Children’s Literature

When writing about different temporalities in children’s literature, academic Maria Nikolajeva makes a useful distinction between ‘iterative’ time and ‘singular’ time.

Iterative Time

In an iterative sentence, it is assumed that whatever is happening has always happened and will continue to keep happening.

Iterative: ‘In the winter time the Rat slept a great deal, retiring early and rising late. During his short day he sometimes scribbled poetry…there was a good deal of storytelling.’ (In which storytelling is a ritual act). There are a lot of iterative sentences in circular stories such as Anne of Green Gables, as well as in The Secret Garden.

Singulative Time

A singulative sentence applies to an action in this particular story. Stories for children often start in the iterative then switch to the singulative.

All over town, from basket and bowl, he pilfered and pillaged, he snitched and he stole. (ITERATIVE)

He pulled them, he dragged them, he HEAVED them until… he’d carried them home to his house on the hill. (ITERATIVE)

One rascally night between midnight and four, Slinky Malinki stole MORE than before.(SINGULATIVE)

— from Slinky Malinki by Lynley Dodd

slinky malinki teddy bear

In picture books the switch to the singulative part of the story is often marked very clearly with a phrase such as ‘But one day’ or ‘However, on her fifth birthday’ or any similar variation.

Below is the switch from iterative to singulative in The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen:

lazlo's bedroom

How The French Do It

Note that this division doesn’t necessarily hold for all languages. As James Wood writes in How Fiction Works, grammar works differently in French:

French verb forms allow [Flaubert] to use the imperfect past tense to convey both discrete occurrences (“he was sweeping the road”) and recurrent occurrences (“every week he swept the road”). English is clumsier, and we have to resort to “he was doing something” or “he would do something” or “he used to do something”–“every week he would sweep the road”–to translate recurrent verbs accurately. But as soon as we do that in English, we have given the game away, and are admitting the existence of different temporalities.

Iterative Vs Singulative In Literature For Adults

While this distinction is particularly obvious in picture books for children, might we also see it in books for older readers?

Yes, though it’s a lot more complex. In a picture book, you can pretty reliably expect the first few pages of the book to be in the iterative, especially if the author is introducing a new character. Then, after the switch to the ‘story at hand’ (the singular), there’s no switch back.

In a novel for sophisticated readers, there is a constant switch between iterative and singulative and the reader copes with this no trouble at all. In genre fiction such as thrillers and crime, rather than starting with the iterative, the modern requirement is for the story to grip the reader, so stories often begin in medias res. In contrast a novel which begins in the iterative lets the reader know that they’re in for a quieter, less disturbing read. Unless you get someone like Stephen King, who likes lengthy set-ups just so he can lull you into a sense of security before knocking you upside the head. It is perhaps psychological thrillers which are more likely to make use of this particular technique, since the setting is very often domestic, and domestic life is by its very nature iterative.

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