Burlesque Witches In Storytelling

Witches have a long history in storytelling, but they aren’t always scary. They aren’t always Baba Yaga types, sometimes murderous, sometimes helpful. There’s another variety of crone who is a ribald storyteller. She’s related to the classic witch, but her function in stories is quite different.

She is known as the burlesque witch.

What is her name?

From eighteenth century nursery rhymes:

What does she look like?

As Marina Warner describes in From The Beast To The Blonde:

  • crone features
  • chapfallen jaw
  • toothless bight of chin and nose in profile
  • a Punch-like proboscis
  • carries a stick
  • wears a conical hat
  • apron and petticoats

Continue reading “Burlesque Witches In Storytelling”

The Ritual Film Study

The Ritual Film Poster

“The Ritual” is a horror film directed by David Bruckner, adapted by Joe Barton from Adam Nevill’s novel. Although this film is pretty standard in its tropes and structure, the CGI monster makes the viewing experience truly scary. This article says more about the monster and its basis in Swedish folklore.

STORYWORLD

When I think of Sweden I think ‘safety’. I think of social security, free university, and a society that looks after its sick and elderly. This hygge expectation of Scandinavian countries is utilised by Luke Pearson in his creation of the Hilda series. It’s used again in The Ritual. On a hiking trip to Sweden, what could possibly go wrong?

In common with fairytales, the forest in this horror is a metaphor for the subconscious. By entering the trees, you have signed on to take a deep dive into your darkest, most terrible fears.

One reading of this film: A man struggles with guilt and regret when his friend is killed as he stands by, frozen by fear. He replays this situation over and over, wondering what he might have done differently. He blames himself, and when he imagines his friends also blame him, he becomes emotionally isolated from them, emerging alone, with no friendships intact.

The man’s PTSD is symbolised by the monster. When Luke’s friends are picked off one by one, that’s him, cutting himself off, because hanging out with his usual friends only reminds him of the friend that he lost.

This makes The Ritual is a horror story for the modern age: The monster represents a major psychological weakness. The main character (an everyman rather than a hero) must come face to face with his fears before he has a hope of overcoming them. This is in line with the tenets of modern psychology. Suppression and repression are thought to lead to intrusive thoughts, doing damage to our mental wellbeing until we share our fears with others, acknowledge them and use strategies to help us deal with traumas.

STORY STRUCTURE

The Ritual makes use of a classic trope of horror: A group of people go on a journey, they meet some kind of monster(s), and then each gets picked off, one by one. This is a horror-take on the classic mythic journey. In many ways, four men going off on a hiking trip is the same as a road trip film, because these characters are stuck with each other in close quarters, and the conflict between the men is as important to the narrative as the conflict between man and monster (which is scary, but not otherwise inherently interesting).

CHARACTER WEB

THE FRIENDS

This is a story written, adapted and directed by men, and one of the first things that stands out to me is the masculinity of the main characters. The middle-aged friends are jokey-mean and have known each other since their university days. There’s a clear pecking order, with Hutch at the top. There is no room for weakness, which they equate with femininity. When Dom twists his knee/ankle, Hutch refers to him as an ‘Egyptian princess’.

A group of women in the same situation would likely turn back. Women would believe another woman who says she’s too injured to continue. But men of this particular milieu, with a long history of oneupmanship, are not afforded  this luxury. They have no choice but to press on. Hence, they take a shortcut through the woods.

The viewer is left to deduce that the men have gone on the hiking trip to Sweden in memory of their dead friend. He wanted to go, even though they did not. They’re not at all athletic. These are men who’d rather be sitting around in pubs or on beaches. This is perfect for storytelling — it makes them fish out of water.

Although it’s the promise of beer that makes the four friends plough on through the Swedish woods, that is simply the surface desire. It is the toxic competition and lack of empathy between them which drives them to plough on. But the monster will sorely test their manliness, as we later see them screaming, cowering and crying. By the time Luke emerges staggering from the woods, he is no longer the same man — he is possibly no longer a ‘man’.

THE MONSTER

The Ritual monster silhouette

I figure the monster is scary mostly because of its chimera qualities, blending human with animal. The human arms coming out of its jaw give it an insect appearance, and giant insects are terrifying. (Have you ever seen a blown-up image of a bed bug?) The nice thing about choosing Swedish folklore for a contemporary story is that Swedish monsters are shapeshifters. They can look however you want them to look.

Parts of the monster are revealed to us slowly, which creates several effects:

  • We feel a foreboding sense of decapitation. That is hardly subtle in this film — the offering they find in the cottage literally has no head — just hands holding its antlers in place.
  • We don’t know what exactly we’re in for. We wouldn’t know what to look out for, and we can’t avoid something we don’t understand. It’s everywhere and nowhere at once.
  • The gradual revelation of the monster symbolises the gradual descent into the darkest pits of psychology.
  • Eventually the entire monster is revealed and this is the Battle scene. It’s also the payoff for the audience, who enjoys the horripilation. The rule of horror: You can’t show bits and pieces of the monster without eventually showing us the monster. That would be unsatisfying.

Another part of the monster’s scariness derives from its movements. Slow and deliberate followed by rapid movements seem to be the most scary of all. This describes the movements of the most poisonous spiders in the world. (And I speak from experience — I once found the most poisonous spider in the world waiting for me on the carpet beside my desk.)

The Ritual Monster

THE WITCH

The old woman in the cottage in the woods is a very old trope, connected to the Baba Yaga stories seen across various eras and locations. This old woman is sometimes helpful, sometimes murderous, which makes her even more terrifying than the monster. At least with the monster you know what you’re getting. But the old woman in The Ritual, who shockingly reveals the stigmata across her chest in place of nurturing breasts, cares for Luke while torturing Dom. There’s no rhyme nor reason, to us.

Why is this creature always a woman? I believe it’s a dichotomy people carry regarding all women: motherly women and non-motherly women. Motherly women will lay down their lives for you. Motherly women will never ever do you harm. Their love towards all children — towards all people — is unconditional. But at some point in our development we must go out into the world, away from our actual mothers, and we must realise, bitterly, that not all women are going to love us unconditionally. This comes as a huge shock. For various reasons to do with how boys and girls are brought up differently, and the more distanced parenting approach of fathers, who let their daughters (and sons) down much earlier in life, the realisation that not all women are motherly types probably comes as an even bigger shock to men.

THEMES

This is what makes The Ritual a solid horror film. It is scary. It says something deeper about the human condition. The masculinity of it stands out to me precisely because I’m not a man.

By the same token, is it possible to critique male fears while simultaneously indulging in them? The witch is terrifying because she is old and sexually unappealing. This trope has been historically terrible for older women.

The men are punished for their constant oneupmanship, but Luke is also punished for failing to ‘be a man’ and lay his life on the line for his mate. The possibility that he may well have been killed for being a hero is never explored overtly in the film.

 

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats

The Trip cover

The Trip by Ezra Jack Keats was first published 1978, which makes it 40 years old. The Snowy Day is the most famous of Keats’ publications, but The Trip was also successful, and subsequently adapted into a play. Although I have not seen the play, I can imagine how a set designer was enchanted by the peep show box element of this picture book. There are instructions in the back for how to make one.

As a Jewish American and son of immigrants, Keats was hugely influential in American children’s literature for including people of colour in his work.

Keats was influential for another, related reason: His love of the urban landscape. Picture books such as A Lion In The Meadow were far more popular in the 1960s and 70s. Pastoral arenas make for a pleasant childhood utopia, after all. It’s almost as if children’s storytellers couldn’t imagine a child being happy in the city. Yet many children do live in the city, and almost as many wouldn’t have it any other way.

For much more on the symbolism of city versus country, see this post.

louie-on-plane-with-kids

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE TRIP

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like many fictional children, Louie has just moved to a new neighbourhood. This story is so popular because:

  • Every reader can identify with a character facing some big change. We’ve all had change in our lives. And if not, we all fear change somewhat.
  • In storytelling terms, this is the perfect plot because the child reader is now exploring Louie’s new world alongside Louie. This creates immediate character empathy.
  • It also provides the author/illustrator with a reason for explaining this new setting. Everything is new to the child, and everything is noteworthy.

Louie’s weakness is that he is new, anxious and doesn’t know anybody in his new neighbourhood.

DESIRE

Surface desire: Louie wants to have a bit of fun making a peep show box, because he doesn’t feel sufficiently confident to go outside.

Deeper desire: Louie wants to connect with people.

OPPONENT

In a story like this, in which the child is too scared to really do anything or go anywhere, what does a writer do about the opposition?

Well, it very often comes from the child’s imagination. That’s the very thing keeping them from moving in the first place.

The opponents are the scary creatures Louie makes inside his peep show box.

PLAN

To amuse himself with a peep show box. Though I doubt Louie meant to do this consciously, what he’s doing — in effect — is creating miniature versions of his old friends then disguising them as monsters so that the costume can subsequently come off, revealing scary things to be benign after all.

He flies back to his old neighbourhood in his imagination, as a way to transition himself from his old place to this new place a bit more slowly than has been forced upon him. I was thinking about the symbolism of flight, and how Keats was using that. But I don’t believe flight is the significant symbol here — it’s photography. I wrote about photography in young adult literature here, but the peep show box serves in this picture book in the same way.

Also, part of me thinks this story is about how kids are basically the same wherever you go — the trick or treaters of this new neighbourhood might as well be the same friends he has back home. This is an interesting concept, and it’s probably my own interpretation rather than Keats’ intent, but I do think kids of this age are adaptable. If they’re good at making friends in one environment, they’ll most likely find the same kind of comrades if they’re transplanted.

BATTLE

Louie meets the monsters head on. They chase him down a street. At first he seems to be trapped, but…

SELF-REVELATION

… then he recognises his friends who are dressed up.

The revelation for the reader is that it is Halloween. The revelation for Louie is that things may look scary on the outside are not at all scary when you really look at them closely (or get to know them).

Ergo: He realises that if he gets to know the kids in his new neighbourhood, they won’t be scary to him.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Louie goes outside to join the new neighbourhood kids, and we extrapolate that he will make friends with them.

Junie B. Jones and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria

Junie B Jones Stupid Smelly School Bus

Rejection sensitive dysphoria is an unpleasant emotion which should be more widely known. Not many people know how it feels, and even fewer know what it’s called. But Barbara Park’s Junie B. Jones is an excellent fictional example of a character who lives with these hard emotions.

Today I’ll take a close look at Junie B Jones and the Stupid Smelly Bus, the first in the Junie B series, first published 1992.

Junie B. Jones books are infamous for being some of the most highly challenged and banned in libraries across America because: Continue reading “Junie B. Jones and Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria”

The Nightfish by Helen McCosker

The Nightfish Helen McCosker

The Nightfish is an Australian picture book written and illustrated by Helen McCosker. Published in 2006, this children’s story makes a good counterpoint to There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984). In Margaret Wild’s 1984 story, a boy takes a shell home with him from the beach and — as a child of the eighties I can tell you — no one thought twice about taking souvenirs from nature. Our current generation of children are more environmentally aware. Now they have at least bumped up against the idea of ‘Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints’. This change of societal attitude is reflected in their picture books: If you take something from nature you must return it, otherwise you’ll upset the environmental balance and all hell will break loose.

Continue reading “The Nightfish by Helen McCosker”

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom by Margaret Wild

There's A Sea In My Bedroom

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom (1984) is a classic Australian picture book, written by Margaret Wild and illustrated in realistic fantasy style by Jane Tanner.

Margaret Wild is a well-known Australian author whose subject material ranches from melancholic to funny. I have previously blogged about Harry and Hopper and Chatterbox. Jane Tanner is also a well-known Australian illustrator, and also a writer and editor.

STORYWORLD OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM

When the sea/ocean is used in narrative, it’s worth making a clear distinction between the surface and the depths, because these are two very different arenas.

There’s A Sea In My Bedroom sticks firmly to the ocean surface. Wait until* David gets seaweed — or worse — tangled around his ankles, and steps on a blue bottle. Then he might get a bit suspicious about what the sea really is all about… but best to stick to paddling for now.

*David probably turned 40 this year, if he was six in the pictures.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THERE’S A SEA IN MY BEDROOM

WEAKNESS/NEED

David was frightened of the sea.

It’s right there in the opening sentence. Some advocate ‘showing not telling’ but in a picture book for very young readers, you often get both. First we’re told, then we’re shown. The image of the rough sea — and nothing else — is really quite scary actually.

Because this is a picture book, and you’ll have read plenty of picture books if you’re here at this blog, you will know from the very first line that this is a story about overcoming one’s fear of the sea.

DESIRE

An aversion to the sea is not in itself a desire, so Margaret Wild is sure to put something in that he’d rather be doing instead. David loves to collect shells, and he is quite happy doing this.

Tip for picture book authors: If your main character is afraid of something, give them a proxy desire, not directly related to the aversion. This will help the reader to feel like this is a complete and rounded story. But it does more than that: It lets us know that this is not a wholly pathetic character.

OPPONENT

You could argue that the father is David’s opponent. Dad gives David the conch shell and tells him — cruelly! — that the sea can be heard inside the shell. David then takes the shell home, and his greatest fear is inside his bedroom now.

PLAN

At home in his room, alone with the ‘magical’ shell, David goes on a carnivalesque adventure into a sea which invades his bedroom and fills it up. But this is not a scary situation, this is fun.

There's A Sea In My Bedroom bed as island

BATTLE

The proxy for the Battle scene is when his parents come in to find him writhing around on the carpet, in some sort of imaginary play. I suspect the young reader might expect a telling-off, because presumably David is meant to be in bed trying to get some sleep.

SELF-REVELATION

A soft growly, friendly sea.

When David explains to his parents that the imaginary sea was friendly, he can transfer that positive emotion to the real sea.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Now David is able to enjoy swimming at the beach as well as collecting shells. He has learned that the sea is friendly.

(I’d argue that the sea is not particularly friendly in Australia, but that message is not helpful in a picture book.)

COMPARE AND CONTRAST

Where The Wild Things Are is the archetypal picture book about a boy who goes on an imaginary adventure at sea, though this one starts at the beach and ends there, too. And There’s A Sea In My Bedroom is designed to help children overcome a very specific fear, whereas Wild Things is more a mood piece about bad feelings in general. We don’t even know what it is exactly that leaves Max in such a bad mood.

Theodore Mouse Goes to Sea and The Sailor Dog are Little Golden Books about sea adventures — one a parody, the other written straight.

The Polar Express also makes use of the trope in which a child returns from an imaginary (not imaginary) adventure to find evidence of the trip in the form of something material. I’m not a fan of this trope, because I feel intuitively that it encourages magical thinking. (There’s a line between enjoying magical fiction and actively discouraging reason.) In There’s A Sea In My Bedroom, the talisman is a small pile of sand, which works really well for a reader like me, because the sand probably came out of the shell, or his shoe or wherever. There’s absolutely a real storyworld reason for a pile of sand to be in his bedroom. A young reader can be helped to understand that, too, unlike in The Polar Express.

Dinner Time In Picture Books

What does dinner time look like in your house? Do you see your own family tradition reflected in children’s books?

I remember hearing once — perhaps on the yak track of Downton Abbey — that, for film makers, table scenes are the most difficult to shoot and edit. Unlike in any other scene, the characters sit close together, side-by-side, talking in what’s basically a huddle. More than that, camerawork has to create the illusion that characters are speaking to the right characters, so they have to be looking in the right direction.

Illustrators of static table scenes have it a bit easier — there’s no need to fit a massive camera into tight spaces, for one thing. But illustrators still have the problem of staging. And tables say so much.

The long table, with one character at each end, is often used to depict a cold, stand-offish, antogonistic character web. You can see this in films such as American Beauty. Fighting parents at one end, child stuck in the middle as reluctant piggy-in-the-middle.

In picture books, with their bustling, happier atmospheres, illustrators want to avoid anything like the asparagus scene of American Beauty.

Joyce Lankester Brisley’s hygge, happy scenes also feature a long table with Mother at one end, Father at the other, but there’s no coldness whatsoever. There’s the expanded cast, for one thing, but there’s also Milly Molly Mandy in action, about to get out of her chair, and the pets in the foreground, also looked after. The house itself is cosy, with its patterned curtains and view to the hint of nature outside.

Milly Molly Mandy table scene

FICTIONAL FAMILIES WHO DON’T EAT AT THE TABLE

This is still rare, from my own observations. In broader pop culture, the fictional family who eats with the TV on, or in front of the TV, is portrayed in that way because they are dysfunctional. Picture books teach a clear lesson: Good families eat together, sitting on Western chairs, at a Western table.

  • Mog’s family sits at the table, though Judith Kerr wrote those in an era where more families did sit at the table. In fact, the formality of eating came in handy for Kerr when writing The Tiger Who Came To Tea, in which a carnivalesque visitor upturns social conventions. The more formal that convention, the more fun it is to subvert it. Admittedly, this is part of the reason why table dinners are so popular with picture book creators.
  • Another reason animals might sit around a table: To make them more human. This explains why Olivia the Pig has to sit at a table. Olivia the Pig sits at a round table, which admittedly is less formal than a long, rectangle.

PHOTOGRAPHS OF FAMILIES EATING DINNER

This photo series shows how many cultures around the world sit on the floor to eat dinner. This could be reflected in picture books, but largely is not.

Here’s a photo series of Americans eating dinner — a significant proportion are in the sitting room rather than at a table, though does skew towards table when people eat as a family rather than as a couple or alone. (Kids are messy, which is one good reason to eat in the kitchen, or on a hard floor.)

And here’s a series of Brits eating dinner, which includes a tea trolley. I did actually see that in use when I worked at a high school in England. Each morning the principal ordered breakfast which was delivered to him on a trolley. Coming from New Zealand, this struck me as foreign.

In Australia, Annabel Crabb made a series about the history of Australian life, with emphasis on food. The images look more staged than you’d want in a typical picture book, but a lot of thought has gone into the colour palette, which can be inspiring for illustrators.

What The World Eats is a photo series in the same vein, and sobering. I doubt I could personally survive on some of those weekly rations.

DADS COOKING IN PICTURE BOOKS

There is a tendency across all fiction to idealise the 1950s and 1960s middle class of America, in which mothers stayed in the home, happily raising the children and preparing elaborate meals. There remains a tendency in picture books to replicate that hygge imagery.

Here’s what we need to see more of in picture books:

  • Dads doing the cooking
  • Dads actively involved in helping children eat their food (rather than, say, reading the newspaper)
  • Happy, active families who aren’t necessarily eating dinner at the dinner table. There’s nothing especially magical about the dinner table. Families can eat happily outside around a BBQ, on the floor, and even as they watch TV together, especially if they’re talking about it as they eat.

RELATED AND INTERESTING

SNACKS HAVEN’T ALWAYS BEEN A THING

Search and destroy, kids!...The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955
Search and destroy, kids!…The mad rush for an after-school snack. ~ 1955

How Snacking Became Respectable: Before they became standard fare in American life, snacks drew suspicion and even scorn from WSJ

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea

Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea is a Little Golden Book first published 1983. The illustrations are by Lucinda McQueen. There is a series of stories about Theodore the Mouse.

I find this particular picture book an unremarkable read, and since I took a close look at The Sailor Dog earlier in the week, it’s worth examining what makes the ‘animal goes to sea’ story by Margaret Wise Brown so much more effective. Continue reading “Theodore Mouse Goes To Sea by Michaela Muntean”

President Squid by Aaron Reynolds and Sara Varon

President Squid cover

The most hilarious thing about President Squid is that it is not about President Trump. Well, of course it’s about Trump and all of his kind, but as the author told Betsy Bird in an interview,  it was already written and in the publishing pipeline before Trump even began his campaign. Reynolds wrote it around 2013/2014 with an election year book in mind.

Yet you can’t get a book that is MORE about President Trump.

But Aaron Reynolds is very clear in his intention for this book: A conversation starter about what it takes to be a good leader. Not a critique of anyone in particular.  Continue reading “President Squid by Aaron Reynolds and Sara Varon”