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How I Got My Shrunken Head Story Study

How I Got My Shrunken Head by R.L. Stine is classic Goosebumps #10. This is a chosen one story about a white boy transported to an island in South East Asia.

If I’d read this back in the 1990s I wouldn’t have even know the word ‘microcephaly’ but the world has since had an outbreak of Zika, so the humour of the pile of shrunken heads feels a little closer to reality than it did back then, even though microcephaly was first identified in humans in 1952. This is a story that plays with mismatched size. It’s basically a Skull Island story. This describes the fictional island that appeared in King Kong. It’s also a Jurassic Park story, in which the main character/s go to an island where everything is a completely different scale. Actually, let’s go right back and call this a Gulliver’s Travels trope, or further back again, starting with The Odyssey as ur-story.

TV Tropes call this trope Isle of Giant Horrors.

For more on island symbolism, see this post.

STORY STRUCTURE OF HOW I GOT MY SHRUNKEN HEAD

Stine has said that once he gets his outline done, it takes 8 days to write a Goosebumps book. You don’t pump them out at that speed by mucking around with theme and symbolism and setting the scene. Nope, these books are all about plot.

WEAKNESS/NEED/PROBLEM

At the start of the story the main character, Mark, is insulated in his safe and happy home. The closest he has come to adventure in the jungle is playing a computer game. But all that is about to change, because his true worth as a saviour is about to be challenged.

DESIRE

Since this is a chosen one story, all this boy wants at the beginning of his adventure is to live a nice life in the suburbs, playing computer games with his friends. But the arrival of Aunt Benna’s evil workmate changes all of that, because he is whisked away to a jungle on an island where he must save the day. Once he reads his aunt’s diary and realises the gravity of the situation, he doubles down on his desire to save his aunt and the surrounding environment.

OPPONENT

When Aunt Benna’s workmate Carolyn shows up at the door holding a shrunken head as a gift, we all know this woman is trouble. (All except the boy’s mother, of course, because mothers are bound by society’s rules to be polite and also oblivious.)

As in Welcome To Camp Nightmare, this web of opponents comprises:

  1. Benign human conflict (with Mark’s younger sister who is a nuisance)
  2. Dangerous human conflict with an adult (Carolyn, who basically kidnaps him)
  3. Monsters in the new environs (first we have the oversized rabbit, then the ants the size of grasshoppers etc.)
  4. The natural environment (e.g. the jungle, the quick sand)

There is also a fake-ally opponent in Kareen.

PLAN

Mark realises his made-up magic word works. He call yell “Kah-lee-ah!” and this has an effect on the massive ants. Unfortunately for him, the magic word doesn’t work for everything. (That’s a writing rule — writers can’t rely upon magic to get their main characters out of trouble because that would be boring.)

Mark is still a chosen one, though, so we know there will be a series of things that will help him. Next he manages to get the shrunken head to get him out of the vines which have tightened around his body.

BATTLE

Once captured, the aunt turns out to be pretty useless even though she’s an adult and a well-known scientist, so it’s up to her young nephew to cooperate with her and save them both.

Dr Hawlings carries a ‘large silvery pistol’ in this story as well — will this turn out to be a real gun, with bullets? Actually, Stine only uses the gun as a scare tactic — the real threat is having their heads shrunken in a big vat of boiling water. The rule of Chekhov’s gun doesn’t apply in this case.

SELF-REVELATION

Mark learns to be a bit more grateful for his annoying younger sister when the scratch she put on his magical shrunken head turns out to help him find it from a massive pile of shrunken heads.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

The aunt takes the magical powers away from the boy but this turns into a ‘never-ending story’ when he realises the little head he took home as a souvenir can talk. So now he’s stuck with a talking head and the reader can imagine a subsequent adventure about that.

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Short Story Study

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948) is an excellent example of a short story which contains so much you might as well have read a novel. What can writers learn from this story?

STORY WORLD OF THE LOTTERY

Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. As I re-read this in 2017, I’m thinking of what’s going on right now in Australian politics as citizens vote whether or not to afford marriage equality to all.

SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION

The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally spring weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

— opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

This is a ‘storybook village’, replete with a square, a post office, a bank. I’m not sure readers of 1948 would have seen this village as particularly cosy. Certainly by 2017 any village with all of those amenities still in operation feels like an island of convenience. We are told the population of this village is about 300 people. I live in a village of 3000 people, so I am confident everyone here knows everyone else. It is clear Jackson wants this village to feel cosy… at first.

Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.

The lottery was conducted–as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program–by Mr. Summers

(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)

SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX

The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.

FEMINIST MESSAGES

The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner.  The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?

Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.

This outcome, says Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOTTERY

“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”

“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.

The great weakness of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.

DESIRE

The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.

OPPONENT

Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:

  • The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
  • “They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
  • “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
  • Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.

PLAN

They will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.

BATTLE

The battle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.

This battle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:

  • Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
  • “Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
  • “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
  • “How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.

There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

SELF-REVELATION

The village has no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.

  • Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
  • The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.

 

RELATED READING

The Lottery is a cultural influence on more modern works such as Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.

As for story structure, The Last Spin by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.

11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s Lottery from Mental Floss

Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fascination With The Murderess from Electric Literature

In The Middle Of The Night by Robert Cormier

In The Middle Of The Night is a young adult horror novel by American author Robert Cormier. Written in the mid 1990s, this was one of his later works.

The cover reads like the poster for a horror film and gives us a horror tagline: “The sin of the father will be visited upon the son.”

in the middle of the night

Although Goodreads reminds me I read (and reviewed!) this book back in 2013, I have zero recollection of ever picking it up. This probably says more about my memory than about the book, though I do have strong memories of some of Cormier’s other work, particularly Fade, which I read as a teenager and left a strong impression.

I’m reading In The Middle Of The Night again making read-along notes as I go, hoping to learn what I can about horror and suspense from a master of the form. Continue reading

Chicken Little, Cassandra and Modern Horror

Chicken Little (mostly America) is also known as Chicken Licken or Henny Penny (mostly Britain).

I hope the current generation of children don’t grow up thinking the 2005 animated movie version of Chicken Little has much to do with earlier versions of this story. The movie logline sounds okay on paper: “After ruining his reputation with the town, a courageous chicken must come to the rescue of his fellow citizens when aliens start an invasion”, but tonally, this Disney production is loud, bright and frenetic. The natural ‘opponent’ of the acorn has been turned into the more interesting and formidable aliens in order to sustain a movie length story. Against that tone, the frenzy of Chicken Little himself is absorbed rather than emphasised. Further than that I can’t comment, as I find the movie entirely unwatchable.

chicken little little golden book

Then again, am I really advocating for the continued teaching of the moral of Chicken Little? What does this fable teach us, really?

STORY STRUCTURE OF CHICKEN LITTLE

This is a cumulative tale — you know, the kind you get sick of reading to your kid unless the wordplay is excellent. The ending is tragic, depending on how kind you feel towards foxes. In any cases, we’re not really encouraged to empathise with the birds, so when they die it kind of feels like just desserts for them. I’m sure the characterisation of this tale has something to do with the fact that humans have a long history of eating birds but not foxes. Continue reading

Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined

A bearded man either listens to or tells a tall tale inside a cave

Aim for this face when you’re telling a scary tall tale. (In both you and your audience) Photo by zamario.

AUDIO EXAMPLE OF A SCARY TALL TALE

First, listen to a master. This bloke (‘Bongo’) rang into an Australian radio station cracking on his story is true. If it’s true, I’ll eat every single one of my hats. Mind you, the guys at Mysterious Universe believe it. Strange things happen in The Outback.

What do you think?

Go to episode 404 of Mysterious Universe and, unless you want to hear all about sleep paralysis and trolls sitting on chests (which is also fascinating), you can skip straight to Bongo’s yarn at 51:25.

No doubt about it, Bongo is a master of the form. I bet he’s been telling this very yarn for years and years (since September of ’78). If you go to the Australian Outback you’ll meet a number of great storytellers just like Bongo; my in-laws love their camping holidays and they’ll tell you exactly where to find these old guys – out near Lightning Ridge and so on. There’s nothing much else to do out there after dark, you see, with no internet connection and no nothing. Spinning yarns while sounding authentic is a valued skill, like playing the banjo or the harmonica… or the Bongos, even. Continue reading

Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death

In Wallace and Gromit: A Matter Of Loaf Or Death, Wallace and his dog, Gromit, open a bakery and get tied up with a murder mystery. But, when Wallace falls in love Gromit is left to solve the case.

The Japanese title is “The Bad Dream Of Bakery Street’.

GENRE BLEND OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

comedy, horror, romance >> cosy mystery

STORY WORLD OF ‘A MATTER OF LOAF OR DEATH’

The town’s milieu was inspired by thoughts of 1950s Wigan. It’s sort of like 1950s steampunk. Similar towns are seen in the live action Midsomer Murders series. It’s very English. As a consequence, Wallace comes out with very British idiomatic expressions pretty much every time he speaks. His life revolves around very English foods, especially cheese.

The films appeal to a dual audience partly by including a frequent scattering of allusions to pop culture. There are plenty of puns and nods of recognition in the intratext — Meat-a-bix written on Fluffles’ bed box instead of Weet-a-bix, for instance. Continue reading

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

This is a remake of a 1976 movie based on Stephen King’s 1974 (breakout) novel, Carrie. Critics don’t like this new one much. The criticism is mostly that it was unnecessary because the first adaptation was so good. The original has a slower, more sinister pace and the main thing the reboot did was to add the social media dimension and some modern SFX. However, this is — unfortunately — a timeless story of high school exclusion and bullying.

Carrie movie poster

 

PREMISE OF CARRIE

A shy girl, outcasted by her peers and sheltered by her religious mother, unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom. (In the book it’s called the Spring Ball — a lot of the slang/words have been updated.)

DESIGNING PRINCIPLE OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you. Continue reading

The Great Fusilli Courage The Cowardly Dog:

The title card artwork is done by Margaret Frey. Main title by John R. Dilworth, the art director.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE GREAT FUSILLI

This is the last Courage story of season one and it is fitting that the creators have made a work of metafiction — in other words, the audience is reminded that they are watching a TV show.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage: That it’s up to him to save the day despite being an ordinary dog

Muriel: That she is oblivious and trusting and just a little prone to fancy

Eustace: That he is easily persuaded by the promise of riches (among many other faults, this one is often his downfall, as it is here.) Continue reading

Little Muriel Courage The Cowardly Dog

Often in stories with a very small character there is some metaphorical/thematic reason for it, but in this case Muriel’s regression to the body and mind of a 3 and a half year old is pure fun. In other words, this is a carnivalesque story.

STORYWORLD

The first thing we see about this storyworld is that it is very windy. The sky is an ominous shade of purple, the windmill spins quickly and Muriel’s washing is flapping on the line.

We see the metaphor of a cliff in this story, as Muriel and Courage (and Eustace) come close to death. For more on that see The Symbolism Of Altitude.

STORY STRUCTURE

WEAKNESS/NEED

In his attempt to be helpful and kind Courage sometimes screws up. He has accidentally glued Muriel to her rocking chair thinking it was quick drying paint. And a storm is coming.

The story requires for Muriel to be stuck to the chair, but also for the chair to be stuck to the floor. She needs to be trapped. They get around this by showing Eustace in the basement fixing the basement ceiling — a long nail pokes right through and nails the chair to the living room floor.

The writers also get rid of Eustace by having him knock himself out cold.

DESIRE

He wants to save Muriel from the hurricane.

OPPONENT

Although it’s perfectly possible to make a story with only a natural opponent (hurricanes, tsunamis), the most successful stories (what others have called ‘3D stories’) require human opponents.

The natural opponent is introduced early on and is of course the hurricane.

The human opponent will be revealed later — in this story it is Muriel as a bratty three and a half year old.

PLAN

Courage ties a piece of string between a rock and a tree and ‘trips’ the hurricane up. The hurricane throws Muriel onto the top of a high, pointy rock.

After returning home with little Muriel the computer tells him that the only way to bring Muriel back is to drop her into the eye of a hurricane going in the opposite direction, which can be found in the Southern Hemisphere. This is a reference to the Coriolis effect (not actually observable in sinks and toilets as many believe).

BATTLE

I don’t get the feeling the writers really know children. Muriel as a three and a half year old has one tooth. This is an age when children (temporarily) have a full set of teeth.

I also don’t buy that Muriel would have been such a bratty three and a half year old, but that is not the point. (Show me the child at three and I’ll show you the woman.) The point is to have fun. I can believe the hurricane results in some kind of personality change.

It’s interesting what I find believable and unbelievable, because this show is full of unbelievable things. We accept that Courage magically finds a tricycle and a kite as he’s chasing after Muriel. It’s funny that he can ‘trip’ up a hurricane. If the writers wanted to, they could have had the house magically rebuilt when Courage returns. We often see the house decimated at the end of an episode, only to see it just the same as it ever was at the beginning of the next. But no — that’s the thing about the rules of story — the writers must wait until the end of this episode before rebuilding the house.

The carnivalesque antics must therefore take place in a house with no roof.

And this is the main battle — pleasing Muriel who demands very specific food and then refuses to eat it and keeping her safe.

When Muriel makes a nuisance of herself on the plane to the Southern Hemisphere even the pilot jumps out with a parachute, unable to stand it anymore. He wishes Courage good luck and hands him a plane flying manual.

The classic transfer of the hat (crown).

 

SELF-REVELATION

When Muriel walks out her own self we know Courage has saved the day.

The TV announcer lets us know that the hurricane warning is over. (Darkly humorous given the house is in total disrepair.) Now there will be a tsunami.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

In this circular shaped story, we last see the Bagge family riding away on a massive wave.

EXTRAPOLATION

I am adding another step to John Truby’s story structure, which I’ve been making much use of so far.

We extrapolate that Courage will save them somehow because he knows ‘how to ride the waves’.

The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling episode of Courage reminds me of a type of picture book in which a cute character (often an annoying younger brother or sister) gets away with doing mean things behind the parents’ back. This must be a common family dynamic because I remember my own younger brother hamming up the cuteness in a way the adults didn’t seem to notice!

The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

 

I’m reminded in particular of a picture book from the 1980s which I cannot find — perhaps it’s out of print. It’s about a girl called Caroline who does all sorts of naughty things. But was it really Caroline? “No, not Caroline, adorable sweet Caroline!” It stands out vividly to me because there was a girl called Caroline in my Standard 1 class who giggled and giggled whenever the teacher read it to the class. I remember wishing there was a picture book starring me, but I have yet to find a single children’s book with a character named Lynley.

Still bitter.

STORY STRUCTURE OF The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

WEAKNESS/NEED

Courage is kind, and this comes back to bite him in The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling. He rescues an egg which has been abandoned. We watch the flock fly across the sky. Initially our empathy for this left-behind egg are aroused. We’re half expecting an Ugly Duckling tale a la Hans Christian Andersen.

DESIRE

Courage wants to save a life.

OPPONENT: The Precious Wonderful Adorable Loveable Duckling

At first the opponent is Eustace, who thinks the egg is for his breakfast.

But when he cracks the egg into the pan and a chicken plops out, the chick immediately falls in love with Eustace. This is making use of the well-known phenomenon in which a duckling falls in love with whoever nurtures it. Taken to an extreme, this duckling falls madly in love at first sight, to the exclusion of all else. Muriel and Courage are immediate enemies.

This reminds me of writing advice from Elizabeth Lyons who in her book Manuscript Makeover says that readers are like ducklings — we fall in love with the first character we see. That very much works in this episode — Courage is the first character we see and we are definitely on his side.

PLAN

The duckling takes great care of Eustace, putting on his slippers, fanning him while he sleeps, smashing Muriel’s cup of tea and replacing it with a more lavish tray.

Courage is soon given a broken leg by this cute little duckling but plans to talk to him about being naughty around the house. Courage gives the duckling a lecture about not throwing cups of tea onto the rug. (We don’t hear the words, just a mumbly sound.)

The duckling doubles down.

BATTLE

The battle sequence is a real Tom and Jerry escapade which takes place inside the house. This is a truly evil duckling who wants to murder Muriel and disable Courage. Courage must save Muriel, who has no idea that the duckling has another side to him.

When the duckling saws off the legs of Muriel’s chair I’m reminded of Roald Dahl’s The Twits

The duckling tips cement into Muriel’s bath

It all culminates in the basement, where the duckling has built a rocket in order to send Muriel into space. He gets his own wing stuck in the door. Courage manages to save Muriel by gnawing away at the rope tying her to the outside.

SELF-REVELATION

Muriel’s revelation is that the duckling is bad after all.

The bad characters in this are duly punished, so the message to the reader is that badly behaved characters end badly.

(I would say that this is the most satisfying way to end episodes of a comedy like this, but is not reflective of real life.)

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

Instead of Muriel, Eustace and the Duckling end up on the moon together. The duckling is very happy about this. It’s what he’s wanted all along.

 

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