I once read an article about why so few commuters were inclined to take the bus. This would have eased congestion in my home city. New Zealanders are notoriously wedded to their cars (which have only gotten bigger and bigger since the aggressive marketing of double-cab utes).
Sure, we like our cars. But there’s this thing called ‘bus anxiety’. When I read the list of ‘anxiety provoking factors’, I identified all of them in myself, a regular bus user at the time:
Will the bus come on time?
Am I at the right stop, and will this bus go where I need it to?
Do I have an acceptable method of paying?
Will there be somewhere for me to sit?
If so, will I have to sit next to someone unpleasant?
The list went on. When I moved to Japan, I found the payment system of the late 1990s the most stress inducing of all. Some buses opened their front doors, other the back doors for you to get on. I could never remember which it was going to be. If you got on at the back, you took a ticket with a zone on it, and kept your eyes on the digital board of numbers at the front. This would tell you how much you had to pay by the time you got off. Like a taxi cab, the number kept rising. When you disembarked, you got off at the front, and on your way out, you dropped exact change into a large acrylic box with a slot in the top. The driver didn’t engage with travellers at all. He was there as an automaton.
There are certain character traits which audiences universally dislike. When they appear in fiction, audiences understand ‘this is the character I’m supposed to hate’. This character is called the Hate Sink.
I have previously explored how writers create unlikeable but sympathetic characters. There is a list of tricks which have been utilised by storytellers to make us empathise with characters such as Tony Soprano and Walter White. If these people were unsympathetic, we wouldn’t want to spend a full episode with them let alone journey with them across series and seasons.
Hate Sink characters are different from antiheroes and villains. We love to hate the Hate Sinks.
Burglar Bill is a picture book by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, first published in 1977. There are a number of picture books about burglars who break into houses at night, one of a child’s greatest fears going to sleep. Burglars can be found all across children’s literature. (Enid Blyton loved burglars.)
Be sure to examine the pictures in this one as there are plenty of visual gags. I love that Burglar Bill hangs a mugshot of himself on the wall.
I believe Burglar Bill has been hugely influential on the comical burglar stories that came after, notably:
Here’s one little-known aspect of existing as a Gen X — the fear of sinking to death in sand. Perhaps you escaped this particular horror if your television exposure was moderated, but I’ve asked around, and I’m not the only child of the 80s to approach wet, sandy areas with extreme caution. Films and cartoons conveyed the idea that sinking into sand, never to be seen again, was an ever present danger.
This is why, when our village was recently required to switch from septic tank to town sewerage, I panicked a little when I realised our plumber had turned our entire back yard into a sinkhole:
BUT IS QUICKSAND EVEN REAL?
Yes, but quicksands not as quick as all that, unless you flail about in a panic, or deliberately try to sink yourself deeper:
I do know sand in general can be dangerous. My high school friend’s older brother suffocated to death under a collapsed sandcastle on Nelson’s Tahunanui Beach in the 1970s at the age of nine. Though nowhere near as common as drownings, children dying in sand still happens. However the popularity of the old quicksand trope suggested quicksand was a disproportionate hazard, when I should have been warned instead about burying myself too deep in sand holes:
It used to be a standard trope in action movies, although you don’t see it much these days: a patch of apparently solid ground in the jungle that, when stepped on, turns out to have the consistency of cold oatmeal. The unlucky victim starts sinking down into the muck; struggling only makes it worse. Unless there’s a vine to grab a hold of, he or she disappears without a trace (except maybe a hat floating sadly on the surface). It was a bad way to go. Quicksand was probably the number-one hazard faced by silver-screen adventurers, followed by decaying rope bridges and giant clams that could hold a diver underwater.
There’s a disturbing misogyny behind many of the live action quicksand scenes of the 20th century. Look up famous quicksand scenes from cinematic history and it readily becomes apparent that a sexually desirable woman flailing about and pleading in quicksand is a common male saviour fantasy, which is one thing, but I suspect it’s also a ‘trapping and dispatching with women’ fantasy.
When it’s two men flailing about in the swamp, it’s likely there’s a comedy vibe to it. Stanley is a revenge film from 1972. It gets 4.2 on IMDb and I doubt anyone would watch it for the serious drama. Quicksand tips a dramatic story into melodrama:
This how-to video makes me feel a lot better about quicksand.
The horror of sinking into some suffocating substance apart from water remains a powerful trope. It is used in the horror film A Quiet Place, but in that film it’s not sand — it’s grain in a granary.
According to this guy, who lives in a part of the world with genuine, slightly scary quicksand, it’s probably not going to be the suffocation that kills you. He also makes a good job of describing what it feels like to be stuck in quicksand.
The quicksand trope is used far less commonly these days. You know what basically killed the quicksand trope? The moon landings.
Quicksand is a common and deadly element of swamp, jungle, and desert terrain. Science Fiction stories written before the Moon landings are also liable to describe thick layers of extremely fine lunar dust on the Moon’s surface that are treated as functionally equivalent to quicksand.
Strange as it seems now:
Prior to the first Moon landing, scientists had good reason to believe the lunar surface was covered in a fine layer of dust. While this might not sound like a big deal, it presented a host of concerns to the Apollo mission planners. […]
First and foremost, and as proposed by Gold, the lunar dust might swallow astronauts like quicksand. Indeed, without any prior experience of standing on a celestial body aside from Earth, a concern emerged that the soft regolith on the Moon wasn’t compact enough to support the weight of the Lunar Module or astronauts out for a stroll. Nightmarish thoughts of astronauts getting swallowed up into the lunar dust prompted further investigation.
“The Scarlet Ibis” is a classic short story by James Hurst about an older brother who is ashamed of his disabled younger brother. One day they are both out in a thunder storm. The older brother runs for shelter, leaving the younger brother behind. The younger brother is struck by lightning (we extrapolate) and dies.
The symbolism and pathetic fallacy of this story is clear. When the big brother teaches the younger brother to walk, they go down to a swamp.
Where there is swamp, there is the possibility of death and danger. But it’s not just about sinking to death. Bogs, swamps and marshes have a murky history. Case in point:
My favourite story concerns the ossuary at St. Paul’s Cathedral—old St. Paul’s, before the Wren cathedral was built. In the middle of the night, this huge group of carts pulled up outside of the cathedral, and they took all the bones in the ossuary, loaded them into the carts, took them down to the local marsh, threw them into the marsh, and threw dung on top of them. It’s this obviation of the dead, because they decided they want to stamp out any Catholic tendency to pray for the dead.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN A MARSH, BOG, SWAMP ETC?
The different kinds of wetlands:
MARSHES— no trees, lots of grass, exist at the edge of lakes and streams
SWAMPS— murky water, lots of trees, muddy, full of pits and quagmires
FENS— dominated by grasses, alkaline water
BOG— accumulates peat (deposits of dead plant material), mosses aplenty
All varieties of wetland are essential to the ecosystem, but symbolically, in stories, they function quite differently. The fen is basically a watery meadow, offering little real danger to humans — on fens we can see for miles around — we’d see predators approach. As for the swamp, well that’s a different matter. The swamp contains the worst of all worlds — the shadowy depths of an ocean combined with the foreboding of the forest. We have no visibility in either direction.
Bogs and swamps seem more ‘sinkier’ than fens and marshes, probably because of the English language collocations such as ‘swamped at work’, bogged down by homework’ etc. I’ve never heard ‘marshed at work'(though someone should make that happen).
When a story is told from the point of view of, say, a frog (who needs it for survival), then swamps can function as utopian landscapes.
The wetlands of The Wind In The Willows are a genuine utopia.
At this point I’d like to mention The Tale of Mr. Jeremy Fisher, by Beatrix Potter. Beatrix Potter has the undeserved reputation for writing sweet, utopian stories about animals dressed like people. But that’s not true at all. Jeremy Fisher is the story of a frog, set by some wetlands. These wetlands are no utopia, but a dangerous, deadly place. There is nothing happily ironic about Potter’s wetland environs.
In Gaston Bachelard’s Symbolic Dream House, you probably shouldn’t go down to the basement, ever. I mean it. Nothing good ever happens down there. The basement is the house version of a fairytale forest — a descent into the subconscious. We can’t control our subconscious. That’s what makes it scary.
EXAMPLE ONE: BASEMENTS AND BEREAVEMENT
The older woman character in Alice Munro’s “Free Radicals” has recently lost her husband. It’s scary to live alone. The reader is never entirely sure if she really had an intruder, or if she sort of hallucinated him, inspired by a visit from the meter reader, who goes down to that dreaded basement.
First she must deal with her dead husband’s things. That’s when the reader is introduced to the basement. Or, shall we say, ‘cellar’. (Cellar sounds way less scary.)
“It was the best place to be, thought Wilbur, this warm delicious cellar, with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.”
This is also the bit where Munro introduces the fuse switches —a soft Chekov’s Gun. (Munro is generally expert at depicting places in a realistic way.) I mean, this is what a real cellar looks like, right? Important: Detail is multivalent in Munro’s fiction — it works at both literal and symbolic levels.)
She would deal with the cellar first. It really was a cellar, not a basement. Planks made walkways over the dirt floor, and the small high windows were hung with dirty cobwebs. There was nothing down there that she ever needed. Just Rich’s half-filled paint tins, boards of various lengths, tools that were either usable or ready to be discarded. She had opened the door and gone down the steps just once since Rich had died, to see that no lights had been left on, and to assure herself that the fuse switches were there, with labels written beside them to tell her which controlled what. When she came up, she had bolted the door as usual, on the kitchen side. Rich used to laugh about that habit of hers, asking what she thought might get in, through the stone walls and elf-size windows, to menace them.
Basements are not always scary, spooky places, especially in a city like Vancouver, where a basement may simply be another ordinary level of a house, set up accordingly. In “Cortes Island“, the newly married 1950s bride feels both cocooned and stifled by her marital home. Here we have the cosy description:
There were two and a half rooms in our apartment. It was rented furnished, and in the way of such places it was half furnished, with things that would otherwise have been thrown away. I remember the floor of the living room, which was covered with leftover squares and rectangles of linoleum—all the different colors and patterns fitted together and stitched like a crazy quilt with strips of metal. And the gas stove in the kitchen, which was fed with quarters. Our bed was in an alcove off the kitchen—it fitted into the alcove so snugly that you had to climb into bed from the bottom. Chess had read that this was the way the harem girls had to enter the bed of the sultan, first adoring his feet, then crawling upward paying homage to his other parts. So we sometimes played this game.
When the couple move out into a third floor apartment, the narrator has got herself a job and become less of a shadowy, peripheral figure in the world. She has been relegated to ‘married woman’ status — newly invisible. She is inclined to retreat further into her comfortable, introverted state.
This means leaving the cosy comfort — but also the prison — of her basement.
Basements are secret places — what we do down there is often against the rules. In Adventureland, teenagers have sex in their parents’ basements rather than in their own bedrooms. In the popular imagination, young adults remain in their parents’ basements if they fail to launch into the responsible world of adulthood.
You might try writing a scary basement scene using the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s IT as inspiration. Notice how the camera moves as if it’s a fish in the ocean, about to gobble you up. Stephen King as well as the filmmakers fully get that symbolic association between City and Ocean, underscored by the dialogue “You’ll float too!”
How to recreate this ominous floating on the page? Well, it’s all in your choice of detail. Try starting with a wide-angle description, zooming in, lowering your ‘camera’ by describing feet and stairs… and so on.
A Quiet Place is another film in which a basement fills with water. (Ridiculously quickly, but acceptable within the world of the film.)
Stephen King loves his basements. In Carrie, Mrs White is destroyed while taking refuge in the basement.
But in funny children’s stories, the basement can be a carnivalesque setting. Jeff Kinney’s Greg has a basement. That’s where sleepovers happen, among other hijinx. The basement of an office block is used to similar effect in The I.T. Crowd.
Silence of the Lambs turns the ground level of a house into something way more reminiscent of a basement, then we realise there’s a deeper layer — a deep hole, where the baddie keeps his skin prisoners. All of this is highly symbolic, of course: This guy lives among us (at ground level) but has hidden, evil depths in his twisted psychology.
As far as fairytale basements go, Bluebeard depicts your archetypal horror basement.
The Utopian Basement
In Arcadia, the basement is a storehouse, full of things you may need in times of famine.
A witness who remembers nothing is in mortal danger.
A young woman regains consciousness and finds herself on some cellar steps. At the bottom of the steps there is the corpse of a dead girl. She cannot remember who she is, what has happened or why she is there. Terrified and confused she manages to find a way out and as she flees she runs into Miss Silver, who offers to help her.
A letter in her bag is the only clue to her identity. But by investigating what has happened to her will she find herself in danger? Can she trust the letter writer? And who is the girl in the cellar?
Header image The Blind Fiddler 1806 Sir David Wilkie 1785-1841 Presented by Sir George Beaumont Bt 1826
Most often, kitchens in children’s literature serve as metonyms of familial happiness, but every so often you do find a scary kitchen in which not all is well. The kitchen is the perfect place for a scary scene because it is at once close to home (in fact the hub of the home) and contains dangerous items such as knives.
The ultimate scary picture book kitchen is, in my opinion, one created by Maurice Sendak — In The Night Kitchen.
And here are a couple of shots of the kitchens our story app Midnight Feast. I illustrated the story in two colour schemes — the ochre one is the main character’s reality. The colour illustrations are her imagined, improved take on reality, in which there is not enough to eat due to climate change.
I now find the prospect of climate change so terrifying I’d never spend a year and a half making another climate change story.
I made Midnight Feast deliberately terrifying. (My illustration style doesn’t exactly lend itself to light and fluffy.)
But sometimes I wonder if kitchens are accidentally creepy. Below is a bird’s eye view of Doctor Snuggles’ kitchen. His housekeeper is grumpy and hates him messing up his space. The top down view makes Snuggles look small and somewhat vulnerable. The illustrator has skewed perspective a little to give the reader more of his face.
The kitchen in Courage The Cowardly Dog can be scary or welcoming depending on the camera angle and colour scheme. Purples and blues mean something scary is going down.
A comically terrifying kitchen-centred story is a Wallace and Gromit film.
Do you know which classic story the following scary kitchen is from?
This house was something between a cave, a prison, and a tumbledown pig-stye. There was a strong door, which was shut and locked.
The setting sun made the window panes glow like red flame; but the kitchen fire was not alight. It was neatly laid with dry sticks, as the rabbits could see, when they peeped through the window.
Benjamin sighed with relief.
But there were preparations upon the kitchen table which made him shudder. There was an immense empty pie-dish of blue willow pattern, and a large carving knife and fork, and a chopper.
At the other end of the table was a partly unfolded tablecloth, a plate, a tumbler, a knife and fork, salt-cellar, mustard and a chair—in short, preparations for one person’s supper.
It is from The Tale of Mr. Tod by Beatrix Potter. Some of those sentences would fit perfectly in a horror novel, don’t you think?
Hotels and motels, it seems, are inherently scary. My theory is that they fall into the uncanny valley of attempting to emulate home without actually being our home. Hotels and motels mimic the dream version of home, like when you ‘know’ within a dream that you’re ‘at home’, but the dream home is nothing like your real home.
For storytellers, it follows, hotels and motels are endlessly useful as settings. But are these establishments going the way of CDs and landlines? With the rise of Airbnb, the entire nature of holiday accommodation is changing. That said, I can’t see any downside for storytellers. Staying in someone else’s home in a different town is the perfect potential horror set up.
HOTELS AND MOTELS IN SHORT STORIES
John Irving is expert at writing the creepy, and he does so here in his description of a hotel. The creepy language builds to a disturbing simile:
As a family, we dutifully followed Theobald and my grandmother down the long, twining hall, my father counting the paces to the WC. The hall rug was thin, the color of a shadow. Along the walls were old photographs of speed-skating teams — on their feet the strange blade curled up at the tips like court jesters’ shoes or the runners of ancient sleds. … Grandmother’s room was full of china, polished wood, and the hint of mold. The drapes were damp. The bed had an unsettlingridge at its center, like fur risen on a dog’s spine — it was almost as if a very slender body lay stretched beneath the bedspread.
from The Pension Grillparzer, a short story by John Irving
Annie Proulx is equally expert at painting a setting in few words. Focus on the cheap building materials and the tackiness of the situation is one of Proulx’s strengths. I don’t want to be with this guy in this room, do you?
Thursday night, balked by detours and construction, he was on the outskirts of Des Moines. In the cinder-block motel room he set the alarm, but his own stertorous breathing woke him before it rang. He was up at five-fifteen, eyes aflame, peering through the vinyl drapes at his snow-hazed car flashing blue under the motel sign, SLEEP SLEEP. In the bathroom he mixed the packet of instant motel coffee and drank it black, without ersatz sugar or chemical cream. He wanted the caffeine. The roots of his mind felt withered and punky.
By the way, ‘stertorous’ means ‘laboured’ (in regards to breathing).
Alice Munro has a gift for describing the ordinary buildings of an ordinary town and she describes hotels quite frequently, but here she describes an imaginary motel in an example of side-shadowing:
She would have preferred another scene, and that was the one she substituted, in her memory. A narrow six- or seven-story hotel, once a fashionable place of residence, in the West End of Vancouver. Curtains of yellowed lace, high ceilings, perhaps an iron grille over part of the window, a fake balcony. Nothing actually dirty or disreputable, just an atmosphere of long accommodation of private woes and sins. There she would have to cross the little lobby with head bowed and arms clinging to her sides, her whole body permeated by exquisite shame. And he would speak to the desk clerk in a low voice that did not advertise, but did not conceal or apologize for, their purpose. Then the ride in the old-fashioned cage of the elevator, run by an old man—or perhaps an old woman, perhaps a cripple, a sly servant of vice.
In a similar story, Munro describes another hotel where a young woman has been taken by a bad-boy doctor who perhaps wants to have sex with her:
They stopped, finally, in Kaladar, and went into the hotel—the old hotel that is still there. Taking her hand, kneading his fingers between hers, slowing his pace to match her uneven steps, Neil led her into the bar. She recognized it as a bar, though she had never been in one before. (Bailey’s Falls Inn did not yet have a license, so drinking was done in people’s rooms, or in a rather ramshackle night club across the road.) This bar was just as she would have expected—a big, dark, airless room, with the chairs and tables rearranged in a careless way after a hasty cleanup, the smell of Lysol not erasing the smell of beer, whiskey, cigars, pipes, men.
Almost immediately changes came to the hotel. In the former dining room there was a false ceiling put in—paperboard squares supported by strips of metal. The big round tables were replaced by small square tables, and the heavy wooden chairs by light metal chairs with maroon plastic—covered seats. Because fo the lowered ceiling, the windows had to be reduced to squat rectangles. A neon sign in one of them said WELCOME COFFEE SHOP.
The owner, whose name was Mr. Palagian, never smiled or said a word more than he could help to anybody, in spite of the sign.
Isaac Bashevis Singer’s “The Fearsome Inn” is one classic example from 1984. Some have said this picture book is not in fact for children.
Hotels and motels make for great settings if your child character lives in one, because the child is always meeting other people. It’s a good way to get the character ‘out into the world and mingling’ without them needing to leave ‘home’. This is a good workaround for writing contemporary children, who generally aren’t allowed out alone without some author contrivance.
Mary has a new pet mouse named Pip. But no sooner has she lifted the lid of Pip’s box than he’s off straight into the Grand Hotel! Young readers can join in the search for Pip, hidden in the hotel lobby, the kitchen, even the Royal Suite! Its a merry chase and a hunt-and-find game combined.
Actor Carey Mulligan grew up living in motels.
“Until I was eight we lived in hotels,” Mulligan explained. “So I lived in The Mayfair when I was first born in London, then… we moved to Germany and lived there for a bit.
“It probably gave me a strange perception of life. We finally got a house when I was eight and we got a key, a proper key, and I was like, ‘Why don’t we just swipe things [like a hotel key card]?'”
However, Mulligan added that she felt like she belonged in the hotels she stayed in.
She joked: “I’d sit in the maid’s dirty laundry trolley and we were part of the hotel.”
My own grandmother ran a motel when I was a very young child. I remember the big spa pool and I also remember the linen closet. Motels in New Zealand and Australia always seem to smell like hot buttered toast at certain times of day. That smell, especially when it includes bacon, makes me think of a motel.
Pip in the Grand Hotel by Johannes Hucke, Daniel Müller (Illustrator) is a picture book with a setting and inciting incident reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s The Witches. A child with a pet mouse goes off through a hotel looking for the escaped mouse. This one is more of a madcap adventure than a life or death situation:
Mary has a new pet mouse named Pip. But no sooner has she lifted the lid of Pip’s box than he’s off straight into the Grand Hotel! Young readers can join in the search for Pip, hidden in the hotel lobby, the kitchen, even the Royal Suite! Its a merry chase and a hunt-and-find game combined.
In Withering By The Sea by Judith Rossell:
Stella lives with her three Aunts in a majestic hotel along the coast. Her Aunts are miserable and mean, demanding that Stella be quiet and dutiful. Stella though would rather read the dilapidated atlas that she discovered only partially burnt in the garbage pile behind the hotel. That is why she is in the quiet conservatory and witnesses something being hidden in one of the planters. The knowledge is just one part of the mystery that is about to unfold in the hotel. It is a mystery that Stella finds herself caught up in, taking her away from the hotel and her dull Aunts and into a world of magic and new friends and enemies that even the atlas could not fully prepare her for.
An enchanting urban fantasy middle-grade debut―the first book in a trilogy―set in a magical hotel full of secrets.
Orphan Elizabeth Somers’s malevolent aunt and uncle ship her off to the ominous Winterhouse Hotel, owned by the peculiar Norbridge Falls. Upon arrival, Elizabeth quickly discovers that Winterhouse has many charms―most notably its massive library. It’s not long before she locates a magical book of puzzles that will unlock a mystery involving Norbridge and his sinister family. But the deeper she delves into the hotel’s secrets, the more Elizabeth starts to realize that she is somehow connected to Winterhouse. As fate would have it, Elizabeth is the only person who can break the hotel’s curse and solve the mystery. But will it be at the cost of losing the people she has come to care for, and even Winterhouse itself?
Mystery, adventure, and beautiful writing combine in this exciting debut richly set in a hotel full of secrets.
Back at the Winterhouse hotel for another holiday season, Elizabeth and Freddy dig deeper into the mystery surrounding Riley S. Granger, a hotel guest who left behind odd artifacts—one being a magical book that the evil Gracella Winters once attempted to use to gain destructive power over the entire Falls lineage. The two friends follow a trail of clues, inadvertently attracting the attention of a suspicious new hotel guest: Elana Vesper. The clock is ticking as Elizabeth and Freddy struggle to figure out whether Elana is merely a pawn or a player in the plot to revive the spirit of Gracella. If that wasn’t enough, Elizabeth suspects she is coming into her own special powers—and she’s fearful it might lead her right into Gracella’s vicious web.
It’s wintertime at Greenglass House. The creaky smuggler’s inn is always quiet during this season, and twelve-year-old Milo, the innkeepers’ adopted son, plans to spend his holidays relaxing. But on the first icy night of vacation, out of nowhere, the guest bell rings. Then rings again. And again. Soon Milo’s home is bursting with odd, secretive guests, each one bearing a strange story that is somehow connected to the rambling old house. As objects go missing and tempers flare, Milo and Meddy, the cook’s daughter, must decipher clues and untangle the web of deepening mysteries to discover the truth about Greenglass House—and themselves.
Welcome back to the irresistible world of Greenglass House where thirteen-year-old Milo is, once again, spending the winter holidays stuck in a house full of strange guests who are not what they seem. There are fresh clues to uncover as friends old and new join in his search for a mysterious map and a famous smuggler’s lost haul.
When Miss Lana makes an Accidental Bid at the Tupelo auction and winds up the mortified owner of an old inn, she doesn’t realize there’s a ghost in the fine print. Naturally, Desperado Detective Agency (aka Mo and Dale) opens a paranormal division to solve the mystery of the ghost’s identity. They’ve got to figure out who the ghost is so they can interview it for their history assignment (extra credit). But Mo and Dale start to realize that the Inn isn’t the only haunted place in Tupelo Landing. People can also be haunted by their own past. As Mo and Dale handily track down the truth about the ghost (with some help from the new kid in town), they discover the truth about a great many other people, too.
A laugh out loud, ghostly, Southern mystery that can be enjoyed by readers visiting Tupelo Landing for the first time, as well as those who are old friends of Mo and Dale.
HOTELS AND MOTELS ON TV
Gilmore girls features a hotel as a central setting. In later seasons, Lorelai and Sooki’s Inn, and even Lorelai’s chain hotel, are utopian settings. Even though things apparently get stressful, it is still to be seen as a glamorous job being Lorelai, who never seems to actually be doing much. (She’s said to be doing much.) The kitchen is always overflowing with food, much like in a scene from Brambly Cottage. Melissa McCarthy does a great job of the slapstick, almost killing herself and others with her klutziness.
Schitt’s Creek features a rags-to-riches family who go bankrupt and are forced to move to the small town purchased as a birthday present joke. Mother and father share a bedroom right through the wall from their grown son and daughter, plunging them back into adolescence.
Fawlty Towers (1975-1979) is the British ancestor of Schitts Creek and if you look closely, you’ll see a lot of the same gags and comedic structure in common. I don’t know if the creators of Schitts Creek were influenced by Fawlty Towers — it’s hard to say, because the comedic structure employed can be seen across many sit-coms, whether set in a motel/hotel or otherwise.
Road trip stories will likely include a hotel or motel or horror inn somewhere along the journey, as part of the plot if nothing else.
The Lobster (2015) disturbed me. In a dystopian near future, single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.
This idyllic pool scene in Thelma & Louise juxtaposes against what just happened. The grazes on Thelma’s knees become visible to the audience after she lies down, reminding us that this is no idyll.
No Country For Old Men has permanently ruined me for motels that look like this (most of them) and also for people standing right outside a dark room with the hallway light on — worse when they switch the light off.
Hell Hotel — scary and possibly abandoned hotels. I include one of these in our story app Hilda Bewildered.
Inn Security — the bit in a story where the hero is super tired (probably because of some big struggle) and goes to rest in an inn, but is woken up by the inn security in the middle of the night for some reason.
‘If you knew what happens in the hotel every day! Not a day passes but something happens.’ With these words the shrewd young proprietress of a modest Swiss hotel opens her account of the remarkable day-to-day events in her establishment. Little escapes here eye, still less her ear; for she is a good listener, and ‘people come to confide in you. They tell you things they would not tell their own parents and friends, not even their lawyers and doctors’.
The period is the late 1940s. Many of Mme Bonnard’s patrons are on the run from some real or imagined horror: from the Russians, from the dreaded Labour Government, from a husband bent on murder, from loneliness or madness…
Vincent is a bartender at the Hotel Caiette, a five-star lodging on the northernmost tip of Vancouver Island. On the night she meets Jonathan Alkaitis, a hooded figure scrawls a message on the lobby’s glass wall: Why don’t you swallow broken glass. High above Manhattan, a greater crime is committed: Alkaitis is running an international Ponzi scheme, moving imaginary sums of money through clients’ accounts. When the financial empire collapses, it obliterates countless fortunes and devastates lives. Vincent, who had been posing as Jonathan’s wife, walks away into the night. Years later, a victim of the fraud is hired to investigate a strange occurrence: a woman has seemingly vanished from the deck of a container ship between ports of call.
In this captivating story of crisis and survival, Emily St. John Mandel takes readers through often hidden landscapes: campgrounds for the near-homeless, underground electronica clubs, the business of international shipping, service in luxury hotels, and life in a federal prison. Rife with unexpected beauty, The Glass Hotel is a captivating portrait of greed and guilt, love and delusion, ghosts and unintended consequences, and the infinite ways we search for meaning in our lives.
You may not believe in ghosts to enjoy ghost stories. I don’t either. But once you understand how ghost stories work, you’ll understand how tools of persuasion are used in other realms. Studying the ghost story is a fun way to study the techniques of persuasion.
There is a category of ghost story in which an ordinary person from the living world encounters not just a single scary ghost, but an entire room full of uncanny individuals. We suspect they are ghosts; this is subsequently confirmed.
What is so appealing about these stories, and what deeper psychological need do they satisfy in the audience?
Also, if you want to write one yourself, how are they structured? Once we learn the template writers can put our own fresh spin on it.
I’ll be looking at two stories of this category. The first is presented as a factual first person encounter — the “Lost In Time” episode of WYNC’s Spooked podcast (Episode 2 of Season 1). You can subscribe to the Spooked podcast via any podcast app for free. I don’t for a second believe this story as truth. After studying the story, this becomes obvious.
The second example has a completely different tone, presented as horror comedy — the “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” episode of New Zealand’s Wellington Paranormal series (Episode 3 of Season 1). This episode is currently available via SBS in Australia, and you can purchase it via YouTube from elsewhere.
There is already a comedy element to this show, though the comedy is somewhat muted by the fact we are laughing at the misfortunes of real people, often disenfranchised, often addicted to substances.
Another similar show is NZ Police College, only the police officers are new recruits.
Because of the inherent comedy factor, these shows are therefore ripe for a spoof treatment. And horror is the perfect blend. (Comedy and horror often go really well in stories for kids as well, e.g. Courage The Cowardly Dog.)
THE APPEAL OF GHOST WORLD STORIES
In these stories the audience gets a taste of what death beyond the grave might look like. Since no one really knows what death will be like, fictional possibilities are endlessly fascinating.
Likewise, the idea that time can stand still is appealing, especially when it feels life has sped right up and will be over very soon.
Supernatural element aside, we love stories in which characters have a near death experience but come out the other side unscathed.
We are drawn to the uncanny, and these stories are nothing if not uncanny.
Related tropes are The Inn of No Return (parodied in the Courage the Cowardly Dog pilot) and Hell Hotel. At TV Tropes, the theory is that hotels are inherently uncanny — they feel familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. This room with a bed in it… it’s kind of like your own bedroom, but it’s really not. I wonder if Foucault might call the hotel room a heterotopia.
The hotel or pub is therefore a popular setting for an uncanny story, but basically any everyday setting can be seconded for this treatment. All the writer needs to do is make it familiar but unfamiliar at the same time. Details are therefore important.
WRITING TEMPLATE FOR ‘EVERYONE ELSE IS A GHOST’ GHOST STORY
Individual stories will differ, but here’s a classic example and a place to start. Notice how this structure is carefully set up with the main purpose of persuading the audience this really happened.
Note, too, how the audience starts off in audience superior position (knowing more than the main character), then we are alongside them, and finally we are learning from the main character. The writer has guided us from a superior position to an inferior one. The narrator/viewpoint character has been turned into our mentor and guide. The audience doesn’t even know this has happened because we are caught up in the spookiness of it all.
This is the power of persuasion at work. Tall tales of any kind work in the same way.
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD — the more every day and realistic, the better. If you can’t be specific about place (because it didn’t happen), at least be very specific about season/day of the week/time of day.
SHORTCOMING OF MAIN CHARACTERS — likely to be that they don’t know supernatural dangers when stumbling headfirst into it, refusing to believe their own intuition
DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE — what did the main character(s) set out to do before they ran into these ghosts?
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD — emphasis on the entry, like a portal fantasy
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG — emphasise the uncanny
OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS — who may act like nothing is wrong and also robotically
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS — anachronous details, out-of-place objects, creepy details
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT — one object will stand out as wrong and weird
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS — not a revelation to us, just a confirmation
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION — like us, our characters can’t believe this is happening
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD — they still can’t believe it even though the audience knows what’s going on
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD — then, after us, they do believe it
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER — the ghosts no longer act robotically. They ‘snap’.
ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD — may be a chase scene
BACK TO SAFETY — emphasis on details of the every day world, and how nothing feels dangerous here
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN? — character thinks they are losing their mind
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED — character may return to the scene or encounter someone else who confirms a similar experience, or read some document etc.
NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT — if the story is set in the past the writer delivers us safely back to the present. The link between past and present is established to create an Overview Effect and we are further persuaded to trust the writer/narrator with our psychological/emotional safety.
Those last three steps function as a unit, as a kind of epilogue and you may get a simple Self-Revelation phase right after the Battle instead.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “LOST IN TIME”
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD
Northwest Wisconsin, 20 years ago, 3 a.m. “A place with tiny communities and people living far apart from one another.” The woman telling this story comes from the city. She feels like a ‘stranger’ coming into these wild parts. “It’s hard to get reactions out of people. They’re friendly enough but you don’t really get close.”
‘Coming back from’ a bar in Ashland Wisconsin, which is a real, geolocatable place, but the place where this happens is described ambiguously. If I wanted to find this place I wouldn’t be able to. There are many roadhouses around Wisconsin, and all could go by the name of ‘Roadhouse Saloon’.
Pitch black, starless night. “You couldn’t see past the headlights. The forest on each side was swallowed in darkness.” With the verb ‘swallowed’, the setting is described as if it is alive.
Glynn Washington who introduces these Spooked stories has this to say, and it applies to the ‘shortcoming’ of all the main characters:
“We ignore the warnings. We jump the fence, we peek through the keyhole and open up the dark closet”.
In other words, our human shortcoming is that we don’t believe inexplicable things when we first encounter them. We get into things that are way over our heads. When we escape with our lives, we are lucky.
In this particular story, the problem faced by the two main characters is that they are in the middle of wilderness Wisconsin in the middle of the night and they need a rest stop. (I’m not sure what that means because it’s not a local phrase — do they need to use the toilet? This is a hole in the story, because the narrator doesn’t actually use the toilet once she gets to the bar — instead she has a drink. The last thing you want when you’re busting to use the loo.)
The woman telling the story walks with a cane, which is good for the story because it lampshades the reason why she can’t just crouch on the side of the road. In the ‘pitch black’ and with no one else around this wouldn’t otherwise be a problem, right? There’s another good reason for the cane — this is a very identifiable thing specific to her, which comes in handy at the climax.
Characters who find themselves in a spooky, supernatural world didn’t actually mean to find themselves there. They set out on a journey with another goal in mind. What is that goal?
Here, narrator and Bob want to get home after spending the night at another bar. They want to find a rest stop. At first they appear to get what they want: The Roadhouse Saloon.
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD
Like portal fantasy, the narrator must focus on the entry to the supernatural world. In this story, the swinging doors of a saloon are emphasised numerous times. This world is inexplicably uncanny.
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG
‘Uncanny’ describes the psychological experience of something as strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. Therefore, the writer must go out of their way to present the setting as both familiar and off-kilter.
The other characters are not at all surprised to see Bob and the narrator. This helps the characters feel like nothing is wrong, but we know something is wrong because we know we are reading a ghost story. A helpful trick for the characters in these other worlds: Make them look like they are expecting the newcomers, as if fate has a hand in all this.
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS
There’s a weird vibe in here — normally, as the narrator explained earlier, people turn away to newcomers, but these ones are unusually friendly.
This makes the audience suspect these people are false allies.
The setting contains anachronous objects, i.e. the old jukebox (which doesn’t look worn). It plays “Let’s Twist Again” by Chubby Checker. Although this story is set 20 years ago (the late 1990s), this is a song from 1961.
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT
In this story there is an old mural on the wall of a saloon scene with swinging saloon doors, women sitting at a bar, gamblers sitting at a gambling table. “It had perspective but it was really unusual, garish perspective. It was almost tunnel-like but not quite, almost floorlit.” Bob notices that the men at the pool table are the same as the men playing cards in the bar. Gradually it dawns on them that all the characters in the bar are also in the painting. And there is no one else in that painting.
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS
They realise they are the only people in the bar who aren’t also in the painting. The audience has it confirmed that the characters are ghosts. Of course, we knew that all along, so the revelation is simply a creepy confirmation rather than a revelation.
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION
Bob and the narrator try to rationalise the scenario: Clearly these people in the bar and in the painting are regulars, so a painter must have made a cool mural starring locals.
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD
The narrator tries to ask the bartender about it. But he ‘shrug nods’ as if he doesn’t understand the words. The ladies don’t change expression at all when they are asked. These are clearly horror archetypes, with their robotic behaviour.
This is also a feature of comedy archetypes, which is why horror can so easily tip towards comedy, and why the horror-comedy blend is so often successful. This particular story is a genuinely scary story, especially for those who believe it’s true.
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD
The characters in the setting are not going to help them to understand this scenario, so the narrator and Bob rely on their own powers of deduction and observation:
The only people taking a sip of their drink are the narrator and her companion Bob.
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER
The people in the bar all start to watch the newcomers. During this big struggle phase, various tropes are utilised:
VIEWPOINT CHARACTER STILL ISN’T AS SCARED AS THE AUDIENCE IS
Now, if we, the audience were in this situation, we would get out of there. But the main character in a horror story has the shortcoming that they don’t really understand how close they are to death. So curiosity overrides fear. In this case, Bob isn’t scared and persuades the narrator to stay even when it’s clear to the audience that they should get out of there.
Everything is on repeat
“Let’s Twist AGAIN” is ironic. Ghosts stuck in an earthly realm are doomed to repeat a single night for the rest of eternity. Presumably, their motivation is to mix things up a bit by welcoming people from the live world into their ghostly fold.
“When someone plays a song twice that could be their favourite song, but when they play it a third time, you know something is wrong.”
NEAR DEATH EXPERIENCE
The mural changes to include two shadowy figures outside the door. They get closer to the figures in the mural. These figures resemble Bob and the narrator. The woman in the mural is walking with a cane.
It looks as though those two figures are ‘being filled in’ on the mural. Narrator, Bob and audience know in unison: These people are near death. If they stick around they will become one of the ghosts.
ESCAPE FROM SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD
Bob and narrator hightail it for the door. Every one of the ghosts stands up and turns to them.
But as soon as the door shuts the music stops instantly. The lights in the window go out. It is silent and black as if everything inside no longer exists. There are no cars in the carpark this time.
They speed out of there shaking, trying to catch their breath.
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
10 miles down the road they ask each other if it really happened. Two people have experienced the exact same thing. Folie a deux (shared psychosis) is a thing, but we’re not meant to consider that. The fact that two people saw the same thing is supposed to be a confirmation.
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED
In this sequence, something from the real world must connect to something from the supposed supernatural world.
Bob and narrator tell an outsider (narrator’s sister). They all return to the scene to check it out. The audience learns that this place itself does exist.
JUXTAPOSITION BETWEEN COSY PRESENT AGAINST FREAKY PAST INCIDENT
The characters ‘feel compelled’ to go back into the saloon. The place is full. People are having food and drinks. The narrator recognises none of the faces but the people in the mural are all still there.
CHARACTER CHECKS DETAILS
Like a classic amateur detective, the narrator checks the scene for evidence. She notices the jukebox is no longer the Wurlitzer. Chubby Checker isn’t even on there.
The bartender is a young woman, not a man. The bartender tells the narrator (and us) that she and her dad are the only ones who tend bar, and they closed at midnight on Saturday night.
NEW SITUATION: FLASH FORWARD TO THE PRESENT
The saloon is still there. Now it’s part of a strip mall with an all night gas station and gift shops. But the mural is still there.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “THINGS THAT DO THE BUMP IN THE NIGHT”
The Bump is a type of dance introduced in the 1970s.
SET UP OF THE (NORMAL) STORYWORLD
The historical setting of a 70s party makes a mockery of the fact that most ghost stories go further back in time e.g. back to a Gothic era. New Zealand doesn’t have a Gothic history to speak of, either. So this one is set in a Wellington house.
Officer Kyle Minogue (a joke about Australian singer Kylie Minogue) and Officer O’Leary have the same shortcoming in every episode of Wellington Paranormal — they blunder forth doing their jobs as low-mimetic characters who aren’t very good at what they do. Especially considering their profession, they are wholly unobservant. They never learn from past incidents, like true comic characters.
So when Minogue and O’Leary stumble into a ghost world, they are too unobservant and grounded in the safety of the real world to be much perturbed. They will come close to death but they won’t realise the extent of it.
DESIRE: WHAT MAIN CHARACTERS WERE WANTING TO DO IN THE FIRST PLACE
Minogue and O’Leary talk to the camera and tell us the goal: To get the party music turned down. In conversation between each other, they both agree it’s not their type of music.
ENTRY INTO THE OTHER WORLD
Minogue and O’Leary enter the house as police officers might, narrating their steps for us while using police-esque language such as ‘proceed with caution’. The narration allows us to focus on the portal entry. As mentioned above, this part can’t be skipped or glossed over.
Entry to the other world is given extra emphasis with insertion of the intro credits after this point.
ASSURANCE THAT NOTHING IS WRONG
Wellington Paranormal has a way of handling this which is utilised across all of the different episodes:
Minogue and O’Leary see something wacko, they take it back to their boss at the station (Sergeant Maaka), who makes up some bullshit, super wacko theory to explain what they actually saw.
In this case, Sergeant Maaka draws a ridiculous picture of a creature with antennae, using them as a ‘self-defence mechanism’. The pseudo-scientific language of Sergeant Maaka coupled with the ‘police-esque’ language of Minogue and O’Leary make for a comedy with plenty of language based humour.
Minogue and O’Leary get drawn into this story, but they eventually land on the theory of ‘poltergeists’, which is correct for the setting.
OPPONENTS: THE GHOSTS
When we first meet them, these ghosts don’t register the existence of the police officers. The officers resort to speaking to unruly ghosts like school teachers, which is a technique writer Jemaine Clement uses on the character of Murray in Flight of the Conchords. This undermines authority when no one takes him seriously.
A secondary opponent is brought in — the medium Chloe Patterson, a false ally. This medium derails the goal of getting the noise sorted out at this residence. Minogue thinks his grandpa is talking to him. (It is revealed subsequently that the grandpa is still alive.) This sequence is satire of the medium genre of TV shows. This establishes Chloe as a fake.
DETAILS OF THE STORYWORLD WEIRDNESS
Minogue and O’Leary revisit the empty house with the medium. They walk around with their torches and we see all the details.
DETAILS OF THE CENTRAL SUPERNATURAL OBJECT
In this story, the central supernatural object is a birthday cake with candles on it. The birthday cake itself isn’t especially imbued with powers, but stands for the 20th anniversary nature of the party.
AUDIENCE CONFIRMATION OF SUPERNATURAL CHARACTERS
“It’s a seventies ghost!”
This works especially well for a dumb character because we’ve already worked that out.
CHARACTERS’ ATTEMPT AT RATIONALISATION
Because Minogue is basically stupid, he doesn’t realise he’s walked in on ghosts in the hot tub. He thinks he’s walked in on real people. So this step is subverted.
PLAN: CHARACTERS ATTEMPT AT UNDERSTANDING THE SITUATION WITHIN THE STORYWORLD
Minogue does realise something’s amiss when the medium gets sucked into the spirit world.
Now he attempts to understand the situation by:
Working out there are two toilets in the house, by agreeing to rendezvous at this point
Making heavy use of the walkie-talkie
They conclude, falsely, that they might be in the ‘upside down’, an allusion to Stranger Things.
AM I GOING CRAZY?
At one point O’Leary says, “Are you sure you’re not just fantasising?” Minogue replies “My fantasies are set in the nineties” (when he would’ve been a teenager).
REVELATION THAT THEY’RE STUCK IN A SUPERNATURAL WORLD
The toilet gag derails these characters, which means this step is subverted. These two never really work things out, or never really seem to.
When lipstick draws on the mirror, O’Leary says, “I think I’ve got a bit of a situation here,” which means she knows something is going on, but not to the point where she can put it into words.
BIG STRUGGLE: THINGS TAKE A TURN TOWARD DANGER
Subverted. A ghost writes words on a mirror in blood (lipstick). At first it appears to say ‘Welcome to Hell’ but the gag is that it continues writing: ‘Welcome to Helen and Ray’s 20th Anniversary’.
The terrifying becomes far less terrifying. “I thought it was going to be way more scary than that.”
However, they’ve still lost the medium.
“I just saw a hideous face at the window!”
It turns out to be Sergeant Maaka who has turned up to help. The near death experience is subverted as he tries to climb down from a very low window. “I appreciate the assist.” He has come with new information. The house used to belong to “Raymond Saint John. The party king.”
Borrowing from the detective genre, the name of the opponent (the criminal) is now known. The amps up the (comic) danger.
Sergeant Maaka delivers a metadiegetic backstoryof one horrific night in 1977 when a series of events took place. Two people were found deceased when a table lamp fell into a spa pool. A man died when he got tangled up in a crocheted blanket.
Sergeant Maaka flops into a chair dramatically when learning of the ghosts.
The crocheted blanket rises up so they taser it. (New Zealand cops don’t normally carry guns.) While this near death experience is going on, O’Leary comically narrates what’s going on.
REVELATION ABOUT HOW THE SUPERNATURAL WORLD WORKS
This is where “Things That Do The Bump In The Night” departs from the structure of the Spooked episode above. The Spooked episode has a drawn out, multiple step ‘epilogue’ sort of sequence in which the characters return to the scene of the supernatural happenings.
Here, Minogue has a more classic revelation (which comes after the near-death Battle. Comically, Minogue is trying to work out a pattern. He opens and shuts the toilet door, each time expecting the toilet to transform from the 1970s to the present. But instead, it’s always just a normal toilet.
O’Leary summons them back by asking nicely.
But the Billy T. James ghost character proves to be belligerent and cheeky and won’t listen to requests to shut the noisy party down.
Inspired by a typical high school scenario, there is a juvenile scene in which the officers confront the ghosts. The Party King insults O’Leary by calling her a man and then a Nana.
ESCAPE FROM THE SUPERNATURAL STORYWORLD
O’Leary tells the party goers that they’re all deceased. They take the news on the chin and each leave, because it turns out some of them are over it. At the bottom of the stairwell they fall into a hole in the ground with flames coming out of it.
BACK TO SAFETY
The officers manage to persuade the ghosts to move on to the afterlife. We see them outside, in front of their patrol car, which is how we saw them in the very first scene. The story is now circular.
DID THAT REALLY HAPPEN?
This step is subverted in a comedy. The funniest thing about Minogue and O’Leary is their partial obliviousness. So in lieu of this, we get Sergeant Maaka talking to the camera, assuring us that they are doing their job and the general public has nothing to worry about.
POST HOC EVIDENCE THAT IT REALLY HAPPENED
At first the audience is encouraged to doubt if this is really a ghost story because the sergeants have the Party King in the back seat of the patrol car.
As the underling sergeants deliver a moral lecture to the camera saying, “You can party til you drop, just not after you drop,” the Party King floats up through the roof of the vehicle and scurries off.
As usual, the episode ends with the NZ Police slogan: “Safe communities together”.
Unbelievable is a short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, copyrighted 1986. These are tall tales for eight-year-olds. Australia has a long history of tall tales, and Jennings very successfully adapted the techniques for a child audience. The 1980s was the decade of the irreverent male children’s author. Roald Dahl was the stand-out giant in this field, after starting out writing stories for adults. These days we have David Walliams and various other male authors. This genre of story continues to be a masculine domain, even though children’s literature is an industry full of women. This is carried over in Jennings’ stories for children.
In 1986 I was 8 years old, so the perfect age for Paul Jennings. When I look back on the creative writing myself around this age, they were very Paul Jennings-esque — usually written in the present tense, first person narrative, with a mischievous Every Boy as the main character, navigating his way through a perplexing suburban life, which would be boring and irritating if it weren’t for regular fantasy interruptions. So it’s very strange that I have no recollection of reading the work of Paul Jennings. Either I read them as a child and forgot that I did, or these stories were simply typical of the era. Roald Dahlis similar in many ways, and I certainly read Dahl’s entire oeuvre, numerous times over.
There are just nine short stories in the Unbelievable collection, which makes for a short book. ‘Reluctant’ readers could therefore enjoy the achievement of finishing an entire book without ploughing through a massive word count. (‘Reluctant’ often describes kids who haven’t yet learned to read fluently, which means reading itself is a lot of work. These kids are usually really up for a good story, if it’s accessible to them.)
The main characters in Paul Jennings stories are the Every Boy. This boy is addressed as a ‘lad’ on the first page.
Because he is an Every Boy, we don’t know his specific psychological shortcomings and needs. We only know he is stuck in an external problematic situation. His problem is that he’s at a new school and has already found himself sitting outside the principal’s office.
Like all children everywhere, this Every Boy is lacking in autonomy and power, at the mercy of the adults around him.
But at the start of the second section, Jennings does give this particular Every Boy his own psychological shortcoming:
I am a very nervous person. Very sensitive. I get scared easily. I am scared of the dark. I am scared of ghost stories. I am even scared of the Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.
Jennings gives the boy a romantic desire, which turns out to be necessary to the plot.
Notice that the female characters in the stories are female archetypes: In this particular story we have the young sex object and her inverse in many ways, the horny old lady (who has the hots for John McEnroe). Was McEnroe a sex symbol of the era? I don’t remember, but I suspect Jennings chose him for the minor comic value.
Presumably, this boy also has the desire to get out of trouble. This is assumed.
The reader relates to the boy because the boy makes a social faux pax, taking the piss out of the principal when he doesn’t have the information that this is the principal. (That’s why Jennings had to make him the new boy.)
The boy’s opponent is henceforth the principal, ‘Old Splodge’, who gives him the strap. This story was written just before laws were passed outlawing corporal punishment in schools. I remember a few kids (boys) getting the strap — one for pushing another kid off the top of the adventure playground, and another for giving a girl the brown-eye as the first of the girls’ cohort of cross-country runners caught up to the tail end of the boys. (The boys ran first.) He had the option of either the strap or a week of rubbish duty, so he chose the higher prestige option, after his mother gave the go-ahead.
This was in Year 8. The same boy, that same year, went on to sexually assault my friend in the back of a car full of kids being driven home from a birthday party. Nobody believed the girl… I had been picked up from the party earlier by my own mother, who didn’t feel comfortable leaving me there — so she related to me many years later. Her intuitions were right, because the party was badly supervised, by parents who scared me.
But I digress. Suffice to say, corporal punishment never worked. What that boy needed was intensive psychological intervention.
Notice how Jennings makes full use of descriptive nick names. We’re not told why the principal is called Old Splodge, but the ‘Old’ part is important.
Jennings is also making use of another subconscious bias — the bias against people who transgress gender rules. We are supposed to dislike the principal for wearing a pink bow tie, emphasis on pink. Pink is for girls and unattractively effeminate men. How is this boy supposed to respect a principal who has the outward appearance of a girly boy? He’s not supposed to, and neither are we.
The Every Boy in Paul Jennings tales tends to go along for the ride. Weird things happen, then more weird things happen and he finds himself out of his situation through sheer good luck, and sometimes a bit of cunning.
In this case, The Every Boy narrator happens to get into a train carriage with some very strange people. Turns out they have a machine that can increase and decrease their ages.
It hasn’t been clear to me until I analyse the story for The Battle, but this is actually a story with two diegetic levels. There’s the Level 0 story of a boy who has been sent to the principal’s office, ostensibly for dying his hair blonde.
Then there’s the Level 1, metadiegetic story embedded in that, in which the Every Boy tells us about what happened on the train yesterday.
The Battle of the Level 0 story is the principal grilling him about dying his hair. Jennings has sectioned this off neatly by calling it Chapter 2.
The Battle of the Level 1 story is between a ‘principal stand-in’ — another, similar authority figure — the guy who checks tickets and, similarly, tries to make everyone follow the rules. And no one wants to follow them.
The authority figure on the train ‘runs off as fast as his legs can take him’, which could be a line straight out of a fairy tale. (Not the Grimm versions, which ended differently — but of various 20th century English retellings. I’m sure I have a retelling of Goldilocks which ends like that.)
Chapter 3 marks the return to the Level 0 story, happening in the principal’s office. The principal has heard the same story we’ve heard and exclaims, “What utter rubbish!”
This is basically a rule in children’s fiction, and even in adult fantasy — nobody believes the main character when they happen upon something amazing and, well, Unbelievable.
But here’s another rule: The main character will eventually be vindicated.
Sure enough the principal has his revelation, because he tries the Age Rager machine which can alter someone’s age.
It is revealed in the end that the principal has disappeared, and that the sexually attractive, 17-year-old school secretary has a new, 18-year-old boyfriend. In case we’re in any doubt about what happened, this new boyfriend wears a pink bow tie.
It’s not 100% clear that the narrator realises the boyfriend is the magically age-reduced principal, which is deliberate — connected these (very easy) dots makes the beginner reader feel smart — possibly smarter than the narrator.
Reading from this time in history, in the midst of a #metoo era, there is something supremely icky about this ‘twist’ ending. In a post hoc analysis of the situation, the seventeen-year-old girl — and she is a girl, not yet able to drink, gamble or vote — was employed — probably by the principal himself — to work closely with him, and he was sexually attracted to her all along. This is a man whose very job is work with… children.
How has Jennings achieved what feels like a ‘twist’ ending? I am rebelling against that word, for some reason, wanting to put it in rubber-glove quotation marks.
To put it in clearer terms, Jennings is using the trick of misdirection. He introduced the 17-year-old receptionist as if she’s a part of the landscape. At the beginning we think she’s a side-detail, similar to a pot-plant in the waiting room, but it’s only at the end we realise she’s the reason for the principal winding his age back. Jennings used a technique known as Chekhov’s gun, but instead of an object, he used a person.
Therein lies my problem with it, on the back of a long, long history of the sexual objectification of young women and predatory old men. For me, the ‘twist’ isn’t funny — it’s not even unexpected. It’s more of a disappointed groan.
There is usually an ironic or cynical tone to such [endings], as if they mean to say “Ha, fooled ya!” You are caught foolishly thinking that human beings are decent or that good does triumph over evil. A less sardonic version of a twist Return can be found in the work of writers like O. Henry, who sometimes used the twist to show the positive side of human nature, as in his short story “The Gift of the Magi”
So, the old principal is now the young boyfriend of the attractive 17-year-old girl, who is presumably either too stupid to realise who he is (despite the ostentatious pink bow tie) or too pressured by the hierarchy of the situation to resist his sexual advances.
Child readers don’t encode the narrative like that, of course, because all of this weirdness bubbles under the surface and is completely normalised. Normalisation is exactly the problem. Readers are not encouraged to question the girl’s autonomy in any of this. We assume that because ‘all the boys’ find Miss Newham sexually attractive that she feels the same way in return.
An older character in a young person’s body was roundly criticised as creepy and predatory when Stephenie Meyer used the trope in her Twilight series. An old man (Edward Cullen) stalks seventeen-year-old Bella Swan. The creepiness was mitigated for other readers because we saw Bella’s point of view, and knew she found him sexually attractive. Therefore we knew there was consent.
Consent is off the page in this story. Yet Paul Jennings appears to have gotten away with the device. Mainly, he was writing in an earlier era. Also, the storyline of the 17-year-old girl in “Pink Bowtie” is secondary — almost a MacGuffin, or so we’re led to believe. The viewpoint character is the boy. We worry about the emotional safety of the boy, with no thought to that of the girl. In contrast, the character of Bella Swan is the viewpoint character of Twilight, so some readers do worry about her.
ONE SHOT TOOTHPASTE
A dentist spins a tall tale for a boy who is nervous about getting a filling. The story is the origin story of the massive tooth used as signage outside the window. This story has a more successful twist at the end.
“One Shot Toothpaste” is written in third-person. It seems Jennings has a natural preference for writing in first person, unless there’s a storytelling reason for writing in third. The reason here is because at the end, the young viewpoint character is not in the picture, because another child turns up and the repeating pattern continues.
Having recently visited the dentist myself, an early detail struck me as wrong: After getting the numbing needle, you are not required to spit. But maybe you were required to spit in the 80s. I don’t remember. (Numbing needles are still huge. Not the needle itself, mind, but the receptacle on the end of it. A perennial source of terror.)
As in “Pink Bow Tie”, this story is a story within a story — the Level 0 story is the boy in the dentist’s chair. The Level 1, metadiegetic story is the dentist telling the boy about how he always wanted to be a dustman.
There’s a comic irony embedded in the MacGuffin of “One Shot Toothpaste” — a high prestige dentist longed for (and still admires) the lowest prestige job out there — cleaning up after other people, behind the scenes. (It’s a MacGuffin because this desire gives the young dentist a reason for looking through bins, but his desire abruptly changes when he realises there is animal cruelty going on.)
The main character of the Level Zero story is Antonio. His problem is revealed in the first sentence: He needs a filling, and he’s scared of the numbing needle.
His psychological shortcoming is that he is terrified, shown by the comical description of his knocking knees.
The main character of the Level 1 story is the dentist as a child. The dentist doesn’t have a problem but he has a mystery to solve. (The ‘problem’ is that he can’t rest until he finds out why his neighbour seems to go through so much toothpaste.) Because this is a tale told by an older man to a boy, this can be interpreted as a tall tale — the sort of story a dentist might spin to keep the boy’s mind off his fear. (It’s a masculine genre.)
The dentist wants to solve the mystery of Mr Monty’s toothpaste tubes.
Mr Monty is presented as the likely opponent. The young dentist is going to peer into his ramshackle house.
Sure enough, it is revealed that Mr Monty is holding animals captive, testing foul-tasting toothpaste out on them, hoping to come up with a recipe that will make his fortune. Mr Monty is a Eustace Bagge character (from Courage the Cowardly Dog.) He has no power in real life, and dreams of riches. Eustace Bagge sometimes comes up with outlandish schemes to this end. (They never work.)
A cursory look at the list of fictional characters named Monty confirms for me that this name has become associated with powerful but defeatable villains. Montgomery (Monty) Burns of The Simpsons springs first to mind.
So, we’re clearly given the opponent’s plan. (Jennings has him talk to himself, like a mad scientist type.)
The young dentist ambushes Mr Monty.
The Battle of the Level 0 story is the psychological big struggle as the boy gets his tooth filled, despite his own terror.
The Battle of the Level 1 story begins with section three, in which Mr Monty tries to capture the young dentist to try out his ‘one shot toothpaste’ on a boy. At the end of section three, the young dentist has ‘won’.
Section four is a comical description of a fantasy scene. The tooth grows and grows and overtakes Mr Monty, consuming him as it grows bigger. Mr Monty’s own invention has consumed him. This is a horror trope from way back.
Jennings is making use of another trick here, common to children’s stories in particular — he’s playing with our sense of scale. Children’s humour is augmented by making tiny things massive and massive things tiny. The image of a rotten tooth turning into the villain is in itself comical to a young audience. This is a comical image of irony: A meaningful gap between audience expectation and outcome.
Expectation: A small tooth is small and needs looking after by its ‘owner’ Outcome: The tooth is actually the boss.
The wrapper story of a boy being at the dentist is therefore masterful on a psychological level, because when you’re at the dentist, enduring terror and perhaps pain, you realise, perhaps for the first time since your last visit, that your teeth are more important — more powerful — than you thought. For the first time, you’re centring your tooth in your own narrative.
A shift in psychic valence is another classic feature of horror. The ordinary becomes the terror.
Jennings ends the horror scene with a comical Rube Goldberg type device:
Kangaroo tries to escape
Knocks over candle
Curtain catches alight
House burns down
The final section (Chapter 5) of this story ends with a genuine, satisfying twist and it is achieved like this:
The dentist reveals that a massive tooth signage outside, advertising his business, is the real fusty tooth from his tall tale. Take note: This would not have worked if Jennings hadn’t mentioned its existence on the first page. But we weren’t meant to make special note of it.
How does Jennings make sure we don’t make special note of it? By diverting our attention to the comically symbolic name written on the side: M.T. Bin. We are busy sniggering that M.T. Bin is pronounced ‘Empty Bin’.
That revelation belongs to the Level 1 story.
But there’s a second revelation which belongs to the Level 0 story: This has indeed been a tall tale invented wholly to keep the child’s mind off his filling. In a circular ending common also to fantasy picture books, another, similar story begins again, this time with a little girl. The dentist tells her that he, too, always wanted to be a ballerina when he was a boy. He launches into a tale and we the reader can only imagine what that might be.
We extrapolate that the dentist spends all day spinning tall tales for his nervous patients.
But there’s always that little bit of doubt. Are any of them true? For all we know, the dentist wanted to be a dustman and then he also wanted to be a ballerina. This element of doubt is essential in providing that last ten percent of the frisson of delight in the twist ending.
THERE’S NO SUCH THING
A boy gets his grandfather out of a sanatorium by proving that he’s not imagining things — there really is a dragon down Donovan’s Drain.
This one is written in first person.
Chris misses his grandfather, who has been locked up in a sanatorium. Although this is a modern 1980s setting, I do remember these really old-fashioned (and hugely damaging) institutions for the mentally ill population were closing down around this time. The example from my own home town was Sunnyside Hospital (formerly Sunnyside Lunatic Asylum), which didn’t fully close down until 1999, but which was roundly criticised from at least the 1980s onwards.
So it’s easy to forget that these places did exist in the 1980s. These days, the existence of a sanitarium as described in the story feels like a throwback to the 1960s, at least.
Chris wants to help his grandfather vindicate his own sanity by taking photographic evidence of a dragon that the grandfather has seen in a drain. I have a theory that Paul Jennings had just read Stephen King’s IT when he wrote this story. (IT was published in September of 1986.) Either that or monsters down drains were in the collective air.
Normally in a story featuring a dragon, the dragon is the opponent. But in this story, the opponent is the authority figure at the sanatorium. Paul Jennings loves authority figures as opponents. Basically, he loves to exact revenge on characters who robotically do their jobs without letting their humanity shine through.
Chris visits the drain at midnight equipped with a flash camera (in those days cameras didn’t come with a flash — flashes were an add on, and I still remember the huge tower of little lights, which required a truckload of batteries to work), which was bigger by far than my father’s camera itself.
No word of a lie, it looked like this:
(ANTI-CLIMACTIC) BIG STRUGGLE
So Chris waits until midnight, because the dragon is only seen at midnight, and goes on this mythic journey into the underground. In more lofty stories, this journey into the underground would represent a journey into the main character’s psyche, symbolic of his deepest, darkest fears, but Jennings takes the structure of these serious stories and makes light of them. In fact, the journey itself feels like a necessary but not all that interesting sequence. (A young reader may differ.)
Jennings doesn’t linger down there — the anticlimax is that the dragon is asleep. Chris fails in his mission to collect photo evidence because of a calamity with the camera, but he does emerge from this fantasy world with a talisman — a red cube.
I have since looked up whether there is existing, well-known folklore about dragons and cube-shaped eggs, because the revelation is that Chris has come back to his grandfather with a dragon egg. (I wasn’t all that surprised — but I wasn’t supposed to be.)
Turns out the cube dragon egg is Jennings’ invention. He needed to invent his own folklore in order to surprise the reader with the revelation that he’s brought an egg back into the real world.
(REAL) BIG STRUGGLE
Because Jennings has given the reader an anticlimax with the dead dragon mum proving a non-opponent, now we have the real Battle scene, in which a dragon hatches and immediately attacks the horrible nurse keeping the grandfather prisoner.
This is a vengeful scene — wish fulfilment to exact punishment upon a nurse for refusing to believe something which — let’s face it — no properly skeptical reader would ever believe, either.
We extrapolate that with the nurse out of the way, granddad will return to his home as a free and sane man.
The truth of the setting has won out. The child hero has saved the day.
Gordon is scared by nothing, unlike his sissy sister. Until he comes face to face with a ghost who wants to pass his spooking exams by turning him inside out, like a sausage.
Gordon believes there’s nothing that can scare him. His fearlessness is established in opposition to the scaredy-cat nature of his sister, who wants to watch Love Story when Gordon wants to watch a slasher horror.
We know, therefore, that Gordon is going to come face-to-face with something really scary and get his comeuppance. Part of the pleasure of this tale is in waiting for that to happen.
The problem with this set-up is that it relies upon a system of misogyny, and unwittingly supports it. Gordon is our viewpoint character and he believes Love Story (ie. thinking, feeling, emoting stories) is girly, and because anything girly is inferior, he wants nothing to do with it.
Although Gordon’s bravado comes tumbling down, there’s nothing within the story itself to subvert the notion that girly = inferior. And that is the problem with stories like this.
There’s nothing 1980s about this, by the way. Middle grade authors (especially male authors) are still using girly as inferior to undercut their male main characters, while failing to dismantle the underlying misogyny.
I don’t think they even realise it’s there.
Gordon wants to watch a slasher movie.
When this proves impossible, he sets out into the world in search of something scary. Jennings doesn’t go out of his way to give Gordon a plausible motive. Rather, Gordon is the archetypal fairytale brother who sets out into the world ‘to seek his fortune’. He’s a lad in search of something, anything, to disrupt the utter monotony of his ordinary life. And the reader accepts that in a young man.
Note: Readers don’t tend to accept this motive in anyone other than a young man.
Ostensibly, Gordon leaves the house to teach Mary a lesson — she’ll be scared alone in the house without him, as the parents aren’t back until early the following morning.
Gordon’s initial opponent is his girly sister, who initially tries to persuade him against the slasher movie, then steals the video tape.
The central gag is that Gordon comes face to face with a variety of horror tropes, but doesn’t really draw a distinction between movies and reality, so he isn’t scared by any of these scary things. At this point I wonder how the gag will end. I think the only way this could possibly end is by showing Gordon to be scared of something run-of-the-mill — something ordinary kids would NOT be scared of. Anything other than irony would fail to finish it off… that I can see. Then again, Jennings might have advanced tricks.
Gordon’s subconscious plan is to run into something spooky.
But it’s the fake-opponent who has the more thought-out plan: To pass his spooking exams by scaring a boy half to death. Gordon becomes the target in this comedy thriller. (But comedy thriller is a very hard genre mix, and I don’t consider this story one of Jennings’ best.)
The punk tries to scare Gordon by sprinkling pink powder on a sausage, then on a watermelon, before instructing them to explode.
Next he sprinkles the pink powder onto Gordon, and we worry he, too, is going to explode like a sausage. In the nick of time, the examiner ghost drops to the floor in fright, I assume at the prospect of seeing Gordon with his innards on the outside.
Gordon also faints too, and I wonder if he has turned into an exploded sausage. Honestly, I don’t really get this bit. Is he meant to be an exploded sausage ghost now?
Turns out I was right — Paul Jennings really had no choice but to end this story the way he did — by depicting Gordon as scared of things that aren’t scary. Gordon is revealed to find The Great Muppet Caper really ‘creepy’.
In any case, Gordon walked home with his knees knocking. After this experience he is finally scared of things now.
From now on he knows to be scared of certain things.
A boy wants money to take the designated Hot Girl at school out on a date. She has told him she’ll only go out with him if he takes her by taxi. His father won’t give him money, so he goes to the beach in search of The Mahogany Ship. If he finds this, he reasons, he can make lots of money. But at the beach, a stranger emerges from the shadows…
A boy is attracted to a girl who will only go out with him if he can afford to take her out by taxi.
He doesn’t have the money.
What he is wrong about in the beginning: He thinks as long as he has the money he’ll secure Tania as his girlfriend.
He desires the girl, or the status that the girl will bring.
To get the girl, he needs money.
The romantic opponent of the Level 0 story is Tania, described as an archetypal 1980s catch:
This wasn’t just any old date. This was a date with Tania. She was the best looking girl I had ever seen. She had long blonde hair, pearly teeth and a great figure. And she had class. Real class.
(White het men of Paul Jennings age overwhelmingly fetishise blonde women, having come of age in the Marilyn Monroe era.)
The boy narrator goes on to say:
She had already told me it was a taxi or nothing.
We don’t get to see Tania on the page, but my interpretation is that Tania does not want to go out with this boy. She wants to go out with Brad. Instead of risking backlash by turning him down flat, she has put the ridiculous condition of ‘only by taxi’ on her ‘yes’, knowing full well that he doesn’t have the money. Instead, he sees this as a challenge to overcome. The boy narrator sees it as a ‘yes’, because he hasn’t been told a direct and insistent ‘no’, and because he is not even listening for ‘no’.
This desire line is already creepy to me, then I notice something else.
Brad Bellamy is the guy Tania is really interested in, which is kind of prescient because Incels have since imbued their own meaning to the name ‘Brad’. A ‘Brad’ is a guy who supposedly gets all the attention from high status ‘Staceys’, while the low status men, involuntarily celibate, feel righteously aggrieved for missing out on sex they feel that they feel they are owed.
Why do they feel they are owed these ‘yes’s from Staceys, or Tanias? Because 1980s media told them that blonde girls with pearly teeth and great figures are their prize. I played a lot of arcade games on my Amstrad as a kid in the 1980s. The few times I clocked a game, it was a letdown to realise that the outro sequence often consisted of a pixellated but unmistakeable ‘Tania’ emerging from right of screen to plant a massive kiss on my — until this moment — genderless avatar. This phenomenon was critiqued brilliantly by Anita Sarkeesian back in 2013 in her Tropes vs. Women video series.
Paul Jennings gives his main characters weird plans. There’s nothing sane that really leads this boy from
Need ten bucks to
Will go in search of long lost treasure on the beach
But that is the wacko nature of Paul Jennings stories and we accept that happily. There is the in-between step, in which the boy offers to mow the lawn for payment, and a funny anecdote backstory about how he’s not allowed to do that anymore after mowing over a whole row of plants. (I find this supremely irritating as a parent—it probably mildly funny to its young, target audience.)
Anyway, that’s why the father won’t just give the boy ten dollars. That’s why he goes in search of The Mahogany Ship. Non-Australian readers won’t necessarily know that The Mahogany Ship is thought to be a shipwreck buried under the sand on a beach in South West Victoria. There was much talk about this in the 1980s and 1990s because two writers documented all the reports. This explains why there’s no explanation in the story itself.
Alongside this Level 0 story we’ve got the metadiegetic Level 1 story of the mysterious man on the beach who steps out of the shadows to tell a lengthy cautionary tale against trying to impress others by giving them money. The lesson is that the more you give, the more people take. And you can’t buy love anyway, no matter how much money you give someone.
This entire story has its own 7-step structure of course. The dog down the well reminds me of Silence of the Lambs, which was actually published 2 years AFTER this collection was copyrighted, so I guess people and little dogs in wells was in the collective narrative air.
The Battle of the story takes place within this metadiegetic story. In the end, the loyal little dog dies and teaches the busker narrator a lesson. It’s a real tearjerker—manipulatively so.
The plot reveal is that the busker is the star of the story. The misdirection (which probably works on a young audience) is that he was talking about himself in the third person.
The anagnorisis in the Level 1 story is that money doesn’t buy friends. Your friends simply are — as exemplified by the loyal little dog. As a message this doesn’t exactly work, because the little dog sacrificed all its own food and ultimately its own life to ‘buy’ the affection of the busker, but heigh ho.
As for the Level 0 story — the boy does not get the girl. He has his own epiphany prompted by the moral lesson: He does not even want a girl who requires an expensive mode of transport. She is suddenly disgusting to him. I’m sure Paul Jennings considered this a subversion of the trope that boys who behave ‘well’ always get ‘the girl’.
But it’s not a feminist subversion at all. The idea that boys deserve pretty girls instead gets an addendum: boys deserve pretty girls who are also nice. (And presumably self-sacrificing. No accident that the busker’s dog is small and female. Bear in mind the default gender for fictional dogs is male.)
The epiphany our boy narrator should have had: He should leave Tania the fuck alone, because Tania wants nothing to do with him in the first place.
I stuffed the ten dollars into my pocket. Then I went round to Tania’s house and told her to go jump in the lake.
The reader is meant to feel some catharsis at this final sentence.
Here’s what remains in the story: The old chestnut that pretty girls tend to ask for too much from men who chase them. They use their high beauty status for monetary gain.
The boy still doesn’t realise that Tania was never interested in him in the first place. He literally went round to her house—her safe space—to insult her.
“Souperman” is set in the city — the natural arena for a superhero tale. Paul Jennings takes the classic super hero (the classical god) and strips him of power until he is a low mimetic human (according to Northrop Frye’s classification). Any boy can be Souperman, so long as he drinks the soup.
Robert is obsessed with Superman comics to the point where it’s affecting his school work. His angry father insists he dispose of all his Superman paraphernalia.
Robert wants to be a super hero.
His opponent is his father, who makes him get rid of all his Superman stuff. This makes him even less like a superhero than he was before.
He meets Souperman, who at first proves to be a fake-ally, teaching Robert how he, too, can have superpowers.
Robert does as Souperman suggests and eats ‘raw’ soup from a can (canned soup is never raw, but ‘raw’ does sound better in a tall story).
On the way back up from the skip he encounters ‘Souperman’ who tells him that if he eats certain flavours of canned soup he’ll be able to perform specific feats attached to the flavours. He tries out the theory and fails, but is left with the problem of indigestion.
Next he gets himself into a further scrape by falling into the council skip, which is then picked up by the rubbish truck. He’s about to be crushed.
The maybe-fake Souperman does save the day, by rushing downstairs to tell the rubbish truck driver to stop the crusher.
Souperman saves the day using only human abilities (he falls from the window rather than flying), and tells the driver to stop (rather than making it stop with superhuman strength). We conclude he’s just a guy playing at being a superhero.
But the plot twist is that Robert has inadvertenly taken off with the can opener, which means Souperman couldn’t eat the soup purported to imbue him with temporary superpowers. Souperman insists that he can fly, but only after eating soup.
In short: The twist ending is achieved by persuading the reader something fantasy is actually mundane, then adding extra detail to make us revise that view — that the mundane could still be fantasy.
The reader is left with an intriguing question — this Souperman guy could still be a real superhero.
Ergo: Any guy dressed in a superhero costume could, just possibly, be a real super hero.
This ending fits well inside a collection called Unbelievable.
THE GUM LEAF WAR
A boy on a train knows that the other passengers are staring at his nose. He launches into backstory about how he got his nose stuck between two swinging doors. Now it is 7cm long. He can’t cope with the teasing at school so his parents send him on a country retreat.
Click Go The Shears is an Australian bush ballad. Unfortunately the most popular versions you’ll find on YouTube are by Rolf Harris, and Rolf Harris has since been found guilty of 12 counts of sexual assault. This was all going on in the 1980s, when this story was written. He abused children.
Here’s a version not by Rolf Harris
And here’s what a gum leaf tune sounds like, if you’re a pro:
The boy is left with a massive nose after an accident. His shortcoming is that he can’t lead a good life without fitting in, looks-wise.
He wants his regular nose back again. In the meantime, he wants to get out of school to avoid the bullying.
The kids at school are the narrator’s initial opponents, for making his regular life a misery.
Grandfather McFuddy at the farm is going to be either an opponent or an ally to his grandson. But the neighbour, Foxy, is quickly established as McFuddy’s ally.
Like Hatfields and McCoys, these two old men are at each other’s throats. The young narrator works out what’s going on without too much trouble. He summarises it for the reader:
This was the weirdest thing I had ever come across. These two old men seemed to be able to give each other their illnesses and cure themselves at the same time. By blowing a gumleaf where the other person could hear it.
The boy goes exploring around the farm. Children in fiction are obliged to explore any new environment. Coraline does the same thing. Incurious children don’t seem to exist in books.
The tree goes up in flames.
Neither of the old men, temporarily made friends through working together to fight the flames, realised the old twisted gum might be in danger. Though the reader has already deduced this, they realise the gum they’ve been weaponising is now a burnt and twisted corpse. Except for one leaf, which falls to the ground.
The boy transfers his long nose to the two old men, settling the rivalry between them by giving them both the same affliction, and also solving his own problem.
The old men have the revelation that once both of them are afflicted by the same thing, they are no longer automatic rivals.
The ranger on the train on the way home notes that gum trees tend to spring back to life after bush fire. This produces more leaves. The rivalry is likely to start up again. This sets up expectation of a repeating story.
Birdscrap has a strong gross-out element. 15-year-old twins Gemma and Tracy are at the beach. They end up covered in seagull crap. But why? This one’s a ghost story.
Consider this the kiddie version of Daphne du Maurier’s The Birds, later adapted for film by Hitchcock.
This is the story in the book starring girl(s). It feels tokenistic. I’m a little creeped out by the gendering of it, but in order to understand why, you have to know some context: In middle grade fiction it’s always ‘funnier’ when girls get covered in dirt, or crap. The girlier they are, the more satisfying it’s meant to be. Usually it’s revenge for being too girly, but includes an easily milkable slapstick comedy element. The characters in “Birdscrap” could easily have been boys — indeed, Jennings’ default character is boy. Jennings chose to cover girls in shit, for a reason. A completely subconscious reason, I’d wager.
“Birdscrap” is a Holy Grail type of quest to find hidden treasure, described only as ‘Dad’s rubies’. The problem is, they don’t know where to find them.
The twins want to find the rubies so they can ‘sell them for a lot of money, fix up Seagull Shack and give Grandma a bit of cash as well’. Because we’ve got two twin sisters talking to each other, this is revealed in dialogue, as they argue about whether this is an idea worth pursuing.
In general, Holy Grail plots have something really specific the character wants — probably something they can hold in their hand. But deep down the outer desire is different e.g. to be accepted, to make a friend, to get past a break up.
But the hi-lo fiction of Paul Jennings doesn’t have that kind of complexity. The rubies don’t stand metaphorically for any deep desire. These girls are cardboard cut outs — they could be anyone. The interest factor for young readers derives from:
the gross-out spectacle of girls covered in poo, and a shack surrounded in poo
the intrigue of an invisible bird
the intrigue of a ghost who has come back for revenge
An invisible seagull craps on the girls. Soon they’re bombarded, and absolutely covered in crap.
The girls take refuge in Seagull Shack. One of them checks the inside of the bird for the missing rubies.
They put the creepy stuffed seagull on the windowsill.
A ‘lonely darkness’ settles upon the shack and the night is one long psychological big struggle for the girls as the stuffed seagull stares at them from the windowsill where they released it back into the wild.
Once again, Jennings is making use of an exaggerated scene — most of us have the experience of being crapped on by a bird. This is that, taken to its extreme.
In the morning they realise the shack is surrounded by a huge volume of bird poo. No one knows they’re in the shack, so the twins consider themselves doomed.
They conclude the stuffed seagull is the body of the transparent seagull bombarding them, then plan to fix the problem by giving the ghost gull its body back.
The big reveal is that the eyes of the stuffed seagull are the rubies. It’s pretty unbelievable, on a narrative level, that the girls would rip the entire stuffing out of this bird and check it for rubies, yet wholly fail to notice that the creepy eyes staring at them all night are… rubies. This is the wrong kind of ‘Unbelievable’.
The ‘twist’ feeling in the end comes from the revelation that the bird is an ally opponent, not an outright villain. In its own way, the ghost seagull has ensured the girls would find the rubies. The ghost gull has a strong sense of reciprocity.
The girls are left with the rubies and henceforth they’re rich. They will probably do as they discussed: fix up the shack and live there together.
The ghost gull disappears (presumably forever) with its band of shitting marauders.
This is the only story in this collection which made me LOL. Remember milk deliveries? They stopped sometime in the 80s, so I doubt young readers would even know what that’s about.
A creature named Snookle arrives in the milk bottle. This creature wants to do everything for the child narrator, including picking his nose for him.
The narrator wants to continue doing things for himself, without being treated like a helpless baby.
The narrator tries to resist.
There’s a big struggle for control.
I went back to the kitchen for my breakfast. Snookle beat me to the spoon.
Off-the-page, the narrator realises that there are people in life who do need this kind of personal care. So he rehomes Snookle with the elderly woman next door, who can barely go outside to pick up her milk bottles.
The old lady now has someone to help her stay in her home. The lawns are mowed and she seems very happy. And the narrator is glad to be rid of Snookle.
Poof The Old Lady is a graphic novel created by two neurodiverse ten-year-olds. The running gag is that an old lady by the name of Poof goes Poof! at the end of each story. But she comes alive before the next.
The creators are best friends at school, and they both like to read and watch cartoons. They count among their favourites:
One of them loves dogs; the other loves owls. One has neat handwriting and is tidy by nature; the other can write and draw well, but her work is inclined to degenerate into scrawl, as ideas come faster than execution.
Telling stories is an advanced skill. As we learn to tell stories, we absorb the influences around us. Certain aspects of storytelling come easier than others.
Let’s take a look at a storyteller in early development. If you look closely at the stories of kids who’ve been exposed to a lot of story, it’s surprising how much they already know.
It’s not easy teaching kids how to write a story, but the writers have got a print-out of this blog post. They don’t use it as they’re writing, but if they get stuck, I point them in that direction and their plot problems are rapidly resolved.
POOF AND THE OUTDATED SAUSAGES
The young creators quickly established their own ‘rules of story’, and in line with Courage The Cowardly Dog, whoever dies or changes form in one story has to revert to their original form by the beginning of the next.
Another rule is that the mode of death must be comical.
In the Poof setting, eating outdated food is a common way to die. The authors understand the inherent comic value of sausages. Bananas work in much the same way.
Poof, as a character, has unexpected, and therefore comical, likes and dislikes. The authors have started this particular story in iterative mode, by describing Poof briefly and what she ‘always’ likes to do.
The sausage has been drawn with a Band-aid on it, because this is how the ten-year-old illustrator imagines an outdated sausage would look. Or, Poof thinks she can ‘fix’ the outdatedness of it by literally slapping a Band-aid on it. The illustrator is also making use of exaggerated size for comic effect.
As you can also see, Poof is an old lady archetype, with curly hair and glasses. Later, Poof acquires underarm hair, but the illustrator has yet to achieve character consistency and often forgets to draw it in. The pit hair is therefore random, a bit like the holes in Courage the Cowardly Dog’s teeth.
The narrator makes use of conversational narration, reminiscent of Wimpy Kid. “The thing is…”
The reader is encouraged not to buy into Poof’s fantasy of calling her fever inducing foods ‘Lord’. The speech marks around “Sausage Lord” indicate that.
By this point in the story the young writer has introduced a main character (Poof), her Shortcoming (a love for food which makes her sick, and a delusional fantasy about them) and an Opponent, the sausage, which has been somewhat personified.
Now the authors switch to the singulative (from iterative). This is the perfect place to do it.
Poof has been living on the edge, and now she has food poisoning, after a lengthy period of being okay. This is a classic story set up — a character does the same thing every day, but one day their life is shaken up. They must therefore change to cope with their new situation.
The boring details of how she got to hospital are skipped over. I believe there’s some unintentional comedy with ‘after a few weeks (3)’, which reads as if the time is the main thing, when it’s actually the sickness.
Then again, maybe it’s intentionally humorous, because the time humour continues, with the doctor saying a very non-doctor-like thing.
The writer has made comic use of a tall tale convention, or rather a shaggy dog tale convention. A shaggy dog tale is similar to a tall tale. The aim is to keep the listener interested, then end abruptly with no real climax. The listener will be disappointed and the teller will take delight in having strung them along.
Poof and the Outdated Sausages works as a story, though I did find myself wanting to know more about the Sausage Lord. As an opponent, this could have been extremely interesting. How exactly has Sausage Lord helped her out in the past? In Poof’s imagination, at least, he switches from an ally to an opponent, which is always an interesting turn of events in story.
POOF’S NEW PET
An adult writer might choose ‘shiny’ for symbolic reasons but I believe this young writer has chosen shiny because that’s how it feels to her. It’s an example of transferred epithet — it’s not the day that’s shiny, but rather than everything looks shiny, because of the strong sunlight beating down on it. In any case, I think it’s great.
The opponent is introduced right away, even before the main character is introduced. But because this is the second microfiction in a collection, and also because of the title, the reader can deduce that the main character is Poof.
Poof’s reactions are always beautiful to watch. They are over-the-top. As in every New York thriller, at some point the main character must run through traffic. This adds to the suspense.
Notice that in this one, Poof has hairy armpits.
Telling us that she nearly got hit (exclamation mark) is over-egging the pudding somewhat, but I’ll accept it.
Now we see the opponent. This is Worm-Hoop the one-eyed owl, though he’s not yet named. He is introduced very succinctly: We immediately know he is power hungry and that he desires to rule the world. He is an arch-villain.
The writer isn’t quite sure how to introduce him naturally.
The author has intuited that the main character requires both a ‘need’ and a ‘want’ and has incorporated them into one thing: The desire for a pet, and the need for something to keep herself calm.
Suddenly the opposition/hero status is flipped, and Poof becomes the predator. This is another rule of the setting: Poof and Worm-Hoop are evenly matched, like Roald Dahl’s creations in The Twits.
I can’t understand the reason for the ‘2 weeks later’ insertion. Perhaps they argue for a very long time.
Worm-Hoop, we deduce, is an English Owl, but pretends to be a different kind of owl so that Poof won’t claim him for her pet, though this is slightly ambiguous in the text. It helps to know that the creator’s favourite type of owl is the English Owl.
I do like the character design of Worm-Hoop. Owls have eyes one on each side of the head, but this is hard to draw in a cartoon. In order to anthropomorphise him by putting his expression on the front of the face, he has been given one eye in total, because you only really see one of an owl’s eyes at once. This also gives him a unique look. His beak functions equally as his mouth. Which is it? It doesn’t matter. Worm-Hoop also sweats like a human.
The narrator talks directly to one of the characters, breaking the fourth wall somewhat.
The metafictional insert ends after a minor conflict between character and unseen narrator. Sometimes these arguments go on for too long before the young writer brings the reader back into the main story. This one is a single page, so not too intrusive.
However, Worm-Hoop still appears to be talking to the unseen narrator, who seems to take the part of the reader rather than as someone who knows things the reader does not. Here, the narrator asks the character, “What are you doing?” The narrator knows no more than the reader does.
Worm-Hoop pops out of the story again, which is why the murder plot works — the reader is constantly reminded that this is just a story and no one actually dies. I suspect this narrative choice is the writer comforting herself.
The next part of the long-running gag is that Poof keeps calling her new owl a ‘parrot’, which is insulting because he is not. However, it’s natural she’d think so, since parrots can talk, and owls normally can’t.
When kids write their own stories for themselves, they get to use taboo language which they never see in their library reading material.
Worm-Hoop is so offended at this mistake that he accidentally dobs himself in as her perfect pet. If he’d only kept his beak shut, he’d have been safe and free. That is at the heart of the joke, though none of this is explained. If an adult had written this gag for a child audience, I’m quite certain they’d have explained it a bit more, but because the reader and writer are one and the same, the joke remains elliptical. Any outsider must work a little to get it.
Fast forward ‘a little later’ and these two now live together. The writer knows that in order for conflict to work, they must inhabit the same space, thrown together against their will. (Or, against at least one character’s will.)
It seems Worm-Hoop sometimes hoots as well as speaks English. Instead of perched on a branch, he’s perched on a chest of drawers.
He’s got his own bowl, but it’s a dog bowl.
And that’s the end of that story, which feels more like the end of a chapter. And it is. The young writer doesn’t make much distinction between stories and chapters. Some chapters are entire stories in themselves; others require several chapters.
The gag in this spread derives from adult relationships, and the fact that in relationships, couples don’t always feel the same way about each other at exactly the same time.
I figure this has been absorbed from watching TV.
This chapter is more like two sequential gags than a complete story, because each follows the rule of comedy rather than the rules of story.
In the second gag, Worm-Hoop is terrified of Poof’s gigantic snoring, which juxtaposes comically with tippy-toeing by her room so as not to wake her. (How does she not wake her own self?)
Interestingly, two separate depictions of Worm-Hoop suggest he is looking at himself, sharing the uncomfortable feelings with himself. This works nicely for an owl, because of the two eyes on each side of the head, which I think the illustrator has really made the most of.
WORM-HOOP’S ORIGIN STORY
The writer knows that the reader won’t care about a character’s backstory until we’ve had a bit of action and started to wonder. This young writer is a big fan of super heroes, so is familiar with the concept of origin story.
The gag in which Poof treats her pet bird like a dog continues. I believe the writer has been inspired by stories such as The Pigeon Wants A Puppy by Mo Willems, in which one character completely misunderstands the nature of some other character, with disastrous results.
This amuses me because it’s almost a satire of all those picture books in which a baby bird/elephant/dolphin goes out into the world for the first time, by doing something scary.
Unlike your typical cute baby animal character, Worm-Hoop is gripped by unexpected bravado. Picture books don’t tend to exist for those characters, who don’t tend to require the ‘Be Brave’ books in the first place! However, these foolhardy tropes are great for comical stories like this.
A rule of thumb for illustrators is, you don’t need to illustrate what’s clearly been said in words, but breaking that rule works to great comic effect right here.
The illustrator must have realised one eye took up about the same amount of real estate on his face, and offered a comical explanation for that, too.
I think this chapter works as a series of comic gags. If an adult were writing this for children, they’d have depicted Worm-Hoop’s siblings, making him distinct from the others, Ugly Duckling style. They’d probably also have shown the doctor, and made more of that scene.
E.g. “Hey doc, can you fix my eye? It fell out when I got a surprise.”
“No can do. You lost it forever. But I’ll max the size of the other one, and then you’ll be good as new.”
The first gag is that she doesn’t know how numbers work. I’m quite sure this is a gag taken from somewhere else (but I wouldn’t know from where).
Little Poof has drawn herself in a childlike way, which is quite an achievement, since the child drawing the rest of the illustrations is a child, and therefore also, quite naturally, drawing in a childlike way.
Then Worm-Hoop pops in. We don’t know what just happened yet.
The big reveal: This isn’t a flashback at all. Second reveal: Poof LIKES being seven again. Third reveal: Worm-Hoop did this so he wouldn’t have to be Poof’s pet anymore. Though this writer doesn’t know what ‘reveal’ means, she has a good grasp of the technique.
The comedown is that making Poof younger doesn’t turn back time. It simply makes her younger.
I believe an adult writer would have explained this more thoroughly. And would have possibly left the reader with more of an ending. The writer has included a Battle and a revelation (not a Anagnorisis, because these comic characters never change), but she leaves off the New Situation. However, we can deduce what that is. They continue to live together, only now Worm-Hoop has the antics of a seven-year-old to contend with. Ideally, this chapter would have ended with a comic scene showing that. For instance, Poof uses him as a non-consenting cuddly toy when she takes him to bed.
POOF’S MATHS PROBLEM
Poof has poofed back into her usual form as an old lady, but the writer has decided to keep with the maths theme. Even when she looks like an old lady, it is now clear to me that Poof is basically a naughty, mischievous seven-year-old in an old lady’s body.
Poof’s shortcoming (she’s bad at maths) and her desire (she wants to do her homework) are introduced succinctly on the first page.
The illustrator has absorbed comic book conventions after reading lots of comics. (E.g. the lightbulb for a good idea.) The reader knew Poof would think of Worm-Hoop. (The writer is making use of audience superior dramatic irony.)
Her Plan is to call for him. He comes immediately.
The illustrator has decided to use Worm-Hoop’s eye as a window into his brain. The eye can contain all sorts of symbols, and in this case, a question-mark.
The gag is that Worm-Hoop knows even less than Poof does. Poof doesn’t know how to add, but Worm-Hoop doesn’t know the meaning of ‘number’.
He therefore delivers a nonsensical response, and that is the gag.
I expected the story to end there. It works as a complete gag. But the young writer has decided (subconsciously, of course) to turn this into more of a narrative than a simple set-up and payoff, so next we have a Battle sequence in which Worm-Hoop struggles (with himself) to understand the problem. (I asked the illustrator and she tells me that button belongs to a calculator, but I don’t think that’s sufficiently clear without author intervention. The machine which doesn’t work as characters expect it to is a classic Spongebob gag.)
The gag from a previous chapter is reused. I’m not sure who the characters are in the final box. I think the illustrator is getting tired by this stage.