I Kill Giants As Perfect Example Of Being-toward-death

I Kill Giants movie poster

I Kill Giants is an American comic book written by Joe Kelly, illustrated byJ. M. Ken Niimura. The comic series is now ten years old. This post is about the 2017 film adaptation, directed by Anders Walter. The guy who wrote the comic also wrote the screenplay. I watched it on Netflix last night with my ten-year-old daughter and trust me when I say, this is a film for the tween-adolescent crowd — a reality which is always reflected in IMDb scores (which are not graded by ten year olds, and certainly not by ten-year-old girls). That’s why it gets a paltry 6.2.

I’m interested in this film regardless, because last week I happened to be reading Disturbing The Universe by Roberta Seelinger Trites, who takes the philosophy of Heidegger — particularly his concept of ‘Being-toward-death’ — and points out that this view of life/death is perfect to describe pretty much every young adult novel. (Or film, I’ll add.) I updated my Death In Children’s Literature post last week to reflect that lightbulb moment (thanks to Trites) and it just so happens I’ve spent the following Saturday evening watching the perfect example of a Heidegger YA movie. It’s like Joe Kelly read Heidegger (or Trites) before sitting down to compose I Kill Giants.

FTR, I don’t honestly believe that’s how creativity happens — these things are ‘in the air’. Storytellers absorb the ideas, reshuffle, re-vision, and (re-)produce old ideas using original character webs and new settings. I’ve done it myself. I can apply Heidegger’s philosophy to stuff I wrote before I’d even heard of the guy, let alone the concept. We’re all products of some big ur-Culture.

I’m especially interested by these concepts which are ‘in the air’, unnamed until someone names them — a philosopher, a literature professor, a writer in interview. It’s only then that patterns start to reveal themselves. Covert ideologies come to the fore — some of them hugely problematic. I have no major political beef with I Kill Giants; I’m interested in this children’s story because I am a reformed Goth it makes for an excellent primer in Heidegger and death. Buckle in.

What is Being-toward-death?



No point me re-inventing the wheel. This idea is as old as humanity itself — we can go back at least as far as Confucius. Hard to know what that guy actually said but apparently he once said, “We all have two lives, the second one starts when you realise you only have one.” This is another way of expression the developmental stage in which we realise, at a gut level, that we too are going to die.

Heidegger came later.

  • The Guardian Australia published a series on death back in 2009 (death hasn’t changed much since then — it’s still perfectly relevant). In Part 6, Simon Crichley wrote about Heidegger’s concept of death.
  • I would recommend that article before delving into the Wikipedia explanation of Heideggerian terminology. (You know it’s gotten serious when the name of the philosopher has been turned into an adjective.) There’s always the source material itself, of course, which I don’t plan to read.
  • If you prefer to listen, Episode 100 of the Philsophize This podcast is about Heidegger. (They transcribe their podcasts.) The next two are about Heidegger as well — the first one is about how he fits into the wider study of philosophy. His teacher was a pretty influential guy in his own right — a mathematician who turned into a philosopher. The teacher was all about certainty and truth, and how do you know what’s certain? He was right into cognitive biases, which we’re hearing a lot more of today in books such as Mistakes Were Made, But Not By Me. Heidegger took issue with a lot of what his teacher said. Basically, Heidegger wanted to dig down further and define some very basic concepts which had been glossed over. In order to do this, he had to invent his own words — not because he was being a poser, but because of genuine linguistic holes.
  • So is Episode 32 of The Partially Examined Life.

Here’s my own work-in-progress bullet-point summary of Being-toward-death:

  • German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote a book which in English translates to Being and Time.
  • Heidegger contributed a number of different/related ideas to philosophy: Dasein (being), attitudes towards technology (‘Ready-to-hand’), a definition of the concept of ‘World’, and so on.
  • The one I’m interested in here is the concept of ‘Being-toward-death’. German loves capitalisation, so you can capitalise the ‘B’ in ‘Being-toward-death’ if you want. Or not, because it’s English too, now. (Minor grammatical point.) The German is Sein zum Tode.
  • In a nutshell: Being = time and time is finite. The reason Heidegger’s words are hyphenated is because you can’t have one without the other. There’s no ‘being’ without then dying and vice versa. (This applies to all of Heidegger’s terms which end up hyphenated in English.)
  • Until we understand that we’re all going to die, we are unable to appreciate the time we do have.
  • (Can you think of a subculture of people who think a lot about that? I can. Goths. The Goth is the ultimate Being-toward-death philosopher.)
  • This isn’t meant to be depressing. It’s actually liberating. Once we confront the ‘finitude’, we are freed to live authentically and fully. (Maybe this is why people’s happiness levels tend to increase after a middle-aged slump? Old people really get death, and learn to live with it?)
  • In order to really understand the finitude of life (ie. death) Heidegger broke it down into four different little epiphanies:
    • Death is non-relational. When standing before death you cut off all relations to others. You can’t really understand death by seeing others die — you have to understand that you, yourself — yes, you — are also going to die. This has since been contested, notably by Edith Stein and Emmanuel Levinas. The fear of losing someone can be worse than the fear of dying yourself — because then you’re the one who has to deal with the grief and the mourning.
    • Death is certain. There’s no getting out of it. No matter how good you are, no matter how many brassicas you eat.
    • Death is indefinite. So, you’re definitely going to die, but you don’t know how long you’ve got left. We could die this afternoon, overnight in our sleep. It can happen ANY TIME.
    • Death is not to be ‘outstripped’.  (That’s probably a bad translation.) What the hell does that mean? Death is important. It overshadows everything else. This is what Heidegger meant when he famously came out with this first-glance bullshite: death is the “possibility of impossibility”.
  • Once you get all that about death, then you are in a state of Being-toward-death. You are free to live authentically.

Being-toward-death in I Kill Giants

At first I Kill Giants reminded me of Donnie Darko for a slightly younger audience — an adolescent loner, who lives in a community, is battling something supernatural and ‘crazy’, which no one else can see — the giants who circle the island. She is completely preoccupied with this mission. The task of killing giants causes great anxiety but also gives Barbara a superiority complex. In a story of this variety, about the possible delusions of the ‘village crazy’, we can expect a big reveal. This kind of reveal is binary in essence for we learn one of the following:

  1. Either the hero is proven right. This is what happens in Donnie Darko. Donnie was correct about the weird thing happening in his town. Everyone else is ignorant.
  2. Or the hero is revealed to be legit crazy. This is what happens in I Kill Giants. I should be careful about use of the word ‘crazy’, except that’s the accusation levelled against Barbara within the setting, and the word contains all the baggage it’s meant to.

The audience and Barbara receive this revelation at the same time (unless you predicated it somehow — I suspected but couldn’t be sure). The guidance counsellor tells Barbara, “Your mother needs to see you.” Then we learn there’s a woman-in-the-attic plot mildly reminiscent of Jane Eyre — Barbara’s mother has been upstairs in bed (probably cancer) and Barbara has simply refused to see her. Instead, her giant killing activities are an unhealthy displacement activity — unhealthy because this activity is a genuine delusion which is affecting her life.

The giant is about as metaphorical as metaphors get: Even my ten-year-old got it, though didn’t know the word ‘metaphor’; the giant stands in for ‘fear of death’, and/or mental illness in all its different forms — perhaps depression, perhaps anxiety. Bad feelings, in any case. Anticipation of grief. Dread, in other words.

Barbara has not been dressed up as a Goth (the movement has kind of moved on), but she is the modern equivalent. Barb is a bit of a scene kid, has her own style designed to stand out, but at the same time hopes to be invisible. The rabbit ears, as she explains to the new girl, represent her spirit animal. She has no respect for authority — only ‘respect’ in the sense that teachers work hard. She doesn’t respect someone just because of their position. She treats her school psychologist badly. (This is her moral shortcoming.) But first, the setting.

Setting and Being-toward-death

  • To hammer home the metaphors for its adolescent audience, this story is set on an island. Islands can mean various things in story but the most obvious one is ‘isolation’. Even when surrounded by love ones, we all go into that dark night alone. Death is a supremely lonely experience. The specific island chosen in this story happens to be Long Island.
  • When Barbara is taken home to Sophia’s house and find herself upstairs, she becomes upset. Obviously, there’s all this symbolism to do with houses  — I wrote a post on that too — and Barbara is not only forced to remember her mother sick in bed at her own home, but ‘upstairs’ is itself closer in altitude to our notion of Heaven.
  • What era is this set? Technology usually gives us a clue. Until the older sister’s smartphone rings, this story could happily exist in the Stranger Things universe, back in 1980. It helps that those big frame glasses have come back into fashion — our young protagonist wears 1980s frames which are actually very modern. But apart from that mobile phone, this story could actually be set in 1980. The story opens with a joke between squabbling brothers — one criticises the other’s hair. They both have the exact same hair — an out-dated — or perhaps timeless — cut similar to Moss’ in The I.T. Crowd. Barbara is into Dungeons and Dragons, which kicked off in the 1970s, and plays a starring role in Freaks and Geeks — this is the game that eventually unites the main Freak with the Geeks. Freaks and Geeks is set in 1980.
  • Because I Kill Giants feels like a 1980, 2017 combo, this makes it ‘vaguely contemporary’. But add in the folklore of the giants, and Barbara’s explanations of the giant ur-story, and now the storytellers have achieved ‘timeless’. What does Heidegger say about time? That’s pretty interesting. In order to understand the finality of death, we do need to understand the concept of eternity. In our modern culture (not all cultures are like this, by the way), we think of time in terms of present-past-future but Heidegger considered this a mistake. In order to understand the meaning of your own life (and death) you need to understand your place within eternity — how are you different from others of your generation? From someone living 10,000 years ago? In a story which deals with the concept of death, the storytellers will very often aim for that feeling of timelessness in the setting. I Kill Giants is an excellent example of that.
  • Then there’s the weather, which relates to season. The majority of the story takes place in a kind of in-between season — autumn? I’d have to watch it again to be sure it’s not set in spring. Autumn would be more in line with popular symbolism — ‘autumn years’ and all that, but it happens to be tornado season. The incoming tornado is a classic example of pathetic fallacy, and not more more can be said that Seelinger Trites hasn’t said already:

3 recurring patterns in YA literature

  1. DEATH OCCURS ONSTAGE — Whereas in MG novels death tends to happen off stage, reported back by characters, YA novels make the death far more immediate. We’re often right there for the death.
  2. DEATH IS UNTIMELY, VIOLENT AND UNNECESSARY — Whereas MG novels tend to kill off the elderly and parental figures, YA novels kill the young.
  3. TRAGIC LOSS OF INNOCENCE — When the YA character first understands the finality of death, at first it seems really tragic. But before they came to their acceptance of death they were ready for a fall. They overcome tragic vulnerability, avert catastrophe and transform the tragedy of their own mortality into some level of triumph. In this way, the YA novel isn’t so different from The Little Match girl, who came to terms with death (okay, died) but everything was okay actually.

Character and Being-toward-death

Goth characters make good main characters in stories which explore the concept of Being-toward-death.

  • Barbara is a loner bordering on misanthropist. This is her presented as her main psychological shortcoming, as well as her moral shortcoming, because she’s not very nice to the new girl. She needs to learn to connect with people. This hooks into this idea that death is a lonely experience, or to use Heidegger’s terminology: non-relational. “When standing before death you cut off all relations to others.” Heidegger also wrote about how everyone is connected, in a Buddhist kind of way which he didn’t call Buddhist.
  • Addendum to that point: Barbara’s fear of death is fear of her mother’s death. In this respect, the philosophy of the storytellers is more in line with more modern critics who argue death of another can be as scary as death of yourself.
  • The anthropomorphised character of Grief (the giant) is massive because “Death is not to be outstripped.” Barbara does understand the enormity of Death at the beginning of the story — but the understanding is limited to her delusional self. She has yet to snap back into reality. This story wouldn’t have worked so well if she’d turned Death into, say, a fairy or a goblin. Giants are huge just as Death overshadows everything.
  • There are a number of separate Battle scenes in the big struggle sequence of I Kill Giants — as is pretty usual in storytelling. We have a big struggle between non-family peers (the bullies are basically the giant, too — Barbara has drawn inspo from the bully scenes*). There’s the conflict within the family, in which the older sister is trying to hold things together. The sister also provides a reflection character in which she shows her difficult emotion to others, but unlike Barbara the sister’s dealing with the real emotion, not with a fantasy. There’s the conflict with the kind and well-meaning adult who is an opponent simply because her goal is different (the school psychologist — who has a surprising amount of time to spare for Barbara, but hey, this is a fantasy school). Then there’s the Big Battle scene with the Big, Bad Baddie — the fantasy of the fight with the giant, who isn’t real, but for story purposes he is. All of these big struggle scenes are of course proxy for the main big struggle — the entirely internal, non-big struggle — Barbara’s refusal to see her mother… and to confront death.
  • There are several key scenes in which we see Barbara coming to terms with death: In one of the first she meets her psychologist’s baby and says, “He’s going to die. We’re all going to die!” Then she runs off like the little Goth that she is. That’s pretty much Heidegger, word-for-word. “Death is certain.” Barbara has at some point had that part of the Self-Revelation regarding death. Hey, it was a rough day.
  • Then there’s the part where the giant tells Barbara, “I haven’t come for your mother. I’ve come for you.” This is a major, on-the-page anagnorisis — an absolutely typical anagnorisis, content-wise, in an adolescent story about death: Your mother is going to die soonish, but you’re going to die, too. You won’t know when. I’ll be lurking here, waiting. The giant tells her that every living thing must die. This is a concept you won’t find in stories aimed at adults. As Roberta Seelinger Trites has pointed out, this is specific to the developmental stage of being adolescent.
  • Continuing down that line, for the typical adult viewer, I’d say the New Situation phase of this movie is a little — well, a lot — too hokey. For the bulk of the film Barbara is confronting all four stages of Heidegger’s Being-toward-death — literally a minute later, after a cut to a new school year, new, summery-lighting, we’re watching a completely different character in the same body, standing confidently in class telling everyone about her summer and how everything was great. A subsequent scene shows Barbara telling her psychologist that death is not to be feared. Perhaps this is true — it’s a very common ideology in story — but it’s okay for death to still be sad, right? We see melancholy in the final scene as Barbara sleeps in her mother’s now-empty bed, but the emotional flip after the anagnorisis phase is too heavily juxtaposed. Do characters need to change in a story? Yes, in a dramatic arc they do. The question is how much. Barbara has gone from fearing death to the point where she couldn’t live an authentic life (symbolised by residing in a fantasy world) to an almost mystical acceptance of death as a Good Thing. I’m not quite on board with that scope of change. I don’t buy it for one thing; the bigger problem is, I don’t even want that as an aspiration in a sympathetic character. Instead, Barbara has veered from one brand of crazy to another, and I don’t believe that was the intention.

*By the way, the bully scenes don’t strike me as especially realistic — these girls are too old to be engaging in slamming-against-locker, grab-around-the-throat, surround-on-the-beach type stuff. That’s not to say it never happens like that — this kind of bullying looks like something to an outsider, which is why it’s so appealing on screen, even when bullying has typically become far more covert and insidious by the developmental stage otherwise depicted.

Takeaway Points for Children’s Writers

My ten-year-old enjoyed I Kill Giants because despite the heavy subject matter — the grief around a dying mother — this story conforms more to middle grade fiction than to contemporary YA:

  • Death happens off the page. In YA it often happens right there in front of us.
  • Death happens to an older generation — the mother. In YA, death tends to happen to same-age peers; in MG, it’ll be a parent, grandparent or something the same age.
  • Before telling stories about death, what are our own feelings about it? What’s the end-game, emotionally? For our characters, for our young audience, for us? Helen Garner is an Australian author who writes for adults, but I like what she has to say about her novel The Spare Room: There are many ways of dealing with death. You’ll see every scenario play out in real life, and complete denial is one way of dealing with death. People do it every single day, folks. There are people who will die this afternoon, who should probably know they’re going to die, but they continue to deny it. And then they die. And that was okay, too. Where do you stand on that? Would that be an acceptable ideology in a children’s book? (If your answer is yes, you’d be breaking a long, established pattern!)
  • I Kill Giants has been described as magical realism, but is it really?

Cameras In Storytelling

The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)

THE CAMERA FIEND TROPE

Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.

TV Tropes

Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Death In Children’s Literature

Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked. 

[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960
Fred Irvin (American, b. 1914). The Photo Booth, Catholic Digest cover, October 1960

As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:

  • A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
  • Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991) 
  • Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)

Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies. 
  • The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
  • The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
  • Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”

Photographers as main characters aren’t limited to YA by any means — Nora Roberts likes a photographer as character. Goodreads has a list of novels with characters who love photography.

CAMERA AS AGENCY IN YA LITERATURE

Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change. 

Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe
[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

SUSAN SONTAG ON CAMERAS

In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:

  • In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
  • Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
  • For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
  • Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.

CAMERAS IN MIDDLE GRADE FICTION

Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.

Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.

The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.

CAMERA AS TRUTH-TELLER

It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.

CAMERA AS SOURCE OF AGGRESSION

There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.

Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.

It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).

Magical Camera

FANTASY CAMERAS

Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.

But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)

In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.

A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.

Photogram

Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.

In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.

Scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles movie

CAMERAS IN THE HORROR GENRE

The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror. 

For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.

In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:

Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.

Scene from Insidious

CAMERA AS BOOKEND NARRATIVE

Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.

The memorable selfie in The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project is the archetypal example of the In-Universe Camera trope.

Strays Like Us by Richard Peck Storytelling Tips

Strays Like Us is a 1998 middle grade novel by American author Richard Peck. (155 pages)

Peck not only understands the fragile emotions of adolescents, he also knows what kind of characters will pique their interest. In this tender novel, he paints a richly detailed portrait of Molly, a drug-addict’s daughter sent at the age of 12 to live with a great-aunt she has never met. Molly soon discovers others like her in this small town full of secrets.

Publisher’s Weekly starred review

STORY WORLD OF STRAYS LIKE US

Strays Like Us is set in The (American) South but is not a Southern Novel as such. This is one of those American stories which could easily be set elsewhere — like lots of ‘midwestern’ stories set in suburbia or small towns. Molly’s story could belong to many kids all over.

This one happens to take place in small town Missouri. The ‘small’ town is significant because of the way gossip works:

“How did the guys find out anyway?”

“Becasue they don’t let you keep a secret in a town like this.”

Although this is like a 1950s utopia in some ways, there is a lot of poverty in this town and turns out to be an snail under the leaf setting. Richard Peck is making a statement about income inequality when he writes:

“There’s things they can do now for what Fred had,” [Aunt Fay] said finally. “But he didn’t have insurance.”

The story opens with Molly up a tree. She is in semi-hiding up here, melding with nature, and although in reality trees are reliant on each other via their root system, the common understanding of tree symbolism is that they stand ‘tall, proud and alone’, like Molly at the beginning of her character arc.

Strays Like Us tree cover
Molly Moberly in the foreground with neighbour Will in the background.

The exact year of this story is unclear — there is mention of computers and microwaves so I believe it is set in the late 1990s, at time of publication. Still, there is a 1950s feel about it. Locals are starting to feel suspicious of strangers, because until this period everyone has known everyone here.

The 1990s was the era of peak fear when it came to AIDS. We heard about it a lot — it was feared in the West unlike anything else, mostly associated with gay sex and illegal drug use and therefore highly stigmatised. Young readers today probably haven’t encountered that attitude in their own milieu, as AIDS has largely left public consciousness in the West, replaced by other fears such as the odd ebola outbreak, or mosquito borne encephalitis.

More clear than the exact year of the setting is the month of each incident. The reader is grounded in time with consistent reference to the month, the holiday event (be it Thanksgiving, Christmas or the beginning of the school year/start of a new one) and the season (whether Molly can hear bees or not and so on). Reference to season is more common in stories for and starring girls.

Spring came in a hurry here, before I knew it. The wind softened, and I felt the year revolving under my feet. Bare branches began to bud, and I remembered the heavy green shade of the trees, last summer when I’d come.

Nature also tends to be important in feminine stories, connected inextricably to the seasons in most ‘storybook’ parts of the world. Richard Peck manages to convey the ‘apparentness’ of this snail under the leaf setting by adding ‘fake grass’:

We stood in a little know beside a patch of fake grass where the casket rested. There weren’t any flowers. Mrs McKinney and Aunt Fay looked smaller than they were, hunched in their winter coats.

Richard Peck also uses a technique which makes any social situation more interesting — he abuts rich and poor people together, linking them inextricably. Molly herself is genetically related to a rich woman, but her whole life she’s lived in poverty. This is a version of a Cinderella rags-to-riches tale. Mrs Voorhees, bed-ridden and hypochondriac despite having married into riches after her first husband died in the grain elevator, shows that money can’t buy happiness — the modern take on the rags-to-riches story.

REVEALS IN THE NARRATIVE OF STRAYS LIKE US

Contains spoilers, of course.

Strays Like Us is a masterclass in drip-feeding information. In a quiet story like this one, these reveals provide the necessary reasons to keep reading.

  • Molly’s mother is a drug addict
  • Who is in hospital
  • And who has checked herself out back in October even though it is now Christmas
  • Will’s father is not in prison after all, he’s cooped up inside Will’s house with pneumonia
  • Which turns out to be AIDS
  • The homeschooled girl Molly meets at the library seems to have the perfect family situation but engages in criminal behaviour when she sets fire to the school
  • And is badly burned
  • In chapter 14, the wealthy, lonely woman Molly visits turns out to be her grandmother
  • Chapter 14 also gives readers and Molly the true extent of her mother’s terribleness. She is trying to use her status as a ‘mother’ to prevent a stint in jail for dealing in dope.

These reveals are in most cases based on lies told to other people, half-truths told to save feelings and stories told to comfort oneself. A lot of middle grade stories ask readers to consider the function of lies versus truth, and this is a good example.

The revelation that Will really does have a father turns out to be a bit of a ‘reversal’ so far as Molly’s concerned. She thought she was like him, but now she realises she’s alone in her predicament. This is possibly the worst thing that Molly can hear right now, just as it’s clear her own mother is not on her way to collect her and in fact has gone AWOL. This is how Richard Peck puts his main character through her paces, doing the worst to her but within the confines of a safe environment.

 STORY STRUCTURE OF STRAYS LIKE US

NARRATION AND VIEWPOINT OF STRAYS LIKE US

Written in first person, Molly Moberly looks back to an earlier time in her life. At the time of ‘writing’, she is older and wiser. We are constantly reminded that this is written by an older person looking back. As a narrator, the older Molly is able to hint at differences between what is ‘true’ and what is ‘perceived’ by herself at the time. She is also able to tantalisingly foreshadow the reveals by telling the reader that there are secrets about this snail under the leaf setting waiting to be uncovered.

Will wouldn’t have to pay because of what happened to his dad. That’s what I thought because that’s what I wanted to think.

 

The Kirkus reviewer describes this form of narration as ‘abrupt and somewhat detached’ and also ‘wistful’ and ‘ingenuous’, showing that when it comes to picking your narrative technique, you simply cannot please everyone. However, Kirkus does admit that the narration ‘gains strength’ as the story progresses.

What do you think?

SHORTCOMING

I’ve done no study on this, but it feels like alliterative names are more common in children’s literature, as well as in light-hearted genre fiction for adults. Molly Moberly, Missouri. This story has dark themes and Molly’s alliterative name — in a very small way — helps remind us somehow that this is a children’s story. Molly’s isn’t the only alliterative name; we also have Brandi Braithwaite and Rocky Roberts.

PSYCHOLOGICAL WEAKNESS

Molly Moberly has a ‘ghost’ which is revealed to the reader in drips and drabs but quite early on. She has been sent to a new foster home in yet another town because her drug-addicted mother is unable to care for her. Molly needs to find a parental figure. She also needs to let go of her biological mother ever fulfilling that role for her.

MORAL WEAKNESS

Because Molly is scared of rejection, she is disinclined to make friends, ostensibly because she figures she won’t be sticking around long enough to bother making any. When Will from next door introduces himself she treats him badly by rejecting his offer of friendship and hoping he’ll roll off the roof.

DESIRE

Molly has no wish other than to keep her head down, out of trouble, with her new life on hold waiting for her mother to come and get her.

More deeply, she wishes for stability and family.

OPPONENTS AND ALLIES

Will McKinney is a fake-opponent ally. He is in a similar situation to Molly — with precarious family circumstances and a lot going on.

Other opponents are well-meaning, as opponents often can be. Mrs Pringle, the well-meaning full-time mother who gives Molly a pile of clothes is trying to help, but ends up potentially damaging Molly’s sense of self-sufficiency by treating her as a charity case.

Aunt Fay is a true ally, understanding Molly’s emotional needs and giving good advice. Aunt Fay is the motherly figure Molly needs. Aunt Fay is well-developed as a character. When Will’s father dies we are given the hint of an existential crisis when she looks away out her side window at the tombstones and laments her own capacity for keeping the man alive or being able to keep him comfortable.

The cast of demented and sick people in Aunt Fay’s life make for a cast of eccentric and crotchety characters, alternately grateful and annoyed by Molly’s existence. These characters are not fleshed out — we don’t get to know their motivations. They function mostly as thumbnail sketches within Molly’s journey.

Rocky Roberts is a misunderstood villain. Like the disfigured man in Wolf Hollow, he is the handy scapegoat for bad things that happen in this small town.

Nelson Washburn stands for people who cast judgment over others without scrutinising the facts. Brandi Braithwaite, a caricature of a snarky adolescent girl, goes one step further and full-on makes up a story about seeing Rocky Roberts with a can of petrol on the night of the arson. These characters are opponents of ‘the truth’, which is what Aunt Fay stands for, and what her great niece Molly strives towards.

PLAN

In a post-Pollyanna kind of way, Molly learns to care for herself by first caring for others, looking outside her own situation to see that others have their own problems, even when it appears they are living in a kind of utopia. This is Aunt Fay’s plan, no doubt, rather than Molly’s own idea. But usually in these stories, where a ‘plan’ has been foisted upon them by someone else, about halfway through the main character will switch from being extrinsically to intrinsically motivated. When Molly plays cards with Mrs Voorhees we know she’s switched her mindset. Nobody told her she had to do it — she sees Aunt Fay caring for others and takes her lead.

BIG STRUGGLE

Aunt Fay models a necessary but uncomfortable confrontation about boundaries by having it out with hypochondriac Edith Voorhees who is sapping too much of her time and emotional energy. This marks the beginning of Molly’s anagnorisis — that things are always in flux:

Why couldn’t [Aunt Fay] go back to being the way she’d been, getting sassed by Mrs. Voorhees and sassing her back? Why did things have to keep changing, even here?

Next, Aunt Fay has another uncomfortable conversation with the coach when he brings in an injured Will, in a town where people are worried about the blood of the son of the man who just died from AIDS.

“Then talk plain. I do.”

In this way, Aunt Fay is modelling the telling of truth.

Next it’s Molly’s turn to have a big struggle of her own. Chapter 13 (a symbolic number?) describes the conflagration at the high school. This is the outer ‘big struggle’ which symbolises Molly’s internal growth. At the beginning of this chapter she is still keeping her ‘Debbie notebook around’ — though she’s only using the blank pages to keep notes about school, not to write fiction about her mother. The pace quickens as Aunt Fay is challenged with the task of getting Tracy Pringle’s mother to call the ambulance, with the ticking-clock of a badly burned child. Waiting downstairs, Molly realises that this big house is ‘too empty’. It dawns on her that Tracy doesn’t have a father (and that she is therefore not the only ‘stray’). The Pringles’ house appeared at first glance to be a warm house but is in fact cold and unwelcoming.

ANAGNORISIS

This is a story about found family, popular in middle grade stories. The message is, “You need to start finding your own people, because those you got lumped with by circumstance aren’t necessarily the best people for you.”

Strays Like Us makes use of the ‘Magical Age Of 12′ principle, in which Molly Moberly is 12 at the beginning of the story, turns 13 partway through it, and this maps exactly with her character arc from ‘naively hopeful’ to ‘realistic and rational’. In tandem, Will goes through the masculine version of coming-of-age, growing tall with a thicker neck and bigger muscles, especially after he loses his father and his grandfather mistakes him for father.

NEW SITUATION

If you do not have a happy ending for the young, you had better do some fast talking.

— Richard Peck

The story ends when Molly is 13 and a half. She’s growing out of childhood pastimes that require getting her hands dirty. The story has followed the course of one full year and the final scene places Molly back up the leafy tree from the opening scene, creating circularity and the sense of an ending.

Something’s happened to summer. It melted away before we knew it.

Summer is of course a metaphor for childhood. The seasonal emphasis in this story has marked Molly’s trials in her journey from childhood to adolescent.

Molly gives the social worker her precious Debbie notebook, no longer precious. She wants Debbie to have it if it gets to her, which is the outer reason for her getting rid of it, but at a psychological level she is letting go of the idea that her birth mother will ever be her real mother.

It is rare to find an out-and-out evil mother in children’s literature, though this one comes close at one point. Peck doesn’t break the final taboo — that in which a child really doesn’t feel anything at all for her mother:

I loved my mother, and she loved me. She loved me like a rag doll you drag around and then leave out in the rain. I still love her, but I live here.

This middle grade novel offers no neat solution to the social issues presented. This may or may not feel satisfying, depending on what the reader needs from a novel:

The novel settles upon a host of difficult issues and then, indescribably, lets them go: When Will sustains a bloody injury while playing ball, the coach requests that he quit the team because other members are afraid of contracting HIV. Instead of countering this ignorance, Will retreats, and the issue is dropped, with only a few utterances of protest from Aunt Fay. The novel becomes something of a treatise about a generation of children who have been cast aside by their parents; with its compelling premises and Molly’s fragile but tautly convincing voice, it will be seized upon by Peck’s fans, but may leave them longing for more.

Kirkus

Storytelling Tips From Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)

Tom's Midnight Garden cover with moon and boy silhouette

A descendent of The Secret Garden, sibling of The Chronicles of Narnia and ancestor to The BFG, Tom’s Midnight Garden is an influential and much-loved book which won the Carnegie Medal.

In Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce the moon is heavily symbolic. Night = day as the fantasy world = the real world. This middle grade novel is an example of low fantasy.

SETTING OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

Real World Connection

The author grew up in Cambridgeshire but calls it Castleford here. This allows her to deviate from reality, placing objects where she likes them. It’s a convenient trick.

For the purpose of some of her fiction, including Tom, Pearce put a creative spin on the Cambridgeshire countryside. Thus, the villages of Great Shelford and Little Shelford became Great Barley and Little Barley. And the major city of Cambridge became Castleford minus the famous university. Oddly, the cathedral city of Ely, which figures prominently in Tom, retained its real name. And running throughout, the omnipresent River Cam became the River Say. Although not specifically mentioned in the book, all indications are that, since the real house and garden were located in Great Shelford, Pearce placed Tom and Hatty’s garden in, or very close to, the renamed Great Barley.

Fred Guida, SLJ blog

The story has been criticised for romanticising aristocratic England. We are lead to believe it’s a huge shame that the beautiful old mansion has been broken down into flats, but what is the alternative? For plebs to continue to live in servitude, while the aristocratic class live like kings?

The Mysterious Mansion

The aunt and uncle’s house is a large house surrounded by many little ones. We know immediately that this house is ‘different’. Mysterious. We can expect mysteries. It is also old — linked to the past — and was once a mansion but has since been divided into smaller flats. The aunt and uncle’s house lies north of Cambridgeshire, where the author herself grew up and where she set her stories.

Ghosts

Compared to Australians, at least, English readers are quite likely to believe in ghosts. It is therefore no surprise that Tom jumps to this conclusion after going through the portal.

Secondary World

This is a portal fantasy. The fantasy has similar workings to The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe in that a child stumbles upon a door to another world inside the house where they have been sent to escape something going on at home. When they go back to prove their discovery the world has disappeared — this world is meant only for Tom.

Measles

The story starts with a case of measles.

Measles have been a problem for humans for centuries. While white people developed some immunity over the centuries, they carried the measles virus to native people around the world and put severe, irreparable dents in their populations. In the 1950s, around 500,000 children a year caught the disease, and about 100 died as a result. It was therefore taken seriously. Tom’s Midnight Garden was published in 1958, and although breakthroughs were already being made at around this time it took another 10 years for children to start being vaccinated in Britain.  However, people still weren’t vaccinating their children. As recently as 1988 there were still 80,000 cases of measles a year among children in England, including 16 deaths. This changed when the vaccination was combined into the MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine. The number of measles cases dropped significantly after that. But in 1998 there was another hit to the program after some false news emerged that vaccines cause autism. There has been some recovery from this scare, with around 95% of children receiving the vaccination, but there is still a large proportion of children of the 1990s who missed the vaccine and may never have it.

STORY STRUCTURE OF TOM’S MIDNIGHT GARDEN

SHORTCOMING

Tom Long is the main character.

His moral shortcoming is introduced first, though I may be having a different reaction to Tom as an adult reader who is now a mother — Tom doesn’t understand the reason for his being sent away and is in a strop about it. Instead of thinking about how much his brother must be suffering with measles he is completely inward-focussed and laments the loss of the summer he imagined, having fun with his brother climbing the apple tree in the backyard and so on. He fails to say a genuine farewell to his mother, though this is somewhat mutual.

The paragraph about the apple tree in the description of his own backyard tells us Tom’s need: He needs to be close to nature in order to be happy.

DESIRE

Tom’s desire is to stay in his own house and enjoy the freedom of typical summer holidays. Like many stories about children of this age, this is about one boy’s quest for freedom — spiritual if not actual.

OPPONENT

Tom’s mother is his first opponent, for wanting something different — she doesn’t want him to catch measles, and I’m sure she doesn’t want to have to look after more than one sick son at a time.

Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen are opponents simply by virtue of conspiring with his mother to host him at their house.

Once at his aunt and uncle’s house a mysterious character is introduced, though adult readers will recognise The Woman In The Attic trope — “Mrs Barthlomew upstairs” who is the owner of the mysterious grandfather clock which strikes 13 o’clock. She dresses all in black and other adult characters give the impression she’s not to be messed with.

PLAN

Tom is fighting against his imprisonment. He plans to get around his measles quarantine in any way he can, even if it means never actually leaving the house. For starters he’ll find out the yard is like, even though it’s apparently nothing to write home about.

When he finds the magical garden he confronts his aunt and uncle, who lied to him about their poky little backyard. He realises only he can see it.

Now he needs to find out as much about it as he can.

The mystery deepens as characters emerge on the scene:

  • Are they ghosts?
  • Is Tom, perhaps, a ghost in the style of Sixth Sense or The Others? These Dead All Along films are much more recent than this children’s book of course, but they were based on older stories such as “An Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge” from 1890 (also an episode of The Twilight Zone). I’m thinking maybe Tom died of the measles and though he thinks he was waving to his brother Peter he was actually waving to the live version of himself? The thing about the Dead All Along trope, once you realise the character is dead all along, everything prior in the story makes more sense. That’s not what happens in this case. The explanation is a bit different.

BIG STRUGGLE

The big struggle scene is Tom rushing downstairs trying to get through the gate and failing, realising he can never go back.

I’m sure this book is a Rorschach test, with the reader imposing individual meanings onto the text. For me this story is about the end of childhood. You can never go back. But what if you could? You can, of course, but only in your mind.

ANAGNORISIS

There is a ‘Scooby Doo’ chapter at the end in which all is explained. Mrs Bartholomew heard Tom screaming her name and summons him up to ‘apologise’, but really she wants to tell him that she is Hatty and Tom was sharing her memories.

NEW SITUATION

Tom has closure on the Midnight Garden and will return home satisfied. His uncle and auntie will remain a bit mystified about this slightly odd nephew of theirs.

FURTHER NOTES

Food

Food is important in children’s literature. In utopian stories there is never any concern about where the next meal is coming from — it just appears. See for example The Wind In The Willows or Winnie The Pooh.

In this story, however, the abundant and delicious food is used to show how Tom is stifled. He lies in a ‘snail under the leaf setting’ — safe from harm in the suburbs with people who care for him and his every need met — but for a boy who needs to spread his wings this is a prison.

Aunt Gwen’s cooking was the cause of Tom’s sleeplessness — that and lack of exercise. Tom had to stay indoors and do crossword puzzles and jigsaw puzzles, and never even answered the door when the milkman came, in case he gave the poor man measles. The only exercise he took was in the kitchen when he was helping his aunt to cook those large, rich meals — large and richer than Tom had ever known before.

The Technique of Side Shadowing

For a breakdown of the 3 main types of literary shadowing see here.

Side shadowing lets the reader know how else the story might have panned out. One reason for using this is to offer alternative endings, to ask the reader to consider some sort of theme, like justice, or if the character made the right choice in the end.

But in the case of Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce uses side shadowing mainly to reassure us that ‘This is not just your run-of-the-mill ghost story. I know you think you know how this is going to pan out because you’ve read plenty of ghost stories, no doubt. But I’m telling you you’re in for a surprise!”

She achieves that message with the following passage, written using ‘would’. Notice too the metafictive reference to “Tom’s” reading lots of children’s books — when Tom is a stand-in for the child reader:

Tom resolved that, as soon as he was better, he would call on Mrs Bartholomew. True, she was an unsociable old woman of whom people were afraid, but Tom could not let that stand in his way. He would boldly ring her front door bell; she would open her front door just a crack and peer crossly out at him. Then she would see him, and at the sight of his face her heart would melt (Tom had read of such occurrences in the more old-fashioned children’s books; he had never before thought them very probable, but now it suited him to believe): Mrs Bartholomew, who did not like children, would love Tom as soon as she saw his face. She would draw him inside at once, then and there; and later, over a tea-table laden with delicacies for him alone, she would tell Tom the stories of long ago. Sometimes Tom would ask questions, and she would answer them. ‘A little girl called Harriet, or Hatty?’ she would say, musingly. ‘Why, yes, my late husband told me once of such a child — oh! long ago! An only child she was, and an orphan. When her parents died her aunt took her into this house to live. Her aunt was a disagreeable woman…’

So the story, in Tom’s imagination, rolled on. It became confused and halting where Tom himself did not already know the facts; but after all, he would only have to wait to pay his call upon Mrs Bartholomew, to hear it all from her own lips. She would perhaps end her story, he thought, with a dropped of her voice: [old fashioned melodrama based on the oral tradition] ‘And since then, Tom, they say that she and her garden and all the rest haunt this house. They say that those who are lucky may go down, about when the clock strikes for midnight, and open what was once the garden door and see the ghost of that garden and of the little girl.’

Tom’s mind ran on the subject. His cold was getting so much better […]

For me the side shadowing happens at exactly the right moment, as my attention is starting to flag and I’m wondering if I can already predict the ending of this story.

Pearce also makes use of foreshadowing and also backshadowing in this story — an example of backshadowing is the reference to Hatty’s sons dying in The Great War, which she explains is now known as the First World War. This sort of real world detail is knowledge shared between audience and characters.