Are we supposed to be curious, or aren’t we? From reading stories, I just can’t make up my mind. If I open the box to find out what’s inside I risk unleashing evils across the entire world. But if I don’t open the box, there might be a bomb inside. If only I’d opened that confounded box, I could’ve saved everyone!
Today I’ll take a closer look at some popular narratives which seem to discourage curiosity as a valuable character trait, some which encourage it, and some which do both.
Without the resources to do an actual count up, punishment for curiosity in fiction does seem gendered. It’s possible that if we took every single story in which a character is punished for their curiosity, more male characters than female characters are punished for it. But then, most stories are historically about men so we’d have to adjust for that first. It’s certainly the case that in the best-known myths and fairytales young (and beautiful) women are punished for poking their noses into affairs that don’t concern them, which would be fully in line with the ancient rules of patriarchy.
However, narrative doesn’t track along one linear progression from ‘super misogynistic’ to ‘super enlightened’. (We haven’t seen super enlightened yet.) All too often, those ancient tales, when retold for children, are repackaged with extra blame heaped upon curious young women.
Vessels or containers are as important for the space they contain as well as for any material they hold. Containers tend to be associated with women. As motifs running throughout a story they can also symbolise physical or emotional containment, either self-driven or imposed upon a character from outside.
The Promise and Intrigue of Containers
The box containing treasure was once used to market cereal. This imagery wouldn’t be utilised by marketers today, and I deduce that the box of treasure was a stronger symbol for early 20th century audiences than it is for us.
How to create optimal mystery? Promise something but don’t show it. This is why we wrap presents. It’s why artists show characters looking at something mysterious out of the frame. It’s why writers drip feed something gradually, slowly bringing a mysterious person or item into view, building up to the big reveal.
Containers are the symbolic embodiment of all that. An enclosed container holds something but we don’t know what. Not until we open it.
PANDORA’S BOX, OR JAR, AND ALSO EVE
Across the history of storytelling, many narratives exist to teach less powerful people (including women) that if you find something locked away in a chest, you should just leave it there. The story of Adam and Eve is the stand-out example of this story, but we also have Pandora’s box.
Many male painters since have painted Pandora naked (forgetting about the silvery robe Hesiod gave her in the eighth century BCE (while at the same time seeing to become aroused by his own creation):
Paul Cesaire Gariot
John William Waterhouse
The story of Pandora is a permutation of the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden. In art, the two women are sometimes conflated. For instance, Jean Cousin’s Eva Prima Pandora (c. 1550), Henry Howard’s The Opening of Pandora’s Vase (1834), Rossetti’s portrait of Pandora (1871). Rossetti’s remains the most famous of these.
In both the Eve and Pandora stories, a woman gets the blame for unleashing evils into the world. This has always struck me as vastly unfair.
Let’s talk about Eve for a moment, and why it was never her fault.
God created the tree
God put the tree right where the humans he created could take it, with the apple in easy picking-reach
God made the fruit look delicious, with an eye-catching colour
God created the persuasive talking snake
God only warned Adam not to eat the apple. No one actually told Eve not to touch it, though some may assume Adam passed on the message, since the word of God in many churches passes from God to male church leader to husbands and only afterwards to wives.
Meanwhile, Adam had heard the prohibition directly from God and shared the apple with Eve. If anyone’s more culpable in this narrative, surely it’s Adam.
If you agree that Eve was unfairly blamed, just wait until you hear about Pandora.
In early versions of this story, there was no box and Pandora did not open it. The box first appeared in the story in Works and Days by Hesiod (Greek), later translated into Latin by Erasmus, more than 2000 years later. Erasmus had trouble translating ‘pathos’, which referred in Greek to a big ceramic storage jar about a metre high and not very stable. It’s possible Erasmus was confusing Pandora with Psyche (who does carry a box). In any case, jar became box.
Those big storage jars were about a metre tall, narrow at the base, and not exactly stable. They did not have screw top lids. They were easy to knock over. Without a tight lid, it’s not as if anyone could keep evils inside a big ceramic jar let alone be responsible for letting them out.
Artists have since depicted Pandora opening a box, sometimes out of curiosity, sometimes out of malice. In either case, the evils of the world become Pandora’s fault.
Bluebeard fairytales (and all their descendents) have the same message: If you know something is locked away LEAVE IT LOCKED AWAY. With the benefit of hindsight it’s easy to see why these cautionary tales existed: To leave power in the hands of those who already had it.
18th century children’s story Rosamund and the Purple Jar is anti-climactic precisely because the vessel holds something pretty, then disturbing, and ultimately contains nothing Rosamund wants. Her hopes are dashed. Victorian children were supposed to learn from this didactic story not to place too much hope on the unseen and the unknown. More generally, pretty appearances can disappoint by their lack of true substance.
In her short story “Prelude“, Katherine Mansfield makes use of containers as a motif throughout, liking young Kezia to her grandmother via a shared proximal placement of small containers.
For another short story with a box as significant motif see “U.F.O. In Kushiro” by Haruki Murakami.
The Third Casket
A ‘third casket’ is similar in concept to Pandora’s box, and is found in many fairytales. The first and second caskets contain riches but the third unleashes bad stuf like storms, death, general devastation.
These days, in many cultures, we divide the year into four distinct parts (by season). Stories about three caskets indicate a different division — a division into thirds. Two good seasons, one bad.
If you think of ‘ark’, you’re probably thinking of Noah’s Ark, or possibly the Ark of the Covenant. An ark is a big container that holds very valuable objects. In this way, an ark symbolises a treasure chest. It might be massive (as in Noah’s) or it might be small (as in the ‘ark’ that Moses was found in, floating in the reeds). The commonality is that an ark’s contents are precious.
The bottle is one of the symbols of salvation, probably because of the analogy (of function rather than of shape) with the ark and the boat.
A Dictionary of Symbols by J.E. Cirlot
In the 17th century, people started burying bottles around their yards to ward off evil. Inside the bottles: hair/pins/urine/chicken feathers/bits of plants and various bits and bobs. These were known as witch bottles. They are to break the power of a witch over their victim.
Science in this period was pretty different from ‘science’ as we know it today. These witch bottles were basically in accordance with scientific thought of the era.
Witch bottles were also thrown into lakes, the sea and other places thought to be affected by witches. Everyone used them differently, according to private symbolic ideas. But we can access these ideas using folkloric research and sort of make sense of how people thought they worked. A witch bottle contained some sort of ‘spirit essence’ which had been coerced into that bottle. Location is vitally important in determining the function of that bottle.
Some bottles were thought to have been laid down by witches themselves. These bottles were not apotropaic, but were designed to cast a curse upon somebody.
If you came across a bottle, it may have been put there by a witch. So there was a proper way to dispose of it, rather like a bomb disposal unit. One does not simply break a witch bottle. In line with the message of the Pandora’s Box category of tales, it was thought that if you break a witch bottle horrible things would happen — vegetation would die and so on. NEVER EVER THROW IT INTO A CESSPOOL OR RUBBISH PIT. Break it over a fresh south flowing river or stream, where the pernicious fluid can mingle with pure currents and be imperceptibly but irrecovably wasted.
Some bottles are thought to have an anthropomorphic element to them, containing its own heart (animus).
Perhaps some bottles, for example the one containing the chicken feather, may have been thought to take pestilence away. (Maybe their chicken flock had been infected/infested and they didn’t know what else to do.)
In the 17th and 18th centuries, domestic corridors and closets, multiplying bedrooms and staircases, secluded chambers and servant’s bells manifested new architectures of secrecy, as well as new relations between masters and house staff. These new spatial orders might have afforded greater privacy (or secrecy?) to the elite, yet “the average London servant,” Amanda Vickery reminds us, “had no settled space to call their own.” Instead, many carried a portable lock box. While householders tended to maintain an assemblage of distributed hiding places around the house, assistants and lodgers often stored their secret (or private?) matters in locked trunks, chests, and closets (Meanwhile, in the U.S., some enslaved people buried valuable property under their floorboards, and embedded secret messages and escape routes in hand-crafted quilts).
The name of this trope comes from Dungeons and Dragons:
The Bag of Holding is a specific portable item which is Bigger on the Inside than it is on the outside. Much bigger. It may not look it, but that’s because it contains Hammer Space. Because the holding capacity of the bag comes from internal Hammer Space, a thoroughly-packed Bag of Holding will weigh no more than a full normal bag. Odds are, it will weigh no more than an empty normal bag.
Because of the sheer amount of goods you can store in one, trying to find something specific usually results in a Rummage Fail. Except, of course, in videogames where time itself will stop to let you go through your inventory in peace.
The word ‘cabinet’ originally described a room rather than a cabinet (and is still used to mean ‘room’ when we’re talking about Parliament buildings). Originally, a cabinet of curiosities was a big room in a rich person’s house containing all kinds of treasures — sort of like a private museum. The first cabinets of curiosities appeared in the 16th century. In fact, these rooms were precursors to museums. People who travelled were in the best position to set them up, e.g. merchants.
When cabinets became collections held in pieces of furniture (today’s usual meaning of ‘cabinet’), they were designed to be as interesting to look at as possible. They were highly ornamental, decorative and housed many disparate things. The idea was to represent the entire world in miniature. Interest came from the juxtaposition of many different objects.
Cabinets of curiosities were also show-off items, showing how rich you were, how cultured, how well-travelled.
Over the centuries, artifacts from these collections have proven invaluable to historians, naturalists and archeologists.
In fiction, cauldrons have a special association with magic. Some such cauldrons are inherently magical, having some special power or another (an obvious one being the power to produce an endless supply of something you’d make in a more normal pot). Others are just used for magic (especially when Alchemy Is Magic), but apart from that, are just ordinary pots. They’re often black, and the contents are often inexplicably green, but both those things are optional.
Sometimes the cauldron is called a kettle. Cauldrons and kettles come in various shapes and sizes. Cauldrons can be terrible or wonderful, oftentimes both.
According to witch mythology, an iron cauldron or kettle was used to prepare Sabbat feasts, magical brews and potions. Sometimes the fire is kindled in the cauldron itself. Some witches in fact use ordinary household pots — consecrated, of course.
In public imagination, the cauldron (your own cooking pot) was equally a tool you could use to kill a witch. By performing folk magic you could force a witch down your chimney, where she will fall into your cooking pot and be scalded to death. In order for this to work, people had to imagine a witch small enough to fall down a chimney, so it was necessary to believe that witches could transmogrify. This made them even more scary, because now you believed a witch could get in through any tiny crack.
The shape of the cauldron resembles the belly of a pregnant woman, and is therefore a symbol of fertility. Its circular shape symbolises never-ending life and regeneration.
Things are heated inside a cauldron, transforming from one thing into another, hence the cauldron also symbolises germination and transformation.
Traditional cauldrons have three legs, representing the triple aspect of the Great Goddess or the three fates. Any cauldron with three legs has strong associations with divination.
Cauldrons are strongly associated with cannibals, e.g. ogres. A cauldron of burning oil means punishment is coming, e.g. in earlier, more disturbing versions of Sleeping Beauty.
But in Celtic tradition, the cauldron symbolises abundance, cornucopia, resuscitation and inexhaustible sustenance. In these stories the dead are frequently thrown into the cauldron and crawl out alive the next day. For this meaning, we can look to a fairytale such as The Magic Porridge Pot (generally illustrated as a mini cauldron in picture books). The pot saves a community from famine but also wreaks havoc, in line with the good and evil duplicity of mythological cauldrons. Likewise in China, the cauldron is a receptacle for offerings. but also a container for torture and capital punishment.
Norse legend is a bit different. According to Nordic tradition, the roaring cauldron is the source of all rivers.
A chalice is a cup or grail generally used in rituals. The Catholic church makes use of a highly decorated chalice in ceremony. Pagans used a much simpler one.
The chalice itself symbolises water. Like the cauldron, the chalice is associated with femininity because of its shape, and because of its use as a vessel (women were and still are considered vessels for carrying other humans). Women are also linked to water because women are linked to the moon — menstrually — and the moon influences tides. We all begin life in the womb in water. Like most associations, it’s a double-edged sword for women. Water, like women, is essential to life. (Women, eh? Can’t live with em, can’t live without em.)
The Holy Grail
As mentioned above, in mystical, pre-Christian times there was a magical cauldron of the Celtic Gods that never emptied and kept everyone satisfied, as mentioned above. This legend is the O.G. of mythology leading to the Holy Grail — the cup that Christ was meant to have drank from at the Last Supper, or maybe it was the container that caught his blood during his crucifixion… who knows?
This sacred vessel went missing (or never existed in the first place), so today ‘the Holy Grail’ means something unfindable but highly treasured. There’s a subcategory of King Arthur tales called Holy Grail Legends, which have kept the rumours alive.
According to Jung, the psychoanalyst, the grail is an emblem of the spirit and symbolises “the inner wholeness for which men have always been searching”. The Philosopher’s Stone, from alchemy, fulfils the same symbolic function — the search for something elusive within oneself.
Header painting is by Leslie Hunter: Kitchen Utensils, c.1914–18.
Paul Jennings has been an influential children’s author in Australia and New Zealand since the 1980s.
A PUBLISHING SUCCESS STORY
The Un-series took off internationally, became a TV series, the rest is history. Many people my age grew up with Paul Jennings. Schools across Australia and New Zealand all have (or had) multiple copies, sometimes class sets for study in class. I have taught Paul Jennings stories myself. These are considered texts to draw the reluctant reader in.
After revisiting the tales this year, I realised something else. Jennings’ stories serve to uphold a system of misogyny and sexism typical of the 1980s. Paul Jennings stories served a specific purpose in a specific era, but it’s now time to retire these books from the classroom. Childhood is very short, in comparison to the sheer volume of reading material available. We desperately need contemporary, woke, diverse, feminist hi-lo readers with fun, twisty endings to fill the Paul Jennings space.
Jennings has recently written a memoir. He has this to say about his own work:
[T]he themes of his own childhood have crept into his work, even against his own will at times.
Bullies often get their comeuppance, for example.
Grifters, narcissists and conmen also cop it.
Perhaps more tellingly, parenting crops up a lot.
“There’s a theme which comes up all the time, which is the separation of the parent and the child,” Jennings says.
“And it’s an incredibly powerful thing, because the loss of a child is enormous to a parent. And the loss of a parent is enormous to a child.
“That theme, I realised after a couple of years, it was poking its nose up quite a bit. And I kept saying to myself, ‘I’m never doing that theme again’.”
There is also a story Jennings wishes he hadn’t written. “No Is Yes”.
The fact is, culture changes, authors change. This is not the only story I personally wish Jennings hadn’t written.
All that said, Paul Jennings is a master storyteller who cracked the difficult knack of genuinely writing for children, not for a dual audience, nor for advanced middle grade readers only. There’s a lot to learn from Paul Jennings in that regard.
FEATURES OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES
STORY STRUCTURE AND NARRATION
Titles often have a pun element, not obvious until after the twist.
Opening sentences often introduce intriguing high concepts.
Or, the story will open with a character in a scary/impossible situation e.g. perched high on a ladder (“Eyes Knows”). In other words, Jennings is making use of ‘in medias res’. We continue reading to find out how they got there.
Or, there will be a weird scenario (a character has a huge nose) and the backstory that follows will explain how this happened.
Or, the story will begin with a boy having just got himself into trouble with an authority figure (“UFD”).
Many of these stories are tall tales, and use the techniques of that genre.
Some are retellings of classic stories or a new spin on an old yarn. “Ice Maiden” = the Greek myth of Pygmalion. “Greensleeves” is a spin on “Jonah and the Whale”. “Know All” is a new spin on Pandora’s Box.
A lot of Jennings’ stories are bookended. He loves the story-within-a-story structure. To use the terms of narratology, Jennings makes use of two diegetic levels —diegetic and metadiegetic. This conjures the ambience of a ‘storyteller around a campfire‘. Either an interesting adult tells a tall story to a child viewpoint character, or the child viewpoint character themselves launches into some wild backstory to explain the situation at hand. The stand-out example is the standalone story illustrated by Terry Denton, called Sucked In. The story’s title comes from the fact that a group of kids have been taken in by a tall tale… or have they?
The bookend story has a story structure all of its own. (Its own opponent, plan, big struggle etc.) Because we have two of everything, this packs a lot into a short story and creates a fast-paced reading experience.
The Battle sequences are especially fun for the audience of these stories, with massive high-octane, ridiculous hilarity and plenty of revenge against authority and outright villainy.
Stories are written in first person, unless there’s some reason to write in third. For instance, the story will be written in third person if the first person viewpoint character isn’t going to be sticking around for the entire story. (“One-shot Toothpaste”) Stories are also written in third person if there are two main characters instead of one (e.g. “Birdscrap”), or perhaps if the story is about an adult rather than a child (“The Velvet Throne”).
Jennings doesn’t care that his Chekhov’s Guns are wholly unsubtle. If a character mentions a valuable painting, you can be sure that valuable painting will be found at the end of the story (“Skeleton On The Dunny”). A young reader is in the moment. Unlike a more sophisticated audience, they are not picking up the Chekhov’s Guns and making predictions.
It’s interesting to see which dots are joined for the young reader. Paul Jennings likes the reader to piece together their own endings. But everything else is handed to them on a plate. For instance, if there is a ghost, the reader is told there is a ghost. There’s no doubt about it (to my mind) because Jennings is using all the ghost tropes. But Jennings never forgets: He’s writing for eight year olds. Eight year olds haven’t got a long history of hearing ghost stories. Eight year olds don’t have a long history of anything. They’re eight. This is why, in a story like “Lighthouse Blues” we have sentences like ‘It had to be ghosts. The ghosts of Captain Rickard and Alan Rickard’. Any adult reader has already worked this out by section five. And so have the young readers, probably. But young readers like this confirmed. They were right! They feel smart. In a story for older readers, this sort of explanation might be considered ‘overexplanation’, and edited out.
Don’t play it too cool. Don’t trust us to figure it out if you can’t trust us to figure it out. Always try to think of any other interpretation that your reader may have. When in doubt, spell it out.
Paul Jennings doesn’t lampshade coincidence. He makes the most of it. That is a feature of the tall tale. Almost all of his stories contain an element of unbelievable coincidence. Or, to be kind, we could call it ‘non-mimetic’ coincidence. (Events in a story don’t even try to emulate how the real world works.) The events of “Greensleeves” rely heavily on comical levels of coincidence, reminiscent of a fairytale.
Jennings is using “fairytale logic” and also fairytale archetypes. Mothers are often dead. The boy main character is most often reminiscent of the underdog third son. Virtue is richly rewarded by some unseen force.
Oftentimes the Battle sequence is a prearranged competition (“Birdman”, “Wunderpants”, “Little Squirt”) in which boys big struggle for prestige and dominance. The underdog will win after previously stumbling upon some magic. It might be a speech in front of the class rather than a competition (“Without A Shirt”), but the story structure is the same.
Ticking clocks come in various forms, but Jennings likes to make use of a magical piece of equipment which only lasts for a certain number of times or a certain length of time. (Super glue which only sticks for two hours; a lie detector that only works seven times.) This, too, is from fairytales. A genie grants three wishes, etc.
If a ghost is going to appear, often there’s a character who appears first to explain the backstory of the ghost. (The police officer in “A Good Tip For Ghosts”, the annoying girl classmate in “Cracking Up”.) This utilises the trick of having characters talk about an intriguing character before that character appears on the scene.
In a Paul Jennings story the planning step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. For instance, a boy wants to prove a flying dog exists. Instead of making a plan to that effect, he goes along with his father to buy ice-cream. A boy wants to get out of trouble for ruining his mother’s precious notebook. The grandfather just happens to turn up so he goes along on a frog-finding mission with him. This goes against how most writers cover the plan phase of a story. But in a way, it’s more mimetic for a child audience. A low mimetic child hero doesn’t have great executive functioning, and neither does the typical reader. Kids like this aren’t up to making plans. Instead, everything fits together as if by fate. The boys in these stories fulfil their desires, but often it’s through no good planning of their own. These white boys get what they want through sheer ‘dumb luck’, as Professor McGonnagal might say. (And I do say ‘white boy’ for a reason. We accept that kind of privilege in white boy characters.)
SETTING OF PAUL JENNINGS SHORT STORIES
Magical items appear without explanation. Magic simply is. In common with fairytales, we are given the very basics, then left to imagine the rest. In “Birdscrap”, Jennings doesn’t bother going into backstory of why a pair of rubies are significant. They just are. We know they are special precisely because the main characters are looking for them. The item with magic attached is common in fairytale and children’s stories but we sometimes see it in stories for adults, such as Annie Proux’s “A Pair of Spurs”.
A magical item will help the main character achieve their goal, but first they need to learn how to use it. The magical item will lead them through a series (probably two) humiliating gag scenes before helping with the goal. (“Birdman”, “The Mouth Organ”, “Spaghetti Pig-out”). This avoids the trap of magical items all writers need to skirt around — the character needs to save the day, not the magic. This magical item might be a machine typical of 1980s technology, like the VCR of “Spaghetti Pig-out”. A modern audience may not have seen the rewind function in action. More to the point, many modern remote controls (e.g. PS4) don’t need to be pointed directly at the machine.
Fantasy creatures appear, special rubies exist, and mundane objects have a fantastical backstory. In this respect, Paul Jennings is the kiddie equivalent of Stephen King. For instance, both Jennings and King made use of a monster inside a drain, around the same time. The everyday world is simply a veneer masking terror below. They both make use of the snail under the leaf setting.
Jennings tends to give a ‘standout detail’ rather than creating a rounded picture. One of the more lengthy examples is the description of the annoying little helper called Snookle, who turns up inside a milk bottle. ‘All I could see was a large pair of gloomy eyes. He must have had a body but it was nowhere to be seen. The eyes simply floated in the air about fifteen centimetres above the bottom of the bottle.’
Overall, there’s a distinctly Australian feel to the settings (of course). This mapped equally well onto my New Zealand childhood, with its strong beach culture and houses which tend to be near the sea. Beaches hide buried treasure. Where the land meets the sea is often used in stories to evoke that liminal sense of where fantasy meets reality.
A form of magic beloved of Paul Jennings is the magic which takes over control of a boy’s body. (“Without A Shirt”, “Birdman”)
A similar form of magic is when a boy feels compelled to do as a magic item tells him. (“On The Bottom”, “Eyes Knows”)
The typical reader is an 8-10 year old, and the typical age of a main character is 14-16. This affords the characters more freedom. Some characters are younger than that. It seems to depend on whether there’s a romantic element. If Jennings needs a romance plot, he’ll age the main character up.
Wish fulfilment in Paul Jennings stories cover a large repeating territory: the wish to be respected (especially by girls), the wish to have money or treasure, to fly, to solve a mystery by your very own detective work, to have super powers, to find a magic item which solves a large problem.
Main characters are overwhelmingly boys. These boys are low-mimetic heroes according to the scale proposed by Northrop Frye. These boys are slightly more hapless, stupid, unobservant than the reader. This creates empathy, and we also laugh at them. We feel smarter than they are for working things out before they do.
Paul Jennings gets the parents out of the way and he doesn’t care how he does it. (The parents in Come Back Gizmo have gone out and haven’t even told their son where they’ve gone.) Jennings can get rid of adults suddenly with a one-sentence explanation. Or, we simply accept that parents aren’t there. In fairytale tradition, parents might have died in a car crash.
Adult opponents are often authority figures (principals, teachers, mean nurses, cranky neighbours). The meanest will receive punishment at the end, with vengeful plot ‘twists’.
Nasty opponents are both nasty and illogical. For instance, a nasty teacher has a precious plant, yet entrusts the care of it to his students each night so it doesn’t get covered in dust while the cleaners are doing their jobs (“Cracking Up”).
Jennings likes the archetype of the “little man” (described thus) who appears out of nowhere to serve whatever purpose Jennings sees fit. The “little man” in Come Back Gizmo appears to say the main character’s dog has been found. The “little man” in “Box Strap Flyer” appears as a trickster to outwit another trickster. Why does Jennings describe these men as “little”? Because they are meant to work mostly invisibly, behind the scenes, popping in occasionally to interfere with the machinations of a mystery.
When girls appear, they are most often girl archetypes (beautiful bitches, blonde sexual objects, wimpy, annoying sisters). They are therefore most often an opponent, romantic or potentially romantic, despite lack of interest on their part. When there are no girls at all in the story (“The Paw Thing”) Jennings doesn’t have the opportunity to muck it up.
Even adult women are a continuation of the female maturity principle, in which men and boys embark on these wacky, dangerous plans while the women tut-tut, oblivious to the fantasy world around them. In “Birdman” the mother is in a strop with the father because she thinks the flying competition is too dangerous. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” the mother gets into a strop because the father has bought a dodgy video down at the pub, but the father is always vindicated, because these machines and tricks always turn out to fix a big problem. Crazy dads are rewarded. Sensible mums are proven wrong to be sensible, every time.
Because this is the 1980s, the mothers are the ones calling their kids in for tea. The dads are the ones going out to work. This is believable for the 1980s, but my own mother went out to work in the 1980s, and so did the mothers of most of my friends. So Jennings was still behind in his parental gender roles.
Characters are often symbolically named e.g. a dog called Ripper who rips holes in your pants, or Chomper, a ghost who (it is revealed) searches the tip each night in search of his false teeth. The big, bad opponent in a story is most likely to be symbolically named in this way. The Every Boy gets more of a classic white boy name.
The son or daughter of the mayor is likely to be corrupt.
Inversions are utilised as gags. For instance, a boy and dog switch bodies (Gizmo Come Back) or a father and dog switch bodies (“Birdman”). (See also: Inversion does not equal subversion.)
Typical of men of his era, Jennings fails to subvert some troubling, misogynistic tropes. Instead, his stories serve to keep girl characters subdued and under control. Yet he is able to subvert other kinds of authority by making the most of the carnivalesque. (“Lucky Lips” is perhaps the worst of the lot, with a carnivalesque, gross-out and also rapey set of scenarios leading to a disturbing climax, not dissimilar to the controversial pilot episode of Black Mirror.)
Paul Jennings uses fat kids as the bully character. This was very common in the 1980s. Fat boys were either enemies or pathetic. In modern stories, the fat boy is still sidekick to the main character Every Boy, though he’s often a nicer person than everyone else. This isn’t really an inversion until fat boys get to be the stars of their own stories, which aren’t about the experience of being fat. In The Cabbage Patch Wars, two dads with beer bellies engage in a weight loss competition, in an era before Biggest Loser was a thing.
There’s a disproportionate number of redheaded kids in Paul Jennings stories. Like most children’s writers, he tends to use red hair as a ‘stand out’ attribute — by giving a kid red hair he is saying ‘keep an eye on this character’. Jennings uses a red headed kid for the bully in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” but the red headed kid is a main character in “Ice Maiden”, and despite hating red hair himself, he ends up falling in love with a red headed girl. Also, his red hair saves his life. So Jennings is trying to tell us that red hair isn’t so bad in one story, yet uses red hair however he sees fit in other stories.
If an evil person is introduced, and that evil person is mistreating others you can bet Paul Jennings will exact punishment on that character, even if it requires a final section of the story to do just that. In other words, he ties off every other strand in the story, and it might end there, but then he goes back in for the punishment. These stories are famous for being about anarchy and fun, but they are conservative in their values.
Look closely at these stories and you’ll find they are basically very conservative, and sometimes clearly didactic. “The Busker” is about how you can’t buy friendship. Yet in “Spaghetti Pig-out”, the main character buys friends with a magical device. So stories contradict each other in their moralism.
The idea that bad people do bad things and also get away with it is not part of the Paul Jennings setting, although it is part of real life.
Stories which revolve around a reordering of hierarchy are so common, not just in the Paul Jennings oeuvre, that we rarely stop to think about how to completely subvert the hierarchy itself. As Matt Bird says about Battle sequences in general, at first the main character is socially challenged (usually via humiliation). This is absolutely true of Paul Jennings stories. We are lately starting to see a pushback on this fundamental idea. Australian feminist philosopher Kate Manne says it best in her critique of Jordan Peterson’s viral “12 Rules For Life”:
Critiquing these hierarchical structures and finding, when possible, a way to live outside of them in more co-operative ways are obvious alternatives for human beings about which Peterson says little.
I have exactly the same thing to say about Paul Jennings, who has nothing to say about how to live outside hierarchies, or about dismantling the hierarchies altogether. Instead, story after story fulfils the wish to move from underdog to king pin, often by dumb luck and with magical help rather than by achieving any special insight.
The writing style is conversational rather than literary.
A strong 1980s, 1990s Australian voice comes through, in emulation of the ‘True, blue Aussie’ which certain politicians like to emulate, even today. This voice is in itself a kind of fictional caricature, which isn’t to say that certain people don’t make full use of it as a character gag. Mick Gould who stars in Australia’s 2019 Married At First Sight also uses this distinctly Australian larrikin persona for enduring comic value and audience empathy, so it hasn’t gone away. This voice is full of idiomatic expressions, mixed metaphors for comic effect, telling it like it is, positioning oneself as hapless and unpretentious, and making use of borderline inappropriate language (insofar as a children’s book will allow, hence “Birdscrap”, which can be explained away as “Bird Scrap” rather than its real meaning of “Birds’ Crap”).
Emotions are described matter-of-factly in a single sentence e.g. ‘I felt embarrassed,’ ‘I felt silly‘.
Physiological reactions are comical — they could easily happen in a Cartoon Network show. Knees knocking, obvious blushing, teeth chattering.
Titles such as “Birdscrap” are word play and also taboo.
Readers take delight in upending authority. This kind of carnivalesque humouris utilised across many picture books, which makes these hi-lo readers a natural progression for young readers. This type of humour is still very popular here in Australian children’s publishing, with the Treehouse creators saying that children crave ‘irreverent’ humour. Irreverent is another way of saying the same thing. Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths also talk about the importance of ‘anarchy‘, and this applies equally to Paul Jennings, who has surely been influential on their work.
Humour has been classified into ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. Men and boys are more likely to use ‘negative’ humour— to belittle, to humiliate etc. Paul Jennings stories are far more likely to belittle and humiliate, with a few exceptions e.g. “The Mouth Organ” (in which, no coincidence, he chooses a girl for his narrator).
Jennings makes use of gross-out elements. (A sea of bird poo, a creature picking a boy’s nose for him, being stuck in a skip full of rubbish, a dug up skeleton etc.)
In tall story tradition Jennings plays around with scale and size. (This is also a feature of myths e.g. Greek myth.) For example, a shack is surrounded by a sea of seagull poo, a tooth grows bigger than the man to whom it belongs. Jennings understands that by playing around with scale, he creates resonant imagery for the reader. Other examples: ‘A pumpkin so big it took four men to lift it’, ‘peas as big as golf balls’, ‘beans were as long as your arm’, so many flies they black out the sun. Extreme stench is utilised in several different stories. In the humour taxonomy, this is gross-out overlaid with hyperbole.
Related to big things as small, small things as big, creatures and things operate in the way we don’t expect. Oftentimes, it’s a simple inversion. For instance, in Sucked In, we are led to expect that a cat is about to eat the escaped appendix. The illustration shows a massive cat (so massive the cat is partly off the page) with the much smaller appendix in a vulnerable position beneath the cat. But turn the page and the appendix eats the cat. This is ‘man bites dog’ humour, funny because it subverts expectations.
Bad smells are a common feature of Paul Jennings stories, especially if they overwhelm an entire town. (“Greensleeves” is one example)
Humiliation of the main character is often a large component of the humour. We empathise with the main character because he is in an underdog embarrassing situation. He comes up trumps at the end, not because of his own superpowers coming to the fore, but because the gods are smiling upon him. He remains a low-mimetic hero (Northrop Frye’s classification).
Disembodied body parts are commonly utilised throughout Paul Jennings stories. False teeth are the star of several different narratives (“A Good Tip For Ghosts, The Cabbage Patch War). In Sucked In, an appendix in a jar is the star. We have a dismembered finger in “On The Bottom”.
Nudity is both funny and humiliating (cringe humour). Bums especially so (“On The Bottom”). Mention of exposed genitalia would be considered inappropriate for this age group, but we do have an entire story about a pissing contest.
HOW DOES JENNINGS TWIST HIS TALES?
The big selling point of a Paul Jennings collection is the twist-in-the-tale. You’ll find this promise on the advertising copy. This seems to be what impresses readers the most.
Some of the stories contain two twists: One in the Level 0 story, another in the Level 1, meta story.
Some of the ‘twists’ only work on a child audience. The sophisticated adult reader sees them a mile out. Paul Jennings does not attempt a dual audience, and that largely explains his success: His stories for kids are really for kids. On the other hand, sometimes the reward is in knowing exactly what’s coming. There’s a visceral delight in that.
Christopher Vogler has pointed out that ‘twist endings’ are most often sardonic, bitter, wry and I would add ‘vengeful’. It is much more difficult to write a twist ending that does not invoke these negative (but satisfying) emotions in us. A rare exception is the famous short story by O. Henry, “The Gift of the Magi”. Paul Jennings doesn’t do ‘kind’ twist endings. (Twist endings which say something lovely about humankind are very hard to pull off.)
Another twist Paul Jennings does NOT do: The scary supernatural creature turns out to be no such thing. Once Jennings creates his scary opposition, that opposition is real within the setting. The ‘and it wasn’t really real’ twist is not satisfying. It’s a close cousin of ‘And then I woke up and it was all a dream‘.
Jennings reveals that an authority figure has the same desires as the kids, proving himself not so high and mighty after all. (“Pink Bow Tie”). This is a carnivalesque trick because it upends the adult-child hierarchy.
A storyteller spins a yarn which the young viewpoint character fully believes. The twist is that the storyteller is full of yarns, and the existence of the second yarn disproves the veracity of the main yarn. (“One Shot Toothpaste”.) This is a tall tale trick.
A character with a certain strong character trait (e.g. fearlessness) goes through an experience which serves to invert that trait (e.g. he is now scared of not scary things) (“Inside Out”). This draws on the mechanism of irony. The reader expects a character arc to be: Child learns to conquer his fears.
A mysterious storyteller who tells his tale in third person is revealed to have been telling the story about himself all along. (“The Busker”)
A fantastic tale is not fantasy at all, then leaves off with a detail or explanation that suggests the fantastic tale might be fantastic, or it might not. (“Souperman”)
A situation is resolved, seemingly forever, but then it is revealed in the final paragraph that this is a repeating story and is likely to happen again. Paul Jennings gets a lot of mileage out of this one. (“One Shot Toothpaste”, “The Gum Leaf War”, “Come Back Gizmo”, Sucked In) Often, the first and main story happens to a boy, then the next (untold) story is about to happen to a girl. DreamWorks did the same in its movie adaptation of Boss Baby. (They probably think this counts as gender diversity.)
A Holy Grail object of desire is revealed to have been right there, staring them in the face all along. (“Birdscrap”)
A villain opponent is revealed to be more of an ally, and ends up helping the young character get with they want. Sometimes this is a ghost, who seems scary at first but is revealed to be kind. (“Birdscrap”, “Skeleton On The Dunny”)
An opponent with a formidable reputation turns out to be much less scary once met face to face (“A Good Tip For Ghosts”).
An opponent for the child viewpoint character turns out to be an ally for another character, because everyone’s needs are different. (“Snookle”)
A weird situation is revealed to be supernatural in origin, and has a classic horror story resolution (“Without a shirt”)
A smart trickster outwits an evil trickster (“Box Strap Flyer”, The Paw Thing)
The reader thinks the worst that could happen has already happened, but then something outrageous and unimaginable is about to happen next. This scene may be so risqué it is left entirely for the reader to imagine. (“Lucky Lips”). This is a popular type of humour shared by many comedians, e.g. by Oliver Jeffers in his picture book Stuck.
An object which is terrible turns out to have a silver lining for the main character. (“Cow Dung Custard”)
A character accomplishes something using a certain trick which is not revealed to the reader until the final sentence. (“Wunderpants”) This is how heist stories work. The character makes plans behind the scenes. The character has a realisation midway through the story and this is not related to the audience.
Rather than a twist, Jennings sometimes uses the inverse: Everything in the story leads to an expected and satisfying payoff… or rather, payback. In “Birdscrap”, the story ends at the point where the highly unempathetic opponent is about to land headfirst in manure. In “Spaghetti Pig-out” we wait for the magic remote to work against the bullies.
After a psychological horror sequence, a character realises what they need to do to get themselves out of a horrible situation, so they do it and it works via off-the-page magic. (“The Velvet Throne”)
To emphasise his twist, Jennings sometimes gives us the ‘twist’, swiftly followed by the answer to a mystery he has set up. This feels extra satisfying, and can make up for a less-than-stellar twist. He does this in The Cabbage Patch War. We learn in quick succession that the person accused of stealing the cabbage is not the real thief. Then we learn that one character won a weightloss competition by removing his false teeth.
A character is killed, then brought back to life with hitherto unseen magic (“Frozen Stiff”).
Sometimes a main character works something out before the reader does, then sets about to fix a situation. (Russell works out his mean teacher’s smile has been stolen before we do in “Cracking Up”, “Know All”.)
Uncanny is a hi-lo short story collection by Australian author Paul Jennings, first published 1988.
The original ‘uncanny’ stories were by British writer May Sinclair (1863 – 1946). I read a collection of Sinclair’s uncanny short stories (1923) a few years ago and wasn’t really moved by them. This is because so many writers have emulated Sinclair’s work that hers no longer feel all that original! Sinclair was a heavy influence on H.P. Lovecraft. Now, I wager you’ve heard of him, even if you haven’t heard of her.
Unfortunately, the influence of May Sinclair remains little known. Plus, her writing career was cut short with the onset of Parkinson’s disease in the late 1920s.
The Uncanny May Sinclair stories have plots like this:
Two lovers are doomed to repeat their empty affair for the rest of eternity.
A female telepath is forced to face the consequences of her actions.
The victim of a violent murder has the last laugh on his assailant.
An amateur philosopher discovers that there is more to Heaven than meets the eye.
Likewise, Jennings writes ‘circular’ stories in which stories end on the note that this weird thing will continue on forever. Characters in Paul Jennings stories are forced to face the consequences of their actions. Underdogs (victims) get the last laugh against their opponents. The stories are set in snail under the leaf settings, where there is more to ordinary life than meets the eye.
Whether directly or indirectly, May Sinclair had an impact on Paul Jennings, across all of his short fiction, and not just in this particular title.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “ON THE BOTTOM”
The twist of “On The Bottom” a real groaner. It ends with a dad-joke. It also has an ending typical of picture books, with the main character left with a souvenir from a highly improbable journey.
Lucas has a father who doesn’t treat him like an adult. The father steps in to pull a fish in when Lucas is capable of doing it himself.
His problem is that after he finds the finger, he has a tattoo on his own finger. This means he’s in trouble.
Lucas wants to be a man and catch his own fish. This means preparing them as well.
The mystery in a story is set up at the same time (or instead of) the opposition.
Lucas finds a finger inside the shark.
Following directions from his bear tattoo, Lucas finds a tattooed man lying flat in his dinghy far out to sea, almost dead.
The tattoos transfer to Lucas which means he is ostracised. He is in danger of being taken away from his father. He comes close to a psychological death when he becomes a hikikomori in his own house.
The tattooed guy turns up, reveals he’s from the circus, and with a handshake he can get his tattoos back.
Lucas is now free of tattoos, except for one under his underpants. This is a trope used in plenty of fantasy picture books — the main character is left with a souvenir to prove it all really happened, should the reader ever ask. Chris Van Allsburgh uses this in The Polar Express when the boy comes back to his bedroom with a souvenir from his train journey. Margaret Wild also uses it in There’s A Sea In My Bedroom.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “A GOOD TIP FOR GHOSTS”
The ‘tip’ in “A Good Tip For Ghosts” refers to the local refuse station. I remember tip trips as a kid, and I’m familiar with the sort of person who loves fossicking around in them. There used to be a corner for stuff which other people might want. If it wasn’t entirely useless, you’d put it there. But our local tip has recently put up signs to say no one’s allowed to take anything away. Health and safety. But nobody listens. We live in a semi-rural area, so all sorts of farm castoffs can be found at the tip — trellises, chunks of scrap metal and the like. I know people who have designed their gardens with stuff from the local tip. The father in this story is that kind of guy.
The narrator is embarrassed by his father’s rusty old car and how he fossicks around in the rubbish. He is humiliated by their own poverty, or the appearance thereof. This humiliation is never subverted, unfortunately.
The narrator wants to make a good impression at his new school, because the family has only just moved to this area.
The father, who is embarrassing him in front of a rich kid.
The policeman who pulls them over at first may function as an opponent but he turns out to be friendly. Jennings uses the policeman as a storyteller. This turns him into a false opponent ally, though it does turn out he’s got the story slightly wrong.
Gribble, the archetypal school bully who sets up an initiation challenge.
Old Chompers is the big bad supernatural opposition. We assume he ‘chomps’ children to death.
The twins talk about ways to get out of doing the challenge. I believe this is the main reason Jennings chooses twins. As in “Birdscrap”, the boys talk through all the reasons why they’re going to have to go ahead with this challenge of a midnight trip to the tip.
They meet Old Chompers and give him back the false teeth which Gribble gave them at school.
The twist is that Old Chompers is not searching the tip for his lost grandsons at all. He has been searching all this time for his false teeth.
An epilogue section finishes off the school part of the plot, in which the narrator and his brother get their own back on the school bully and establish themselves as top of the social hierarchy.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “FROZEN STIFF”
“Frozen Stiff” is black humour, which revels in the death of animals, probably as a way of coping with the fact that animals (and people) do die. Animals especially die, and we eat them, or our pets eat them.
The young narrator teams up with Old Jack Thaw, who is eccentric. The narrator therefore functions more as the viewpoint character. He’s helping Jack Thaw who can’t read, but nonetheless has a creepy hobby of freezing dead animals and arranging the bodies in alphabetical order according to species.
If you think about this too hard, why on earth would parents let their son hang out with a guy like this? This is the 1980s. You could ask the same of Marty McFly.
In a separate storyline, Jingle Bells is a cow locked up in inhumane conditions. The narrator feels like he has to save her.
The man who locks up the cow is called Gravel. Because this is a Paul Jennings story, you will already know that Gravel will get his punishment.
The narrator will pull the cow shed apart to let in some sunlight. Gravel appears and Jennings inserts a ticking clock — Jingle Bells is destined for the knackery.
In a lengthy madcap scene, which I find distasteful for the female sexualisation of the cow in the train, the young ‘knight’ escapes with the saved ‘princess’ (my words, but this is a spin on that type of tale). The cow craps all over a lady on the train, because that’s how writers punish unlikeable women and girls in stories — by making them dirty.
The cow runs through central Melbourne and the juxtaposition of ‘country’ in the ‘city’ is the source of the humour. The picture book A Particular Cow by Mem Fox tells me that a cow running amok is an especially funny gag. False teeth, cows and — historically — bananas, these all seem to have inherent comic value.
In this big struggle, Jingle Bells ends up dead. Then there is a confrontation with Gravel, who wants the body to sell for pet food.
But when Jack and the narrator find a peaceful, countryside resting place for Jingle Bells, Paul Jennings reveals that the cow isn’t dead at all. While they slept, the ice melted and she walked off.
Jack also reveals that the water he used to thaw Jingle Bells was ‘different’ (magic). He was saving the magic water to bring someone special back to life.
Honestly, this feels like a bit of a hack.
Finally, it is revealed that Gravel has become frozen. But they won’t bring him back to life. Being part of Old Jack Thaw’s collection is his punishment.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “UFD”
In “UFD”, a play on “UFO”, a trickster boy cracks on he’s seen a flying dog. Then he makes that happen. This is a classic fairytale structure.
A boy narrator is in trouble for calling the police about an ‘unidentified flying dog’.
He wants to prove there really is a flying dog. The stakes are raised when he must prove it (and get $1000) or do the dishes every night for three years.
The father and the air force guy who don’t believe the boy.
Then, the symbolically named dog who rips holes in pants.
In a Paul Jennings story the next step isn’t necessarily an obvious step in the direction of fulfilling the main character’s desire. So it is here. The father suggests they go out and get ice cream. This seems kind of random, but Paul Jennings will turn this outing into an opportunity for the boy to vindicate himself (or whatever).
After getting rear-ended at the railway boom gate, father and son meet Mrs Jensen and her mean bull terrier, Ripper. Mrs Jensen can be the witness to the accident. There is also another (hugely coincidental incident) in which the father rams the back of a mean trucker. So they do need Mrs Jensen as witness testimony.
The boy acts as mediator and approaches Mrs Jensen for this role. She ties her dog to the boom gate.
The set-up leads to a comic payoff in a more classic comedy structure — the boom gate goes up and flings the dog in the air.
The boy now has $1000 dollars because he has proven the existence of a flying dog.
It is never revealed to us why he called the authorities about a UFD in the first place, which I consider a huge hole in the story. I believe Hitchcock would call this a refrigerator moment. I’m not meant to be thinking about this. I’m meant to be just chuckling at the vision of a mean dog flying through the air and ending up in a swimming pool.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “CRACKING UP”
“Cracking Up” is an interesting set of symbols which are related in a Word Association kind of way but which never link in any coherent manner: The maidenhair fern links to the tickling of the ghost which links to the teacher’s wig. This symbol web creates a set of comical connections.
Russell Dimsey is picked by the designated teacher’s pet to take home the mean teacher’s maiden hair plant. He doesn’t want this.
Russell wants to avoid being responsible for Mr Snapper’s precious maiden hair fern.
Mr Snapper. I can’t understand why Mr Snapper would entrust care of his precious plant to students he teaches, but I don’t think Paul Jennings worries about lampshading things like that. The nasty characters in his work are nasty AND illogical.
Lucy Watkins (though it creeps me out that a male teacher has ‘chosen’ a girl in this way). My mind goes off the page.
Lucy waits for Russell outside his new house specifically to tell him that the place is haunted.
The ghost, Samuel. Paul Jennings is smart by writing the following sentences:
I now know that you can only see ghosts if they want you to see them. He wanted me to see him. But not Mum.
That tells us two things: Something Russell has realised and something about the opponent’s desire. (Interesting opponents need their own desire lines.)
Russell has no choice but to go to school and admit to Snapper that Sad Samuel has broken the pot. (Well, I suppose he could have chosen to lie, but Russell chooses truth.)
This story, written in parts, contains a sequence of big struggles rather than a single big one.
The Battle begins when Snapper grabs Russell by the shirt front.
He wags school and ends up laughing a funeral when Sad Samuel starts tickling him.
There’s a showdown between Russell and his mother.
Finally he is reprimanded and shamed in front of a large audience (assembly). Writers often place characters in front of many people if they want to emphasise the significance of a speech or the climax of a big struggle. We see it also in Pixar’s Brave, in Big Love, with the middle wife giving a speech from the rooftop, in Tootsie. Once you start noticing it, you see it everywhere.
This is a story in which the main character has worked something out earlier. Eventually the reader works it out, too.
Russell has discovered that Snapper’s smile has been taken. If he gives it back, he’ll have a nice teacher again.
Snapper is now known as Smiley.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “GREENSLEEVES”
Greensleeves is a popular piece of classical music and I’ve wondered myself why it is called Greensleeves. Nobody knows. Paul Jennings must have wondered, too, and he uses it to gross-out effect in this short story. This is one of the more gross stories of his oeuvre and I had a hard time getting through it.
This story is probably inspired by the real life incident in which a 45-foot sperm whale washed up on the beach in Florence, Oregon on 9 November 1970. The council decided to blow it up. To save you from looking it up, the story ends in disaster.
Father and son are dual main characters, and complete underdogs. They have no money, live in a caravan (what Americans might call a ‘trailer’ or a ‘mobile home’). They therefore need to earn money in any way they can.
The son is more of an underdog than the father because he has to do as his father tells him, without any choice.
Father and son want $5000, which is enough for a deposit for a house. (Oh, those were the days.)
The mayor is the father’s equivalent opponent; the mayor’s son is our main character’s same-age opponent. Mayor and son are power hungry. They go back on their word. They blame others for their own mistakes.
Father and son will remove the dead whale from the nearby beach, which is decomposing and stinking up the entire town of Port Niranda. Nobody has been able to remove it, but the father has a plan and it involves the son getting inside the whale to place dynamite inside it. He’ll wear a gas mask so he can stand it.
Unfortunately this plan explodes, badly, literally. The mayor’s son has tampered with the dynamite and bits of whale blow all over the town. It will cost $5000 to clean up, so they don’t get their reward.
Father and son do good by helping to clean up the town. As in a fairytale, they are rewarded by ‘the gods’ when the son discovers a lump of ambergris has landed on a pillow. Paul Jennings uses the appearance of a ‘little man’ who is after just this product, and will pay not $5000 but $10000. Unfortunately, Nick Steal (who ‘doesn’t steal’) takes it and throws it around like a ball.
The stakes are raised when the father confronts the mayor again about stolen ambergris. “We search the room, and if we don’t find anything we leave Port Niranda tomorrow.”
The action scene where the whale blows up is a man versus nature type big struggle. The boy loses his precious watch. (Watches were expensive back in the 1980s.) As for the interpersonal big struggles:
First Battle: Father and son confront the mayor saying it was his boy’s fault but mayor does not believe this.
Second Battle: The confrontation in Nick Steal’s room.
Paul Jennings does not mind coincidence. The degree of coincidence is itself comical.
As they all stand in Nick Steal’s room, Greensleeves starts playing. This is the tune that plays on the missing watch. Nick has put it in a trapdoor under a rug in his room. The ambergris just happens to have the missing watch embedded in it. So Nick Steal’s cover is blown because of the tune.
Father and son are richly rewarded. They don’t have to leave town and I imagine they used this money to buy a better house.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “MOUSECHAP”
“Mousechap” is a body swap story. Paul Jennings has written a few of these. In one of his Gizmo novellas a boy accidentally swaps bodies with a dog. In this case, an uncle swaps bodies with a mouse. It’s up to the boy to save his uncle from a domestic abuse situation.
Dung beetles a.k.a. scarab beetles have been associated with reincarnation for a long time, especially in places like Egypt. It’s thought that being a shit roller is the worst thing you could possibly be, but that doesn’t take into account the fact that dung beetles seem to enjoy it, because they are dung beetles… If you’ve ever seen dung beetles at work, they are fascinating creatures. And they seem quite happy to me.
Australia imported farm animals long before it successfully imported dung beetles (though they did try, as early as 1900). The Australian Dung Beetle Project was happening big time as Jennings conceived this story. I can tell you that around here, where we live, years with good dung beetle activity mean far fewer flies. Dung beetles mean I can go for a walk without a net over my hat in summer. So dung beetles are my favourite animal.
Julian doesn’t have any choice, but each year he is sent to holiday at his Uncle Sid and Aunt Scrotch’s house. But Aunt Scrotch doesn’t even like him.
He is afraid of the dark, or of the eyes which shine at him through the darkness of the bedroom.
Julian’s dung beetle is set up as a Chehov’s gun. He puts it into a matchbox in his pocket.
When Julian works out that there’s cheese everywhere around the house, he wants to find out why. (Jennings introduces a mystery.)
The reader will make the connection that cheese attracts mice (even though real mice prefer other foodstuffs — mice and cheese are culturally connected). Mice prefer sweet foods, grains and especially peanut butter.
Just by the name we know Aunt Scrotch is an opponent, but Paul Jennings is very clear about it: We are told she doesn’t like boys. Yet Julian wants to take a dung beetle with him to stay at her house for the holidays. So we have the classic crotchety aunt type against the rough-and-tumble, innocently dirty boy type.
It is gradually revealed by the narrator that Uncle Sid is not around. Something has happened to him. The reader probably catches on — after the mouse walks on two legs and prays — that Uncle Sid has turned into a mouse. In chapter two we see Uncle Sid locked up as prisoner, and behaving like a mouse.
Julian sets Uncle Sid free but this is a mistake because Aunt Scrotch has a cat.
After the first revelation Julian plans to save his uncle who is trapped in a mouse’s body. ‘Suddenly I knew what to do’. Julian puts his uncle in his pocket, and I’m remembering there’s a dung beetle also in there.
There’s a chase scene around the house, which involves a near miss with a mouse trap.
The second Battle is where Aunt Scrotch tries to regain control of the body swap machine.
The third and final Battle involves Aunt Scrotch turning into a dung beetle.
The first revelation (from a ripped diary page) is that the uncle has been body swapped because the mouse-trap electric fence switches brains over if two creatures touch the wire at the same time.
Julian is much slower to catch on that the reader. But in case the reader hasn’t picked it up, we are told exactly what happened after this revelation.
Uncle Sid is back to his normal human self and Aunt Scrotch has been turned into a dung beetle as punishment, in this Buddhism inspired tale.
Julian keeps Aunt Scrotch in his pocket but his cruelty is lesser — he gives it as many chocolate freckles as it wants (Aunt Scrotch’s favourite food).
STORY STRUCTURE OF “SPAGHETTI PIG-OUT”
Certain items are inherently comic. Marina Warner has written at length about the comedy value of bananas, for instance. And for kids, spaghetti is another funny item because it looks like worms. Pigs, at least in the West, are also inherently funny. Our idea of pigs (stupid and dirty) is quite different from how pigs actually are (intelligent and clean). Paul Jennings makes the most of spaghetti and pigs in this gross-out short story, though ‘pig’ only appears in the title. The character of Guts is therefore compared to a pig.
Paul Jennings deftly paints a picture of how bullying works in the opening of “Spaghetti Pig-Out” by describing how certain individuals are chosen to be the designated outcast. People who talk to an outcast lose social status themselves. This is a more nuanced picture of bullying than most of his stories offer. The character of Shaun, introduced later, is also realistic: Neither a friend nor a foe — simply too scared to stand up against the established hierarchy.
The narrator is the designated outcast in this milieu. This is possibly because he is poor, though the direct link is never made.
Matthew has a cat called Bad Smell. She farts. If you’ve read a lot of Paul Jennings you’ll know by now that this will come in handy later: The farting cat is the Chekhov’s Gun.
The narrator wants to avoid being targeted by Guts Garvey and also wants a friend or two of his own.
When it is revealed that the cat has been turned into a remote controlled cat, Matthew wants to learn how to use her. (This trope is also used in Wellington Paranormal Series 1, Episode 6, which concludes with the police officers realising the zombified victims are remote controlled.)
Guts Garvey — a ‘real mean kid’.
Matthew’s plan aligns with his desire — he discovers how the remote control works by using it, in typical kid fashion (playing around with it).
When he learns that he can control insects, I’m reminded of a scene out of a completely different story — Eye In The Sky — a war thriller film starring Helen Mirren and various others. (One of the most suspenseful films I’ve seen lately.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWmEZAl4sxc
Matthew continues in carnivalesque fashion, playing rather than planning. He discovers the remote control works on people — first on his father, next on strangers. To keep reader empathy with Matthew, Matthew discovers this by accident.
When the bully and his sidekick get a hold of the magical remote control, Matthew becomes victim of it.
Adult readers might remember from the 1980s and 90s that VCRs only pause for a few minutes, to avoid pixel burnout, and this functionality saves Matthew from being paused permanently. So, Matthew is still not planning his way out of this predicament — he is a hapless character who responds to crises in the moment. He is a low-mimetic hero (by Northrop Frye’s classification).
Paul Jennings must have realised that this to-and-fro with the remote control alone doesn’t make for a big enough climax, so he introduces a spaghetti-eating competition in part 7.
Circumstances out of his own control lead Matthew to regain control of the magic remote. And because Matthew doesn’t ‘plan’ — he ‘reacts’, Paul Jennings ensures he can’t be held responsible for the bully character eating his own vomit. Because that would be mean, right? That would make him seem vindictive.
Yet the reader is fully encouraged to delight in this punishment.
The reader realises that Matthew will no longer be at the very bottom of the social hierarchy because something really gross just happened to someone else.
Guts Garvey is not unpopular and Matthew now has a lot of friends. In another (more didactic) story “The Busker”, Paul Jennings delivers a lecture about how you can’t buy friendship or romance.
But when it suits the story you can, and according to “Spaghetti Pig-out” you can buy friends with a magical device.
STORY STRUCTURE OF “KNOW ALL”
“Know All” stars a girl, because this is a take on the Greek tale of “Pandora’s Box”. In the myth, Pandora is created like a modern sex doll as the perfect specimen of womanhood and treated as a chattel. But there is one thing wrong with Pandora — she is too curious for her own good. The next part of the myth is like something out of a Jennings story — a massive stink comes out when she opens it. This stands for wickedness and evil. By my take, she finally realised she’s nothing more than a chattel and that misogyny exists. She’s now a woke feminist, and in this situation, this is a terrible realisation. But then she releases ‘hope’ from the box — the one good thing Zeus put inside it. The idea is that “sometimes you’re better off not knowing”. In modern speak, the power of positive thinking allows Pandora to exist within a misogynistic system of power.
What is Paul Jennings going to do with his Pandora character in “Know All?” Will he punish the girl main character for being a Know All? Or will her girly knowledge help her with a problem?
tl;dr: Kate is rewarded for her intellectual capacity, and I’m sure this story will be coded as feminist by many.
This is an outdated form of feminism, however, in which girls are viewpoint characters for the fun exploits of men and boys. The girls don’t undergo a character arc because they are already mature and sensible at the beginning of the story. This means Kate is not the main character. She doesn’t get a story of her own.
Do the boys in Paul Jennings stories get character arcs? Not exactly. These are comic stock characters. But they often rise in the social hierarchy, which is a Jennings stand-in for ‘character arc’. Kate does rise in the estimation of her own father, within the realm of the family rather than the realm of the outside world.
Matthew is Kate’s brother, because as everyone knows, boys won’t read stories about girls. There needs to be an ensemble cast so boys can relate. (Insert irony punctuation.)
Matthew accuses Kate of being a Know All when Kate doesn’t want to open the box they find on the beach as buried treasure. We already know from the first sentence that opening the box was bad.
Kate is also accused of being a sad sack. Bear in mind, this is first person narration from Kate. She is mostly the viewpoint character and aligns with the audience, who shares her ‘intuition’ that the costumes inside the box are bad. The characters who get them all into trouble are the father and son, who don’t seem to possess intuition. The blunder forth and have fun.
Kate wants her family to put the costumes back in the box.
They put the clothes on the scarecrow, which gives human form to the evil that comes out of the box. The scarecrow looks like superman, which is how most Greek gods are depicted (well, more like He-man actually).
The father has a plan in which he decides to dress the Scarecrow in the clothes. But after that, the magic itself determines what happens.
Most of this story is a harlequinesque caper as the clothes make its wearers perform like clowns.
The father accuses Kate of being a Know All. He doesn’t believe the clothes are magic. In an antifeminist move to keep her in check, he makes her cook tea for them both as punishment.
The life and death battle happens in video game fashion, atop a cliff with perilous holes in the ground. It’s a real action scene.
For no apparent reason, Kate is sure “there’s help in the box”. This is in line with the Greek myth. Why the hell does Pandora open that box a second time? No reason given. That’s how Greek mythology works. It’s impossible to work out from the Ancient Greeks why Pandora opened the box, whether she knew what was inside or anything else. It’s up to individual storytellers to paste motivation onto Pandora, in the rare cases she is afforded autonomy at all. In the Greek myth, ‘hope’ comes out last, so that is definitely the right thing to do. Perhaps Kate is familiar with the Greek myth.
Ultimately, Kate saves the day.
It is revealed that Kate knows exactly what to do because she put on the fortune teller’s costume.
This twist at the end lampshades the fact that Kate has no reason to know all this stuff. It kind of subverts the Female Maturity Formula, but not really, because she was the designated mature female even before she put on the costume.
Courage is unable to tell Eustace not to open the box. He is a dog and can’t speak English. Besides that, the adults don’t listen to him anyway.
Also, in this episode, one shortcoming is that Courage needs to please his owners, even though one of them is outright horrible. When he digs up a locked box he hands it over to Eustace after overhearing Eustace complaining about his dead brother’s box of money. This leads to no end of trouble.
Courage wants to prevent Eustace from opening a box.
There is a different desire, however, to set off the action. Courage wants to find his yo-yo. He runs out into the yard and searches through his hole, which is the child-dog equivalent of a child’s toy box.
The yo-yo could easily be treated as a McGuffin — something used to start the story off and then forgotten. But the yo-yo subplot is revived later for comic effect when Shirley the Medium exclaims, “I see… I see… A yo-yo! Under the couch!”
There is plenty of opportunity for conflict in this episode.
The dead brother, comically named ‘Horse’. Muriel tells us that there was always a long-running feud between Eustace and Horse. Eustace’s reaction to Horse on his birthday is comically over-the-top: “We have settled our differences. He’s dead and I’m not!” In the Pandora mythology, Prometheus (“Foresight”) and his brother Epimetheus (“Hindsight”) likewise have a problematic relationship.
Shirley the Medium, who Eustace dislikes — because Eustace automatically dislikes everyone. In this case he doesn’t like handing over money for a service he feels hasn’t been provided. Courage, too, knows that nothing good will come of Shirley’s helping to open the box.
Between Eustace and Muriel — Muriel is conciliatory whereas Eustace alienates.
Between Courage and Eustace/Muriel, who won’t listen to him.
The Minotaur opponent: The ghouls inside the box. (This is also the least interesting opponent.)
Cleverly, the audience is not shown the ghouls. Instead we see Courage watching the ghouls.
We’re offered a taste of ghoulishness when we see Courage transmogrify.
This story is similar to the mattress episode in that the plan comes from Muriel and Eustace initially. Muriel wants Eustace to wish Horse a happy birthday while Eustace wants to connect with his brother in order to find out what he did with the key to his box of money, which Courage has found while looking for his yo-yo, and naively handed over. The interesting comic technique here is piling coincidence upon coincidence. All of these things are happening at once:
It’s Horse’s birthday
Courage just happens to find a box of money while looking for his yo-yo
Eustace just happens to mention the box of money
An advertisement for a psychic medium comes on the telly just as they’re discussing Horse and his unwillingness to spill the beans on the money.
We can make the most of these coincidences when writing comedy. That many coincidences piled up are themselves comic.
Courage has already looked into the box and knows there’s nothing good inside. He tries to alert the people who can help. Eustace throws him aside (literally). Muriel is of a much kinder nature and unwittingly shuts him up by shoving a taste-test of jam into his mouth.
He tries to stop the medium coming into the house, to no avail.
With Muriel and Eustace’s plan winning out, we are treated to a highly comedic sequence in which Muriel talks to Gertrude, Horse’s dead wife, and the first thing they talk about is how much vinegar to use when making jam. This starts off the jam-making subplot which will keep Muriel occupied in the kitchen while Eustace is hell bent on opening the box. There is also a dial tone ringing. The seance is treated like a realworld telephone call. Eustace, exclaims, “He never answers my calls!”
The phone theme is continued when, unable to speak to Eustace using human language, it turns out he is able to (perhaps) be understood if he is calling on a phone. This implies that the only reason Eustace cannot understand Courage is because he knows from his form that he is a dog, and if only he were to listen closely enough he’d understand perfectly. The great thing about the setting is that it is completely desolate, so when the writers plonk a phone booth out there the juxtaposition provides humour.
Eustace does find out however that his brother has sewn the key to the box inside the lining of Eustace’s hat.
After the big struggle scene, Courage must change his plan. He goes to find Shirley the Medium so she can put the situation right. He carries her back to the house for a second time where she, and only, she has the power to (simply) shut the box.
Although it is Shirley who puts the finishing touches on saving the day, the main saviour is Courage, who not only retrieves Shirley, but has the idea of tying the house up with rope so that at least the ghouls are contained. He gets the rope from the washing line.
Hilariously, on the cusp of imminent death, Muriel asks if he’s folded up the washing first. (He has. “What a good dog!”)
The ‘thread thread’ is continued across scenes — when Courage reaches Shirley at her TV studio she happens to be flossing her teeth. This is a clever transition.
This episode has a moral: Greed will lead you to trouble. There’s nothing subtle about it. We’ve already seen in a previous episode another deadly sin utilised — both Eustace and his mother are vain (about their lack of hair). Greed is associated with the colour green — possibly more so in America, where money is literally green — so it’s fitting that the whole room light up green when Eustace opens the box.
Eustace finds himself shut inside the box and is delighted to see piles and piles of money.
“But… what can I spend it on?” he asks didactically. The message is obvious. This is a message that’s been done seriously many times before, perhaps most famously in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. This cartoon doesn’t really exist to teach a message. Instead, the anagnorisis part of the story is a requirement of a complete narrative, and it must exist here no matter how ‘on-the-nose’ it is. In fact, its on-the-nose quality add to the humour. It’s funny that Eustace hasn’t already learned this simple life lesson.
The jam subplot is concluded with Muriel sitting on the rocking chair eating it out of the pot. Eustace calls out from the box, “Hey, can I buy some jam?” Muriel says he can eat jam just as soon as they find the key for the box.
The best of the Courage episodes have excellent closing scenes in which Courage turns to the audience and delivers a joke just for them. Here he reveals to us that he is hiding the key in his mouth. Young viewers love to feel included in this way, and feel fully on side with Courage.
“Bluebeard” is a classic fairytale — the O.G. tale of domestic violence. Any story in which a fearsome husband murders his young wife is probably a “Bluebeard” descendent. The husband in this tale is monstrous, and related to the archetype of the ogre.
I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.
There are versions of Bluebeard all over the world:
There is always a forbidden chamber with hidden contents. This is a take on the ancient Pandora story, in which a young woman looks where she should not. (See also: Eve, Lot’s wife and Psyche.) The contents of this forbidden chamber differ from region to region:
The ending also differs: Various characters help the young woman to escape. Occasionally she escapes on her own.
French folklorist Charles Perrault included a “Bluebeard” story in his well-known Stories. Folklorists don’t know where he got his inspiration from, exactly, but there are theories, based on the fact that Perrault was a hagiographer as well as a fairytale enthusiast:
Ballads of maiden kidnappers which went around Europe in the 1500s
The “Mr Fox” tale from England
the St Gilda legend about the 6th C saint who revived Tryphine, who had been beheaded by her husband (Comorre or Cunmar) when he learned she was pregnant.
The historical figure Gilles de Rais (1404-40). This psychopath sexually abused and murdered more than 140 children. He is also remembered as a comrade of Joan of Arc.
As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of “Bluebeard” after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber (1979). Bluebeard re-visionings are deemed feminist when the storyteller removes blame from the young woman (for disobeying her husband) and places blame with the violent murderer himself. Another feminist re-visioning is Bluebeard’s Egg by Margaret Atwood (1983). In some Bluebeard-type stories, the bloodstain is found on an egg rather than on a key.
The French title of Perrault’s retelling is La Barbe bleue. In the 1500s, ‘barbe bleu’ actually referred to a man with a raven black beard. Men with such beards were thought to be seducer types.
“The Bloody Chamber” is a feminist-leftie re-visioning of Bluebeard, written in the gothic tradition, set in a French castle with clear-cut goodies and baddies.
The title story of The Bloody Chamber, first published in 1979, was directly inspired by Charles Perrault’s fairy tales of 1697: his “Barbebleue” (Bluebeard) shapes Angela Carter’s retelling, as she lingers voluptuously on its sexual inferences, and springs a happy surprise in a masterly comic twist on the traditional happy ending. Within a spirited exposé of marriage as sadistic ritual, she shapes a bright parable of maternal love.
The tale of Bluebeard’s Wife—the story of a young woman who discovers that her mysterious blue-bearded husband has murdered his former spouses—no longer squares with what most parents consider good bedtime reading for their children. But the story has remained alive for adults, allowing it to lead a rich subterranean existence in novels ranging from Jane Eyre to Lolita and in films as diverse as Hitchcock’s Notorious and Jane Campion’s The Piano.
The descriptions of setting are evocative and eerie; the reader knows something terrible is about to happen — it’s almost given away in the title, after all — what we don’t know is how the girl is going to escape. This is a fairytale for adults, utilising the contrivances and coincidences of the fairytale tradition to tell a story which is otherwise modern in resolution: There is no white knight in shining armour. Who is really the most likely to save a girl from harm?
In the 1970s, Angela Carter was translating Charles Perrault from French, and she compiled two volumes of fairy tales from all over the world for Virago. So there you have it: French language, fairy tale and feminist expertise in one writer, which is all evident in this story…
WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE BLOODY CHAMBER”?
In France somewhere around the turn of the 20th Century, a 17-year-old girl is chosen to marry a wealthy Marquis. Immensely lonely, the unnamed narrator one day goes exploring her new castle while her husband is away on business only to find a torture chamber, housing the recently dead body of the Marquis’ recently deceased former wife. The Marquis returns, knowing that his new wife has discovered the torture chamber. (He gave her the keys, after all.)
In many Gothic romances, an older man brings a young wife into his family mansion. The imposing house contains a terrible secret, but the wife must promise not to explore it. In finally giving in to curiosity, she, however, acts according to the husband’s covert script, for he never intended the requirement of obedience to be fulfilled. His goal, Anne Williams explains, is to make her realize the extent of his wealth and power and to see her (reflected) place in it. The dead women in Bluebeard’s forbidden chamber, she argues, represent, “patriarchy’s secret, founding ‘truth’ about the female: woman as mortal, expendable matter/mater” (43). We are dealing here with what I call Bluebeard Gothic, a specific variant of the Gothic romance that uses the “Bluebeard” fairy tale as its key intertext. Many women authors have used it in order to explore patriarchal power structures. Examples include Margaret Atwood’s Lady Oracle, Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, to name a few.
He leads her down to the Bloody Chamber and is about to kill her when the narrator’s mother turns up, having galloped on horseback to save her daughter. She has intuited something wrong during a brief phone call. The mother, with a valiant background of her own, shoots the Marquis dead. A few postscript-sort-of paragraphs explain that the musically talented narrator inherited the castle, gave most of the wealth away, married the kind and blind piano tuner and started up a school of music.
The narrator makes reference to Paul Poiret (20 April 1879, Paris, France – 30 April 1944, Paris), who was a leading French fashion designer during the first two decades of the 20th century. This is one detail that tells us when the story was set. This is an era when ancient customs have not been forgotten by the aristocracy — strange customs linger ominously: ‘‘The maid will have changed our sheets already,’ he said. ‘We do not hang the bloody sheets out of the window to prove to the whole of Brittany you are a virgin, not in these civilized times.’ These were times when French women were expected to abide by ‘rules for hair’, long and flowing while a virgin, pinned up after marriage (cut shorter in middle age, close cropped for the elderly): ‘he would not let me take off my ruby choker, although it was growing very uncomfortable, nor fasten up my descending hair, the sign of a virginity so recently ruptured that still remained a wounded presence between us.’
A young woman moving to an old house has been a staple of gothic literature ever since the first gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto, was published in 1764. Today that trope has unmoored itself a bit from being strictly gothic, with modern authors employing it to lend an air of nostalgia, romance, or intrigue to their stories. These three books probably couldn’t be more different, aside from the fact that they thrust their heroines into strange old houses and see what happens when the dust shakes off. After 250-ish years, it’s hard to say this isn’t a useful plot device!
A stand-out feature of this short story is the portrait of an ominous castle where you just know something terrible is happening. It is cold, but the cold juxtaposes with the odd image of warmth. The landscape is lonely, as is the narrator. (Notice also, the narrator describes herself as a flower):
As soon as my husband handed me down from the high step of the train, I smelled the amniotic salinity of the ocean. It was November; the trees, stunted by the Atlantic gales, were bare and the lonely halt was deserted but for his leather-gaitered chauffeur waiting meekly beside the sleek black motor car. It was cold; I drew my furs about me, a wrap of white and black, broad stripes of ermine and sable, with a collar from which my head rose like the calyx of a wildflower.
With the extended metaphor of the lily, even the sky is ‘streaked’ with the colours of flowers:
And we drove towards the widening dawn, that now streaked half the sky with a wintry bouquet of pink of roses, orange of tiger-lilies, as if my husband had ordered me a sky from a florist. The day broke around me like a cool dream.
The castle, in its misty blues, greens and purples, is the colour of the sea and as explained by the author, is almost of the sea itself. Although cut off from land by tide, it’s important that it be reachable by horse (for the plot to conclude successfully). Still, the half-day isolation exudes the feelings of solitude. Why does the narrator describe the castle as ‘amphibious’ (able to live/operate on both land and water)? At its most basic meaning ‘amphibious’ means ‘two-fold in nature’ or ‘duplicitous’, or ‘not what it seems’. A magnificent abode such as this nevertheless houses great sorrow.
And, ah! his castle. The faery solitude of the place; with its turrets of misty blue, its courtyard, its spiked gate, his castle that lay on the very bosom of the sea with seabirds mewing about its attics, the casements opening on to the green and purple, evanescent departures of the ocean, cut off by the tide from land for half a day … that castle, at home neither on the land nor on the water, a mysterious, amphibious place, contravening the materiality of both earth and the waves, with the melancholy of a mermaiden who perches on her rock and waits, endlessly, for a lover who had drowned far away, long ago. That lovely, sad, sea-siren of a place!
Later, the narrator finds the Bloody Chamber:
Not a narrow, dusty little passage at all; why had he lied to me? But an ill-lit one, certainly; the electricity, for some reason, did not extend here, so I retreated to the still-room and found a bundle of waxed tapers in a cupboard, stored there with matches to light the oak board at grand dinners. I put a match to my little taper and advanced with it in my hand, like a penitent, along the corridor hung with heavy, I think Venetian, tapestries. The flame picked out, here, the head of a man, there, the rich breast of a woman spilling through a rent in her dress—the Rape of the Sabines, perhaps? The naked swords and immolated horses suggested some grisly mythological subject. The corridor wound downwards; there was an almost imperceptible ramp to the thickly carpeted floor. The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing. For some reason, it grew very warm; the sweat sprang out in beads on my brow. I could no longer hear the sound of the sea.
Though set in modern(ish) times, this story is of the middle ages. So of course it is devoid of modern conveniences such as electricity. ‘Like a penitent’ puts the reader in mind of a religious ceremony, since religion cannot be disentangled from a time before separation of church and state. ‘Naked swords’ suggests vulnerability, though it is not the swords themselves that are vulnerable. The author points out that the objects ‘suggest some grisly mythological subject’. Notice the change in temperature; all around is cold, but here in the torture chamber there is only heat — the heat of hell, perhaps, but also to show the reader that this is another world, separate from the cold surrounding landscape. Things happen down here that would never happen up there.
As far as engaging all the senses, the above paragraph is a case-study in writing: We are given plenty of texture (the wall-hangings, the carpet) but rather than go through all of the five senses, including smell, as beginner writers are often told to do, a master writer such as Angela Carter is able to weave the senses in an almost synesthesic way: ‘The heavy hangings on the wall muffled my footsteps, even my breathing.’
The young chatelaine has grown up poor due to her mother marrying a poor soldier who then got killed in the war. But since the mother married down, she brings up her daughter with the middle to upper-class attitudes she herself harbours; this young woman is very knowledgeable about art and music, with a perfect musical ear. The mother spent everything she had on her daughter’s education. This explains how she was then able to marry up herself. Yet our narrator is not entirely naive — she is naive only in relation to her much older self. She knows that her husband’s business dealings in poppies are connected to dealings in opium. The marquis calls her ‘Saint Cecilia’ (the patroness of musicians) presumably because of her musical talents.
The Marquis ‘was rich as Croesus.’ He has a black beard and red lips — red and black symbolism of blood and death, drawing attention to the ‘snout’ area. He smells of leather — his cologne, his clothing, his books, his sofa. He has dead eyes. This creature is borderline supernatural. He is the werewolf/vampire of folklore.
His face was as still as ever I’d seen it, still as a pond iced thickly over, yet his lips, that always looked so strangely red and naked between the black fringes of his beard, now curved a little. He smiled; he welcomed his bride home.
The Marquis is surrounded by equally ominous characters. The chauffeur eyes the young bride ‘invidiously’ (invidious – tending to cause discontent, animosity, or envy). Even the housekeeper ‘had a bland, pale, impassive, dislikeable face beneath the impeccably starched white linen head-dress of the region. Her greeting, correct but lifeless, chilled me.‘ This feels like a house of ghosts, except for the blind piano-tuner, whose very blindness makes him innocent. He therefore is immune to corruption, unable to see the torture chamber, as other members of the household presumably can.
Less information is given about the mother, but at the end we realise we’ve been given more than enough. We know that this is a mother who will miss her daughter dearly:
[Mother] would linger over this torn ribbon and that faded photograph with all the half-joyous, half-sorrowful emotions of a woman on her daughter’s wedding day.
We also know that she has bravery and adventure in her past:
Are you sure you love him? There was a dress for her, too; black silk, with the dull, prismatic sheen of oil on water, finer than anything she’d worn since that adventurous girlhood in Indo-China, daughter of a rich tea planter. My eagle-featured, indomitable mother; what other student at the Conservatoire could boast that her mother had outfaced a junkful of Chinese pirates, nursed a village through a visitation of the plague, shot a man-eating tiger with her own hand and all before she was as old as I?
We are given this information near the beginning of the story and are almost encouraged to forget about it as, like the new bride, we are forced to confront immediate and present danger; the ominous intentions of the monstrous Marquis. Yet when the mother saves the day we are both surprised and not surprised.
For me, a narrative is an argument stated in fictional terms.
Angela Carter writes with a left-wing feminist ideology (which is why I enjoy her stories), and anyone who is moderately well-read in feminism will recognise phrases such as ‘And, as at the opera, when I had first seen my flesh in his eyes, I was aghast to feel myself stirring’ from books such as Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth, in which Wolf explains that women are acculturated to view women’s bodies as sexual objects just as men are, and therefore derive pleasure from sex by imagining themselves from their male partner’s point of view. The entire story is about the young women as sexual object, with the narrator herself cognisant of the fact that was an item to be purchased then consumed as a dish.
The narrator’s left-leaning politics are made apparent in the ending, when she gives most of the wealth away to the poor. She is uncomfortable with wealth made from others’ poverty and addictions.
As Frances Spufford points out, the original intended message for the Bluebeard story was that women shouldn’t be curious.
Astonishingly, the moral traditionally tacked on to the story was that curiosity is dangerous — as if Bluebeard’s murderous rage were the wife’s fault for looking inside the chamber. Can anyone really have believed that if she hadn’t, they would have lived happily ever after, the plot flipping over into Beauty and the Beast despite the butchery in the basement? Even more astonishingly, Bruno Bettelheim, concentration-camp survivor, effectively concurred. Leaping past the issue of who did what to whom in the chamber, and taking it as a symbol of forbidden knowledge in a general, sexual sense, he interpreted Bluebeard as a story about a woman’s infidelity and — twisting time strangely — her husband’s anger over it. Bettelheim’s moral: ‘Women, don’t give in to your sexual curiosity; men, don’t permit yourself to be carried away by your anger at being sexually betrayed.’
The Child That Books Built
The movement in the 1970s, of which Angela Carter was a big part, was in response to people like Bettelheim, still interpreting traditional tales in horribly sexist fashion. Bettelheim was an asshole who set psychology back a couple of decades. Look up his theories on the causes of autism. (tl;dr: Refrigerator Mothers)
Many of Carter’s figures and motifs appear in the Grimms’ collection of Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57). Carter was also a big fan of Edgar Allan Poe.
This first person narrator is retelling a story from a time when she was much younger: ‘My satin nightdress had just been shaken from its wrappings; it had slipped over my young girl’s pointed breasts and shoulders.’ So we know from the outset that she has survived the tale. She has also gained the insight that only comes with hindsight, which is a good technique to use when writing in the first person because it allows certain advantages of the third-person narrator. The story is written as a kind of confession/setting the record straight. The reader feels as if we are being let in on a community secret.
There is plenty of foreshadowing about the ominous, animalistic nature of the husband:
I could see the dark, leonine shape of his head
though he was a big man, he moved as softly as if all his shoes had soles of velvet, as if his footfall turned the carpet into snow. (He creeps around silently, as a dog can, with the coldness of a ghost.)
there were streaks of pure silver in his dark mane.
The Romanian countess who died in the boating accident is also described by the narrator in animalistic terms: ‘The sharp muzzle of a pretty, witty, naughty monkey; such potent and bizarre charm, of a dark, bright, wild yet worldly thing whose natural habitat must have been some luxurious interior decorator’s jungle filled with potted palms and tame, squawking parakeets.’ Use of the word muzzle is particularly apt, since a muzzle can also refer to a device placed over the nose area to stop an animal from eating/biting etc.
Other vocabulary choices and images foreshadow an ominous event with hints of the supernatural:
the ‘ribbon made up in rubies’ which ‘bites into‘ her neck (an animal metaphor so common you almost don’t notice it)
the way the narrator’s new husband regards her as if ‘eyeing up horseflesh‘
an eldritch half-light seeped into the railway carriage (eldritch – weird and sinister or ghostly)
There is an uncomfortable overlap of sex and violence: ‘He lay beside me, felled like an oak, breathing stertorously, as if he had been fighting with me (stertorous – [of breathing] noisy and laboured.) ‘I had heard him shriek and blaspheme at the orgasm; I had bled.‘ Also: ‘There is a striking resemblance between the act of love and the ministrations of a torturer,’ opined my husband’s favourite poet.’
A truth about supernatural stories is that the reader must be sort of expecting it. No one likes to think they’re reading a realist story and suddenly have a ghost sprung on them. The genre has certain markers. For instance, the formal language. Rather than the equally correct ‘than me’ ending a sentence, the author chooses ‘than I’. Is this story truly supernatural? Was the phone call enough, or is there some telepathy involved? The way sparks seem to fly out of the opal ring at certain times makes this feel like a supernatural story to me. I get the feeling the castle is peopled mainly by ghosts.
In this way, Angela Carter makes use of fairytale techniques. When you read the Grimms’ version of fairytales you’ll find disturbing analogies about girls and women compared to food, and oftentimes eaten. Here too we have, ‘He stripped me, gourmand that he was, as if he were stripping the leaves off an artichoke’. Carter underscores this by comparing food itself to a woman, using a word reserved for women ‘voluptuous’: ‘A Mexican dish of pheasant with hazelnuts and chocolate; salad; white, voluptuous cheese‘
The arum lily has wonderfully ominous uses in fiction because all parts of the plants are poisonous, containing significant amounts of calcium oxalate as raphides. Not only that, the arum lily is not closely related to the real lily (lilium), and has an aura of ‘imposter’ about it — a signal that not all is as it appears.
In another short story ‘The Garden Party’ by Katherine Mansfield, Mansfield writes ‘People of that class are so impressed by arum lilies.’ Again, the arum lily signifies something terrible is about to happen, despite the glorious setting of the party at the top of the hill. It’s handy that arum lilies are often used in funerals, too. Mansfield knew her flower symbolism. In her short story “Poison” she uses lilies of the valley — symbolically sweeter and more innocent, but also poisonous.
Angela Carter puts her own spin on the lily imagery however, as all original writers must: ‘…with the heavy pollen that powders your fingers as if you had dipped them in turmeric. The lilies I always associate with him; that are white. And stain you….My husband. My husband, who, with so much love, filled my bedroom with lilies until it looked like an embalming parlour. Those somnolent lilies, that wave their heavy heads, distributing their lush, insolent incense reminiscent of pampered flesh….But the last thing I remembered, before I slept, was the tall jar of lilies beside the bed, how the thick glass distorted their fat stems so they looked like arms, dismembered arms, drifting drowned in greenish water.’ It eventually becomes clear that the lily is a metaphor for the young narrator herself, with her white skin, sometimes due to fear: ‘In spite of my fear of him, that made me whiter than my wrap, I felt there emanate from him, at that moment, a stench of absolute despair, rank and ghastly, as if the lilies that surrounded him had all at once begun to fester…The mass of lilies that surrounded me exhaled, now, the odour of their withering. They looked like the trumpets of the angels of death.‘
I gathered myself together, reached into the cloisonne cupboard beside the bed that concealed the telephone and addressed the mouthpiece. His agent in New York. Urgent.
Sentence fragments are used to convey information quickly, especially mundane information such as answering a telephone, but have the added effect of producing tension, especially when surrounded by longer sentences.
As in the TV series Six Feet Under and many other stories about death, the juxtapositions serve to highlight the difference between the living and the dead.
‘And this absence of the evidence of his real life began to impress me strangely; there must, I thought, be a great deal to conceal if he takes such pains to hide it.’
I looked at the precious little clock made from hypocritically innocent flowers long ago
Time was his servant, too; it would trap me, here, in a night that would last until he came back to me, like a black sun on a hopeless morning.
And still the bloodstain mocked the fresh water that spilled from the mouth of the leering dolphin. (Dolphins are usually thought to be smiling.)
Unfamiliar myself with much gothic literature, I found myself looking up quite a few words:
wagon-lit — a sleeping car on a continental railway
reticule — A woman’s small handbag, originally netted and typically having a drawstring and decorated with embroidery or beading.
marrons glacés — a confection, originating in southern France and northern Italy consisting of a chestnut candied in sugar syrup and glazed. Marrons glacés are an ingredient in many desserts and are also eaten on their own.
vellum — Fine parchment made originally from the skin of a calf.
Catherine de’ Medici was an Italian noblewoman who was Queen of France from 1547 until 1559, as the wife of King Henry II.
pellucid — transparently clear
parure — a set of jewels intended to be worn together
immolated — killed or offered as a sacrifice, especially by burning
sacerdotal — related to priests; priestly
catafalque — a decorated wooden framework supporting the coffin of a distinguished person during a funeral or while lying in state.
nacreous — relating to nacre, which is mother-of-pearl
gendarmerie — a body of soldiers, especially in France, serving in an army group acting as armed police with authority over civilians.
pentacle = pentagram, a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of aregular pentagon until they meet, used as an occult symbol by the Pythagoreans and later philosophers, by magicians, etc.
Iron maiden — I know these guys as a heavy metal band but an iron maiden is a torture device, probably just fictional, consisting of an iron cabinet with a hinged front and spike-covered interior, sufficiently tall to enclose a human being. Earlier the narrator thinks of herself as a ‘mermaiden‘ — a Middle English term for ‘mermaid’.
to prefigure — to be an early indication or version of (something)
scullion — a servant assigned the most menial kitchen tasks
vassal — a person or country in a subordinate position to another
lustratory — lustral, purificatory (I think this may be a very unusual word, or made up by the author)
auto-da-fé — the burning of a heretic
widow’s weeds — clothes worn by a widow during a period of mourning for her spouse (from the Old English “Waed” meaning “garment”)
dolorous — feeling or expressing great sorrow or distress
lisle — a fine, smooth cotton thread used especially for stockings
centime — French for ‘cent’
Nice turns of phrase such as, ‘He raised the sword and cut bright segments from the air with it‘ tells the reader that the air is thick with tension.
There have been many reprintings of this short story collection — some with retro looking covers straight out of the seventies, with the newer ones looking decidedly more modern with their darker palette and silhouette graphic design.
In 1979, the year that The Bloody Chamber was first published, Carter was not the first writer to tackle revisionist takes of fairy tales. Others, most notably Isak Dinisen (an acknowledged influence of Carter’s), Robert Coover and Anne Sexton, had published acclaimed retellings. What made The Bloody Chamber groundbreaking and singular, however, was the way it centred female sexuality and selfhood with an unapologetic, robust gusto, back when society wasn’t quite as commercially and critically embracing as it is now of feminist narratives. In a time when second-wave feminists were derided as bra-burning harpies, Carter’s openly gynocentric fiction was revelatory and iconoclastic.
Each of the stories is a re-visioning of a classic tale:
The Bloody Chamber — Bluebeard (Barbebleue, 1697) written down famously by Charles Perrault The Courtship of Mr Lyon — Beauty and the Beast The Tiger’s Bride — Beauty and the Beast Puss-in-Boots — Carter hasn’t changed the name from earlier versions. The Erl-King —The Erl-King takes his name from a folklore persona. An erlking is a mischievous sprite or elf that lures young people with the intent of killing them. The Snow Child — Snow White The Lady of the House of Love — which began as a radio play, Vampirella, for BBC Radio 3 in the summer of 1976 is about a beast of the courtly south who meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore. The original Vampirella had a lot of footnote-like material about vampires. Because it was produced for radio, this explains why the voice speaks directly to the reader. The Werewolf — Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon rouge) The Company of Wolves — The Grandmother’s Tale, an oral fairytale related to later versions of Little Red Riding Hood Wolf-Alice — Again, the beast of the courtly south meets the ravenous wolf of more northerly folklore
In The Company Of Wolves is a long short story, perhaps more of a novella, at 16,400 words.
For a story with a similar plot, see Rebecca, a novel by Daphne du Maurier, which turns the typical Gothic relations of dominance upside down: the romantic hero turns out to be a masochist, while his wife is allotted the role of the beating woman.
Rebecca is also movie, and miniseries and like “The Bloody Chamber” is about a very young woman who marries an aristocratic, much older man whose previous wife has gone missing in mysterious circumstances, also a boating accident. Rebecca was first published in 1938, so shares a similar time period.
As the blind piano tuner says in the Angela Carter story, ‘I can scarcely believe it,’ he said, wondering. ‘That man … so rich; so well-born.’ That is what made Rebecca successful, though I feel the story is lost on modern audiences because its intrigue relies upon the reader’s incredulity that such a well-born person could do something so heinous. The modern audience knows that the rich (or especially the rich) do heinous things.
WRITE YOUR OWN
Horrible things tend to happen in magnificent castles. Likewise, lovely things happen in the most dire of accommodations. Is it possible to foreshadow happiness?
That wonderful header image is an illustration by Rebecca Whiteman, inspired by Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber”