Tall Tale Techniques For The Scarily Inclined

AUDIO EXAMPLE OF A SCARY TALL TALE

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

What do you think?

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

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



1. This old fella spins a tale just like my Dad spins a tale. He doesn’t want to come across as a master of the form – despite the fact he is – so he goes into all this extra detail (just like my father does), about who was where and what the roads were called and just when you start wishing he’d get on with his story, there you are: he’s come to his point.

2. I can’t believe a Telecom truck wouldn’t give this guy a ride back into the nearest town. The overwhelming majority of people you’d meet in remote areas would be happy to give you a lift back. Notice the truck driver winds his window down just ‘a crack’. He’s scared of something, but won’t say what. Great tension building there.

3. The Thing that rips the door off its hinges is – judiciously – left entirely to the listener’s imagination. Bongo is so scared of this thing he can’t describe it. He’s got the stutter and the fake whimpering down to a fine art.

4. I love the climax of this tale. The Thing has ‘a fetish for white, skinny, hairy legs’, and has them draped all round the place. By this point, the storyteller can tell he’s got you – or not – because his audience will either crack up laughing or listen, deathly quiet. I must say, this scene reminded me a little of Wolf Creek, one of the scariest movies I’ve seen, and which has a similar plot, of getting lost in the Australian Outback and meeting a crazy fetish murderer.

5. Bongo cracks on he’s been in a psychiatric ward  – has been ever since the incident 32 years ago. Well, that was a nice touch. Not something we can all get away with, though some of us might.

For more on tall tales, see here.

A bearded man either listens to or tells a tall tale inside a cave
Aim for this face when you’re telling a scary tall tale. (In both you and your audience) Photo by zamario.

A NON-TALL TALE OF A TALL TALE

One of my best memories of first-year teaching involved me telling a scary tale to a group of 14 year old girls. After the older teachers went to bed, I stayed around the campfire and scared them half to death with a tale I no longer remember. We were on a Duke of Edinburgh tramp and were camping overnight in the middle of a National Park surrounded by dark forest and the sound of the river and I must say, 14 year old girls make a wonderful audience. I learnt a lesson that night – even after I’d joined the other teachers in the cabin on the hill, we listened for hours to screaming and giggling as they revelled in further scary tales of their own. None of them got much sleep. The next day, we were supposed to climb a steep hill and it was damned hard work trying to get them up it. Eventually, I lost the game because  the laziest bunch of them decided to just sit down. The others joined them.

“That’ll serve you right for getting them all worked up with scary tales,” I was told.

A few years later I was supply teaching near London, and I learned that the ability to spin a good scary yarn at short notice is a good skill to have, when you’ve a room full of kids and nothing much else but an hour to fill.

Again, my best memory from that time involves a scary tall tale – maybe the same one – I don’t remember. I was having trouble with a bunch of 12 year olds – they wouldn’t sit still and listen to a darn thing, so I sat them on the floor in a circle, asked them to imagine a camp fire and turned out all the lights. (Being London, it was a dark, grey day.)

I was almost at the climax of my tall tale when the whole lot of them screamed prematurely, scaring even me. A head had appeared through that little window you often find in a classroom door. In the semi-darkness it was a freaky looking thing indeed.

It turned out to be their PE teacher – a huge guy with a head of wild dreads, and he’d come only to deliver a message about an after school football tourny.

He wondered what the hell I was doing in there.

Anyway, if you work with kids, you need something – just one thing – that’ll impress them. Maybe you can do tricks with a soccer ball or pull out a guitar and crack out a tune. If you can’t do any of those things, I highly recommend mastering the art of the scary tale. It’ll get you some respect.

Trust me.

Monsters and Creatures In Children’s Literature

Natalie Tran is one of Australia’s best comedians and I enjoy her increasingly sporadic uploads to Community Channel on YouTube.

Recently Natalie has been babysitting, and wonders what to do when the kid tells her there’s a monster in their bedroom.

a. Do you go along with it?

b. Do you tell them it’s just their imagination?

I like the idea of going in with a cricket bat and coming out with a bunch of clothes in a black bin liner, announcing the job done, but let’s assume this is a serious question. What is the best thing to do?

Most picture book writers are on ‘a’ side of the fence, not only going along with the idea of monsters, but maybe even introducing the very concept of monsters to children in the first place. I mean, who thinks of this stuff?

Here’s some such ‘Don’t Be Scared, There’s Only A Monster Under Your Bed‘ books which I’ve reviewed briefly over on my blog.

Meantime, here’s a trip back to 1999 with Santana, and a song which I have in an iTunes playlist called ‘Lullabies’.

Put Your Lights On

And a visit to Wikipedia has just informed me that the lalala stuff at the end is actually “La ilaha illa Allah”,  which means “there is no god but Allah” in Arabic. Oooh. Secret religious messages.

Making monsters with the six-year-old with Artrage 4
Making monsters with the six-year-old with Artrage 4

A Field Guide to the Eccentric Creatures of Classic Children’s Literature from Huffington Post

The Role Of Children’s Stories In Managing Childhood Fears And Promoting Empowerment, a paper by M.A. Taylor

The Greatest Monsters In Children’s Literature according to Flavorwire

Picture Books With Monsters, a Goodreads list

Monsters Are Living, Breathing Metaphors

Must Monsters Always Be Male? at The Guardian

There are a lot of picture books with the message for preschoolers: Don’t be scared of the dark. The monsters you imagine are benign. We’ll then read a book about a terrible monster under the bed who turns out to be an adorable fluffy creature who befriends the child protagonist.

Here’s what I’d like to know: Do all children imagine monsters? Or is the idea of a monster introduced by the very media designed to assuage their fears? If we were to bring up a child sans media, sans Grimm, sans terror, would that child still conjure up the worst?

I doubt anyone has managed that experiment, but I do know that for our part, the resident toddler didn’t start being afraid of the dark until she started watching more sophisticated television and listening with some comprehension to picture books.

SEA MONSTERS

The Greatest Monsters In Children’s Literature from Flavorwire

Goodreads List of Picture Books About Monsters. (Can you guess the book at number one spot?)

Why Were There So Many Giant Insects In The 1950s? from io9

Mythical Beasts and Modern Monsters from Brainpickings

This List of Legendary Creatures From Japan will open your eyes to the wonderful, wacky world of Asian mythology and folklore and you may realize Grimm Brothers’ fairytales were text bundles of joy by comparison.

The Best Monster Movie Posters, Ever from IndieWire

monsters in stories
comic by Poorly Drawn Lines

Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton

Wolf Comes To Town Cover

Wolf Comes To Town by Denis Manton must be one of the most underrated children’s book on the Internet. I was genuinely astonished to check out what others have said about this picture book on Amazon and Goodreads. Both sites show a 1.5 star average rating at time of writing. Can you guess what reviewers don’t like about this book?

If you guessed C, you’re right. Anyone would think we still lived in the year 1697, which is when Charles Perrault published Tales and Stories of the Past with Morals:

This book is terrible, it should not be in print. The wolf eats the dogs and cats and then the little boy in it is praised for suggesting the wolf should be burnt and have his head cut off. He is promptly told what a “Brave little boy” he is! Then it is indicated that the wolf has eaten the little boy when the boys mother finds his trousers and is sobbing!

There is no good, it will do nothing but corrupt young children. It was given to my young son from his school and this was for me to read to him, but it was a horror story and I’m disgusted that I did just that. I would suggest this book is thrown away!

Amazon 1 Star Review

As the blurb says, it’s a book about a wolf who dresses up to fool the towns people..he manages to steal all sorts of things, eat the pets and eventually a little boy (caught whilst dressed as the vicar!). I thought it was funny for a bit- my daughter had some fun spotting the wolf dressed up, but there is no moral come back at all- he runs off with his dressing up clothes to terrorise the next town, and so the story ends on a bit of a down. The language and style suits 3 years plus, but some young children would be upset by it. My copy is in the bin (not the charity shop!). Also- are there no books out there where the wolf isn’t so bad?

Amazon 1 Star Review

I could not believe it when my 3 year old brought this horrible story home from school.
The wolf steals, eats pet cats, eats pet dogs, and eats a little boy.
There is no comeuppance, no moral. There is nothing it indicate to children that his behaviour is wrong. He gets away with it with no punishment.
My son was upset by the boy getting eaten.
Dreadful book.

Amazon 1 Star Review

Because there is no real ending to this book. I’m a Children’s Librarian, and I ran across this while looking for books about stealing for a patron. The book starts out well enough; the big bad wolf disguises himself in order to steal whatever he pleases from stores & shops. The townspeople finally find the wolf’s home (while searching for “brave little Bernard,” a young boy the wolf takes), and see all their belongings inside. Everyone claims their things, Bernard’s mother finds her son’s trousers, and the wolf’s clothes are packed up to be given to charity. Only the nurse doing the packing is really the wolf in disguise, and he makes off with the clothes to a new town. That’s the end of the story. There’s no conclusion, the wolf doesn’t get punished for his bad behaviour, and the reader doesn’t know if little Bernard is alive or dead. Cute beginning, terrible ending. I would not choose this book for storytime, as a learning tool, or anything else.

Amazon 2 Star Review

WHAT HAPPENS IN WOLF COMES TO TOWN

A wolf lives on the outskirts of a town. He dresses up in all sorts of disguises, then visits the town to steal things he likes and needs.

He tends to dress up as trustworthy people: policemen, priests.

One day he eats a little boy at a garden party.

The townspeople go out looking for Bernard — the wolf among them — and happen across his house, chock full of all the things he has stolen.

Wolf manages to prevent his clothes from being thrown out. He takes them in a trolley to the next town, where he will presumably do exactly as he did in this one.


WONDERFULNESS OF WOLF COMES TO TOWN

A Fun Catch Phrase

Possibly my favourite aspect of this book is the phrase, ‘I like it, I want it and I’LL TAKE IT!’ In oral retellings of Little Red Riding Hood, too, the teller of the story would pounce in playful fashion at the child when the grandma wolf pounced at Little Red. This book is equally well suited to a dramatic retelling between parent and child.

Wolf Comes To Town Final Image
Wolf Comes To Town Final Image

Frisson Of Fear In Relation To Real Life

Whose town is the wolf in now? Roald Dahl makes use of this kind of fear in his book The Witches, in which the reader is told that even the teacher who is reading this book to you right now might be a witch. I was read The Witches by my teacher when I was six, and I do remember looking at her very closely, concluding she couldn’t be because she wasn’t wearing gloves.

Modern Morals For Modern Readers

In common with various famous fairytales — Little Red Riding Hood springs first to mind — readers are warned not to take people at face value. The beautiful young woman is really a wolf. The policeman is really a wolf. The vicar is really a wolf. Although the classic tales have been watered down for modern children — starting with Grimm and completed by Disney — this story harks back to the pre-Grimm days, in which villains were not punished.

In these days of Occupy Wall Street, which is the more important lesson for young readers? In real life, villains most often do go unpunished. They dress in respectable clothes and walk among us.

In the picture below, an unsuspecting art gallery owner gives too much information to a criminal. When identities are hidden online, this is not a bad lesson for the rest of us:

Wolf Comes To Town Policeman In Art Gallery

Other people are locked out of certain establishments based on what they look like. Here, a man has been excluded from a fancy restaurant simply for having grown fat and a beard. Use this to open up a discussion about all sorts of discrimination, including throughout history:

Wolf Comes To Town Fancy Restaurant

This is the double page spread where the story takes a particularly sinister turn:

Wolf Comes To Town Denis Manton Garden Party

But again, is it so wrong to introduce the idea that even priests at garden parties cannot necessarily be trusted? In traditional fairytale fashion, Little Bernard does not survive this story:

Wolf Comes To Town Little Bernard's Little Trousers

Especially disturbing, against the comic line ‘Little Bernard’s little trousers!’ is the art gallery owner who is far more interested in his stolen painting than in this mother’s missing son. In storybooks as in real life, sometimes we get our priorities wrong.


NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION BY DENIS MANTON

The  main challenge for Denis Manton in illustrating this work would have been to depict a wolf who looked sufficiently like a person when dressed up like one. He has risen to this challenge by turning the snout into a large nose.

Wolf Comes To Town Denis Manton Milkman
The milkman (wolf) has a larger than average nose.

Because of this challenge, the loose, sketchy style works best. When the style is loose like this, the wolf looks different every time we see him, but the reader can put this down to the style, and accept it’s the same creature. The sketchy style is also fitting for the generally chaotic scenes: the wolf’s messy abode, scenes of people screaming and running away, scenes with lots of movement etc.

wolf dresses up in front of mirror

The opposite choice — a photorealistic style of illustration — would result in a story too scary for a young audience. This art, with its black outlines and comic style, tells the audience that this is a comic tale. In keeping with comic book style, the facial expressions in this tale are marvellous:

Wolf Comes To Town Teeth Bared
Wolf Comes To Town Scary Teeth

STORY SPECS

Written and illustrated by Australian Denis Manton in 1994, this book is now hard to get, possibly helped along its way to obscurity to the large numbers of adult gatekeepers who refused to buy or recommend this story.

Manton seems to have illustrated more books than he wrote, and the books that he wrote seem to have fallen out of print, including Anastasia, published 1979.


COMPARE WOLF COMES TO TOWN BY DENIS MANTON

Another picturebook which has certain adult readers up in arms is This Is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen, also accused of having ‘no repercussion for stealing’ and ‘no definitive ending’.

This retelling of Little Red Riding Hood garners some similar comments regarding its suitability for children.

Little Red Hood Cover

Some of my own favourite childhood books have catch-phrases which heighten the excitement. Enid Blyton’s Thirteen O’Clock is memorable for its repeated phrase, ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’

The beginning of Wolf Comes To Town reminds me of the beginning of Burglar Bill from 1977, by the Ahlbergs:

Burglar Bill lives by himself in a tall house full of stolen property. Every night he has stolen fish and chips and a cup of stolen tea for supper. Then he swings a big stolen sack over his shoulder and goes off to work, stealing things.