Stephen King’s The Mist

When you encounter mist in real life, what do you recall? Stephen King’s novella? Frank Darabont’s 2007 adaptation of Stephen King’s novella? The 2017 TV series adaptation of Stephen King’s novella?

You may have even studied “The Mist” in literature class — the tertiary level equivalent of Lord of the Flies. This popular science fiction horror contains plenty for discussion and analysis.

Or maybe you’ve never encountered Stephen King’s Mist story before in your entire life, and you don’t scream to family members, “SOMETHING IN THE MIST TOOK JOHN LEE!” whenever fog descends.

I’ve seen the 2007 film numerous times but only just read the novella. There will inevitably be some conflation of those two slightly different stories below, so I’m going to talk about both without worrying about mixing them up.

Continue reading “Stephen King’s The Mist”

The Sexism Behind Top Ten Lists

reading

Stephen King’s list of top ten ALL TIME favourite books is doing the rounds, because anything Stephen King has ever said regularly does the rounds. That’s why I’m going to focus on Stephen King as just one example of a wider trend: Men don’t count women among their favourites.



STEPHEN KING’S DECLARED FAVOURITE BOOKS

1. The Golden Argosy, The Most Celebrated Short Stories in the English Language – edited by Van Cartmell and Charles Grayson

2. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain

3. The Satanic Verses – Salman Rushdie

4. McTeague – Frank Norris

5. Lord of the Flies – William Golding

6. Bleak House – Charles Dickens

7. 1984 – George Orwell

8. The Raj Quartet – Paul Scott

9. Light in August – William Faulkner

10. Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

copy and pasted from Open Culture

Every single one of those books is either entirely by a man or edited by men.

For any widely read reader, limiting favourites to ten is always going to be a ridiculously contrived list, which is why it’s so annoying that he mindlessly picked creators who look/ed just like himself.

In his writing book, On Writing—mostly read by other writers and uber fans—Stephen King lists more of his favourite books at the back. Here you will find a few women.

This is a list of the books he recommended for writers back in 2000:

Abrahams, Peter: A Perfect Crime
Abrahams, Peter: Lights Out
Abrahams, Peter: Pressure Drop
Abrahams, Peter: Revolution #9
Agee, James: A Death in the Family
Bakis, Kirsten: Lives of the Monster Dogs
Barker, Pat: Regeneration
Barker, Pat: The Eye in the Door
Barker, Pat: The Ghost Road
Bausch, Richard: In the Night Season
Blauner, Peter: The Intruder
Bowles, Paul: The Sheltering Sky
Boyle, T. Coraghessan: The Tortilla Curtain
Bryson, Bill: A Walk in the Woods
Buckley, Christopher: Thank You for Smoking
Carver, Raymond: Where I’m Calling From
Chabon, Michael: Werewolves in Their Youth
Chorlton, Windsor: Latitude Zero
Connelly, Michael: The Poet
Conrad, Joseph: Heart of Darkness
Constantine, K.C.: Family Values
DeLillo, Don: Underworld
DeMille, Nelson: Cathedral
DeMille, Nelson: The Gold Coast
Dickens, Charles: Oliver Twist
Dobyns, Stephen: Common Carnage
Dobyns, Stephen: The Church of Dead Girls
Doyle, Roddy: The Woman Who Walked into Doors
Elkin, Stanley: The Dick Gibson Show
Faulkner, William: As I Lay Dying
Garland, Alex: The Beach
George, Elizabeth: Deception on His Mind
Gerritsen, Tess: Gravity
Golding, William: Lord of the Flies
Gray, Muriel: Furnace
Greene, Graham: A Gun for Sale
Greene, Graham: Our Man in Havana
Halberstam, David: The Fifties
Hamil, Pete: Why Sinatra Matters
Harris, Thomas: Hannibal
Haruf, Kent: Plainsong
Hoeg, Peter: Smilla’s Sense of Snow
Hunter, Stephen: Dirty White Boys
Ignatius, David: A Firing Offense
Irving, John: A Widow for One Year
Joyce, Graham: The Tooth Fairy
Judd, Alan: The Devil’s Own Work
Kahn, Roger: Good Enough to Dream
Karr, Mary: The Liar’s Club
Ketchum, Jack: Right to Life
King, Tabitha: Survivor
King, Tabitha: The Sky in the Water
Kingsolver, Barbara: The Poisonwood Bible
Krakauer, Jon: Into Thin Air
Lee, Harper: To Kill a Mockingbird
Lefkowitz, Bernard: The Ignored
Maclean, Norman: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories
Maugham, W. Somerset: The Moon and Sixpence
McCarthy, Cormac: Cities of the Plain
McCarthy, Cormac: The Crossing
McCourt, Frank: Angela’s Ashes
McDermott, Alice: Charming Billy
McDevitt, Jack: Ancient Shores
McEwan, Ian: Enduring Love
McEwan, Ian: The Cement Garden
McMurtry, Larry: Dead Man’s Walk
McMurtry, Larry, and Diana Ossana: Zeke and Ned
Miller, Walter M.: A Canticle for Leibowitz
Oates, Joyce Carol: Zombie
O’Brien, Tim: In the Lake of the Woods
O’Nan, Stewart: The Speed Queen
Ondaatje, Michael: The English Patient
Patterson, Richard North: No Safe Place
Price, Richard: Freedomland
Proulx, Annie: Close Range: Wyoming Stories
Proulx, Annie: The Shipping News
Quindlen, Anna: One True Thing
Rendell, Ruth: A Sight for Sore Eyes
Robinson, Frank M.: Waiting
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
Rowling, J.K.: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
Russo, Richard: Mohawk
Schwartz, John Burnham: Reservation Road
Seth, Vikram: A Suitable Boy
Shaw, Irwin: The Young Lions
Slotkin, Richard: The Crater
Smith, Dinitia: The Illusionist
Spencer, Scott: Men in Black
Stegner, Wallace: Joe Hill
Tartt, Donna: The Secret History
Tyler, Anne: A Patchwork Planet
Vonnegut, Kurt: Hocus Pocus
Waugh, Evelyn: Brideshead Revisited
Westlake, Donald E.: The Ax

He updated the list when he updated the book, ten years later:

Abrahams, Peter: End of Story
Abrahams, Peter: The Tutor
Adiga, Aravind: The White Tiger
Atkinson, Kate: One Good Turn
Atwood, Margaret: Oryx and Crake
Berlinski, Mischa: Fieldwork
Black, Benjamin: Christine Falls
Blauner, Peter: The Last Good Day
Bolano, Roberto: 2666
Carr, David: The Night of the Gun
Casey, John: Spartina
Chabon, Michael: The Yiddish Policemen’s Union
Child, Lee: The Jack Reacher novels, starting with Killing Floor
Connelly, Michael: The Narrows
Costello, Mark: Big If
Cunningham, Michael: The Hours
Danielewski, Mark: House of Leaves
Diaz, Junot: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
Dooling, Richard: White Man’s Grave
Downing, David: Zoo Station
Dubus, Andre: The Garden of Last Days
Enger, Leif: Peace Like a River
Exley, Frederick: A Fan’s Notes
Ferris, Joshua: Then We Came to the End
Franzen, Jonathan: Strong Motion
Franzen, Jonathan: The Corrections
Gaiman, Neil: American Gods
Gardiner, Meg: Crosscut
Gardiner, Meg: The Dirty Secret Club
Gay, William: The Long Home
Goddard, Robert: Painting the Darkness
Gruen, Sara: Water for Elephants
Hall, Steven: The Raw Shark Texts
Helprin, Mark: A Soldier of the Great War
Huston, Charlie: The Hank Thompson Trilogy
Johnson, Denis: Tree of Smoke
Keillor, Garrison: Good Poems
Kidd, Sue Monk: The Secret Life of Bees
Klosterman, Chuck: Fargo Rock City
Larsson, Stieg: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
Le Carre, John: Absolute Friends
Lehane, Dennis: The Given Day
Leonard, Elmore: Up in Honey’s Room
Lethem, Jonathan: The Fortress of Solitude
Lippman, Laura: What the Dead Know
Little, Bentley: Dispatch
Malamud, Bernard: The Fixer
Martel, Yann: Life of Pi
McCarthy, Cormac: No Country for Old Man
McEwan, Ian: Atonement
Meek, James: The People’s Act of Love
Niffenegger, Audrey: Her Fearful Symmetry
O’Brian, Patrick: The Aubrey/Maturin Novels
O’Nan, Stewart: The Good Wife
Oates, Joyce Carol: We Were the Mulvaneys
Pelecanos, George: Hard Revolution
Pelecanos, George: The Turnaround
Perrotta, Tom: The Abstinence Teacher
Picoult, Jodi: Nineteen Minutes
Pierre, DBC: Vernon God Little
Proulx, Annie: Fine Just the Way It Is
Robotham, Michael: Shatter
Roth, Philip: American Pastoral
Roth, Philip: The Plot Against America
Rushdie, Salman: Midnight’s Children
Russo, Richard: Bridge of Sighs
Russo, Richard: Empire Falls
Simmons, Dan: Drood
Simmons, Dan: The Terror
Sittenfeld, Curtis: American Wife
Smith, Tom Rob: Child 44
Snyder, Scott: Voodoo Heart
Stephenson, Neal: Quicksilver
Tartt, Donna: The Little Friend
Tolstoy, Leo: War and Peace
Wambaugh, Joseph: Hollywood Station
Warren, Robert Penn: All the King’s Men
Waters, Sarah: The Little Stranger
Winegardner, Mark: Crooked River Burning
Winegardner, Mark: The Godfather Returns
Wroblewski, David: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Yates, Richard: Revolutionary Road

It’s possible I’ve misgendered a few but I’ve emboldened the female creators on his list. As you can see, the expanded list still skews hugely male. (A couple of those recommended books are by his own wife, but okay.)

King is so powerful as a writer that he is unable to criticise other writers without sounding mean-spirited.

Nevertheless, King sometimes punches down. These are the books King recommends in his memoir as examples of bad writing:

“Asteroid Miners” — which King admits is not the exact title (and therefore can’t be found)
Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Sussan — the story of three young women who become fast friends in the turbulent post-war worlds of Broadway and Hollywood
Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews — about some children who are locked in the attic by their grandmother and begin an incestuous relationship.
The Bridges of Madison County by Robert James Waller — the story of  about an Italian war bride, Francesca, who lives with her husband and two children on a farm in Iowa, then falls in love with someone else.

Though his list of negative examples is short, of the books King names accurately, they are either by a woman or about a specifically female experience. I’ll make no comment about how terrible they are, because that’s beside my point: If he was going to pick mainly men as good examples, there were plenty of male creators to choose from when picking bad ones. His list of bad books skews female.

HETEROSEXUAL MEN LOVE MEN

King’s top ten list, combined with his list of bad examples, reminds me of the following quote:

To say that straight men are heterosexual is only to say that they engage in sex (fucking exclusively with the other sex, i.e., women). All or almost all of that which pertains to love, most straight men reserve exclusively for other men. The people whom they admire, respect, adore, revere, honor, whom they imitate, idolize, and form profound attachments to, whom they are willing to teach and from whom they are willing to learn, and whose respect, admiration, recognition, honor, reverence and love they desire… those are, overwhelmingly, other men. In their relations with women, what passes for respect is kindness, generosity or paternalism; what passes for honor is removal to the pedestal. From women they want devotion, service and sex.

Heterosexual male culture is homoerotic; it is man-loving.

Marilyn Frye, The Politics of Reality (1983)

KING’S FAVORITE SHORT STORY COLLECTION

Stephen King’s favourite short story collection, The Golden Argosy, was published in 1955. Inevitably, that includes mainly white male writers as well.

This collection is no longer in print, but a reviewer on Goodreads collected links to each of the stories as they exist on the web, and here it is.

This year I’ll make sure to read the paucity of women in this collection. If I haven’t already, I’ll write about their stories on this blog.

  • Paul’s Case by Willa Cather (1905)
  • Old Man Minick by Edna Ferber (1922)
  • The Fly by Katherine Mansfield (1922)
  • Big Blonde by Dorothy Parker (1929)
  • Flowering Judas by Katherine Anne Porter (1930)

(Edit: Now that I’ve read them, only two of the five are about women — “Big Blonde” and “Flowering Judas”.)

LET’S MAKE LISTS OF WOMEN

Since publishing corporations will tell you, women keep their corporations alive. In the USA, women are the more avid book readers, per the study, being 13% more likely than men to have read a book in the prior 12 months (77% vs. 68%). Women are also far more likely to be buying books as gifts for others.

Work — and art — by women remains undervalued.

A study of more than 2 million books revealed that titles by female authors are on average sold at just over half the price of those written by men.

WHAT TO DO? WHAT IF YOU JUST LIKE READING MEN?

First, this brilliant article, which applies to so, so much:

I DON’T HATE WOMEN CANDIDATES — I JUST HATED HILLARY AND COINCIDENTALLY I’M STARTING TO HATE ELIZABETH WARREN

by DEVORAH BLACHOR

I don’t need to go out of my way to gender balance my reading. I’ve done a post hoc count up and it happens quite naturally, probably because I’m female myself.

I write a newsletter for a sports club, and each month I do a member profile. Our club breakdown is almost exactly half women, half men. Writing newsletters is a bit of a pain in the neck, but I go out of my way to ask as many women as men for interviews. This isn’t easy, because more men than women come down to play other members (rather than privately).

We can all do small things like this to improve the current state of play.

However, in the name of redressing a wider imbalance…

MY FAVOURITE ALL TIME FAVOURITEST MOST FAVOURITE BEST EVER AUTHORS

In no particular order, here is my list of ALL TIME favourite authors.

  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Janet Frame
  • Lionel Shriver
  • Susan Faludi
  • Annie Proulx
  • Angie Thomas
  • Lynley Dodd
  • Maria Nikolajeva
  • Roberta Trites
  • Jane Austen
  • Toni Morrison
  • Marjery Hourihan
  • Naomi Klein
  • Patricia Grace
  • Cordelia Fine
  • Claire Messud
  • Peggy Orenstein
  • Angela Carter
  • Geraldine Brooks
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Marina Warner

Stephen King’s IT Storytelling Techniques

IT 2017 movie poster

IT is a 1986 horror novel by Stephen King, first adapted for screen in 1990, and most recently in 2017. This blog post is about the storytelling of the 2017 film.

https://twitter.com/factsonfiIm/status/1313504034507161606

THE TERRIBLE MONSTER OF IT

I liked what one reviewer had to say about IT: The monster in this film is whatever the story requires him to be for the scene. Indeed, this monster is the ultimate shapeshifter, sometimes calm, sometimes unleashed. This monster is a writer’s dream — he seems to have no rules. Why doesn’t every horror writer create a monster like this? He’s awesome.

He’s also one-dimensional.

Here’s the golden rule about movie-length (or novel-length) stories about unpredictable monster villains with no redeeming features: Villain versus hero cannot, in itself, sustain a story. The character web is simply not interesting enough. Alongside the monstrous villain the writer must create a very human web of opposition. We see this time and time again in popular storytelling:

  • In Twister we have man versus tornado, but the human opposition comes from a couple of professional storm-chasers on the brink of divorce as well as an entire band of rival storm-chasers who aim to beat our heroes in their storm-chasing game.
  • In Jaws we have man versus shark, but the interest comes once again from the human opposition. Sheriff Martin Brody wants to close the beach, but this is opposed by local businessmen. Then there’s the most subtle, macho opposition between manly-man Quint and the others on his boat.
  • In Jurassic Park we have man versus velociraptor, but a park employee attempts to steal Hammond’s dinosaur embryos, among other interpersonal opposition.

And in IT, we have the evil outside villain (the shapeshifting clown), but there is a very strong human gang of bullies who are just as scary. The gang of bully kids is a common way to flesh out a web of opposition, especially in stories about children. Suzie Templeton used the bully opposition web for her short film adaptation of Peter and the Wolf.

IT: MODERN MONSTER

IT is very explicit about the symbolism of the clown, and why it is a shapeshifter. But this is the typical modern horror monster. I have written previously: What is the horror genre for? IT is a modern horror, having moved away from Christian symbolism and into psychological symbolism. The monster is a representation of whatever terrible thing happens to be in your own life.

SETTING OF IT

Realism interpretation of the IT setting: There is no clown. Georgie Denbrough drowns while trying to retrieve his paper boat from a drain. The body is never found. Bill bonds with the others in his vicinity who each have their own significant trauma: incest, Munchausen syndrome by proxy and so on. The monster is different depending on who sees him. This is like the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter. Whoever looks into it sees their own unfulfilled desire. The Mirror of Erised is a descendent of an old fairy tale device, such as the mirror in stories such as Snow White.

Horror is one of the three most symbolic genres in existence. (The other two are science fiction and Western.) Much has already been said about the symbolism and, frankly, if you’ve seen a lot of horror, it doesn’t need saying.

A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.
A Fixer Upper 1946 illustration by John Falter. This house looks like the old house visited by the children of IT.

CHILDHOOD REALISTICALLY DEPICTED IN A STORY FOR ADULTS

One thing that struck me while watching IT: The smart aleck dialogue, especially the crass sexual jokes in the dialogue of Richie Tozier, felt realistic. The irony is that this dialogue would never be acceptable in books for children of that age. These kids are meant to be 13, which upper middle grade, lower young adult. In children’s literature you never read dialogue such as:

Richie Tozier : You punched me, made me walk through shitty water, dragged me through a crackhouse… and now I’m gonna have to kill this fucking clown.

Richie Tozier : I hear the list is longer than my wang.
Stanley Uris : That’s not saying much.

Richie Tozier : Hey Eddie, are these your birth control pills?
Eddie Kaspbrak : Yeah, I’m saving them for your sister!

I have known adolescent boys who talk very much like this. Another difference between stories for adults and stories for children: Children in stories for children must function, to some extent, as role models. Child characters in children’s stories are more naive and wholesome than many real-life counterparts.

It’s not just the horror elements of this film which keep this movie out of children’s hands. The clown, all told, isn’t that scary for many kids. The clown is clearly a monster. But the stone throwing, the chase, the fat shaming, the mutilation on a boy’s belly — those elements all feel uncomfortably real.

CHILDHOOD SONGS SECONDED FOR ADULT HORROR

Listen to the IT soundtrack (composed and arranged by Benjamin Wallfisch) and you’ll hear a very creepy, echoey version of Oranges and Lemons, music box inspired atmospheric tunes and children singing, slowly and without instrumental accompaniment.

This technique is common across horror and thriller films. Quentin Tarantino understood the creepiness of Shivaree’s 2000 song entitled ‘Goodnight Moon‘ when he chose for the soundtrack of Kill Bill Vol. 2.

There’s a nail in the door
And there’s glass on the lawn
Tacks on the floor
And the TV is on
And I always sleep with my guns
When you’re gone

There’s a blade by the bed
And a phone in my hand
A dog on the floor
And some cash on the nightstand
When I’m all alone the dreaming stops
And I just can’t stand

On it goes. Fans of child literature, however, are more likely to think of the eponymous but innocent story by Margaret Wise Brown.

That link to the well-known picture book is part of what makes for the creepiness of the song. There’s something about the admixture of horror and childhood familiarities such as songs, clowns, circuses and picture books which intensifies the creepiness of the creepy bit. This is how the folk at TV Tropes put it:

If a program or film wants to add fear to a scene one of the most creepy ways is to have a Creepy Child, or a whole creepy choir, singing somewhere in the distance or background, usually the tune is a mournful nursery rhyme. Sometimes it will seem like the characters can hear it and they may even call out, asking if anyone is there.

Creepy Children Singing

The Wire is a TV series for adults, creepy because of its uncomfortable realism. The character Omar Comin is particularly interesting, due to his role as sometime-comic relief, for his incongruous same-sex attraction in an overwhelmingly macho environment, and for his sociopathic ability to kill. Regular viewers of the show will soon learn that when Omar Comin starts to whistle Farmer In The Dell, bad stuff is going to happen. In this clip, bystanders realise from the whistle that Omar is up to very bad business.

Why Farmer In The Dell? Because viewers familiar with the tune will associate it with innocence, childlike naivete and comfort. The tune works well in the story because Omar is probably using one of his own childhood favourites for dual purpose: To set up a nonchalant persona for himself in the eyes of others, and also to steady his own nerves. The words themselves may also have thematic significance, though The Wire is not known for its ham-handed metaphors in the manner of Mad Men, so this may be an overanalysis.

The tinkle of bells, the fast-to-slow tune of a music box, the call of the ice-cream van — all make for excellent horror soundtracks and IT makes use of it too.

RELATED

10 Things You Might Not Know About Stephen King’s IT from Mental Floss

How IT handles the book’s most controversial scene from Entertainment Weekly

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Gothic Horror And Children’s Books

The Gothic is notoriously difficult to define. This is a type of story in constant flux. Each new literary period adds is own spin. “Gothic” is more like a skin layered upon other genres, most often: horror, romance, science fiction and fantasy. Where does one genre end and the gothic element begin?

Gothic horror is also known as gothic fiction. Characters generally get caught up in paranormal schemes. The victim of these schemes is normally an innocent and helpless female character. In some instances, supernatural phenomena such as vampires and werewolves are later explained in perfectly natural terms, but in other works they remain completely inexplicable.

When romance is the main focus it’s called gothic romance. Dark paranormal romance is the new gothic romance and is a popular genre in young adult literature. When gothic is the skin of horror, it’s called “gothic horror” and so on.

See also: What’s behind the wide appeal of all the horrible, brooding YA boyfriends?

Bear in mind, no one has yet produced a satisfying definition of Gothic which is widely agreed upon. There are even arguments about whether “horror” should be considered a necessary part of it, or whether horror is enough to call something “Gothic”. (Why not just call it horror? What special sauce makes it also “Gothic”?)

If gothic novels do not need to “look” gothic – if they do not need the ‘trappings’ (as they are often called) of castles, ghosts, corrupt clergy, and so on – then
what exactly defines the genre?

Donna Heiland

Gothic stories can have any function from upholding conservative values to subverting them.

A Short History Of Gothic Horror

Gothic horror is ‘family horror’. That may sound strange, but Gothic horror relies on feminine monsters: murderous nannies who infiltrate the home, women who are monsters, houses which are feminised, women’s pregnant bodies compared to a house, you name it.

This applies to contemporary Gothic horror as much as to classic Gothic horror. Psycho is considered a turning point — the transition ‘from the family or marital comedy of the 1950s to the family horror film’ (Robin Wood, 1986). Three years after Hitchcock’s Psycho came out, Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, which is also about a feminine transition, from ‘mystique’ to genuine empowerment.

gothic horror

English author Horace Walpole is thought to have kicked the gothic genre off, with his 1764 novel The Castle of Otranto, subtitled (in its second edition) “A Gothic Story.” This story originated in England in the second half of the 18th century. But it took until the late 1790s for “Gothic” to take on some of the meanings we most frequently associate with it today: Gothic as synonym for grotesque, ghastly and violently superhuman. 

The Gothic continued with much success in the 19th century, with the popularity of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and the works of Edgar Allan Poe. Another well-known novel in this genre, dating from the late Victorian era, is Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

The height of the Gothic period closely aligns with Romanticism (1764-1840).

The word “Gothic” also refers to the (pseudo)-medieval buildings, emulating Gothic architecture, in which many of these stories take place.

When the Gothic was emerging as an important genre in its own right, medical science was just starting to replace the mystery of the female body with scientific facts. Hysteria was the dominant response to sexual confusion and abuse. Encoded in law, marriage meant a loss of power and autonomous identity for women. Pregnancy and childbirth were downright dangerous, messy and awful. Today things are a bit different: We understand (basically) how the body works. We know that hysteria is an unhelpful, outdated word for what is actually a collection of disparate conditions. Many women are brought up to believe we can have it all (itself a kind of fairytale). But we still live in a patriarchal world. Classic Gothic ideas are still recognisable to modern readers.

Gothic motifs change rapidly and consistently, both in form and in significance. It all depends on what is feared and valued at any given time. The Gothic genre is especially responsive to historical moment and cultural location. Patricia Murphy has said that “a truism of critical commentary holds that the gothic emerges in literature during times of cultural anxiety.” (Zombie stories are another example of this.)

For example, the 1970s saw a lot of ‘bodice rippers’ which were replaced in the 1980s by a revival of gothic romance in the Harlequin series. Plots reflected a rising divorce rate in the West.

These days, readers are unwilling to unilaterally assign blame to one character in a Manichean view of human nature. Even in children’s literature, with perhaps a slightly higher tolerance for ‘black and white’ morality, the opponent web is more complex than ever. Even if a story contains a Minotaur opponent (pure bad), there will be other more nuanced opponents. These characters are not inherently evil, but behave badly as a result of their environment. When writers create fictional characters, they usually hint at how they became that way, by giving them a ‘psychic wound‘ (sometimes called ‘fatal flaw’ or ‘ghost’).

The ‘innocent’ victims, too, are afforded some dignity in that they are assumed to have some part in their own predicament. In other words, modern victims have a psychological and moral shortcoming, whereas earlier victims were more ‘victim-y’ and more boring as heroes, to be fair. Though it may seem counterintuitive, characters with moral shortcomings are more likeable.

Modern gothic stories don’t seek to expel evil completely, but rather to accommodate it and give it its own space. Modern gothic stories are about finding some sort of middle ground.

Everyday Usage of The Word ‘Gothic’

Modern readers and critics have begun to think of “Gothic literature” as any story that uses an elaborate, opulent setting, combined with supernatural or super-evil forces against an innocent main character. We also associate Gothic with Goths, who are pale, wear a lot of black, and reject mainstream culture as default.

See my post: What’s a Goth?

Natalie Wynn succinctly describes the sensibility of gothic as ‘ruined opulence’, and speculates we may soon see the gothic in abandoned shopping malls.

Raison d’être Of Gothic Stories

Classically Gothic settings (falsely) reassure us that ‘monsters’ are inhuman, and can be recognised quite easily. In reality, monsters are not so easily recognised:

You don’t find [monsters] in gothic dungeons or humid forests. You find them at the mall, at the school, in the town or city with the rest of us. But how do you find them before they victimize someone? With animals, it depends on perspective: The kitten is a monster to the bird, and the bird is a monster to the worm. With man, it is likewise a matter of perspective, but more complicated, because the rapist might first be the charming stranger, the assassin first the admiring fan. The human predator, unlike the others, does not wear a costume so different from ours that he can always be recognised by the naked eye.

Gavin de Becker, The Gift Of Fear

The effect of Gothic fiction feeds on a pleasing sort of terror, an extension of Romantic literary pleasures that were relatively new in the 19th century. The word for this is ‘horripilation’.

The Gothic releases forces which are usually repressed. Anarchy is loosed and contained at the same time. In Gothic, we have the return of whatever’s been repressed. Our enjoyment is visceral. We enjoy the cracking of bone and the snapping of backs and the spilling of blood. The appeal has something to do with lack of restraint, transgression, the overturning of normalcy. Taboos are broken. In this respect, the Gothic is related to the carnivalesque.

The Gothic is also a form known to examine our fear of desire. Some have even called the Gothic form the ‘literature of desire.

An interesting thing about Gothic stories: They find popularity among woman readers at times of social change and much talk of feminism. For some people, this feels like a contradiction, because Gothic stories aren’t generally known for being bastions of feminist thought. Here’s a theory:

[Gothic literature] accepts our stereotypes — such as the high value we place on good loocks, or our cultural sex-role stereotypes — but insinutates that the reader can beat the system, whether through talent or through such loopholes as luck or socially advantageous marriage.

Kathryn Hume, 1984

Might we apply a similar theory to why true crime attracts such a large woman audience, even when most of the victims of crimes explored are women?

Stories about monstrous women are especially popular when the rights of women are in flux.

‘Gothic’ is also a book marketing term, used to describe any book likely to appeal to the demographic of white middle-class women whose primary concerns include caring for house and family. The psychological needs addressed by these books are what we might expect from someone with that kind of life. In interview, Margaret Atwood used a phrase ‘slightly prefeminist women’, which describes women whose lives would be very much improved with feminist advancement, but who aren’t in a place to confront the issues head on (I suggest because that would spark so much unbridled rage).

The first modern novel to be called ‘Gothic’ was Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt, published 1960.

Think Jane Eyre and Rebecca combined, a 19th century governess story set in an ominous house haunted by another woman. The heroine uses courage and busy-ness toi solve a mystery . She thereby earns her happy ending, with the violent and brooding hero.

Common Features Of Gothic Stories

Though some commentators stop at saying the Gothic is about unknown, unnamed fear, others have created a lengthy list of features common to Gothic stories, or, what we have collectively mostly decided should be called Gothic stories.

PARODY

There is much parody within the gothic genre, including parodies of parodies. Authors send up other work by writing a supernatural gothic romance. Ironically, later audiences assume they were meant to take these old parodies seriously, and subsequent authors make parodies of that ‘original’ parody.

Some commentators feel that ‘pastiche’ is a more appropriate word than ‘parody’ when describing how Gothic stories borrow from earlier stories.

When creating pastiche, Gothic writers commonly borrow the following:

  • Parts of folk tales
  • Songs
  • Old wives’ tales and superstitions
  • scientific enquiries
  • theology
  • graveyard poetry
  • Sturm und Drang German romanticism
  • the literature of sensibility (the Sentimental novel is an 18th C genre)
  • theories of the sublime
  • travel guides
  • dictionaries
  • legal and religious testimony
  • melodrama

The reason we should probably call these elements pastiche rather than parody: The Gothic texts which utilised them pretty much presented them at face value without offering commentary or encouraging criticism.

PARANOIA

The Gothic is basically ‘paranoid‘. But only if you immerse yourself too much in it, succumbing to its fears. Modern mass media itself might be accused of being Gothic, with its emphasis on the macabre.

Gothic stories are popular at times of great technological change. The Gothic flourished during the period of early industrialised capitalism. This was the age of Enlightenment, when science was influencing social change.

Information revolutions bombard us with sensory overload. We feel everything’s changing so quickly and we can’t keep up. We tend to feel like ‘They’ are doing stuff behind the scenes and for all we know They are up to no good. Paranoia, in other words.

The popularity of Gothic stories make more sense when considered in the light of a paranoid reading public. The Gothic villain plots away behind the scenes. To be fair, people did have knowledge of the Holy Inquisition, which wasn’t great. Talk about dangerous master plotting:

The Inquisition was a powerful office set up within the Catholic Church to root out and punish heresy throughout Europe and the Americas. Beginning in the 12th century and continuing for hundreds of years, the Inquisition is infamous for the severity of its tortures and its persecution of Jews and Muslims.

History

SUBLIME

The Gothic is also often described as ‘sublime‘, which you may realise means something slightly different when it comes to literature.

In everyday English, sublime might mean ‘really wonderful’ but in literature it refers to work which provokes terror and pain in the audience. Terror and pain are the two emotions considered most powerful. Unlike the terror and pain of the real world, however, when experienced via story the audience enjoys it very much.

The sublime is a feature of Romantic work.

UNCANNY

Uncanny‘ is another word you’ll hear in reference to the Gothic. The uncanny is a psychological concept which refers to something that is strangely familiar, rather than simply mysterious. The emotions evoked in a work of Gothic fiction will be familiar to you. You may not have seen an actual ghost, but you will have experienced horripilation — that feeling of hair standing on end.

BURIED OMINOUS SECRET

The ‘buried ominous secret’ is Joanna Russ’s term for what is basically some kind of mystery. This mystery will be connected to The Other Woman and the Super-Male. The virginal maiden will try to get to the bottom of this secret but ends up in need of rescue. The real hero will end up saving her. Now she knows which of the men is the goodie.

Gothic writers typically set off one account of events against another, asking the reader to guess at or deduce which account is the truth.

This part of the story will typically be subsumed by a ‘master narrative’ whose unseen narrator fails to pick up what the reader hopefully has. This failure allows access to a myterious other realm.

SEPARATION

Desire plays a big part in feminine Gothic fiction. In Gothic texts there is generally some kind of violent separation at the beginning. In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has gone so far as to say that separation is one of the most characteristic gothic conventions.

Examples:

Typical Character Archetypes

Critics disagree about much when it comes to defining “Gothic” but most agree that the Gothic archetypes (or stereotypes if you prefer) are the defining feature.

The basic cast of characters:

Virginal maiden

Young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. She is also lonely.

These heroines tend to be orphaned, abandoned, or somehow severed from the world, without guardianship.

They are written to have emotional extremes. The word ‘melodramatic’ might be applied to these characters but in fact, melodrama describes a (very common) type of story, not a character. Perhaps it’s because of the traditional Gothic virginal maiden and her emotional extremes that we now think in terms of ‘melodramatic reactions’.

She is unable to rescue herself from danger. She is a damsel in distress. If she is ‘truly’ innocent, she is rescued. If she is not truly innocent, she fits one of the female archetypes below, and her story will be a tragedy.

The story usually starts out by suggesting a mysterious past. It will later be revealed that the virginal maiden is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. Modern stories such as Harry Potter borrow from the Gothic. We don’t think of the Grimm fairytales as Gothic, but a lot of them follow this exact plot.

The Final Girl describes a female archetype who is the last to find herself alive in a slasher film. The Finale Girl closely fits the Gothic Virginal Maiden archetype. Note that even when the Final Girl is able to slay the monster, she’s often in some remote location and will need rescuing at the very end to get back to civilisation.

The Other Woman

In Gothic romance, there needs to be a romantic rival for the virginal maiden. These women are “beautiful, worldly, glamorous, immoral, flirtatious, irresponsible, and openly sexual” (Joanna Russ). “She may even be adulterous, promiscuous, hard-hearted, immoral, criminal or even insane”.

The Young Girl

Also in Gothic romance, there will often be a girl who the virginal maiden feels the need to protect. Not a romantic rival. The virginal maiden now has the opportunity to show us how good a mother she’d make. This also functions as a Save The Cat thread.

Older, foolish woman

Or the Madwoman, or the Old Wife. Interestingly, British culture consistently associated ghosts and children with the oral tradition in storytelling. These stories were delivered by a greatly misunderstood figure: The Old Wife. The Old Wife was the woman in your community who dished out advice and help to do with childbirth, herbal remedies and so on. She lost a lot of respect, as well as her place in her community, with the emergence of modern day science.

This coincided with a growing distaste for people who believed in ghosts. Shakespeare himself poked fun at the Old Wife who believed in ghosts. You can see him doing that in Macbeth, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest. Women, ghost stories and oral stories were connected. When one lost status, so did the others. Even in the gothic stories themselves, the Old Wife character (who told these very tales) was made fun of. 

Hero

Like the virginal maidens, the hero was innocent, plunged into a weird situation. Gothic stories are melodramatic stories, and in classic melodrama, the main character reacts to crises. The classic hero drives the action, deliberately setting out into the world. In those stories there’s no pull factor, but rather a push factor: to escape the feminine realm of mother and home.

In a Gothic romance, the hero is the male love opponent. So, what’s the difference between a Gothic male love interest and a guy out of a Harlequin romance?

Someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my husband.

Joanna Russ, parodying the thought process of virginal maidens who realise they’re in love with a dangerous brooding man.

The Gothic romance is all about how love transforms into fear. The virginal maiden is scared by the object of her affection. She learns he can harm her. In contrast, fear turns into love in contemporary Harlequin romances. And the modern heroine isn’t necessarily afraid of the man, but afraid of losing herself to love because she’s been hurt in the past, or something like that.

These Gothic heroes, who inspire fear in virginal maidens, are often called Byronic heroes. Think Edward Rochester (Jane Eyre) and Max de Winter (Rebecca).

Tyrant/villain

In a Gothic cast, the villain is the most interesting character.

He is endlessly resourceful. He inspires awe. The audience won’t be able to easily guess his evil plans. He is mysteriously attractive.

He tends to wear a monastic habit with a cowl (a large, loose hood).

With the exception of a few novels, such as Sheridan Le Fanu’s Carmilla (1872), most Gothic villains are powerful males who prey on young, virginal women. This dynamic creates tension and appeals deeply to the reader’s pathos.

Joanna Russ divided the Gothic villain into two main types:

  1. SUPER-MALE: “an older man, a dark, magnetic, powerful brooding, sardonic…who treats [the virginal maiden] brusquely, derogates her, scolds her, and otherwise shows anger or contempt for her. The Heroine is vehemently attracted to him and usually just as vehemently repelled or frightened.”
  2. SHADOW-MALE: “a man invariably represented as gentle, protective, responsible, quiet, humorous, tender, and calm”.

You’re probably already thinking of Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey.

It would be too predictable if the super-male always turned out to be the real baddie and the shadow-male always turned out to be the goodie, so stories mix them up. In classic Gothic, it was often the harsh man who turned out to be the nice one. (Darcy, anyone?)

Even today, crime fiction focuses heavily on victims which are young, attractive, female (and white). We seem more interested in their deaths than in deaths of other demographics.

The modern antihero (or hero-villain if you prefer) comes from the Gothic tradition. However, in gothic stories morality is clear. Good is good, evil is evil, even if it is attractive. Evil is not simply misunderstood, it is inherent. Evil cannot be assimilated into everyday society and must be expelled. That’s not how modern stories about anti-heroes typically play out. Viewers were encouraged to understand Walter White and Tony Soprano. Thinking individuals are much more yin-yang about people these days. Less nature, more nurture — even if you’re a nature over nurture sort of person, you probably admit that Tony Soprano’s life would have panned out differently had he not grown up in the mafia.

Bandits/ruffians

These opponents add interesting complexity to the web of opposition. They are less powerful than the main tyrant/villain.

Clergy

Clergy in Gothic stories are always weak, usually evil.

In Medieval times, Monks often were pretty evil. They were rich and pampered. They sequestered funds for themselves (while amazingly often managing to bankrupt the abbey by doing stupid things with money), and sometimes even harboured criminals. They were supposed to live simple lives, but found ways around every rule, including the invention of a sort of sign language to get around the rule of no communication over mealtimes. It’s easy to see how the clergy became figures of fun. By early modern times, people had learned to put far more faith in nuns, more likely to behave properly according to the church.

John Piper, (English, 1903 – 1992), Valle Crucis Abbey, 1940, mixed media
John Piper, (English, 1903 – 1992), Valle Crucis Abbey, 1940, mixed media

Gothic Stories And Madness

American Gothic in particular tends to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters. An early example is the novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker by Charles Brockden Brown. Two characters slowly become more and more deranged.

  • Sunset Boulevard — Since Boulevard’s original film release, the role has become famous for its tragic, hysterical femaleness, and is for that reason vulnerable to one-dimensional renderings of empty, and even harmful, stereotype. Sunset Boulevard subtextually warns that a woman’s ambition, creativity, and desire for sexual fulfilment are the causes of unhappiness and undoing.
  • Fatal Attraction — While Norma of Sunset Boulevard is an artist, the madwoman of Fatal Attraction is a professional.
  • Black Swan
  • Flowers In The Attic by Virginia Andrews
  • Apocalypse Now
  • The Shining by Stephen King — Isolation is used as a vehicle for madness. (Used again more recently in Shut In.) The main character is Jack Torrence, played by Jack Nicholson in Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation. With his family he looks after an empty hotel one winter, partly to concentrate on writing his novel. But he is haunted by visions and descends into murderous madness.
  • Carrie by Stephen King, which promotes anxiety and thereby encourages conformity. A good example of ‘suburban Gothic’, making use of Gothic features such as witch-hunting.
  • Misery by Stephen King
  • The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, who was herself diagnosed with hysteria and commanded never to touch pencil and paper again.
  • Shut In — Naomi Watts plays a widowed child psychologist who lives in isolation in rural New England with her son, who is comatose and bedridden as a result of an automobile accident. Snowed in and withdrawn from the outside world, Watts’ character descends into a desperate existence. It soon becomes difficult for her to distinguish the phantasms of her imagination from the reality of the creepy goings-on in her apparently haunted house.
FEMALE GOTHIC CHARACTER ARCHETYPES OF STEPHEN KING

Stephen King is an especially popular writer of contemporary Gothic fiction and deserves further mention.

While classic Gothic has only two adult female archetypes, the Virginal Maiden and the Other Woman, Stephen King uses three stereotypes:

  1. Monster: Women who shun or distort the criteria of the domestic test. The audience is invited to pass dark judgement on these women. They are human villains. They are feminine in gender, but have no feminine virtues at all. IT is a standout example, and a hideous inversion given that it targets children. (Throughout the novel, IT is generally referred to as male; however, late in the novel, the characters come to realize that IT is most likely female, due to its true form in the physical realm being that of a giant pregnant female spider.)
  2. Helpmate: the most common female character in Stephen King stories. She aspires to be a good wife and mother and does well on the domestic test. The better they do on the domestic test, the better their outcome in the story. These women step back and let the men take care of the beasts. Not all helpmates are successful. Donna Trenton of Cujo is a failed helpmate. She waits too long before trying to save her son. Women who behave like children (rather than providing safe refuge from their men) are also failed helpmates. Traumatised women behaving like children are also punished (Rachel Creed). Rachel Creed is an extreme version of the failed helpmate and descends into monstrosity.
  3. Madonna: much less common in Stephen King stories. Normally when we talk about Madonna characters we mean women who are pure and chaste, but this isn’t exactly what Pharr is talking about. Sex is liberally sprinkled throughout Stephen King’s stories. He doesn’t tend to write non-sexual women. This Madonna character is like a super-helpmate. She is so good at being a helpmate that she is above reproach. Stephen King doesn’t give her a moral shortcoming. Sasha from Eyes of the Dragon is a Madonna: perfect wife, mother and homemaker.

Critic Mary Pharr classified King’s female characters into Monster, Helpmate and Madonna.

Pharr makes use of Kay Mussell’s “domestic test”, equating a female character’s goodness and likeability with how well she fulfills the roles of homemaker, wife and mother. Often in stories, if a female character fails on one of those areas, her story ends up a tragedy.

Ideally, women provide such a respite for their mates and their young.
This role is enormously important and never intentionally patronizing. Its
defect, however, is also enormous: it determines a woman’s worth
exclusively by her domestic success or failure rather than by any
achievements she may have as an individual. The domestic test is, finally,
a very narrow, very tough way to judge any human being, even fictional
ones.

Mary Pharr
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952
Joseph Mugnaini, the eerie Modern Gothic of the Rochester House in Los Angeles by Ray Bradbury 1952

As we learned from Misery, the story of the woman who holds a man captive can never be a glamorous one. Over the course of Stephen King’s 1987 novel, we’re led to understand that Annie’s insanity—her insecurity, her obsession—is inextricable from that which makes her unlovable, a given long before she ever stumbles across the luckless object of her affections, her favourite writer, in the wreckage of his car. Dowdy and deranged, Annie forces him to rewrite his final novel according to her whims, crooning, “I’m your biggest fan,” over his tortured body.

And indeed, what could be beautiful or romantic about a woman with the violent upper hand, the muse forcing herself on the artist—never mind that the gendered inverse (see: Scheherazade’s dilemma) is the stuff of literature? A story about woman holding a man against his will, especially if she seeks to exploit his creative labor…Well, that’s just crazy. And for women, crazy, as we all know, is not a Good Look.

from Davey Davis writing at The Millions

Davis is writing about the gendered nature of craziness:

  • Humanity is not something the crazy woman is typically afforded
  • This ‘madwoman archetype’, or the idea that a woman who desires (what she doesn’t have; what she shouldn’t want; what is inconvenient or dangerous for male authority) must be institutionalised, silenced, or worse — is deep in the bedrock of our culture.
  • Even now, the two attributes of women most feared (by the dominant culture and by women ourselves) are ugliness and craziness. Infertility is linked to ugliness, which is linked to old age. Old age is linked to death, the most scary thing of all.
Owls' Watch anthology of horror stories selected by George Brandon Saul
Owls’ Watch anthology of horror stories selected by George Brandon Saul

Settings Of Gothic Horror

In general, the settings of Gothic stories focus on the archaic in some way.

The setting of the Gothic novel is a character in itself. The setting not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.

The term “Gothic” originates with the ornate architecture created by Germanic tribes called the Goths. It was then later expanded to include most of the medieval style of architecture. The ornate and intricate style of this kind of architecture proved to be the ideal backdrop for both the physical and the psychological settings in a new literary style, one which concerned itself with elaborate tales of mystery, suspense, and superstition.

ThoughtCo

The building might be:

  • a large castle or estate set in the wilderness, far away from neighbours or cities
  • an abbey
  • a monastery
  • crumbling battlements
  • ruined dwellings
  • prisons
  • abandoned hospitals
  • or some other, usually religious, edifice

Buildings will probably be in need of repairs, even if they’re not actually abandoned. Ruins, dungeons, darkness and largeness are key to setting the Gothic mood. Owners have a lot of economic capital and power to ruin others. Or perhaps the owner used to possess considerable wealth, but not anymore.

This building will have secrets of its own, and can therefore be considered a character in its own right (with psychological/moral needs and desires). These Building Characters even have names of their own. They seem to “brood”. In feminist Gothic fiction, the house may be an outworking of the female body, with its ability to ‘house’ others (via pregnancy).

The castles and monasteries of classic Gothic are in some way exotic. They’re not typically written by authors with excellent architectural knowledge themselves, but by writers whose idea of castles and monastaries have been influenced by the etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720 – 1778), who was himself an architect.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi 'The Round Tower'
Giovanni Battista Piranesi ‘The Round Tower’

These scenes play with tidbits from imagined feudalistic and Medieval histories which are remixed for maximum playfulness. The readers of these stories were living in the age of industrial capitalism, whose idea of the past didn’t exactly hew to accuracy.

Painters such as Henry Fuseli (1741 – 1825) were also creating for industial capitalist audiences a ‘Gothic’ idea of the past.

Henry Fuseli, "The Nightmare"
Henry Fuseli, “The Nightmare”

Other settings may include caves or the wilderness, metaphorical spaces which are as old as storytelling itself.

The scary house on the cover of Spirit Hunters makes use of a tilt angle to increase the feeling that not all is right with this world.
Plot Structure Of A Straight-up UNIRONIC CLASSIC Gothic Story

WEAKNESS: A female character is an innocent, unwitting victim with no particular moral shortcoming but she is weak in general owing to her position/station in life.

DESIRE: She (perhaps subconsciously) wants to be saved from her ordinary life. This is the same wish-fulfilment as modern dark, paranormal romances, and is easy to mock until you understand that this desire is borne of a need to escape, because adolescence is terrifying for a girl whose body is suddenly attracting the attention of much larger, stronger men, some of whom will not leave her alone.

OPPONENT: She is the victim of some sort of external malevolence.

ALLY: A rescuer arrives from outside.

BIG STRUGGLE: There is a climactic encounter between the forces of evil and the forces of good.

NEW SITUATION: The evil is now expelled completely.

Symbol Web Of Gothic Horror

Night journeys

Journeys that take place overnight are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people.

Evil characters

Evil characters are a particular feature of American Gothic. Depending on the time period that the work is written about, the evil characters could be characters like Native Americans, trappers, gold miners etc.

Omens

Omens, portents, visions, etc. — often foreshadow events to come. They can take many forms, such as dreams.

Miraculous survivals

Shy, nervous and retiring heroines are nonetheless equipped with the remarkable ability to survive, even in the most hideous and dangerous situations.

An element of fear

Commentator Scott McCracken says, “The central and indispensable element of gothic horror is fear.” While fear is present in every Gothic story, not every story about fear is Gothic. Some say that fear is Gothic if human characters don’t understand the source of the fear.

To that I would ask, don’t we already have a word for that kind of fear? See: What Is Cosmic Horror?

In any case, this fear can lead characters in Gothic stories to commit heinous crimes. Brown’s character Edgar Huntly is driven by fear when he contemplates eating himself, eats an uncooked panther, and drinks his own sweat. (Memoirs of a Sleepwalker is a 1799 novel by the American author Charles Brockden Brown.)

Psychological overlay

Characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. An example: A character is in a maze-like area. The story makes a connection between the outer world of incomprehensible path, and the maze-like confusion (inside the character’s mind).

The Other

Frederike van Leeuwen said in 1982 that women’s Gothic fiction is ‘the discourse of the Other’. Frankenstein is an early and tentpole example of this. You’re likely familiar with the following famous paragraph from Mary Shelley’s classic:

I am alone and miserable; man will not associate with me; but one as deformed and horrible as myself would not deny herself to me. My companion must be of the same species and have the same defects. This being you must create.

Frankenstein

Frankenstein was different because the story gave voice to the Othered. Until then, the monsters had been kept as Minotaur opponents, not afforded humanity or sympathetic thoughts of their own.

Note that ‘feminine Gothic’ doesn’t have to be written by women nor star female characters. A ‘feminine Gothic’ story is defined by a number of criteria. One feature is the presentation of ‘subjectivity as female’, and in its own way, monstrous.

Susanne Becker offers Margaret Atwood’s novel Lady Oracle as an excellent example of feminine Gothic because the main character ‘Joan foster continuously engages in a play with herself as Other’.

In children’s literature, Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters may also fit the category of feminine Gothic.

Revelation & Gothic’s Relationship To Mystery

Revelation is the basis of much plotted fiction, especially any story containing a mystery—and that includes far more than detective or mystery fiction. Much gothic fiction is founded on a central mystery. When a story’s main dynamic is to have the protagonist find out something, or realize something that’s been true for some time, the story’s narrative drive comes from the finding out, not in the discovered fact itself. More similar to a ‘whydunnit’ mystery than a ‘whodunnit’, in other words.

Often the framework of this kind of mystery/revelation story will be very simple: a quest or journey which involves meeting people, getting into one situation after another, each demonstrating the story’s central theme but otherwise unrelated to the others, each supplying some new information on the story’s central mystery.

The Mad Woman In The Attic Trope

The Mad Woman In The Attic is now a trope, though this real life story flips it — a woman kept her husband in the attic and made him live like a bat. 

Jane Eyre —Mr. Edward Rochester keeps his violently insane wife Bertha locked in the attic of Thornfield. All the while, Rochester is romancing Jane. The story is Jane’s gradual discovery of the unchanging but hidden state of things. Except for the secret — the mystery — the story would be quite static.

Likewise, Rebecca, whose plot is the disclosure of dead Rebecca’s real nature and how her widower, Maxim, actually felt toward her. Rebecca is a more modern Bluebeard story

Stranger Things, the Netflix TV show, also features a ‘girl in the attic’ trope in Eleven. Stranger Things is indeed a gothic story:

One of the most interesting aspects of this show is how it’s reminiscent of gothic fiction. A lot of early gothic is set in some kind of remote past yet reflects contemporaneous issues. With Stranger Things we have a 21st century TV show set in the 80s, which I guess for young people is a remote past, but speaking to our contemporary moment. We are thus looking at Stranger Things not as an exercise in nostalgia, but as a text that speaks to current issues like surveillance culture and the modern family. In short, it is interesting how the show turns to the past to speak to the present.

interview with Dr Phillip Serrato

A Short List Of Well-known Classic Gothic Tales For Adult Readers

  • Bluebeard — the ur-Castle story
  • Kafka 
  • Gormenghast series — three novels by Mervyn Peake, originally published between 1946 and 1959. Follows the life of Titus Groan, left to fend for himself in a crumbling kingdom he will one day inherit. He is surrounded by bizarre family members. He survives his neglectful childhood, grows up, survives attempted murder. The ending is thought to be pretty poor. Peake never bothered finishing it himself — it’s supposedly finished off by his family, which explains a lot.
  • Princess and the Goblin and The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald — these stories influenced C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The horror classic film Freaks
  • The Castle of Otranto (1764) by Horace Walpole is probably the most famous example of pure gothic fiction. The combined elements of terror and medievalism set a precedent for an entirely new, thrilling genre. This story was already a pastiche and self-consciously parodic send-up of the genre that it itself established. “A lonely, self-divided hero [embarks] on an insane pursuit of the Absolute” (Thompson, 1974). “He persecutes the maiden-in-flight and is himself destroyed, rather than attaining his immoral aims” (Becker, 1988)
  • The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) by Anne Radcliffe — a good example of a paranormal scheme against a helpless young woman. Bourgeois heroine Emily St. Aubert endures all kinds of struggles. She loses her father to supernatural experiences in an old castle. “The heroine’s pursuit of self-fulfilment through marriage is interrupted byt he vilain’s intervention, which — ironically — enables her to solve a mystery related to her mother and to position herself with a much stronger sense of — psychological, social, linguistic — identity before attaining her original goal.” (Becker, 1988). Jane Austen was influenced by this book. The heroine continuously disavows her own foolish predisposition towards superstition by projecting it onto her servant girl, Annette. Radcliffe defamliarised ‘woman’s place’ by turning the home into a castle.
  • The Haunted Beach (1758-1800) by Mary Robinson — a tale of a murdered man and a ghostly crew. 
  • Zofloya (1806) by Charlotte Dacre — “Zofloya is all about the voluptuous and half-demonic Victoria and her dealings with the all-demonic Zofloya—the devil disguised as a handsome Moorish servant. Although Victoria is suitably punished for her transgressions at the end, Dacre revels in depicting female desire (for a man of colour no less—scandalous) and you can’t help wondering if she isn’t rather on the devil’s side.” (Dr Sam Hirst)
  • Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (1817) is a parody of The Mysteries of Udolpho, which was already in some ways a parody of the Gothic tradition. Jane Austen parodied the genre but also seemed to really enjoy reading it herself. She continued to read gothic romance for years, even after parodying it. Pastiche may be a better word than ‘parody’ because it simply utilised various tropes, plot points and motifs.
  • The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786) by William Thomas Beckford
  • The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis — Lewis was 19 when he wrote this novel of ecclesiastical debasement. It is stuffed full of love, murder and immorality.
  • Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Shelley — This novel is the pinup Gothic novel. Dr Frankenstein creates a creature from body parts culled from graves at the local cemetery. It was Ellen Moers who first recognised Frankenstein as a birth myth in 1978, which started academics thinking harder about the role of mothers in Gothic fiction.
  • Melmoth the Wanderer (1820) by Charles Maturin
  • Salathiel the Immortal (1828) by George Croly
  • The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831) by Victor Hugo
  • Varney the Vampire; or, The Feast of Blood (1847) by James Malcolm Rymer
  • The Fall of the House of Usher (1839) by Edgar Allan Poe
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Dracula (1897) by Bram Stoker — Vampires, haunted kingdoms, blood.
  • Jane Eyre
  • The Picture Of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — a philosophical work about getting old and indulgence. The main character becomes so obsessed with stayng beautiful that he sells his soul. He occasionally goes up to the attic to watch his portrait grow old.
  • The Woman In Black (1983) by Susan Hill — A best-seller from the 1980s. A spooky visitor haunts a small town in England, warning that children are going to die. It’s been adapted for stage and is a hit in West End.
  • Interview With The Vampire by Anne Rice — Written as an interview between a reporter and a vampire called Louis de Pointe du Lac, who recounts the last 200 years of his life. He is full of regret.
  • Work by Clive Barker has gothic elements
  • Stephen King’s work is very clearly modern Gothic, but when asked, King says he can’t think of any academic subject more boring than trying to define what Gothic is and is not.
  • The Tell Tale Heart (1843) by Edgar Allan Poe — the murderous main character is haunted by the sound of the beating heart of his victim, hidden in pieces under the floorboards.
  • Wuthering Heights (1847) by Emily Bronte — Set on the moors, this story is about class, survival, prejudice and is highly atmospheric.
  • The Tale Of Raw Head and Bloody Bones by Jack Wolf
  • 10 Gothic historical stories and novels that interrogate history but aren’t subject to it

Gothic Children’s Literature

A Brief History Of Gothic Children’s Literature

Gothic children’s literature emerged in response to the adult Gothic romance. However, even children in the 18th century probably preferred the scary tales over the didactic ones they were supposed to read, which were heavily didactic. There was an effort by the gatekeepers of this time to keep Gothic stories away from children. This fear has never subsided. There are always cultural critics worried about the effect Gothic stories have on the tabula rasa of children. In earlier eras children were thought to be entirely innocent. Rousseau was partly responsible for that. These days stories tend to play with the idea that children are somewhat complicit in getting themselves into trouble. This is why children’s stories, too, quite often give a moral shortcoming to the main character. This affords children more agency, in fact.

Maryrose Wood uses this historical attitude in her gothic parody The Mysterious Howling when she writes:

[Penelope the governess] had chosen Dante because she found the rhyme scheme pleasingly jaunty, but she realised too late that the Inferno’s tale of sinners being cruelly punished in the afterlife was much too bloody and disturbing to be suitable for young minds. Penelope could tell this by the way the children hung on her every word and demanded “More, more!” each time she reached the end of a canto and tried to stop […]

Penelope had begun reading poetry to the children in the belief that it would improve their English faster than lists of spelling words ever could. Besides, she personally found poetry very interesting, and since her students [literally raised by wolves] were more or less blank slates when it came to literature, she felt she might as well do what she liked. (As you may already know, the Latin term for “blank slate” is tabula rasa, a phrase the Incorrigibles would no doubt be exposed to a little further on in their educations.)

The Mysterious Howling, book one of The Incorrigible Children Of Ashton Place

Recently we have those fears directed towards the Twilight series, in which the passive heroine basically waits around to be saved by a creepy, much older male monster. The fear is that girls in real life will hope to emulate this as a script for their own romantic lives. (I admit, I have some sympathy for this view myself, if girls are reading dark, paranormal fiction widely but not critically. Then again, who’s to say they’re not critical of the very stories they enjoy?)

Children’s stories have always been gothic. In fact, gothic stories belonged to children all along. The Gothic romances for adults actually came out of fairytales told while these adult readers were still children.

There was a lot of playing with Gothic conventions in the latter half of the 19th century, especially by woman writers, who were presumably reading gothic romance/horror themselves for pleasure.

Another three 18th century woman writers started writing partly in order to combat what they considered worrying trends in contemporary children’s fiction. These women were Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother, 1759 – 1797), Anna Laetitia Barbauld and Maria Edgeworth.

Mary Wollstonecraft wrote a seminal feminist work called Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). But she also wrote Maria, of the Wrongs of Women (1798) in which men are the real threat, not the supernatural (much like a Scooby-Doo conclusion).

ABODES OF HORROR have frequently been described, and castles, filled with spectres and chimeras, conjured up by the magic spell of genius to harrow the soul, and absorb the wondering mind. But, formed of such stuff as dreams are made of, what were they to the mansion of despair, in one corner of which Maria sat, endeavouring to recall her scattered thoughts!

the opening to Maria, of the Wrongs of Women

Bear in mind that each of these women used Gothic features in their writing for children but it wasn’t actually Gothic because they didn’t want to expose children to ghosts. Also, each and every one of them wrote Gothic stories for adults in a different part of her writing career, exposing a double standard. We love the Gothic and find it entertaining, but not for children, whose minds are easily corrupted.

Influential male writers have said they loved to read Gothic chapbooks as children. These men include: Boswell, Johnson, Carlyle, Goethe, Lamb, Wordsworth and Coleridge. Yet chapbooks were never culturally approved. (Chapbooks were magazine type products sold door-to-door — an important means of cultural dissemination before people could afford books.) Chap books were considered trash fiction.

Before the rise of the Gothic novel, faciliated by the development of cheap printing systems, the Chapbook and Bluebook were common forms of literature, particularly in the United Kingdom. For a penny or half-penny, members of the public of any class with the ability to read suddenly had access to a wealth of information (of varying degrees of accuracy) and stories of adventure and morality through these publications. Although looked down on by the higher classes of the time, and indeed by scholars of today, the Chapbooks and Bluebooks are a wonderful repository of folklore which can tell us much about the beliefs and traditions of the people of the time. In this edition of The Folklore Podcast, the first of Season 2, creator and host Mark Norman examines some of the folklore presented in the old Chapbooks and how it was used to teach lessons to others. 

The Folklore Podcast

A very easy definition of Gothic children’s literature: Gothic stories are everything ‘quality’ children’s literature is not, in any given era. When a literature emerged for the middle class white child, ghosts were firmly erased.

Fear (or the pretence of fear) is very popular right now in children’s literature. This is the modern take on ‘gothic’.

Examples Of Early Gothic Children’s Literature

  • Mary Louisa Molesworth (A Christmas Child, A Christmas Posy, An Enchanted Garden and so on)took the gothic tradition and domesticated it.
  • A Sweet Girl Graduate by L.T. Meade is a vivid and detailed description of college life among a perfect bevy of young misses in the old English university town of Kingsdene. It follows the fortunes of a young Devonshire lass who goes away to college and finds herself among entirely different conditions of life and points of view than those that prevail in her own narrow village. L.T. Meade was perhaps the first to transform the school into a gothic place.
  • The Secret Garden has the madwoman in the attic trope, though the prisoner is a little boy, not a mad-woman. There’s also the haunted house and grounds. The Secret Garden is the most obvious example of Gothic children’s literature.
  • C.S. Lewis used The Woman In The Attic trope in his Narnia ChroniclesThe Magician’s Nephew to be exact. The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe begins in a big old scary mansion and a scary, remote owner who is basically a hermit, probably with secrets of his own.
  • The Gashlycrumb Tinies by Edward Gorey, who writes macabre rhymes. “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs, B is for Basil assaulted by bears…”In response to being called gothic, [Gorey] stated, “If you’re doing nonsense it has to be rather awful, because there’d be no point. I’m trying to think if there’s sunny nonsense. Sunny, funny nonsense for children—oh, how boring, boring, boring. As Schubert said, there is no happy music. And that’s true, there really isn’t. And there’s probably no happy nonsense, either.” Wikipedia entry on Edward Gorey
  • Emily series by L.M. Montgomery (who wrote Anne of Green Gables) — Montgomery plays with Gothic conventions, as well as in some of her stand-alone novels and short stories.

If you’re wondering about Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, Alice is not Gothic literature. There are plenty of Gothic features without it adding up to actually Gothic. Alice is absurdist instead.

Features Of Gothic Children’s Literature

What does the Gothic look like in children’s literature? Gothic motifs in general are very well-suited to exploring adolescence, and the way identity seems to change from day to day. With the menarche, girls face blood — another Gothic motif (wayward fluids, murder). Elements include:

  • Hobgoblins, dwarves, trolls, witches, werewolves, vampires and other folkloric creatures
  • Bugaboos such as chimney sweeps, Wee Willy Winkies and other creatures from urban folklore. (Bugaboos come in the night.)
  • Ghouls — The ghoul is the classic Gothic monster. They frighten us and transform the familiar into the strange and threatening.
  • Ghosts, spectres, phantoms, apparitions and general hauntings
  • Schools are often the proxy for haunted mansions and castles. The schoolyard is the forest.
  • Irony and parody is very gothic, so anything meta in the style of Lemony Snicket borrows from the Gothic tradition. There’s a lot of parody of Victorian settings.
  • The Gothic is to do with transgression, lack of restraint and the overturning of normality. For example, Gothic villains break taboos, as do young children, by not doing as they’re told. See again The Carnivalesque, which is a tradition with a long history in children’s literature. No wonder Gothic features so heavily in stories for the young.
  • A lot of Gothic stories have a ‘jump’ ending. Take the oral versions of Little Red Riding Hood, for instance, in which the storyteller grabs the listener as if she is about to get eaten by the wolf. A number of modern stories for young children are also designed to be performed as much as read.
  • The Gothic warns readers of the dangers mysteriously close to even the most familiar places. The Gothic tells us that the world is not safe. How many children’s stories teach that? Quite a number. Pretty much any story that’s not pastoral is teaching children that same lesson: Be vigilant, be smart, stick with your friends, know friends from enemies.
  • Gothic children’s literature often takes the form of fantasy. If the Gothic is about fear of desire, fantasy is a great genre to explore that because fantasy teaches the reader to desire.
  • Many children’s stories use the trope of the Explained Ghost. Basically, there’s some sort of supernatural happenings in the world of the story which is later revealed to have been just the over-workings of a foolish mind. This trope is used to teach the reader that there is no such thing as ghosts and whatnot, and to always dig deeper for the truth behind our fancies. Nevertheless, even the Explained Ghost tropes themselves rely upon Gothic motifs and traditions. That’s not to say traditional Gothic stories themselves didn’t make use of the Explained Ghost. Ann Radcliffe herself used it, though perhaps to a different end (to show up rational thinking by later subverting it).
  • There are a lot of orphans in children’s literature. Absent maternity is a feature of the Gothic.

Tips For Writing Gothic Stories For Children

Unlike in Gothic romance for adults, child heroes are mostly given something to fight back with. They don’t wait around to be rescued, except in the odd parody. This is in line with the general advice when writing for children: heroes must be proactive and basically get themselves out of their own predicaments. They may ask for help from a mentor, but no one’s coming to save them.

The writer must be familiar with gothic motifs and tropes and settings — familiar enough to parody them, and to manage whether readers will find something scary or funny (or both).

Writers can take gothic motifs and transplant them to a new setting. This creates a kind of neo-Gothic (to borrow from the term neo-Western). For example, writers may take the labyrinthine qualities of a castle and reuse them in a dystopian city or in a setting inspired by cyberspace.

Gothic stories tend to do one of two things:

  1. They can either suggest subversive possibilities to readers
  2. They can scare children into submission and ensure conformity.

Be clear with yourself: Are you achieving the former? If not, you’re writing didactic, 19th century work.

Examples Of Modern Gothic Literature For Children

  • Flowers In The Attic was the Twilight of my generation (teenagers of the 1990s). It features children locked in the attic of a big, mean castle of a house and a wicked grandmother. Also incest.
  • Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl — This is the first of The Caster Chronicles. It is young adult fiction about a main character called Ethan, who has lost his mother and feels trapped in a tiny town.
  • Roald Dahl — Dahl’s work is popular partly because stories preserve the innocence of the child and retains the level of evil of the villain, but gives the child the means to save themselves. Daniel Handler has continued this tradition.
  • Anything Gothic for children these days tends to be compared to Daniel Handler’s Lemony Snicket series, even if there’s not much else really in common.
  • An example often compared to Lemony Snicket is The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, set in the mid 1850s.
  • J.K. Rowling uses the madwoman in the attic trope in Harry Potter, more than once, and many other elements from Gothic fiction, being the master borrower and remixer of tropes.
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman — chronicles the life of Nobody Owens who lives in a graveyard. The story is a series of loosely connected stories about Bod’s life and what he learns about life/death.
  • Coraline by Neil Gaiman is another middle grade novel from the gothic tradition, with its large house, bizarre characters and supernatural goings-on.
  • Wolves In The Walls by Neil Gaiman is a picture book, with a title reminiscent of The Rats In The Walls, and is similarly gothic in tone.
  • Leo: A Ghost Story by Mac Barnett and Christian Robinson — a picture book about a ghost called Leo who lives alone in a deserted house.
  • The Dark by Lemony Snickett and Jon Klassen — a picture book set in a big, scary, empty, dark house. In reality the house is probably an ordinary one, replete with a mother/father, but the representation of the house on the page is how the boy feels about it.
  • The Widow’s Broom by Chris Van Allsburg
  • Ghostlight by Sonia Gensler — An American Gothic tale including an abandoned haunted mansion, spooky movies, imaginary games, film-making (a popular device in ghost stories).
  • Doll Bones by Holly Black — A coming-of-age novel about a boy called Zach who plays with dolls. His father throws his creepy porcelain dolls away but this isn’t the last we see of them.
  • The Spiderwick Chronicles by Holly Black
  • The Tricksters by Margaret Mahy
  • Gothic Hospital by Gary Crew
  • The Devil Latch by Sonya Hartnett
  • The Seventh Tower by Garth Nix
  • Thirsty by M.T. Anderson — the main character can’t join in his culture’s hatred of the monstrous because he has discovered it within himself. He has to find a way of living which is neither killing himself nor accepting his fate.
  • Good Masters, Sweet Ladies by Laura Amy Schlitz — As Kate de Goldi said in her RNZ interview review, the author uses Victorian Gothic really skilfully in her books. It’s a great playground for children’s writers at the moment: Writers don’t have to wrestle with technology in the story and this historical setting is dark and mysterious and very colourful, and lends an air of fantasy. This is a really good story. There are big things being talked about women’s place, about exploitation at all levels of life. The author looks very interestingly at disability and writes really tenderly about unusual friendships about people who are marginalised.
  • Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz — The things that Schlitz did well in her first novel were done equally well in this one. (There are two titles for this book depending on the continent.) This is a fantastic adventure about two orphans who work for an Italian puppeteer. They live in poverty. This is a fable, of sorts. Names of characters are really important in this: Clara (light) Wintermute (she can’t speak). In her house she’s been silenced by the grief of her parents. Four of her siblings died in the cholera epidemic but she survived and has the guilt of a survivor. While the plot may sound a bit hokey, the writing is very beautiful. The music, the rhythm of the words… We learn a huge amount of detail about Victorian London. Something Schlitz does without any shrinking is show the evil capacity of ordinary adults. It’s quite frightening the way the adults have buried sexual desires which are under the surface of the text. Having said that, this is very much a children’s story. The end is elevating.

Then there are books which are not obviously Gothic, but influenced by the tradition. The labyrinthine computer game stories set in cyberspace calling to mind the structures of Gothic castles, are one example, as mentioned above. Themes in common: double consciousness, metafiction, moral disintegration. In this way, 19th century Gothic fiction has a lot in common with ultra-contemporary speculative work.

Further Reading

With regard to children’s gothic, Anna Jackson recently edited a collection titled New Directions in Children’s Gothic: Debatable Lands. It’s a good start for getting a sense of the type of scholarship that is going on in the field. Also, anything by Chloe Buckley, who has what sounds like a fascinating book on children’s gothic coming out November 30.

Dr Phillip Serrato

 ‘On the Pleasure Derived from Objects of Terror’ by Anna Letitia Aikin (later Barbauld)
and John Aikin

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Home » Stephen King

Reversals and Reveals In Storytelling

Reversals and reveals are vital for creating momentum and suspense in a story. Certain genres are required to be more page-turny than others, and all children’s literature must be page-turny. So you’ll find reversals and reveals everywhere in children’s literature.

the mountain of reversals and reveals
A picture of a mountain because in stories, character revelations often take place on one.

WHAT ARE ‘REVEALS’?

Peripeteia: “A sudden change of events or reversal of circumstances, especially in a literary work.”

Contemporary English speakers have a bit of trouble remembering ‘peripeteia’, myself included, so of course ‘reveal’ caught on.

‘Reveal’ started out as a verb, but is now commonly used by writers as a noun. This happened when novelists turned to TV, apparently.

‘Oh darling, [story is] just two or three little surprises followed every now and again by a bigger surprise.

Peggy Ramsay, agent

A revelation is basically a surprise.

Revelation is seen by the audience as motion, even if nothing has changed but knowledge or insight.

WHAT ARE ‘REVERSALS’?

‘Reversals’ are ‘big reveals’. The audience’s understanding of everything in the story is turned on its head. They suddenly see every element of the plot in a new light. All reality changes in an instant. ‘Reversal’ is a term writers use. Audiences tend to just say ‘plot twist’, but that often just means a sequence they weren’t able to easily predict. For example, when Andy escapes in Shawshank Redemption, that’s not a reversal. It might qualify as a twist because we generally expect life-prisoners to stay where they are. 

The Sixth Sense, however, includes a genuine reversal because the famous revelation requires us to regard the entire story until that point in a completely different light. The big reversal reveal comes right at the end of the story. This has the advantage of sending the audience out of the theater with a knockout punch. It’s the biggest reason this movie was a hit. (M. Night Shyalaman didn’t come up with the idea of the psychologist being dead until well after his first draft. Though he managed to make it feel very new, Shyalaman was borrowing from a long tradition of Dead All Along characters.) 

https://twitter.com/factsonfiIm/status/1291475347356049409

An example of a reversal is when the audience finds out who A.D. is on Pretty Little Liars. A mistake the writers of that show made was waiting seven seasons to give that information to the audience. Desperate Housewives, the writer’s mentor series, wrapped up mysteries at the end of each season, not at the end of the entire series. This is called a ‘reveal’ but is also a reversal because we realise A.D. was in front of us the whole time. We are asked to think back on everything we’ve seen so far and consider in a new light.

An example of the frustration experienced by viewers when information is withheld across years.

The Greeks called this ‘peripeteia’. A classic example is Oedipus Rex — it’s the bit where he finds out about his parents. Fast forward a few years we have Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is.

A story can have more than one reversal. While minor reversals can occur in every scene, bigger ones tend to divide the work into specific acts.

A reversal reveal is most common in detective stories and thrillers. 

A subversion is not a modern invention but peripeteia itself. it is the tool that catapults the hero into the opposite of their present state — from thesis to antithesis, from home to a world unknown.

That’s what inciting incidents are too — they are ‘explosions of opposition’, structural tools freighted with all the characteristics the characters lack; embodiments, indeed, of everything they need. Cliffhangers, inciting incidents and crisis points are essentially the same thing: a turning point at the end of an act; the unexpected entry point for the protagonists into the new world; bombs built from the very qualities they lack which explode their existing universe, hurtling them into an alien space of which they must then make sense.

John Yorke, Into The Woods

The final pay off must follow the internal logic established at the beginning of the story. Scooby Doo is hokey, but did this very well.

Here’s a father making his toddler laugh with the Scooby Doo grunt:

Now You See Me (the film) has a twist which doesn’t follow the established logic and is considered a failure. It’s not interesting for an audience to see a 100% change of a character’s personality that has been built up throughout the whole movie.

The best reversal is the kind that creates the biggest surprise without ruining the established logic.

Create suspense by providing the audience with a certain amount of information, then leave the rest to their own imagination.

Alfred Hitchcock

Give the audience just enough to see it coming but not enough to expect it. How to test if the plot twist works or not: The story is rewatchable/re-readable. It should be just as fun if not more fun to go back and see where the writers hint at that twist. This explains why studies show that spoiling a book before a subject reads it makes the reading more enjoyable. The path towards the reversal is more exciting, even though the reader has lost the enjoyment of the surprise. Perhaps this is why lots of stories spoil the ending at the very beginning.

For more on writing a twist ending, see this post.

EXAMPLES OF REVEALS AND REVERSALS

Gone Girl has a big reversal when we realise the victim is bad.

Victimised women who are actually evil in their own right may be a trend started by Gillian Flynn. In the b-grade horror/thriller movie Pet (2016) a stalker captures a woman he’s interested in and keeps her in a cage in ‘the tunnels’ of a dog shelter where he works. Halfway through the movie the young woman is discovered by the security guard. The reversal is that instead of wanting to be saved, the captured woman encourages her captor to murder him brutally. The big reveal is that she is a psychopath and the reason the stalker creep has captured her is because by stalking her he has realised this about her.

Safe Haven is a movie based on a Nicholas Sparks novel, which is fun to watch if you enjoy predicting romantic cliches. The minor conflict, the handsome widower, the woman who kids fall in love with. The downpour of rain, the first kiss… Eventually, however, just when there is nothing left (because they’ve fallen into bed), Sparks gives us the first major revelation: He tells the audience why his main character is being followed. All this time we weren’t sure if she’s a baddie, but now we know she’s the victim, abused and stalked by her cop ex-husband. But another supernatural revelation occurs right at the end, when we realize the woman who has befriended our main character has been a ghost all along. This is a reversal, because it causes us to see the entire progression of the relationship in a new light — this coupling hasn’t happened organically at all; it’s been ‘ordained’ by a higher power.

REVERSALS AND REVEALS DONE BADLY

The Rug Jerk

Any gratuitous plot or character twist tossed in solely to jerk the rug out from under the reader for the sake of surprise or shock, without sufficient foundation, foreshadowing or justification (retroactive or otherwise). Essentially any story twist that violates Chekhov’s principles: “If you fire a gun in Act III, it must be seen on the wall in Act I; and if you show a gun on the wall in Act I, it must be fired in Act III.” The Rug Jerk fires the gun without showing it first or explaining where it came from afterwards.

The Reset Switch, aka The Reboot

Any device that allows a writer to completely erase any already-occurred events of a story and bring the characters back to a predefined starting point, with little or no changes to them or their universe. Time travel (“It never happened”), parallel universes (“It never happened *here*”), unconscious duplicates (“We’re all just clones/simulations/androids of the REAL characters!”) and dream-sequences (“It was all a dream!”) have all been used this way. To be avoided unless the existence of such a phenomenon is, itself, the story’s or series’ central plot point (as in *The Man Who Folded Himself* or *The Left Hand of Darkness*).

Critters.org

A Common Misperception

A misperception I run into a lot: if a reader is not SHOCKED by your big twist, it’s a failure. This isn’t true! Here’s why…

First, guessing a surprise twist beforehand (as long as it isn’t insulting obvious) can make readers feel smart and vindicated to see they guessed right.

Second, when you use a trope where a certain plot twist/reveal is expected, knowing that reveal is coming ADDS to the tension, it doesn’t detract from it. We’re looking forward to him discovering *gasp* his gf is actually the empress! The anticipation is part of the experience.

So: a plot twist can have value not only in being surprising, but also in being anticipated. How to set up plot twists so they’ll delightfully surprise readers OR add to our breathless anticipation when we guess them early: foreshadow adequately, but don’t make it blindingly obvious (unless you don’t mean for it to be a reveal to us, only to another character).

Try to ensure that your reveal will escalate the stakes and/or evolve at least one conflict (the main external one, an internal conflict, or a conflict between characters) in a new way. If it doesn’t change things in some relevant way, it won’t impact readers.

@NaomiHughesYA

Types of Reveals

A few main types of plot twists/reveals:

1. those that surprise us but not the character (this type is used often for unreliable narrators; can be super fun, but can also make a reader feel lied to, so use carefully).

2. The type of plot twist that surprises a POV character but not us. Often used in dual POV stories where one character has a secret that we’re in on, but the other POV character isn’t. Great for driving up tension and anticipation as you build toward the reveal.

And finally, 3. The type of plot twist that surprises (or is meant to surprise; refer to earlier tweet about readers guessing it early not necessarily being a bad thing) both readers and the POV characters. Often happens at midpoint &/or climax.

@NaomiHughesYA

Planning and Editing A Reveals Plot

Further questions to ask:

  • Are these revealed secrets worth knowing? There must be a direct impact on the immediate situation.
  • Does the audience have enough context for this revelation to be meaningful?
  • Is the secret simple? If it needs heaps of explaining it won’t have any punch when revealed. (“Luke, I am your father.” Not, “Luke, I am your cousin thrice removed.”)
  • Have you foreshadowed but not telegraphed?
  • Like endings, reversals should feel both inevitable and surprising at once.
  • Is this so-called revelation simply one of two possible alternatives considered from the beginning? If so, the answer won’t be much of a ‘revelation’ — more like when you’re expecting a baby it’s probably going to be a boy or a girl. The surprise is pretty minimal in that regard. If you’re stuck with this problem, consider audience misdirection or hint at something different but related.

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Home » Stephen King

Carrie Storytelling Techniques

carrie film poster

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

PREMISE OF CARRIE

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

SENTENCE BEHIND THE STORY OF CARRIE

Your own powers can be the end of you.

I don’t believe the designing principle of this film is its main strength. Instead it makes an emotional promise: Watch this film and you will be thrilled and entertained. It possibly aims to sadden. (I don’t feel saddened by this remake.)

It also makes an intellectual promise to a modern audience: Watch this and you’ll learn of a different, slightly off-kilter world than this.

Horror films require us to face the unknown — they allow us to face our fears and put them into context. They shape our belief system, and provide a safe space to explore. Carrie was notable for being one of the few to broach the topic of menstruation which, 40 years later, is still somewhat taboo. There is nowhere near as much menstruation in children’s literature as there are girls dealing with it in real life, outside a few standout books from authors such as Judy Blume.

GENRE BLEND OF CARRIE

drama, horror

The horror genre is one of the most highly symbolic forms (along with Westerns and science fiction). The origin of the horror in this story comes from demonic forces. Another example of this kind of horror is The Exorcist. Other horrors might come from whatever lies beyond death (Dracula) or from humans daring to fool around with nature (Frankenstein). Those are the big three.

Interestingly, the genre of the 1976 adaptation is simply ‘horror’ according to IMDb. This remake must have been aiming for a bit more character development with the addition of ‘drama’.

The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth — the same people who love to scream on roller coasters and look for out-of-control sensations elsewhere in their lives. Attracting people who are not part of this constituency is often difficult. The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby did so by dealing with families in a serious way — something the mostly young audience for horror films isn’t especially interested in seeing.

— Howard Suber

I don’t think Carrie manages to deal with family matters in any serious way. The mother is not a rounded character. This feels all horror, not much drama.

The Female Gothic

Stephen King’s Carrie is a descendent of the Female Gothic, invented by writers such as Anne Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Charlotte Bronte.

Features of the Female Gothic Novel:

  • Gothic texts are based upon Medieval society.
  • Following a Gothic Bildungsroman-esque plot, the Female Gothic allowed its readers to graduate from adolescence to maturity along with its heroine. 
  • The readers of these novels didn’t lead very thrilling lives — many restrictions — this was their outlet
  • The Female Gothic is about the suppression of female sexuality, or challenges the gender hierarchy and values of a male-dominated culture.
  • The natural cause of terror is not the supernatural, but rather female disability and societal horrors: rape, incest and the threatening control of the male antagonist.
  • The female protagonists pursued in these texts are often caught in an unfamiliar and terrifying landscape, delivering higher degrees of horror.
  • The end result, however, is the explained supernatural, rather than terrors familiar to women such as rape or incest, or the expected ghosts or haunted castles.(For example, the female protagonist will think there’s a ghost in the dungeon but when she gets down there it’s actually a real man wanting to rape her.)

In Stephen King’s variety of the Female Gothic, we have an out-and-out evil boy pulling strings behind the scenes, but female characters feature as all shades of good/bad.

STORYWORLD OF CARRIE

Symbolism

Many horror films could correctly be called “supernatural films” but this might reveal more than we care to acknowledge about the religious origins of so much horror.

— Howard Suber

She was alone with Momma’s angry God.

The blue light glared on a picture of a huge and bearded Yahweh who was casting screaming multitudes of humans down through cloudy depths into an abyss of fire. Below them, black horrid figures struggled through the flames of perdition while the Black Man wat on a huge flame-colored throne with a trident in one hand. His body was that of a man, but he had a spiked tail and the head of a jackal.

— Stephen King, Carrie

The setting of Carrie is very recognisable as our own but King includes supernatural elements.

Night journeys are a common element seen throughout Gothic literature. They can occur in almost any setting, but in American literature are more commonly seen in the wilderness, forest or any other area that is devoid of people. A prom, always held after dark, provides the perfect reason for a night journey.

Fantasy Elements

Stephen King writes what some have called ‘supernatural realism’. We might call it ‘magical realism‘ but I think ‘supernatural realism’ is a better descriptor. Carrie is set in the real world but there are supernatural elements. Carrie has the power of telekinesis and might be an ancestor of Roald Dahl’s Matilda in a sense. This is a world in which anything could happen.

There is a bit of a gothic vibe going on in this story, with the blue, cottage-like house looking peachy from the outside but once we get inside we’re shown cupboards used as prison, a dark and stifling atmosphere and a ‘mad woman in the attic’.

Era

The film is set in the USA in a mainly white suburban town in Maine called Chamberlain but the film is shot in Ontario. Here’s the house. Note that the creators of the remake decided to keep a general 1970s vibe in the setting — it’s also fitting that Carrie’s mother would have little money and therefore have to drive a car from that era. The original novel starts in 1966 and the main events happen 1979.

She continued to walk down the street toward the small white house with the blue shutters. The familiar hate-love-dread feeling was churning inside her. Ivy had crawled up the wests side of the bungalow (they always called it the bungalow because the White house sounded like a political joke and Momma said all politicians were crooks and sinners who would eventually give the country over to the Godless Reds who would put all the believers of Jesus—even the Catholics—up against the wall), and the ivy was picturesque, she knew it was, but sometimes she hated it. Sometimes, like now, the ivy looked like a grotesque giant hand ridged with great veins which had sprung up out of the ground to grip the building. She approached it with dragging feet.

Deaths In Schools

By the 1970s there had already been enough mass executions in American schools due to gun violence for the fear of a blood bath at a prom to be based upon a real, deep-seated fear. There have been many more school shootings since then. Unfortunately the terror of Carrie’s loner rampage still feels all too real.

STORY STRUCTURE

King wrote the novel as epistolary, using a combination of letters, news clippings, magazine articles, and passages from books. Sometimes when an epistolary story is adapted for screen some of that form is maintained, often with use of a storyteller narrator (the person who wrote the letters). But because I hadn’t read the book before watching the movie it was a bit of a surprise to find it was an epistolary novel. There’s nothing left of that. The reason for the epistolary form must have been to create a sense of realism for the reader.

SHORTCOMING

The desire to be known, to be seen, and to be powerful in your own sphere is a common desire in both real people and in the fictional realm. This particular desire seems to be having a moment in the West. The promotional material for the Carrie reboot reminds me very much of the posters which came out for Breaking Bad around the same time. Carrie and Walter White have the same psychological need.

Carrie’s problem is that she is an out-and-out social outcast. High schools are a great arena to show social exclusion — Vince Vaughn even sent Walter White back to school and made him the butt of some teenagers’ jokes in the pilot episode as they mock him washing cars — there’s something about mockery you get at school that stays with you your whole life, even when you engage your logical adult brain and realise your high school opponents had their own issues which had nothing to do with you.

The epistolary form of King’s novel allows for a variety of opinions on Carrie, leaving the reader with no ‘true’ impression of what she really looked like (and consequently, who she really was.) Described by the narrator as ugly, fat and blemished, she is described later as ‘pretty’. Carrie herself considers herself repulsive, especially her face, covered in blackheads and clusters of pimples. These various accounts of Carrie add to the gossipy, unreliable nature of the retelling:

Narrator’s description of Carrie, close-third-person viewpoint through the eyes of the girls in the changing room
Opinion of a minor character Stella Horan
From Tommy’s point of view Carrie is ‘far from repulsive’.

Carrie’s psychological shortcoming is that she needs to belong somewhere. She is totally alone in the world. Like any teenager (or adult), she wants to fit in.

Found written repeatedly on one page of a Ewen Consolidated High School notebook owned by Carrie White:

Everybody’s guessed/that baby can’t be blessed/’til she finally sees that she’s like all the rest….

— Stephen King, Carrie

In this movie adaptation she has been homeschooled until very recently, which is how the screenwriters get around the weird fact that Carrie doesn’t know what periods are. It’s hard for a modern audience to believe a 16 year old girl could not know anything about that. Stephen King had to lampshade that one quite heavily in his 1976 novel, especially since in the novel Carrie has been attending school all along.

At Ewan High School Carrie is shown hiding behind a pile of books, sneaking around as if hoping to become invisible.

Psychological overlay is an element connected to how characters within an American Gothic novel are affected by things like the night and their surroundings. In Carrie’s case, Carrie’s menstruation is connected to everyone’s general fear of blood. Blood symbolism can be seen throughout the film, culminating famously in the big struggle scene. 

Does Carrie have a moral shortcoming? Is she treating others badly? A fairytale victim character like this doesn’t need to show us that she is a fully rounded human being with flaws — Carrie is not a normal human being anyhow. She’s kind of the second coming, perhaps from the devil. In the films, at least, Carrie does not demonstrate any moral shortcomings. She is a Gothic Good Girl. (The virginal character in a Female Gothic.)

DESIRE

Carrie wants to go to the ball. This is intimately connected to her psychological shortcoming of course — her need to be part of something.

OPPONENT

King has used a number of character archetypes from the gothic novel to create his setting:

  • Virginal maiden – young, beautiful, pure, innocent, kind, virtuous and sensitive. Usually starts out with a mysterious past and it is later revealed that she is the daughter of an aristocratic or noble family. (Carrie)
  • Older, foolish woman (Mrs White)
  • Hero (Sue)
  • Tyrant/villain (Chris and her boyfriend)
  • Bandits/ruffians (the cast of school girls who mock Carrie rather than standing up for her)
  • Clergy – always weak, usually evil (not present in the film adaptation — the clergy is the invisible force behind the uber-Christian Mrs White). In the novel we do have a modified ‘clergy’ stand-in in the form of Mr P. P. Bliss:

Mr. P.P. Bliss, who had written this hymn and others seemingly without number, was one of Momma’s shining examples of God at work upon the face of the earth. He had been a sailor and a sinner (two terms that were synonymous in Momma’s lexicon), a great blasphemer, a laugher in the face of the Almighty. Then a great storm had come up at sea, the boat had threatened to capsize, and Mr. P. P. Bliss had gotten down on his sin-sickly knees with a vision of Hell yawning beneath the ocean floor to receive him, and he had prayed to God. M. P.P. Bliss promised God that if He saved him, he would dedicate the rest of his life to Him. The storm, of course, cleared immediately.

Brightly beams our Father’s mercy
From his lighthouse evermore
But to us he gives the keeping
Of the lights along the shore

All of Mr. P. P. Bliss’s hymns had a seagoing flavour to them.

Stephen King, Carrie

The watchful eye of the clergy is symbolised by the picture The Unseen Guest:

She walked up the hall and put her coat in the closet. A luminous picture above the coat hooks limned a ghostly Jesus hovering grimly over a family seated at the kitchen table. Beneath was the caption (also luminous): The Unseen Guest

— Stephen King, Carrie

On the other hand, the teachers at the school might be seen as the modern equivalent of the Gothic clergy, in charge of the virgin’s life, seeking counsel.

Carrie’s mother might as well be a mythical monster or a fairytale witch. The (semi) realistic setting allows us to read her as a woman with mental health challenges but her archetype predates such knowledge. American Gothic novels in particular tend to deal with a “madness” in one or more of the characters and carry that theme throughout the novel. In his novel Edgar Huntly or Memoirs of a Sleepwalker, Charles Brockden Brown writes about two characters who slowly become more and more deranged as the novel progresses. King’s novel The Shining is also about Descent Into Madness. Non-King examples include Sunset Boulevard, Black Swan, Margaret Atwood’s Surfacing and Apocalypse Now.

What Carrie lacks in complexity, Stephen King makes up for in his web of her opponents. In Carrie’s classmates we see all shades of bullying, from the out-and-out evil, dark-haired girl (Chris Hargensen) to the blonde* girl who wants to do the right thing but ends up making Carrie’s life worse (Sue Snell). Even the teacher (Miss Desjardin) has excellent intentions but inadvertently makes Carrie’s life worse by setting in action the suspension of Chris Hargensen, who because of this plots the blood in a bucket incident.

*In the novel Sue has dark hair.

King apparently wrote this book inspired by catty bitches he knew from school and from teaching high school. So I don’t kid myself that King is particularly sympathetic to the teenage girl at this point in his writing career. But in contrast to the ‘women are catty bitches’ reading, King turns Chris into a bullied victim herself. Her boyfriend is truly bad; if she hadn’t had sex with him he planned to rape her; later, he does in fact rape her.

but it had all begun to slip out of her hands, and it made her uneasy. If she had not given in willingly on Monday, he would have taken her by force.

Chris is punished, partly for her willingness to have sex, partly for her short skirt and also, partly, for being really mean to people.

There are lots of people—mostly men—who aren’t surprised that I asked Tommy to take Carrie to the Spring Ball. They are surprised that he did it, though, which shows you that the male mind expects very little in the way of altruism from its fellows.

Here King is kinder on men.

Carrying the pails back to the trunk, his mind made a dim, symbolic connection. Pig blood. That was good. Chris was right. It was really good. It made everything solidify.

Pig blood for a pig.

The bad boys are playing a different, more basic game. The menstruation connection is from the girls; the boys think they’re simply insulting Carrie by comparing her to an animal.

MYSTERY

As we get to know the opponents and what they are capable of, we are also introduced to a mystery: What is the exact nature of Carrie’s newfound superpower? 

Revelation is important in any story containing a mystery. (TV writers call them ‘reveals’.) But a story doesn’t have to be ‘mystery’ or ‘detective’ genre to contain a mystery element. Part of this story’s dynamic is to have Carrie find out/realise something that’s been true (latent) for some time: That she is a witch, and has inherited her powers from her grandmother. The story’s momentum comes from the finding out, and during the big struggle sequence we will see the full extent of Carrie’s superpowers. 

Much Gothic literature also includes a mystery of some kind. For instance, Jane Eyre has his first wife in the attic. Rebecca’s new husband Maxim went and killed his first wife in a re-telling of Bluebeard. Notice that these Gothic mystery novels are also named after the female leads.

King’s novel tells us near the beginning that Carrie has the powers of telekinesis, so the mystery there is in waiting to see how she’s going to use it.

PLAN

“Wait. Just wait. Let me talk. You want me to ask Carrie White to the Spring Ball. Okay, I got that. But there’s a couple of things I don’t understand.”
“Name them.” She leaned forward.
“First, what good would it do?” And second, what makes you think she’d say yes if I asked her?”
“Not say yes! Why–” She floundred. “You’re… everybody likes you and–“
“We both know Carrie’s got no reason to care much for people that everybody likes.”
“She’d go with you.”
“Why?”
Pressed, she looked defiant and proud at the same time. “I’ve seen the way she looks at you. She’s got a crush. Like half the girls at Ewen.”
He rolled his eyes.
“Well, I’m just telling you,” Sue said defensively. “She won’t be able to say no.”
“Suppose I believe you,” he said. “What about the other thing?”
“You mean what good will it do? Why… it’ll bring her out of her shell, of course. Make her…” She trailed off.”
“A part of things? Come on, Suze. You don’t believe that bullshit.”
“All right,” she said. “Maybe I don’t. But maybe I still think I’ve got something to make up for.”

In King’s story it’s not Carrie who has the plan. In fact, Carrie is a co-star at best. Despite the character of Carrie carrying the title of the work, and huge images of the actress emblazoned across the posters, the person who undergoes the character arc is Sue Snell who, like the majority of empathetic readers following along, wants to do something to help the outcast underdog. However, we don’t see quite enough of Sue in this film adaptation to rightly call her the main character. Both these girls are the stars — mirror images of each other in many ways:

  • Carrie is an outcast/Sue is popular
  • Carrie is lacking in confidence/Sue is full of confidence
  • Sue has Tommy for a boyfriend/Carrie goes to the ball with him but knows he is very much not her boyfriend
  • Carrie starts the book with blood between her thighs/the book ends with blood between Sue’s

It is Sue who comes up with The Plan that sets the plot in motion. She will offer her popular boyfriend to Carrie as a companion to the ball. This is of course a condescending gesture and Carrie can see right through it — the only way any girl would offer her boyfriend to another girl for an important life event like this is because she knows she’s no competition whatsoever. However, the plan works. It is undermined by Chris and her pig-killing guy friends.

BIG STRUGGLE

In the book, Stephen King puts the entire big struggle sequence into a section called ‘Part Two’. It comprises almost half of the book.

Carrie and Tommy at the ball in a brief moment of bliss. As in many high school stories, the outcast female character undergoes a makeover.

The sequence beginning with the bucket of blood on Carrie’s head. The blood in the bucket sequence is of course the set piece of this film and even if you forget every other scene, this is the bit which eventually enters pop culture. In fact, you probably know this scene even without ever watching the film or reading the book. Part of what makes this so successful is the build up, in which we see Chris as a puppeteer, literally pulling the strings (but of the bucket) from above, as a symbol of omniscient evil against good. (Her own abusive boyfriend is using Chris as his puppet, and also as his non-consenting sex doll.)

Structurally speaking, I’m guessing this is the part which could have posed the biggest hurdle for the writer(s). Miraculous survivals are elements within American Gothic literature in which a character or characters will somehow manage to survive some feat that should have led to their demise. The problem is, with Carrie’s anger-fuelled telekinesis, Carrie is all powerful. She can stop an oncoming car and murder people without even touching them. This superpower means the opponent is fully at her mercy. Sure, the revenge is sweet to watch, but when a character is so much more powerful than their opponent this makes for a boring blood bath.

To create a satisfying big struggle sequence, King gave Carrie two separate big struggles, one after the other with a quiet moment in the middle:

  1. The big struggle on stage against everyone at school
  2. The big struggle against her mother, who has been proven to be a formidable monster and who stabs her quietly in the back.

Sue watches as the house is destroyed. The house can be considered a character in the story, or at least an extension of the women who live there. (In Gothic novels the setting is always a character in itself.)

The cold, heartless house turns to rubble. The difference between this shot and the blue weatherboard house is important. The setting is greatly influential in Gothic novels. It not only evokes the atmosphere of horror and dread, but also portrays the deterioration of its world. The decaying, ruined scenery implies that at one time there was a thriving world. At one time the abbey, castle, or landscape was something treasured and appreciated. Now, all that lasts is the decaying shell of a once thriving dwelling.
Sue watches the house being destroyed, and Mrs White with it, in the basement.

ANAGNORISIS

In the book, this marks the beginning of Part Three. I’m guessing King thinks (or thought) in terms of three act structure as a writer.

We see Sue Snell see her gazing at Carrie’s headstone. Her voiceover says, “You can only push someone so far before they break.” This is her revelation. It’s an anti-bullying message at its heart.

NEW SITUATION

Interestingly, we are shown the new situation before we’re shown Sue’s anagnorisis. Usually it’s not that way around. We know that she is pregnant with a girl and from the court scene we know that most of her friends are dead. We can extrapolate that Sue will give birth to a girl, and we might even wonder if Carrie has done something to that girl to imbue her with witchy superpowers, in the style of Rosemary’s Baby (1968).

This isn’t how the book ends. Somewhere else, a woman called Amelia Jenks is pregnant with a baby who turns out to have witch powers. It is implied that Tommy gets Sue pregnant, but the final scene is bookended with blood — Sue gets her period (which may actually be a miscarriage).

TV Study: Stranger Things (2016)

stranger-things-banner
**CONTAINS ALL THE SPOILERS**

Stranger Things is a Netflix series created by the brilliantly named ‘Duffer Brothers’, out this year but set in 1983. Though I suspect strong ‘recency bias’, season one scores a very high 9.2 on IMDb.

The show feels like a mixture of Twin Peaks (with the missing kids and small community), Freaks and Geeks (with the three nerdy boys playing Dungeons and Dragons and the older sister trying to find her place in the cool group), something done by Stephen King, and Minority Report (with its sensory deprivation bath and freaky magic-genius girl).

Minority Report Stranger Things

The show also feels a bit like the computer games Don’t Starve and Minecraft, with its own version of the Nether (“The Upside Down”).

Don't Starve

GENRES

Stranger Things is a blend of drama, horror and mystery.

The drama gives us a great character web; the horror gives us rich symbolism and mystery drives the plot forward.

The mystery:

  • What happened to the boy (and the young woman) who went missing?
  • Why is Joyce getting creatures coming through her walls and messages through the lights?
  • What’s going on inside that big building on the edge of town?
  • What is the nature of the mysterious creatures? What dangers do they specifically pose and to what extent are they human?
  • How is that other world related to our real world?
  • Who is Elle and what is weird about her?

In a lot of mysteries, the audience wonders whose version of the truth to believe. In this mystery, however, the audience knows that Joyce and the kids are right about the supernatural goings-on because from the very first scene we are let in on the setting fact that strange things are going on inside the lab.

If this were a novel, we’d also classify this series as (classic portal) fantasy.

If the story takes place in a world other than our own, it is fantasy.

If the story starts in the real world but the characters enter a new one in the story, that is called a Portal Fantasy.

The other world is called a ‘parallel world’.

Classic fantasy takes a single main character from mundane world to fantasy world and back to the mundane. So, classic fantasy is also portal fantasy.

A passageway is normally used in a story only when two subworlds are extremely different. We see this most often in the fantasy genre when the character must pass from the mundane world to the fantastic.

In good portal fantasies, the story dwells for quite a time on the portal itself. The characters will go back to it several times, and they will spend quite a bit of time in it before they infiltrate the parallel world.

Some reviewers have wondered who this series is for. Is it a family film?  The horror film is a genre aimed largely at pubescent and adolescent youth, so I think that answers that question. There’s quite a bit of schlock shock in this film, but mainly from the scene transitions. There may be a few times when you scream out loud.

STORYWORLD

TIME

This show feels impressively like a genuine throwback to the 1980s. Everything from the movie poster to the intro scene adds to that feel. It’s interesting to me that the Duffer twins were born the year after this was set. Still, I bet these guys grew up with a heavy diet of 1980s stories.

stranger-things-bathroom-1024x683
1980s bathroom with a 1980s soap dispenser

There’s a strong E.T. flavour to this film, though E.T. was genuinely filmed AND set in the early 1980s.

Stranger-Things-poster

A huge advantage of setting stories about kids in this period is that it predates mobile phones and the Internet. Kids genuinely had a lot more freedom to roam their environs. These days if you want to write a story about kids riding around on their bikes after dark, you’d better cover yourself by also making those kids from neglectful homes. And that leads to a much different kind of story, in which the neglect is in danger of becoming The Story.

A disadvantage of living in this period was lack of Internet. Remember how Bella works out that stuff about the Cullens? She finds out all about it on the Internet. This is not a particularly exciting thing to portray on TV however, and in this setting we have the character of the geeky and pushover science and math teacher who the boys can ask anything, from parallel universes to how to make a sensory deprivation chamber. This guy is a fount of knowledge and always willing to help. As a well-meaning character, he has other plot uses too.

A lot of the scariest scenes take  place at night. If they don’t take place at night, they take place inside dingy houses, abandoned caravans and sheds.

PLACE

Though we are told that this town is in the state of Indiana, and is filmed in Georgia, Hawkins is fictional. It’s a quiet ‘all-American’ town and centres on the police station, family houses, huts in the woods and in the schools.

Indiana

The woods as a place of danger come straight out of the darkest fairy tales. Bad things happen in the woods, especially at night. But during the day the woods are a safe place to play.

bike woods 1_800x534
The two cops to the left are ‘normal guys’ who provide a grounded feeling via their dialogue. Even in dire circumstances their reactions are reassuringly down-to-earth.

CHARACTERISATION

Who are the main characters of this show?

This is an ensemble cast but some are archetypes and others undergo a character arc. (If ever in doubt, main characters = people who change the most over the course of the story.)

So that would include Hopper, the reluctant police sheriff. When we first see him he is living in semi-squalor. In the establishing shot we see him wake up, smoke a cigarette, brush his teeth, then wash down some pills with Schlitz. On the balcony he smokes a cigarette. This is your archetypal ‘defective detective’.

On the job, he insists to his secretary that ‘Mornings are for coffee and contemplation’, despite having a serious missing child case right under his nose. But over the course of the first season he springs into action, and his lackadaisical attitude has a positive upside: He is quite happy to work outside the law and is open to the idea that mysterious things are happening in his town. He then demonstrates great ingenuity and problem-solving and shows that, when sufficiently interested in the case, he is in fact an excellent cop.

Hopper has a ‘ghost’ — not a particularly original one: he has a dead daughter himself, explaining his descent into squalor and not-caring, but also causing him to eventually care deeply about the missing children.

Hopper

Joyce (Winona Ryder) also has a ghost. We keep hearing around the town that she has mental health issues, and her general anxiety leads her into a very dark place after her younger son goes missing. But a change in circumstance does not make a character arc. Joyce was ‘crazy’ at the start and after a few weeks of understandable agony, others around her learn she’s been right all along, but Joyce herself remains basically the same person. Joyce is therefore not a main character.

CHARACTER AND GENDER

kids stranger things
The gender ratio of 3:1 male to female is the magic, unexceedable number in ensemble groups of kids, even in stories released in 2016. Ditto for kids of colour.
A Variation On The Rape Revenge Storyline

If you’ve watched enough TV, you’ll have predicted it as soon as you saw the three geeky boys playing that boardgame: You just know one of them is going to have a snarky, unkind older sister who is interested in the cool group.

stranger things boardgame

You see it a bit in Freaks and Geeks also, though Lyndsay is presented from the get-go as a more sympathetic character. In contrast, Mike’s older sister slams her bedroom door on him even as he kindly offers her pizza. This manipulates audience sympathy in favour of the boys. It’s only later in the story that we get a more rounded picture of the sister (Nancy) when we see her let down by her unpleasant jock boyfriend and his much nastier friends. Our sympathies for Nancy are at their peak when we see her put down as a ‘slut’ in public, and no one comes to her defence. I am a little sick of these cheap and highly gendered methods of guiding audience sympathies for characters. Another version of this storyline is the rape storyline. While it’s true that in real life women and girls are frequently called whores and sluts as a form of control, when it comes to entertainment, it would be nice to not have to deal with that again and again and again. I think perhaps it takes a female writing team to understand that this storyline does not constitute pure ‘entertainment’ for a large portion of the population, as it hits too close to home. And in a story with any number of made-up things, the writers could have made something else up here, too.

That said, Nancy Wheeler does have a character arc. She learns that chasing the jock is not going to lead to happiness. After spending her life sheltered by parents who live at the end of a cul-de-sac, she realises that she does have what it takes (most of the time) to rise to the challenge of a life-and-death crisis.

Feisty Girls With Powers

There are a lot of faux-feminist stories out there in which the girl characters — often described as ‘feisty’ — are the ones with the abilities while the boys around them are sometimes shown up for their shortcomings.

Here we have Nancy, picking up a gun for the first time, but out-shooting Jonathan, who has been shooting between cans for years.

Stranger-Things-Nancy

Then we have the character of Eleven, of course, who is an even better example of a feisty girl with powers. The fact is, superhuman strength is even more amazing when it comes from a girl, precisely because that’s not what we have been trained to expect. The younger the girl, the stronger this effect. As chauvinist Ted Rumsen says of Peggy in Mad Men when she comes up with the creative line that leads to her first break promotion: “It was like watching a dog play the piano.” The same applies when little girls defeat men in stories.

Jane Stranger Things

But let’s not mistake this for ’empowerment’. Don’t forget that these girl characters exist mainly for the character development of the boys who surround them. In the case of Nancy, the jock who slept with her then lead to her public shaming has an epiphany in episode seven and comes to realise that Nancy is a much better person than his other friends. In the case of Eleven, she is the cause of Mike’s sexual awakening and also the cause of Lucas Sinclair’s realisation that it’s not always so easy to tell good from evil without digging a little deeper. When female characters appear mainly to serve the character arcs of boys around them, I call this the Female Maturity Formula. It’s absolutely everywhere.

Elle gaze

In the final episode we see our heroes attack the monsters. Here we have the classic trope of Guys Fight, Girls Shoot. This reminds me of the pro-gun sentiment that comes out of America after any big shooting: The idea that civvie ownership of guns is a good thing because it ‘levels the playing field’. A girl with a gun can overpower a big guy, for instance. I have heard this argument coming out of very smart people, who completely forget how many more women (to say nothing of men) are shot by their intimate partners each week.

Don’t Go In There!

One of the most genuinely scary moments in this series happens in the dying deer scene. Soon after, Nancy is wondering what happened to that deer, and she hovers at the edge of a most unappealing open tree trunk, obviously dripping with blood and full of cobwebs on the inside. Anyone sitting in the audience is thinking, “Jesus, don’t go in there!” But what does Nancy do? She goes in there. Despite being too grossed out to shoot a deer herself and put it out of its misery (instead relinquishing the gun to the older boy, despite her already having proved herself as the sharp-shooter of the two), we are to now believe that she would be brave/foolish enough to enter a tree which presumably contains a dead deer and some other horrible supernatural goings-on.

This is a common trick in horror. And it’s almost always a naive (read: stupid) female character who goes into danger despite everyone, including the audience and other male characters, knowing that she’s going to get herself into strife. Why wasn’t it Jonathan Byers who went into that tree trunk? Because that defies the gender rules of the horror genre. Only a silly girl would go in there. Also, Jonathan is given the opportunity to prove his manliness by pulling her out when she sticks her hand out for help. She ends up lying on top of him, pressing her full body against his, hugging him in terror.

Would it work the other way around?

Female Friendships?

This series barely passes the Bechdel test. There is the friendship between Nancy and Barbara of course, but the writers soon get rid of Barbara.

Here is Barbara on the right, quite literally out of focus.
Here is Barbara on the right, quite literally out of focus.

A serious shortcoming of this storyline is that the disappearances of the children have an unrealistically low-key effect on this small Indiana town. Something more could have been done to show the audience that the disappearance of Will Byars is occupying the town’s consciousness (as I expect it would), but the disappearance of Barbara is dealt with as if no one, except Nancy, really cares she’s gone. I rather cynically think that people are much more interested in missing children if those children are classically pretty, and it’s no coincidence that almost every murdered girl on a crime show is beautiful to look at. Not so Barbara. In fact, her uncoolness and her boring sensibleness are very things that lead to her downfall. (If she’d just stayed inside with Nancy she wouldn’t have been taken at the pool). It’s not just the town who seems uninterested in Barbara’s disappearance; the audience is likewise encouraged to focus elsewhere.

The ending of this season felt icky to me. The boys are elated to have their friend back. Even Nancy has moved on, and her main focus is on replacing Jonathan’s smashed camera. Hopper has come to terms with the death of his daughter. But Barbara is collateral damage. No one misses Barbara. Though found dead inside The Upside Down world, at no stage is there any scene in which her family — or anyone else — mourns her absence.

Then there’s Wynona Ryder’s character: The archetypal crazy-with-grief mother, who turns out to be right, due to the widely acknowledged invisible bond that ties a mother to her children. This trope is called Cassandra Truth, and the reason it works so well in stories when applied to women and children is that both women and children are widely perceived to be liars — children because their understanding of the world is limited by dint of their age, and women because, well, women are liars. And overly emotional. To the writers’ credit, I suppose, the women at least accompany the men on their mission to save the day. But Wynona is given little to do but scream. And be instructed by Hopper on CPR. (Another male-instructs-female dynamic.)

It’s rare for male writers to attempt a female friendship, and the Duffer brothers have avoided it here, too. It would seem Joyce Byers has no female friends to call upon in her time of need. Instead the deadbeat Dad turns up to give her lectures, alternately comforting and upsetting her. Via this dynamic we get to see a little more about the history of this family. But it’s telling that in this made-up story, the writers felt safer getting rid of Joyce’s sources of real support (via the argument with Karen Wheeler) rather than attempt something that might result in an uncomfortably feminine dynamic.

Then again, doesn’t Jane (known for most of the series simply as ‘Eleven’) undergo her own character arc? Yes, perhaps we can say she does.

The indefatigable 12-year-old protagonists on their bikes are straight out of Spielberg – especially when they find Eleven, an almost-mute girl with large eyes and strange powers who they have to hide in the basement and who gradually learns by their example what friendship and loyalty mean.

The Guardian

Note that the reviewer above has pointed out that the female character has to ‘learn’ friendship from the boys.

stranger things boys

I’ll clarify here that when I have a problem with female friendship as most-often written in popular stories, we very rarely see realistic (if any) female-to-female friendship.

When it comes to Jane’s character arc, the boys are presented as models, as if male-to-male friendship is the most pure kind. This has to be our conclusion when there is no positive example of female-to-female friendship.

Then of course we have boys as mentors, girls as infantalised learners. Boys learn from their circumstances whereas girls learn from boys. (We have the most classic case of this in the film ParaNorman, in which Norman gives the young — but actually much older — witch a life lecture in the forest.)

Female Infantalisation
joyce crazy

Some reviewers have said that Winona Ryder is upstaged by the kids when it comes to acting. But I’d like viewers to consider the dialogue as scripted, and the difference between what the boys are given (great one-liners and definite character arcs) versus what Wynona Ryder is given (crazy Cassandra mama bear).

Despite her considerable screen time, Ryder is given very little to play with. For the first four hours, she runs a narrow gamut of emotions from anxiously perturbed to anxiously distressed. “My son is missing!” she announces in the first episode, trying to provoke a response from the lazy, beer-for-breakfast police chief (a wonderfully dishevelled David Harbour). Two hours later: “My son is missing!” And that’s it. It’s not until Joyce discovers a supernatural way to contact said missing son – risking her sanity in the process – that Ryder is allowed to explore a broader dramatic pallet.

The Telegraph

Joyce infantalised

Don’t forget that Joyce isn’t the only unstable woman in the town. When the writers rely on the mental instability of yet another distressed mother — Eleven’s mother — an unfortunate pattern starts to emerge. Hopper’s grief for his child is the impetus for hyper-masculinity — bravery and an increasingly thick beard, in fact. But with the grieving mothers you get… crazy. I mean, stuck in the house talking to the lightbulbs crazy. Mute and sitting-in-a-rocker-all-day kinda crazy. It makes little difference that these women are ‘right’. Hopper is also ‘right‘. He gets to leave the house and be a hero.

But will an audience really accept anything else?

A somewhat reluctant word on the actress who plays Nancy.

Dyer in 2009 at the premiere of Hannah Montana
Dyer in 2009 at the premiere of Hannah Montana

This young woman is now looking so fragile and waiflike that I’m worried for her health.

Stranger Things actors

Even if this is Dyer’s natural phenotype, the choice to cast a super-thin actress, when the young male actors look 1980s slim but nevertheless sturdy, says disturbing things about our culture.

Stranger Things nancy

Especially when the actress who plays Barb is dressed up to look dowdy. Shannon Purser, in contrast, looks to be in the healthy weight range for her age and gender. (The actress is a very similar build to me, which is how I know!)

Shannon stranger things

Opponents

This series has a wonderful range of opponents, beginning with the inhuman, moving into the semi-human, and then into the rounded humans who can stand in the way of progress despite themselves.

The problem with monsters as villains is that they’re not all that interesting. Sure, they’re scary, and those long-armed, Venus-fly-trap-faced things are some of the scariest creatures I’ve seen on TV. But they’re not interesting. The best opponents are human.

To occupy that position of human evil we have ‘Papa’ (Dr Brenner) from the lab, who has kept Jane captive since her conception. This guy is surrounded by some nameless sidekicks and is a great villain because he is single-minded in his mission to get the best out of this child for his own personal gain.

stranger-things-matthew-modine-large_trans++NUHzxaamNmHDqK-YksWRz2o-yMLyYquKCawpyDOW254
The archetypal ‘Bad Father’. He is even called ‘Papa’ by Elle.

An interesting evil sidekick is the middle-aged woman, Agent Connie Frazier, who looks as harmless and professional as you could  imagine. In a quest to recapture Eleven, this woman poses as a social worker, a science fair organiser, a police officer and whoever else the situation requires.

As for the ordinary characters, the detailed character web means that even characters who care about each other can at times be opponents.

  • The Wheeler parents are the opponents when the boys hide Eleven in Mike’s house.
  • And when Nancy brings boys back to her bedroom, and the mother never knocks.
  • Lonnie Byers is Joyce’s main emotional opponent, though the whole town is against her.
  • The three boys disagree about the girl, and whether or not she is The Monster. They also disagree about whether it’s possible to have a threesome when it comes to ‘best friends’.
  • Nancy has frenemies who lead her astray then fail to stick with her.
  • Nancy and Jonathan have a complicated friendship, which is also the beginning of a romance. (You can tell because they have a big argument, which is a sure-fire way to know they’re meant for each other.)
  • and so on

SYMBOL WEB

Horror is about humans in decline, reduced to animals or machines by an attack of the inhuman. While traditional horror is religious in nature, these days most horror stories make use of medical or psychological ideologies.

Since this is a horror story, obviously ‘light’ and ‘dark’ are symbolic.

Most annoyingly this comes to fruition in the final episode, with all of that flickering at the climactic big struggle scene — to the point where I seriously thought we could’ve used a warning for photosensitive epilepsy.

But even before that, we have the lights in Joyce’s house, flickering on and off. We have the ‘light’ world of the town in contrast with the dark underworld below.

This opposition between light and dark are from Christianity, and symbolise good and evil. We all know that intuitively. Also from Christianity we’ve got the snake, which rather disgustingly comes out of the missing boy’s mouth.

Menstruation In Fiction

Menstruation is depicted rarely in fiction. Perhaps you are rattling off half a dozen stories which feature menstruation right now, hoping to prove me wrong. But when you consider the impact of menstruation on lives, and how frequently it occurs, menstruation is heavily underrepresented across storytelling. We need more of it. People going through female adolescence in particular need to read more of it. Menstruation is one of the last taboos.

Outside basic instruction for adolescents, it seems adult women don’t read or talk about something that, for most of us, occurs every single month for more than thirty years of our lives. No one ever gets her period in a novel or a film, unless it is her first period, which is typically a part of the plot if it’s shown…even the famous Kinsey and Hite reports don’t mention sex during menstruation.

Mentioning the Unmentionable, from In Context

Is it there but disguised?

Most ancient stories (up until recently, let’s be honest) have been recorded by men, and men are less likely to write about a uniquely female experience. But when it comes to sexual availability of women, then it does affect men. Take the symbolism of the mermaid versus the siren, for instance, which includes symbolism of menarche:

The single-tailed mermaid and the double-tailed species have not inspired distinct stands of stories. The little mermaid of the single fishtail strikes the onlooker as rather more virginal than the siren who exhibits herself by holding up her two tails on either side of her cleft; she has survived more vigorously in subsequent fairy tales and legends that tell of female initiation to love. The double tail suggests the onset of menarche and sexual maturity (Hans Christian Andersen’s Little Mermaid, for example, bleeds when her tail is divided into legs and she becomes a human),

Marina Warner, No Go The Bogeyman

Menstruation In Middle Grade Literature

May 28 is World Menstruation Day, which aims to bring awareness to how lack of menstrual management products leads to further disadvantage in poor communities. At SBS Life, Vivienne Pearson asked: Where is the children’s fiction which includes periods? Most of the fiction she located for her daughter is from the 1960s and 70s, indicating there has been a disproportionate lack of stories which include menstruation published since then. This is especially disproportionate given the fact girls are reaching menarche younger and younger. It is now very common for girls to get their periods before age 11.

If you’re a wide reader of realistic middle grade fiction aimed mainly at girls, you can’ t help but notice the lack of 9, 10 and 11 year old characters who either have their period, whose friends have their period, or all the worrying and anxiety that tends to accompany the onset of getting a period.

Public Attitude Towards Menstruation In Fiction

Menstruation is the only blood that is not born from violence, yet it’s the one that disgusts you the most.

Maia Schwartz, artist

Sharing an article about lack of menstruation in children’s literature, SBS Life asked on their Facebook page: Today is World Menstruation Hygiene Day. Young adult fiction is the perfect way to destigmatise periods, so why aren’t more authors writing about it?

Obviously, people who comment on Facebook articles are a self-selecting group. They are mainly Australian, Gen X and older, and I doubt many of them actually read the article. Of those who did, another large chunk of them have seen the Harry Potter movies (or heard about them), and that’s as close as they’ve come to children’s literature in 20 years. A number of commenters were bored or borderline outraged to find a story about menstruation in fiction  in their feed.

Please please dont! Things like that do not need representation in the fictional world

I want to pretend I don’t get my periods. Don’t need to watch it on TV 👎😣 no one likes them!

Comments showing disgust demonstrate the very need for the representation of menstruation in fiction. I’m never really impressed by Facebook commentary. But the overwhelmingly negative response to his article disappointed me, still.

Apart from simple disgust, negative responses  fell into three broad categories.

We don’t talk about poo, so don’t about periods.

No one uses the toilet either in movies.

Probably for the same reasons there aren’t many stories about bowel actions 💩!

Probably for the same reason authors don’t write about peeing and pooping.

for the same reason u don’t see charactors shitting or taking a leak

Because it doesn’t move the story forward, what a stupid question. Just to drive this home, why don’t history books have chapters devoted to Stalins bowel movements?

They don’t usually write about doing a poo, or any other bodily function either, unless it’s relevant to the story then those things are left out.

..and why don’t they ever take a crap or urinate? – because the Abrahamic religions have demonized all activity relating to the naughty bits 🙂

In 24, nobody has a pee or poo during the whole 24hrs! 😇

Actually, children’s literature does talk about poo. Often. The entire subcateogry of ‘gross out’ literature exists to fill a very specific developmental period in childhood, during which time we all learn to normalise toileting. Fart and bum jokes or anything containing underpants is THE most reliable way to crack a joke in this age group, lasting from the early to middle primary school years. Scott Dikkers even confirmed that for me in his book on comedy writing — don’t pull out the bum joke too early because it’s the pinnacle.

Just so we’re clear, I’m not making an argument for periods to be included in the gross out genre. The history of misogyny, taboo, disgust and ostracisation is too strong and present for that treatment. Including period blood in gross out gags would further stigmatise the process. I am in full favour of more naturalistic and regular mention of periods in realistic, middle grade fiction especially.

Judy Moody is a nine-year-old third grader. It is odd that Judy Moody isn’t thinking about periods, isn’t touched by prepubescent hormones, and that none of her friends have either.

Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine is the same age as Judy Moody. Clementine is curious and anxious and looks to the future, often getting things wrong. But not once has she given a thought to impending puberty.

I can say the exact same thing about other main characters in realistic middle grade fiction starring girls.

Part of this problem is down to a wider trend: The preference of ‘tomboy’ girls over ‘girly girls’ as main characters. Tomboyish, hyperactive girls comprise the majority of main characters of middle grade fiction, partly because they are so driven and interesting. (This switches around in YA, to the chagrin of agents looking for self-driven, sassy girls in their #mswl.) Girly-girls sit still and do as they’re told. They’re cast as opponents to our tomboy heroes. This in itself is problematic. I’ve written about that elsewhere, but didn’t mention the unintended consequence of complete erasure of periods in realistic middle grade fiction. Clementine is a wiry, prepubescent character and I’m not arguing that Clementine per se should have been about periods. I’m saying that’s all there is, for 8 year old girls who will start menstruating the following year. There’s nothing for them. It’s not even covered in schools until they know all about it through hands on experience.

Another possible issue: The adult gatekeepers of kidlit  think boys will be icked out by any talk of periods, and even if they’re not, boys may conclude books including menstruation are not for them. This halves your potential book sales, and means these books won’t be purchased by schools in class sets. In smaller markets, like that in Australia, if a book isn’t going to be purchased by schools it may not break even. (It’s worth saying at this point that John Marsden does mention menstruation a couple of times in his Tomorrow When The War Began series, which is purchased in bulk by high school English departments across Australia and New Zealand. The action plot and the large number of boys in the cast no doubt compensates.)

We don’t talk about masturbation, so don’t talk about periods.

If we follow your logic, why did Harry Potter never have a wet-dream? Be careful what you wish for.

I ejaculated in my pants today and would like to drop that into a conversation with someone.

There is also a need for wider portrayal of masturbation in MG fiction and up, especially when it comes to girls, but that is a different issue. We can do both. We can fix both.

Also, there’s plenty of talk about masturbation. Where has this person been? The issue is more that masturbation is not considered appropriate reading material at the age most people discover it in earnest, if they haven’t already. (Adolescence.) It is absolutely odd that we only talk about male masturbation, that masturbation is still seen as a sexual failing.

In any case, the idea that ‘we don’t do masturbation well, so we shouldn’t do menstruation well either’ is… ridiculous. We are doing our young people a huge disservice.

This song by the Misbehavin’ Maidens is evidence that our culture is changing in regards to talking about masturbation for women.
Menstruation is never relevant to a story

A number of commenters assumed that menstruation is always uninteresting and irrelevant to plot:

Every word that doesn’t further the plot is wasted. Basics of creative writing

Probably for much the same reason we don’t usually see them on the toilet or cleaning their teeth … routine bodily functions typically add nothing to either the plot or character development.

Whether it is in movies, television or books writers of YA fiction will focus on important plot related stuff

And because SBS used an image from a Harry Potter movie to illustrate ‘children’s literature’, a number of commenters rolled their eyes and argued that Harry Potter would not be improved by inclusion of menstruation:

“Hold on Harry, I know we have to fight Voldemort but I just need to nip to the loo and change my tampon first”
Doesn’t exactly make for interesting reading does it

They don’t go to the toilet either. Oh for there to have been a scene in The Philosopher’s stone where Hermione took a dump and Ron and Harry crossed swords at a urinal.

Someone even used her status as an English teacher (ie, not a writer — don’t @ me, I’ve been both) and told us about the irrelevance of menstruation in some hypothetical fiction she obviously has in mind:

As an English teacher, if the content is not relevant to the storyline or character development in anyway then WHY put it in. South Park on the other hand … 😂

These commenters are missing the point entirely. There is so much to be said about the experience of menstruation, which — as I argue above — is far more dimensional than poo. (Unless a young person is living with IBS or similar, in which case it would impact their life, and be as worthy of fictional representation as any other body-related issue.)

  • Because we still live in a culture of shame, simply by mentioning periods in fiction serves to break that taboo. That in itself is huge.
  • Men may not realise this and women may have forgotten, but for periadolescent girls, periods are scary. BLOOD. COMING OUT OF YOUR BODY. How much will it really hurt? (All other instances of blood gushing out of a girl’s body hurt.) How much will come out? Will it fountain out of me? Will it come out during maths and stain the back of my summer school tunic, and will everyone shun me forever? Stephen King co-opted the scariness of periods for his debut horror YA novel, Carrie, for which he received a massive advance. The story is part of our lore and has been adapted for film twice. King doesn’t have any idea what the day-to-day reality of menstruation is actually like (see below), but try and  tell me periods aren’t anything to write a book about.
  • Periods change the way girls live their day-to-day lives. I mean, the entire ‘plot’ of their real lives. How does a fictional character on the swim team deal with her heavy periods and clotting? What does she do when periods coincide with big races? How does a ten-year-old cope at a sleepover when none of her friends have got theirs yet? Where does she put her used pads when there’s no bin in the toilet? Is it okay to ask the friend’s dad, since the mum lives at a different house? The plain old logistical problems around periods are endless. How do fictional characters cope with these issues, seriously, comedically? In either treatment, girls can learn scripts.
  • Periods can hurt. What is it like to live with that pain, and also have to pretend — because the culture insists on it — that pain doesn’t exist? Many girls are dealing with this. Leaving aside childbirth, there are two times in a woman’s life when periods are statistically more likely to be super painful and super heavy — cruelly, that’s when you first get them and last get them: adolescence and peri-menopause. It is just so very validating to read a fictional version of your own experience. This is why we read! To feel less alone. The idea that fiction is not reality misunderstands the entire raison d’être for fiction.

The following snippets just skim the surface of the plethora of ways in which menstruation can be relevant to plot, character arc and theme:

KATRINA McIntosh*, an eastern suburbs mother with a daughter in year 7, was surprised when her daughter’s sleepovers and pool parties suddenly became complicated midway through grade 6. When dropping their children off, mothers would confide that their 11-year-old daughters had started their periods and would not be able to go swimming. Other girls needed discreet assistance to ensure privacy when they changed for bed at night. ‘The girls are still young and they didn’t know how to deal with it. They were too embarrassed to tell each other and it got tricky with swimming and sleepovers,” Ms McIntosh says.

[…]

Alice Friend, from central Melbourne, whose daughter started menstruating in year 6, says their school only had one toilet with a sanitary bin in it ”and all the girls were embarrassed to go in because that was like a sign that they had their period”.

Sydney Morning Herald

Early menarche can mean being forced to grow up before one’s mind, and decision-making abilities, are ready. “If you’re 11 and you look like you’re 15 or 16, people will treat you like you’re 15 or 16.”

Splinter News

When puberty gets very early it’s no longer in synchronisation with brain development. They have a souped up car but they don’t have the skills to drive it.

Bruce Ellis, psychologist

Below, feminist thinker Ariel Levy explains the excitement of menarche. Perhaps girls in general feel far more positively about menstruation than is depicted in fiction for girls, when it is depicted.

It’s worth mentioning that not all depictions of menstruation should be miserable:

ELEANOR DUKE: You write about doing your first story for New York: “I was writing about an unconventional kind of female life. What does it mean to be a woman? What are the rules? What are your options and encumbrances? I wanted to tell stories that answered, or at least asked, those questions.” You also talk about being excited from a young age about being a woman. What do you think caused you to feel that womanhood was exciting and beautiful, and got you interested in writing about women?

ARIEL LEVY: The excitement, I think, was that we were excited about going through puberty, we were excited about changing, about the future arriving. It was the arrival of various kinds of maturity. I don’t know if it was that we were excited to be women, we were just excited that there was going to be evidence, in the form of blood, that we were old, we were changing, and that everything would change.

interview with Ariel Levy

And here’s why menstruation needs to be a part of middle grade fiction, not just YA and above:

Ms McIntosh says her daughter’s former primary school provided ”quite graphic” sex education. ”But it was all cast into the future. They never said, ‘It is normal that this will happen to some of you this year’, so it was a shock for the girls when it did.”

Sydney Morning Herald

A Brief History Of Menstruation In Children’s Literature

According to some critics, the first explicit mention of menstruation in an American children’s book occurred in The Long Secret. In Sweden, a number of children’s novels in the 1960s and 1970s broke this taboo. However, this fact is as conspicuously absent from most children’s novels as other bodily functions. Although it is common knowledge that young women stop menstruating under extreme conditions, very few adventure or war narratives focus on this detail.

Maria Nikolajeva, The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature
Harriet The Spy

In the second half of [the twentieth] century, as feminism launched its second wave, the limits of socially acceptable behaviour for girls were steadily pushed back, and one “subversive” book after another was at first condemned and then applauded. When it first appeared, in 1964, Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy was criticized because its heroine secretly observed and dispassionately recorded the foolish behaviour of adults. Its sequel, The Long Secret (1965), was censured because, for the first time in juvenile literature, it mentioned menstruation. Now both books are widely recommended.

Alison Lurie, The Subversive Power Of Children’s Literature
Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.

As far as big, well promoted fiction went, this was pretty much it when it came to mentions of menstruation in the books that were around when I was an adolescent. And I’m not the only one to have noticed the unusualness of Judy Blume, before her time when it comes to matters of bodily functions.

In fiction for and about boys, however, anything associated with girls is too often presented negatively. As ever, the attitudes of the writer cannot be separated from the work.

The following remarks from Jeff Kinney stands out to me as troublingly femme phobic. When Wimpy Kid create was asked about childhood influences on his reading here’s what he said:

I also sort of inherited my sister’s Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary books. I read a lot of those, Freckle Juice and Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. Luckily I got the heads-up about Are you There, God? It’s me, Margaret and I avoided that one. In about the fifth grade I discovered fantasy. You know, I started reading books by J.R.R. Tolkien, Piers Anthony, and Terry Brooks and I don’t know if it’s a guy thing or if it was a condition of the age, but I really liked escaping into those epic books that just took me to a different place.

That comment reflects the attitude about girls which shines through in all of the Wimpy Kid books. Specifically: Girl stuff is gross, girls themselves are alien creatures and in order to preserve your masculinity you must stay the hell away from any of it.

Carrie

Though not marketed specifically ‘for children’, this story is a young adult novel by any common definition.

Is Carrie one of the few popular novels with strong menstruation symbolism running throughout which is also written by a man? I argue in my Goodreads review that in fact Stephen King doesn’t quite get female stuff right. Though our sympathies are with the girl who menstruates, King is nonetheless relying on the Gothic tradition of female bodies as terrifying.

Perhaps other cultures are more comfortable with stories about menstruation. There is Through The Red Door by Inger Edelfeldt, for example, which hasn’t been translated into English.

[H]orror has continued to provide the perfect medium to explore these themes. The female monster has been a great platform for exploring puberty and all its commensurate delights: it’s all blood, mayhem and rage, after all. Think Carrie at the prom, exploding with fear, confusion and violence at her tormentors, triggered by her menstruation.

Bad Reputation
Menstruation Horror And Taboo In Netflix’s Anne With An ‘E’

In the 2017 re-visioning of Anne Of Green Gables, Walley-Beckett changed Anne’s age from 11 to 13. As a consequence, it was likely Anne would start menstruating. This event is used as a catalyst for Matthew’s buying her a grown-woman’s dress with puffed sleeves, not a Pride and Prejudice type party with the Barry’s to say thank you for saving their youngest from croup.

This change in plot has the effect of asking Anne what it means to be a woman — all the good things as well as all the bad. It also takes the emphasis off Anne’s needing to look pretty and dress up for what is essentially, culturally, an opportunity to put oneself on the marriage market. The addition of Anne’s first period makes the show more feminist.

It is unlikely that Anne will mention her period ever again, however, as the girls have told her it’s a taboo topic. And Walley-Beckett approaches her series with ‘documentary like’ realism.

https://twitter.com/TraciGrrl/status/1253780738144718849

The 2020 updated TV series based on The Babysitter’s Club, when watched alongside Anne With An E makes one thing clear: In the year 2020, popular middle grade and YA series starring girls do not avoid menstrutation. The menarche is full of dramatic potential and regularly explored. In both The Babysitter’s Club and in Anne With An E, a main character gets her period for the first time.

Keep watching and another thing becomes clear: It’s never mentioned again.

Part of me thinks this is a form of feminist activism. Some studies have shown that young menstrators are highly influenced by their environment. When surrounded by others who see menstruation as a positive part of their lives rather than a messy impediment, they are more likely to see their own period as not a big deal. I suspect the writers of these female positive shows are attempting to teach the same — once you learn to deal with it, not a big deal. Not scary, not that painful, and not at all an impediment to playing sport, going on adventures or doing whatever your heart desires.

This does not line up with reality, in which one in five teenage girls experience bleeding to a point where it seriously impacts their lives. Interestingly, this proportion lines up with the numbers experiencing life-impacting bleeding around perimenopause. Statistically, one of the Babysitter’s Club cast would also be experiencing flooding and serious pain.

Heavy menstrual bleeding is a common problem during adolescence.  In fact, almost 50% of women report having heavy periods at some point during their reproductive years. Heavy menstrual bleeding can negatively impact quality of life, school attendance, and participation in after-school sports and activities.

However, just because it is a common problem doesn’t make it an easy topic for young women to discuss with parents or health care providers. Girls and parents often have difficulty assessing what constitutes normal menstrual cycles or patterns of bleeding.

Young adults experiencing heavy, problematic periods are common, and invisiblised in fiction made specifically for them. What does this say, implicitly? If you find your period problematic, that’s on you. And you are basically alone.

Further Suggestions

I haven’t read these — they’ve come up in my search for material on this topic:

  • Waiting For It by Christine Keighery (Australian)
  • Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth is a series of fantasy books. More than one character refers to having her ‘Moon flow’. He writes very good, strong female characters by the way.
  • Tamora Pierce does not shy away from menstruation.
  • An all male short film on menstruation has created a storm in India, because there are no women and men have to bleed.

Menstruation In Young Adult and Adult Stories

The Red Tent

If there’s a tentpole novel about menstruation, this is it. Or, this was it in the 1990s. A high school friend was in love with this book and really wanted me to read it. I read it many years later. This particular friend was the earliest to hit adolescence in our class. She was the first to start her periods at age eight, and the primary school even had to install disposal bins in the girls’ toilets for her benefit, and hold a special assembly for all the girls explaining what they were for. Looking back, I can see how important this book was to that friend, who for some long months was alone in her experience of menstruation.

The Red Tent Menstruation

As awful as it feels to be alone, at least there’s the consolation of having passed a rite of passage:

When we stood apart, I saw how much she had changed in the few months we had been apart. She was taller than I by a good half head, and there was no need to pull her garments tightly against her chest to see her breasts. But when I saw the belt that had declared her a woman, my mouth dropped. She had entered the red tent! She was no longer a child but a woman. I felt my cheeks grow warm with envy as hers grew pink with pride. I had a thousand questions to ask her about what it was like and about her ceremony, and whether the world was a different place now that her place in it was different.

In some religious and cultural thought, bodily fluids are thought to be a matter of ‘waste’. Every sperm is precious; every menstruation a wasted opportunity to have procreated:

Rebecca’s anger was terrible. “You mean to tell me that her blood was wasted? You shut her up alone, like some animal?”

Worse, bodily secretions are thought to be ‘sin’. Male ejaculation is seen as sinful and private. The advantage of having a male body is that  you (more or less) control when this happens. Without modern medicine, women have no control at all over their ‘sinful secretions’.

I have long wondered if women bleed monthly because of the moon, or if the female and lunar cycles are plain old coincidence. (After all, they don’t match up exactly.) Regardless of the answer, femininity has inevitably been linked to lunar cycles. And of course the moon is heavy with symbolism of its own.

“The great mother whom we call Innana gave a gift to woman that is not known among men, and this is the secret of blood. The flow at the dark of the moon, the healing blood of the moon’s birth—to men, this is flux and distemper, bother and pain. They imagine we suffer and consider themselves lucky. We do not disabuse them. In the red tent, the truth is known. In the red tent, where days pass like a gentle stream, as the gift of Innana courses through us, cleansing the body of last month’s death, preparing the body to receive the new month’s life, women give thanks—for repose and restoration, for the knowledge that life comes from between our legs, and that life costs blood…many have forgotten the secret of Innana’s gift, and turned their backs on the red tent. Esau’s wives…gave no lesson or welcome to their young women when they came of age. They treat them like beasts—setting them out, alone and afraid, shut up in the dark days of the new moon, without wine and without the counsel of their mothers. They do not celebrate the first blood of those who will bear life, nor do they return it to the earth. They have set aside the Opening, which is the sacred business of women, and permit men to display their daughters’ bloody sheets, as though even the pettiest baal would require such a degradation in tribute.”

Lack Of Menstruation In Fiction Is The Norm

I recently watched Runa British miniseries created by Jonathan Pearson, Marlon Smith, and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan, written by Marlon Smith and Daniel Fajemisin-Duncan for Channel 4. Run is a well-written, suspenseful crime story which focuses on immigrant experiences — a welcome change for diversity on screen. Notice it was written entirely by men, though? I made a point of looking at the credits afterwards, because of a particular scene.

Run is no better or worse than any other show depicting a rape scene, but in general I feel women should be called in for #ownvoices critique in these scenarios, since a scene with a man raping a woman (the general gender dynamic in these scenarios) is more triggering for women in general. (Men raping men seems to trigger men who aren’t otherwise triggered by rape — I refer to common male responses to one of the first depictions of male rape in popular entertainment — the film Deliverance.)

In Run: A young Chinese immigrant character is raped in a car by a much older man who controls her finances and safety.

The first problem with this scene concerns the camera choices. The camera focuses not on the facial expressions of the old man during this rape but on the young woman, first as she slowly disrobes under duress. If the director was going for scary, he should have focused on the slow disrobing of the man — his facial expression, looking straight into the camera or just past it would have better depicted the terror of our focal character, the victim. Instead, by focusing on the disrobing of the young woman, the show’s creators end up with a scene which looks very similar to a sex scene. Why does this matter? Sex scenes are meant to be sexy. Rape scenes, however, are meant to be terrifying. When a rape scene uses the film techniques of a sex scene, there is a real risk of mixing those two things together. There are real world consequences for the cultural conflation of sex and violence against women, which pervades stories in the current era. Even the male viewer, so used to the male gaze that he doesn’t notice it’s there, would benefit from seeing that rape scene from the girl’s point of view rather than looking at the girl. I see no better way of depicting the terror of being raped by a bigger, stronger man than by putting the viewers (of all genders) into the point of view of the raped, not the rapist.

You know what else could have been done, had the creators really wanted to show how shocking this rape scene was? When the young Chinese woman slowly pulls down her underwear, under duress, the underwear is clean. Sure it was clean. It always is, on screen. Yet when rape of women really happens, in real life, there’s about a 25% chance that a woman’s underwear contains blood. Tampons are one thing, and if a woman is raped while wearing a tampon it would be a different kind of shocking to be shown the icky aftermath of that (instead we usually see her hunched over crying in the shower), but young Chinese women from a rural area (i.e. this character) won’t realistically be using a tampon because of cultural ideas about virginity and so on. This is the sort of knowledge that only women seem to have, and the disproportionately low number of women working in TV and film affects what we see on screen.

The Last Taboo Is Actually Menopause

Menstruation is becoming more commonly mentioned in stories for and about young people, probably due to period activism and a culture which names and avoids shaming of any kind.

The cessation of menstruation is another matter. Break of Day by Colette is one of the few novels about menopause.

By the way, there’s a non-fiction book by Professor Susan Mattern called The Slow Moon Climbs, This book makes the case that menopause is a collection of symptoms and shouldn’t properly exist as a single concept, much like ‘hysteria’ was conceived last century.

Menstruation At TV Tropes

The lack of women working in film and TV is also clear from the dominant menstruation tropes.

Related Links About Menstruation

  1. Over at Jezebel some time ago, women were asked for their most horrifying menstruation stories. They weren’t quite prepared for the stories they got. I think this link needs a trigger warning, but if you are a man writing about a woman, or having sex with women, or related to a woman, give it a read.
  2. A childbirth educator and Doula over at Persephone Magazine keeps getting unbelievable questions from women who don’t know the most basic things about their own physiology. She takes anonymous questions.
  3. For an explanation of the term ‘gaslighting’ and why you probably shouldn’t ask a woman if she’s ‘on her period’, see this article from Persephone Magazine, in which we also learn the unfortunate etymology of ‘hysteria’. I, for one, try to avoid the word.
  4. What to do if you get your period when you go camping. Handy non-advice.
  5. Women Spot Snakes Faster Before Their Period – because there are people studying these things. Now I’d like to see a superheroine based on that bit of research. Instead, comic book world will probably continue with the girls in fridges trope.
  6. Your Period Is A Time For Deep Lady Bonding. Some researchers at the University of Chicago made an online survey to gauge women’s attitudes about their period, and discovered that women who belonged to religious traditions that had menstrual rules felt more shame surrounding their period and had a sense of seclusion during it, but oddly they also reported that they had an increased sense of community, from Jezebel.
  7. Menstruation And Shaming For Profit, from Be Prepared
  8. A Brief History Of Your Period, and Why You Don’t Have To Have It, from Jezebel
  9. Menstruation in SF.
  10. 1946 Walt Disney Menstruation Animation Tells Us We’re Okay Just The Way We Are from The Mary Sue
  11. Why We Should Be Angry About Periods by Clem Bastow
  12. The Taboo Of Menstruation from The Telegraph
  13. Dot Girl Products, selling kits for girls having their first periods.
  14. Is PMS A Myth? from Time Health and Family (not as dismissive as the title suggests). For the flipside of that argument: PMS Is Real, And Denying Its Existence Is Hurting Women from The Conversation and Is PMS All In Our Heads? from Slate
  15. The Film Festival For Movies About Menstruation, by Jezebel
  16. Pretend You’ve Never Had a Period With Tampax’s New ‘Radiant’ Line, from Jezebel
  17. I don’t understand all this silence around periods from The Peach
  18. Fifteen Memorable Menstruation Moments In Pop-Culture from The Frisky
  19. Adventures in Menstruation from Alter Net
  20. Welcome to the jungle: Your First Period from Persephone Magazine
  21. Do Men Have A Monthly Cycle? from The Good Men Project
  22. Unhappy periods and delivery room poos – let’s tell the truth about women from New Statesman
  23. Women spot snakes faster before their periods from NBC News
  24. No Menstrual Hygiene For Indian Women Holds Economy Back from Heeals
  25. Over at Freethought blogs, a statistically literate person breaks down why the argument that women menstruate therefore they might legitimately be paid less is a bullshit argument. Worth a read, if only to hone one’s own bullshit-o-meter.
  26. You may expect a female-issues driven website such as Jezebel to have a lot to say about periods. They do say a few things about periods, and that’s a bit of a round-up.
  27. Turns out bears aren’t actually interested in women’s menstrual cycles from io9
  28. Girls Are Getting Their Periods Earlier and Earlier, and No One Knows Why from Jezebel. (Actually, a lot of people in the integrative health community have a theory: estrogen dominance, which we all have until proven otherwise, due to our contaminated modern world.)
  29. Do Periods Really Sync Up Among Friends? from Persephone Mag
  30. Menstruation from the ear? Science has advanced a bit since then.
  31. A Periodic Table Of Your Period from Laughing Squid
  32. ‘Women weren’t included in the study because menstrual cycles may cause fluid balance fluctuations.’ That’s from a study on coffee, but makes me wonder — is the ‘complicating factor’ of menstruation (or menopause, or risk of damaging a fetus) part of why so often women are left out of medical trials and studies? At what point is it okay to eliminate women from a study, concluding instead that what’s true for men is also true for women? Many drugs are more dangerous than coffee.
  33. What Life Is Like When Getting Your Period Means You’re Shunned at Jezebel
  34. Women Aren’t Run By Their Periods, from Slate

Sophomores Abby, Brit, Christine, and Sasha are fed up. Hazelton High never has enough tampons. Or pads. Or adults who will listen.

Sick of an administration that puts football before female health, the girls confront a world that shrugs―or worse, squirms―at the thought of a menstruation revolution. They band together to make a change. It’s no easy task, especially while grappling with everything from crushes to trig to JV track but they have each other’s backs. That is, until one of the girls goes rogue, testing the limits of their friendship and pushing the friends to question the power of their own voices.

Now they must learn to work together to raise each other up. But how to you stand your ground while raising bloody hell?

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Home » Stephen King

The Magical Life Of Mr Renny by Leo Timmers

The Magical Life of Mr. Renny cover

The Magical Life of Mr Renny by Leo Timmers is a modern Magic Paintbrush story in which a central dog character can paint anything he likes. Timmers adds a romantic subplot.

PLOT OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY

A ‘starving artist’ (represented by a dog called Renny) can’t sell any paintings at the market. Everyone just wants to buy fruit and vegetables. Wishing he could eat the picture of an apple he has painted, a mysterious stranger turns up and tells him that if he were to take a bite of his apple painting, all of them would spring to life. Sure enough this happens, Renny is no longer starving and embarks on a lifestyle of rampant consumerism until an attractive female rabbit turns up wanting to buy one of his actual paintings. Obviously wanting to impress the cute rabbit, Renny renounces his ability to turn paintings into real-world objects and presumably lives ever after, but as a successful artist this time, because Rose the fruit seller has suddenly become interested in Renny’s paintings, which attracts the attention of all her customers.

As an adult reader I do take issue a little with this plot resolution. I’m always a little uncomfortable when a female character (usually dressed in pink — this one also wears high heels, carries a handbag and wears an apron) turns up in what is essentially a male story with her main function being as a love interest. Of course, we’ve all grown up on Warner Brothers/ Looney Tunes cartoons and may not even notice this happening — my daughter certainly doesn’t. So she loves the story without reservation. It’s possible that the author has no such intention for the character of Rose, but my suspicions are aroused when I see female characters depicted as so obviously ‘feminine’, who with few troubling words are able to completely change a male character’s life direction.

WONDERFULNESS

The book opens with a picture of an apple with the caption ‘This is not an apple’. Turn overleaf you’ll read, ‘It’s a picture of an apple’. This is a reference to the art of René Magritte, whose most famous image involves a pipe:

This Is Not A Pipe

Adult readers will pick up the reference; children are less likely to but it doesn’t matter — the concept is now introduced, and when they do happen upon the René Magritte image, they will be familiar with the concept. I suspect this is the concept that started the whole story, in fact.

NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY

Leo Timms is trained in graphic design (rather than in, say, fine arts) and I’m starting to be able to pick it, even before I read about the author on the back flap. It seems a high proportion of men come to picture book illustration after a background in graphic design or animation, and this may help to account for the disproportionate number of male illustrators winning the top awards, because if you read any jurors’ commentaries you will see that they tend to admire is use of white space/negative space, page layout and use of line. (Of course, plain old institutionalised sexism may well play a role in the prize-winning gender divide too.)

Back to the wonderful illustrations in hand, this book is a wonderful example of negative space used to great effect.

Leo Timmers Stalls

First, a white background can make a bright colour palette really pop. On the other hand, a bright colour palette such as this can almost require a lot of white space in order to work. Second — a technical issue — picture books with white space allow for simple black text on a clear background, leading to ease of reading. I’m constantly amazed when I see experienced publishers producing picture books which overlay dark text on dark backgrounds or (more rarely) vice versa. (It’s probably to do with colours printing differently from how they look on screen, but still.) In other illustrations, white space highlights object which lead the eye across the page.

The illustrations themselves seem to gleam. And the nice thing about illustrating for children is that you can make full use of visual hyperbole: When Renny goes on holiday his suitcase is enormous, filling up most of the page. Timmers knows how to play with proportions to comic effect.

Leo Timmers Suitcase On Top Of Car

Here is Mr Renny at his usual painting spot, perched on the edge of a precipitous cliff. Metaphorically, Renny is in a financially precarious position.

Leo Timmers Painting Easel Cliff Edge

The pictures are detailed enough that more will be discovered on each re-reading: A cigarette butt dropped on the ground (interesting given modern anti-tobacco sentiments), a goat looking horrified as eggs fall from a basket, a copy of The Titanic propped up against the easel as Renny paints a ship (a foreboding image). A little red bird who appears in most images is soon joined by another little red bird who together create an entire unmentioned subplot. (The real bird looks very dejected once its new mate turns back into a painting.)

STORY SPECS OF THE MAGICAL LIFE OF MR RENNY

First published in English in 2012 by Gecko Press, the translation was funded by the Flemish Literature Fund, so I’m only guessing the original language was Flemish.

The book is a larger-than-average square shape which allows the reader to fully appreciate the illustrations. The white space seems even larger when the book itself is big.

COMPARE WITH

There is a classic Chinese tale translated into English as ‘A Magic Paint Brush‘ or ‘The Magic Paint Brush’ about a poor painter whose fortune changes when his paintings come to life. There is a Ladybird Read-it-yourself version, which is probably my daughter’s favourite of all the Ladybird Read-it-yourself books on the shelf.

the-magic-paintbrush-ladybird-book-read-it-yourself-series-777-level-5-matt-hardback-1984-2713-p
The Magic Paintbrush pages8-9

The idea that the world is ‘painted’ into being is an old and widespread idea, probably as old as brushes themselves.

Charles Robinson The fairy painters at work after the storm
Charles Robinson The fairy painters at work after the storm

Timmers’ story also reminds me of the simple and effective story app by Bo Zaunders called The Artist Mortimer (available on the App Store). In both instances paintings intersect with the real world.

Then there is Stephen King’s Duma Key, in which our main character Edgar suffers a life changing accident and heads to the island of Duma Key to recover, discovering a painting ability that turns him into a local celebrity. But the things he paints are more than his imagination and the island claims lives.

Duma Key cover

The modern equivalent of a magic paint brush may be the 3D printing machine, as explored in The Everything Machine by Ally Kennen.

Home » Stephen King

Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?

Writing scary tales for children is difficult, because it has to be interesting without being too scary. How is it done? Where’s the line?

What have storytelling experts said?

I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Maria Tatar

People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice

There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.

R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro.

What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

Guillermo del Toro

Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Thomas Pynchon

It is debatable whether or not fear of the unknown is greater than fear of the known, but in childhood so much is unknown that a child, in order to make sense of fear, must isolate and identify it; only the known can be dealt with.

Jan Mark, British Writer

I believe that children should be allowed to feel fear … Walter de la Mare … believed that children were impoverished if they were protected from everything that might frighten them … Once one has answered this basic question … the second problem arises of how it is to be presented. This is really a technical problem which has to be faced by every writer for children.

Catherine Storr, from ‘Things That Go Bump In The Night’ in the Sunday Times Magazine, March 1971

We’re not really being scared by movies at all, at least not in the ‘brain chemistry way’.”

FilmmakerIQ

What Does The Research Say?

The Center for Scholars and Storytellers has come up with seven factors which induce fear in children:

  1. The threatening appearance of a character
  2. A character behaving threateningly
  3. A character children identify with being under threat and helpless
  4. Stories that make children aware, for the first time, of threatening scenarios within their experience
  5. Stories in which safe places are deliberately breached
  6. Music and sound that signify danger
  7. Scenes depicting injury and homicide

Importantly, ‘many programs that most parents and professionals would not consider problematic, induce fear reactions as well – from Disney animated movies to even educational programs. For example, little Dumbo’s trunk reaching out to his caged mother was painful to watch for many children. Similarly, scenes from the classic Wizard of Oz that included the Witch and the monkeys elicited strong fear experiences.’

The researcher recommends content creators and parents offer thrill experiences rather than fear experiences. Unfortunately no further clarification is provided for the word ‘thriller’. I have taken a deep dive into the meaning of thriller and it’s a nebulous term, used differently by storytellers than by marketers.

Whatever is meant by that, most children can’t cope with thrillers until about 7 or 8.

When you were a kid, did you like scary stories?

What about those of you who have kids of your own? Do your kids like scary stories?

Our four-year-old daughter loves the Hayao Miyazaki movies (Studio Ghibli). I’m sure there are many, many reasons for this, but she loves those films partly for the periodic frisson of horror. Her favourite of the lot is Spirited Away, which includes a particularly scary scene in which Chihiro briefly loses sight of her parents, only to come back and find they’ve turned into pigs. This scene haunts and delights our daughter in equal measure. She asks to watch Spirited Away over and over again, and some days she only wants to watch up until the part where the parents turn into pigs (the first inciting incident, as it happens) before turning the DVD off and doing something else. For that reason, I can tell she watches it for the thrill.

She also loves Princess Mononoke. Like Spirited Away, this film has a well-deserved PG rating here in Australia, not least for the ‘monster covered in worms’, as she puts it. You can see a screenshot of that horrible thing on this blogger’s list of Top Ten Movie Monsters. Demon boars deserve their place on that list, though I’m sure Japanese stories could fill a top ten list all on their ownsome. If you’ve never delved into the monsters and demons of Japanese folklore, you’re in for a miserable and thrilling treat. (Who needs Stephen King when you’ve got Wikipedia?) Then, when I look at this seriously unsettling clip from the disturbing new children’s film Toys in the Attic (brought to us via io9), I see that the Czechs have a higher tolerance than we do for scaring the bejeebus out of their children, so maybe we in the West are particularly antsy about what we let our children watch.

I sometimes wonder, though, whether our four-year-old should be watching these films.  She enjoys them, all right. She is mesmerised by them in a way ABC for Kids can’t quite achieve. That said, she also likes eating McDonalds, and I wouldn’t give her unlimited access to that. I’m reluctant to limit her viewing to the bright and cheerful though, for a few reasons.

1. These stories all come good in the end.

At the end of Spirited Away, the parents turn back into people, and Chihiro leaves the spirit world safe and sound, ready to embark on her new life. At the moment when the parents turn back into humans, our daughter rushes in to tell me this, with a big smile on her face. In children’s literature there are rules which don’t necessarily apply to adult literature, and the happy ending is one such rule. (Actually, I’m going to stick to the phrase ‘reassuring ending’. ‘Happy’ can sound trite and cliched.)

2. Children imagine terrible things endogenously.

They don’t need outside media input: children seem universally terrified by the idea of parental abandonment for example, and no one taught babies to cry out of loneliness at night. If anything, stories with reassuring endings might have a healing function rather than a terrorising one. Also, how good are we, really, at predicting what our children are going to find scary? It’s impossible to reimagine any children’s show as horror, even The Magic School Bus.

3. Once we get to a certain age, we know when we’re being (over)protected from the harsh realities of life.

Drawing on my own childhood experience, I was sent to bed to read every night after dinner, so I never viewed TV that was meant for an adult audience. I don’t begrudge this I was allowed to read in bed until much later, and this did wonders for my imaginative life.  But it also meant that the few times I caught a glimpse of adult TV, those scenes became memorable for their rarity.

One Saturday night I must have been up later than usual and I caught the beginning of a horror film before being sent up to bed. The film was probably a terrible 1980s B-grade thing, and I have no idea what it might have been called; I only remember the horrific scene of a child being locked inside a wooden chest in his grandmother’s attic, then etching a cry for help into the wood with his fingernails. That must’ve been the scene that alerted my mother to the inappropriate content, and I was sent to bed at that point, protestations ignored.

Had I watched the movie to its conclusion, it’s likely I’d have been disappointed, because no film lives up to a child’s imaginative world. Instead, I concocted my own events, and even managed to terrorise my younger cousin with that made-up story, because we shared a bedroom over the Christmas holidays and that scene formed the basis of my ghost stories. My cousin still remembers those stories. (I remember those evenings for a different kind of disappointment: Lisa had always fallen asleep before I got to the really scary part.)

So this point is related to my second point: the imaginings of children out-colour much of the media content out there, and certainly out-colours the scariest of the scary stories produced with a child audience in mind. All children are different in this regard, and parents are the best judge of their own children’s scariness thresholds. But there’s a fine line between ‘protective’ and ‘over-protective’. Some commentators argue that some parents are going too far in an attempt to shield their children from anything less than peachy:

‘If it’s true that childhood is a kind of walled garden, then it shouldn’t surprise us that children try to poke through the wall at every chance they get’, writes Kathleen McDonnell in her book Honey, We Lost The Kids: Rethinking Childhood in the multimedia age. ‘If there are secrets, kids will try to uncover them, simply because it’s their nature to want to know. In fact, it’s precisely because this knowledge is kept secret that it becomes so highly charged for kids. The forbidden fruit is invariably the most appealing.’

  1. The Most Unintentionally Terrifying Movies Of All Time, from io9
  2. 22 Incredibly Creepy Toys, from Buzzfeed. I don’t care what it is, if it’s got those shutting and opening eyes with stiff black lashes on it, it’s creepy. (Those Jolly Chimps come a close second, and I drew one in The Artifacts. Did you see it?)
  3. This limbless amphibian family discovered in India is pretty scary. But then I don’t like diaphanous life forms in general.
  4. Someone’s list of scariest movies, on IMDB. I haven’t seen all of the films on this list, but the ones I have seen are super spooky!
  5. The Earth Might Have A “Pulse” Which Causes Extinctions Every 60 Million Years, from io9
  6. The World’s Largest Rodent on Wikipedia I wouldn’t want to feel this massive thing swimming between my ankles in any dogdamn South American waterhole. It’s a lot less cute when you know it’s a rodent though, no? Otherwise it might pass for a catdog.
  7. The Spooky TV Movie That Caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from io9 (the website of many spooky things).
  8. A list of the 8 Scariest Places On Earth. The closest to me is Victoria’s Beechworth Lunatic Asylum. I intend to pay a visit someday, since I somehow forgot to visit when I actually lived in Victoria.
  9. I think all ice-cream vans play scary music, but this one on YouTube is pretty darn scary indeed.
  10. The Most Disturbing Books Of All Time from Pop Crunch
  11. 5 Scary Reads from To Be Read Blog
  12. Watch a GIF of The Joker applying lipstick
  13. An incredibly simple horror short to make you afraid of the dark, shared by io9
  14. This ‘Goodnight Moon’ Remake Will Ruin Your Favorite Children’s Book from Mashable
  15. The Bloodlines series from Wired breaks down what exactly it is that makes a movie scary.
  16. Scaryish Stories (for Halloween) from Imagination Soup
  17. Terrifying macro pictures of polychaetes or bristle worms from The Telegraph
  18. Top 10 Scariest Monsters in Children’s Books according to Smashing Lists
  19. Monsters Inked from Teach With Picture Books, in which teachers are provided with some great classroom ideas.
  20. Terrifying French Children’s Books from The Guardian
  21. 10 Terrifying Children’s Books from around the world, collected by Oh No They Didn’t
  22. 9 Unintentionally Terrifying Children’s Books from Flavorwire
  23. 8 Disney Movie Scenes I Refuse To Show My Daughter from Mommyish
  24. Fairytales too scary for modern children, say parents, from The Telegraph
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