Marvelously Macabre

October 18, 2018 § 1 Comment

When my kids were younger, there was a nearby house which went all out in the weeks leading up to Halloween. I have never seen anything like it; rumor has it the entire second floor was dedicated to storing the decorations during the other eleven months of the year. There was no discernible theme. It was simply a collection of macabre paraphernalia thrown together on a front lawn: dark hooded figures wielding axes; skeletons with gaping eye sockets; dismembered body parts robotically twitching. For young children, I thought it would have been repulsive at best, terrorizing at worst.

Instead, my children adored it. “If we go to the grocery store, we can drive by the Halloween House,” I’d say, and you’ve never seen kids fly out the door faster. “Can we take our pictures next to the scary guys?” they would shout. And we did.

As it turns out, my kids were not the only ones who came to anticipate the Halloween House as soon as they detected a chill in the air. When the owners finally sold the house and moved away, people came from far and wide to lay claim for a few dollars to a decoration or two. (Sadly, we arrived too late—a grievance which my father-in-law is fond of remedying by gifting us macabre decorations of our own, most recently a set of unassuming book spines, out of which shoots a black and shriveled up hand, accompanied by loud symphonic banging, when I walk by. My kids find this terribly amusing.)

What I have come to understand is that children, like adults, embody a fascinating paradox when it comes to the macabre. Death, which most of us avoid thinking about at all costs, suddenly inspires fascination and enjoyment when represented artistically. In a recent opinion piece for The Guardian, which sings the praises of authors like Roald Dahl under the title, “A touch of the macabre in children’s books is nothing to be scared of,” Eleanor Margolis argues that so long as it is presented with humor, macabre imagery becomes a safe and healthy way for our children to contemplate some of the darker sides of life—elements which might otherwise terrify them:

…the vital ingredient in introducing children to the macabre is humour. This is where old morality tales fall short. The Brothers Grimm, for example, produced a collection of fairytales that manage to be gruesome, preachy, antisemitic and (can you imagine?) not even particularly funny. This need for balance is where Roald Dahl – the king of “too dark for kids” – hits the absolute sweet spot. Sure, after I read The Witches, for a short time I suspected most of my friends’ mums were witches, and I was duly petrified of them. But the book was also packed with silliness. It was, along with Matilda and The Twits, easily the most gross, unsettling and deeply fun book I’d ever read. Because those concepts can coexist, and decent writing sets them off against each other like peanut butter and jam. There’s often a thin line between scary and funny, and children (above all people) know this to be true.

Roald Dahl may be one stellar literary choice for indulging our morbid fascination with a side of good cheer (I concur that sharing The Witches with my kids never gets old), but there are others, including what may be the best purchase you’ll ever make for under five dollars. Alvin Schwartz’s In a Dark, Dark Room and Other Scary Stories (Ages 4-8) is a slim “I can Read” paperback, originally printed in 1984, featuring seven short stories and poems inspired by traditional folktales, each delivered with easy, repetitive vocabulary and lots of white space.

As a child learning to read in the 1980s, I was obsessed with this book (perhaps it’s no coincidence that another book I loved—in fact, the first one I remember reading all by myself—was The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree, similarly ripe with macabre imagery). Imagine my delight when both my kids went gaga over Schwartz’s spooky stories. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that my daughter learned to read so that she could read this book to anyone who would listen. There was actually a time when she would lure unsuspecting friends on playdates to her room so she could read In a Dark, Dark Room to them. (I would stand outside her closed door, grinning at the gasps and giggles which emanated.)

I’m serious. I don’t think there is another book that has received more attention from my children over the past six years.

All signs would point to my kids not being alone. An updated version of In a Dark, Dark Room is set to be released next week, with new illustrations by Victor Rivas (though I have a hunch I will always prefer Dirk Zimmer’s original art, which is what’s photographed here). Part of the book’s enduring appeal is that the storytelling is pitch perfect. In just a few pages, Schwartz uses repetition to build suspense, culminating in a deliciously spine-chilling and uproariously funny reveal.

But it’s more than simply great storytelling. The presence of the macabre here—characters with grotesque facial features; hairy corpses which come alive; ghosts who boo in the night—gives young children the bewitching feeling that they’re getting away with something. Should I even be reading this? Aren’t these the things my parents are always dismissing as not real, as fit only for nightmares? This is bonkers. This. is. awesome.

Nowhere is this delicious thrill more evident than in the book’s third story, “The Green Ribbon.” If you mention In a Dark, Dark Room to someone who read it as a child, chances are they’ll respond with something like, “Is THAT the book with the story about the girl who wears the ribbon around her neck?” Yes. Yes, it is.

Once there was a girl named Jenny.
She was like all the other girls,
except for one thing.
She always wore a green ribbon
around her neck.

Jenny’s friend, Alfred (like us readers), is determined to get to the bottom of this green ribbon. “Why do you wear that ribbon all the time?” Alfred asks her over and over, first as her childhood pal and later as her husband. “I will tell you when the right time comes,” Jenny replies. Finally, as she lies in old age on her death bed, Jenny tells Alfred that he can untie the ribbon and learn her secret. He unties the ribbon.

…and Jenny’s head fell off.

I mean, come on. Find me five better words in children’s literature! Total jaw dropper. Unforgettable. Herein lies all the motivation we need to read: to have the rug yanked out from underneath our feet and to fall back onto the safe, downy softness of our bed in amazement.

I’m not sure anything can live up to the celebrity of In a Dark, Dark Room in our house, but my kids and I found a kindred spirit in the newly-published The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael (Ages 4-8), a picture book by master storyteller Bonny Becker (Bear and Mouse, need I say more?) and illustrated with an obvious fondness for the macabre by Mark Fearing.

The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael may be less straightforward than In the Dark, Dark Room, but the delivery is once again perfect: the rhyming text builds with suspense, drawing us into its nebulous world, then turning on us with a reveal we didn’t see coming. Young Michael McMichael looks the picture of innocence as he waits for the bus to take him to his grandmother’s house, his hand grasping a picnic basket lined with red and white checks. He may as well be Little Red Riding Hood. In contrast, the arriving bus, numbered ominous Thirteen, raises the hair on our necks. My kids were quick to point out the multitude of omens, from the fang-like mirrors to the misshapen tires.

The bus was full, barely room inside.
Perhaps he should wait for a different ride?
But he was late. And, well, besides,
It was Gran’s dear pet he transported.

While the passengers seem normal enough, we feel for little Michael, who watches as one by one each person gets off the bus, leaving him with a driver “whose face was thin as bone/ and more and more distorted.” When Michael begins to look around the empty bus, he sees further evidence of a fate quickly approaching—hungry mouths on the seats and hissing snakes hanging from the bars—although we can’t tell what’s real and what’s his imagination. Only when the driver announces his intention of collecting “meat or bone” for payment, do we realize the child is trapped (“Our coffers will not be shorted!”). My son flipped back to the page where the earlier passengers were disembarking: had I noticed they were a bit shimmery around the edges, a bit ghost-like?

Just as the bus accelerates past a graveyard and straight toward a dark forest, as the driver’s facial features become even more grotesque and his advances even more predatory, the narrative takes a (much-welcomed) lighter turn. We begin to realize that quick-thinking Michael is making an escape plan. Playing into the driver’s carnivorous appetite, he offers to sacrifice his Gram’s pet to pay his fare. (Or does he? I won’t dare spoil the ending like I did the green ribbon; suffice it to say that Michael (and his Gram) are feistier than we thought them to be.)

A scary story doesn’t find a receptive audience—doesn’t work—unless our children are allowed a chance to recover some agency while reading it (the equivalent to pointing out that the animatronic hand on the front lawn has inadvertently turned over and stalled). When our children see that, in the story they’re reading, it’s a child’s own cleverness, resourcefulness, or thievery which triumphs over death, they feel likewise empowered to look down death’s nose and cackle right back.

This year, my children are eight and eleven, precisely the ages I’ve been waiting for to break out one of my favorite macabre chapter books. Here is another instance where the horrifying and the hilarious pair perfectly. Adam Gidwitz’s A Tale Dark and Grimm (Ages 8-12), the first in his best-selling trilogy (recently redesigned with tantalizing covers by Caldecott Medalist Dan Santat), hacks traditional Grimm fairy tales into grisly, bloody, gruesome bits, then dishes them out with such irreverence and wit, our children would be left speechless if they weren’t laughing so hard.

We began last night; and while reading aloud by candlelight turns out to be harder than I thought (damn aging eyes), I didn’t learn nothing by reading In a Dark, Dark Room all those years ago. Ambiance counts. Especially when I’m asking my children to use their own imaginations to conjure up the macabre images Gidwitz so alluringly and unapologetically describes.

With the covers half over their faces, they hung on my every word. Of course, that’s precisely what Gidwitz intends when he writes things like this:

Before I go on, a word of warning: Grimm’s stories—the ones that weren’t changed for little kids—are violent and bloody. And what you’re going to hear now, the one true tale in the Tales of Grimm, is as violent and bloody as you can imagine.

Really.

So if such things bother you, we should probably stop right now.

You see, the land of Grimm can be a harrowing place. But it is worth exploring. For, in life, it is in the darkest zones one finds the brightest beauty and the most luminous wisdom.

And, of course, the most blood.

The darkness finds us all eventually. While we can, let’s have fun occasionally seeking it out. At least, for one marvelously macabre holiday.

 

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Review copy of The Frightful Ride of Michael McMichael from Candlewick. All opinions are my own. Amazon.com affiliate links support my book-buying habit and contribute to my being able to share more great books with you–although I prefer that we all shop local when we can!

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