Tuesday 15 December 2009

Disturbing Stories

There was a bit of controversy at this year’s Edinburgh Festival when Anne Fine was quoted or misquoted about her views on the suitability of certain themes for children’s fiction. She appeared to be suggesting that gritty realism and downbeat endings could be taken too far, and might have an adverse effect on young minds.

I wasn’t there, and didn’t hear her exact words. As Anne Fine is herself the author of the splendid but pretty disturbing book, ‘The Tulip Touch’, I expect that what she actually said was more finely nuanced than the reports suggested. And she was probably talking about teen books anyway – Margo Lanagan’s ‘Tender Morsels’ had just come out with its themes of incest and rape. I did read ‘Tender Morsels’: it was beautifully written, and far less shocking – and much more of a fairytale – than advertised.

I don’t have a problem with gritty realism – or gritty fairytales either – and as far as teenagers are concerned, I think from the age of 14 or so, most young people are capable of dealing with fiction that expresses the harsher and crueller aspects of life as well as beauty, adventure and love. In any case, there’s a wide range of books available. If one story doesn’t please, another will. Even ‘Tender Morsels’ is unlikely to keep a healthy teenager awake at night.

For junior fiction, the situation is different. Authors are not teachers or pastors; we have no mission to instruct or to impart morals; but in practice most authors who write for younger children do present a broadly hopeful view of life in which good usually triumphs over adversity and evil. Part of the reason for this is that younger children are more impressionable.

Everyone enjoys being a little frightened. Toddlers giggle when you pretend to drop them. Eight year olds hide behind the sofa to watch Dr Who. A controllable degree of fright is fun. Cold terror is not, and most parents know what it’s like to have to try to deal – at one o-clock in the morning – with a hysterical child who can’t sleep for thinking about some frightening moment in a film or a story.

If only it were possible to predict what is too scary and what is not! But it isn’t possible. Children are too different. I knew one seven year old who was terrified by the Wicked Witch of the West in ‘The Wizard of Oz’, and another who could watch ‘Jurassic Park’ with complacent indifference. So which film is family viewing for seven year olds and which is not? Neither?

When I was 5 or 6, I had an Enid Blyton picturebook about Noddy, in which Noddy took his little car for a drive through the woods. You turned the page, and a goblin jumped out at him. The picture was black and white, and somehow horribly startling. It reduced me to helpless screams, and the book had to be taken away. Then, memorably, when I was about eight or nine, and horse-and-pony mad, I was given a Puffin book called ‘Snow Cloud Stallion’. On the front cover was a gorgeous, romantic picture of a white stallion sliding to a halt in a cloud of mist, framed against a background of dour pine trees. The story was about a boy who tames a wild horse, and there was a sub-plot about cattle rustlers. I plunged in and read eagerly till I reached a point in the story where the boy discovers the discarded skins of the slaughtered cattle.

And that was that. I was terrified. I couldn’t finish the book; I couldn’t even be in the same room as the book. My mother had to spirit it away. I wouldn’t let her throw it out because I loved the picture on the front cover so much; but I was too frightened of the book to able to look at it or even hold it. (She hid it on top of her wardrobe; I knew it was there, but the fact that it was in her room somehow neutralised it for me.) In the end, she had a go at hand-copying the picture for me, and then I presume she got rid of it. At any rate, it disappeared, and I never saw it again.

And then, just this weekend, in a second-hand bookshop in Stratford upon Avon, I found it again, and bought it for old times’ sake, and out of curiosity. How bad WAS that passage that had scared me so much? Would I still find it disturbing today?

Judge for yourselves:

“There lay the heifer – what was left of her. It took [Ken] several minutes to quiet the jumpy horse, unnerved by the scent of blood which must have reached him just before Ken caught sight of the slaughtered animal.
“It was an unpleasant sight. The hind-quarters were missing and the limp, bloodstained hide lay grotesquely empty. The flies were already buzzing around it in swarms. Ken could see a black hole in the forehead where the bullet had struck. The thieves must have used a silencer.”

Looking at this edition, Kaye Webb’s Puffin imprint of 1967, I see the book (by Gerald Raftery) was first published in 1953. The blurb says ‘A fine story that all children who like horses will enjoy; girls and boys over ten will, we hope, read it with equal enthusiasm.’ So perhaps I was a little young for it after all. I have to say I still find the passage raises the ghost of a frisson. But I don’t think an adult could easily have predicted the passionate terror those few sentences produced in me.

And so I wonder… do you have any frightening stories?


  1. Not a book, but... Whenever George Formby came on the telly with his ukelele I would be absolutely terrified and have to hide behind the sofa until someone switched channels! I can't imagine what it was. That insistent chirpiness?

  2. There was an Enid Blyton book with a tunnel which ended in a wardrobe, that made me scared of wardrobes for years...but I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe quite happily. How strange..

  3. What a wonderful post, Kath :-) I was scared of Heidi - the bit with the 'ghsot'. My Small Bint, though, was terrified of a Thomas the Tank Engine video in which Percy? Thomas? gets jam on his engine and she was convinced it was blood.

    I did try once, with a story (can't remember which) that one of them was scared of, saying 'but you have heard this story before - you know what happens. You know it is going to be OK', but that didn't work. The great answer was 'well, it might be different this time'. What does that tell us about books, I wonder?

  4. Yes, it's funny, isn't it? When my daughters were small I discovered that for one-off scary experiences (a scary story told by a schoolfriend or a frightening bit from a film) if I RETOLD the story aloud, with sufficient conviction AND a different ending or twist to make it anodyne, they would stop being scared and never be frightened by that particular thing again. I would begin, "OK, they got it wrong; I know what really happened..." and invent as I went. Worth passing on!

  5. Interesting! A wild guess, but I think it might have been that word 'grotesquely' that may have seeded terror in your brain... it's doubtful you would have known what it meant, and so it could have been a repository for all sorts of nameless fears. Just my feeling; I found that word very spooky at one time, and am still a bit reluctant to use it.

    But children - some, anyway - do seem to be primed with this animal sense of fear that most of us un-learn as we grow up. Almost anything can set it off. I had a picture book when I was small called 'Magic and Make Believe' which had a wolf's head on the cover, in the corner... in the end, I simply couldn't have it in my room. But I don't think any of the stories were that scary.

  6. I think you might well be right, Nick, and I think if someone had me wired to an electroencepholgraph or whatever the things are called, there'd still be a spike as I read that word.

  7. I was terrified (okay, I wasn only about three or so!) of the fox in Jemima Puddleduck. But I liked the story so my mother would cover up the fox with her hand when he appeared. It was the ART rather than the words which scared me. I was quite happy to have the text read aloud. But FOX had to be covered up! I think the fact that you can never predict what will frighten someone nor at what age is one of the things that makes the age banding stuff such nonsense. Catherine Storr once said quite memorably that you can scare children, but not allow them to believe there is no HOPE.

  8. I can remember being deeply upset by BAMBI - the bit where Gobi, having been rescued and nurtured by a human, believes he can trust people and walks towards the hunter who kills him. I'm not sure how old I was when I read it - about ten, perhaps? It was the fallibility of humans that upset me as much as the death of Gobi and the distress for Bambi. (I've never seen the Disney, fortunately - but the novel by Felix Saltern has stayed in my mind.)

  9. It's many years since I read Bambi, but yes, that was upsetting. All those old animal stories we used to read - the Story of a Red Deer, was it? and The Call of the Wild - where are thier equivalents today?

  10. For us it was the firebrigade's video shown in the Infants school. After several nights of child sleeping with us, stiff as a plank, I approached the head teacher to ask what on earth they'd done. It sounded innocent enough, but the effect...

  11. I left my two-year-old daughter watching - I thought in complete safety - a Pingu DVD. She wasn't talking yet by that age, so we had to rewind to find the cause of her hysterical screaming. It was the episode where Pingu is smacked and runs away, and perceives all the icebergs as monsters till his parents find him again. Pingu! Who'd have thought? But watching it myself, I could straight away see why she was scared. We had to skip that episode for about a year afterwards.

    Kath, I had Snow Cloud Stallion! I don't remember that bit, but I do remember the magnificent cover. I must look it out again.

  12. Just found this post (it was linked to on the most recent fairytale one)...I had Snowcloud Stallion too...and I think I must have liked it more for the cover myself, because I have no recollection whatsoever of the content!

  13. Just found this post from a linkback too. I had this book as a child, probably about your age too. I re-bought it recently, for the cover, but haven't re-read it yet. Oddly, I don't remember the cattle rustling at all - but I do remember the saddle and other tack that the old man kept clean and supple, and the ride through the snow for the doctor. Odd how different things strike chords...

  14. How interesting - and strange! The cover artwork clearly resonated with us both!