Thursday, October 28, 2010

Such ordinary things make me afraid

I was browsing around a bookstore one day when I came across the book Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.  I loved Dahl as a child and I have a book of his short stories aimed at adults, so I was very excited when I found this book.  So excited in fact, that I didn't notice Dahl didn't actually write these stories.  He just compiled them.  Whoops.  I was disappointed when I found this out but the disappointment didn't last for long because Dahl picked out some great stories and he includes a number of short stories written by women.  In the intro he decides "women have an unusual flair for writing about the supernatural," (14) and I'm personally always happy to see a story written by a female writer that doesn't completely center on finding a man and/or shoe shopping.

I've gone through half of the book so far and the stories about children have been the ones that stood out to me. Most likely because children scare me.  Unsettling tiny people...Anyway here are my thoughts on the creepy children stories.

"Harry" by Rosemary Timperley
The post title actually comes from this story.  The main character begins the story talking about the ordinary things that frighten her: "Sunshine. Sharp shadows on grass. White roses. Children with red hair."*  (33) Mr. and Mrs. James have adopted a young girl who was the only member of her family to survive her father's attempted family murder/suicide, saved by her brother's sacrifice.  Christine has made an invisible friend that her mother cannot stand but the more Mrs. James rails against him, the more Christine retreats to the friend in the garden.

"Playmates" by A.M. Burrage
A creepy Victorian bachelor decides he would make an awesome parent so he takes on a ward whose father just died and no one else seems to want, so he see if teaching her the bare minimum (though giving her access to a full library so she can mostly teach herself) and keeping her from other children will make her the perfect person.  This results in the girl being well cared for physically but sullen; she never laughs, she never plays. The man, the little girl and the household servants move from the city to the country, where the little girl begins to play and smile and seems to have a group of invisible friends.

So the first thing you'll notice is kids who talk to invisible friends are actually talking to ghosts** so you'd better watch out. And kids are totally unafraid of ghosts because child ghosts apparently make fantastic playmates.  The creepiness comes from the fact that the children are interacting with something otherworldly in an entirely nonchalant way.  These companions make perfect sense and are preferred to real children around them.  The adults may try to deny a presence but their own reluctance shows how much they really believe in the friends are real and more than just an overactive imagination.  The stories aren't frightening so much as they are unsettling.  You won't scream while reading these stories but you will feel uneasy.  Dahl says in the intro the reason he compiled these stories was originally for a TV show.  It sounded like The Twilight Zone and any of the stories would fit into that sort of format.  Less sci-fi, more horror, all creepy.  It's too bad the show never got picked up; I'd love to have seen some of these stories made into short movie.

*Man, red heads just get picked on left and right.  For other examples see: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and South Park. One of my nicknames is "daywalker" though I do have the pale skin and very light freckles.  But I'm pretty sure non-redheads just can't tell gingers apart.
**I thought about saying "Spoilers" here but since I'm talking about a book of ghost stories, if the fact that ghosts are present surprises you, well, here's your spoiler alert. You're welcome.

Title quote from page 46

Burrage, A.M. "Playmates."  Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1983.

Timperley, Rosemary. "Harry." Roald Dahl's Book of Ghost Stories.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 1983.