on the scariest ever book for kids (among other musings)
When I met with my editors in New York last November, we talked about all sorts of things, from the origins of ideas, to the reasons why we write, to our motivation to use non-traditional literary formats to tell a story. But this one thing in particular resonated with me: inspiration. I find myself going back to ponder one of my editor's questions in regards to inspiration behind What The Woods Keep: 'But why [spoiler removed]? Why not something else? Why this particular bit of mythology?'
In response, I mumbled something along the lines of: 'When I was a kid, I remember reading this book... called '100 mysteries' or 'legends' or something... and [spoiler removed] stuck in my brain like a splinter and I don't know why but here's me twenty years later writing a book about it. I really don't know!'
Eduard Uspensky is one author who comes to mind here. Some would know Uspensky as the creator of Cheburashka, a sentient creature of unknown origin. The last one of its kind, Cheburashka escapes from his shipment container and makes a life for himself in the big city together with his best friend, a talking crocodile named Gena.
|Here is Cheburashka taking a stroll with his best friend, a talking crododile named Gena. |
Uspensky is also the author of a series of books-made-cartoons about a Very Serious Boy named Uncle Fyodor ('Uncle' because he is Very Serious!) who runs away from home with a talking cat, then meets a talking dog and makes a new life for himself and his animal friends in a decrepit house on the outskirts of a semi-abandoned village called Prostokvashino (the village's name translates as 'buttermilk' or 'clabber' - but it sounds a lot funnier in in Russian).
Uncle Fyodor's absentee parents occasionally come for a visit and then they all sing songs and decorate a Christmas tree with garbage (no, I'm not making this up). There's also this nasty mailman named Pechkin who keeps an eye on this suspicious house and constantly threatens to report its residents to the authorities because an unsupervised child is living there alone.
|Here's Uncle Fyodor, having a supper with his talking animal friends. |
Perhaps this is a metaphor for a lonely child making up imaginary friends to escape reality?
Finally, on the talking creature-feature front, there was Gingerbread Man Investigates, a book/cartoon about private investigators who are also baked goods! Their main concern? Not to get stuck outside when it rains!
|Gingerbread Man Investigates is a 1987 book made into a cartoon. |
But the true cherry on the cake of all the amazing book stuff I was lucky to have grown up with is without a doubt Red hand, black bed-sheet, green fingers, a 1990 Uspensky masterpiece of a Young Adult novella that both terrified and fascinated the child-me. And what about those illustrations? Just writing about them now is bringing back the memories of shivers I felt then when I was reading this book...
|The cover for Red hand, black bed-sheet, green fingers.|
Thick and glossy, the book came with a tag-line: frightful stories for fearless children. The author hence dedicated the book to all those who helped him with research: in 1986 when Red hand.. was germinating, during a talk on a teen radio show Uspensky asked his young listeners to mail him their scary stories. Based on these letters (and he received thousands of those), drawing on kids' urban myths - those weird, creepy horror stories passed down verbally, and becoming twisted in the process, with each new narrator adding a bit of personal touch - Uspensky wrote a book that defined a generation of Russian kids (me included) coming of age in the 1990s amidst the perestroika fever, empty grocery shops, food stamps, and crumbling school walls in need of urgent repair.
This spooky book that left a deep impression on my still developing brain was in its essence a crime mystery where a rookie cop named Victor was tasked with investigating a series of strange murders. The suspects? Mystical forces, as reported by witnesses: a shining red hand that was seen emerging from the wall, a red-faced woman seen right before a fire broke out or a man without face passing by before a murder was committed...
As Victor investigates, going deeper and deeper into the supernatural underground world, he has to travel from one creepy little town to the next, visiting abandoned mansions and spooky cemeteries. And everywhere, he goes he keeps hearing those spine-twisting stories from terrified witnesses until his own rational convictions are shaken, challenged...
The book's genre combines the elements of scary fairy tales, folk tales and realistic urban storytelling, where everyday objects are imbued with paranormal abilities and sentient minds.
|Victor is encountering a floating ghost of a school headmaster. Or is it a ghoul?|
|Victor faces a terrifying adversary: an evil murderous ape!|
|Oh, the horror! Evil socks! But where is the rest of the... girl?|
I remember reading this book and feeling unsure whether I should be terrified or laughing as Uspensky manages to ridicule as well as terrify. I guess, today the equivalent of the urban myths Uspensky wrote about would be the stories of red mobile phones not requiring electricity to function because they suck the blood and brains from its owner (hey, are these our deep-seated fears of consumerism? Or is it a way kids position objects they covet, like a killer TV set, and make those into supernatural entities that want to kill their owners?) Something can be said here about Jung's collective subconscious I suppose, but I'm running out of time.
The thing is, these fright stories have been around for ages, with the assortment of supernatural characters, like 'red stain', 'black curtains' or (disembodied) 'green eyes'. Some of these scary stories can be traced to the end of 1940: perhaps (as this article describes) the real horrors of World World II were fading away from children's mass conscious and new fears had to be created. After all, the act of telling/hearing a spooky tale brings about a form of emotional catharsis allowing kids to experience fear in a controlled, safe environment and by doing so they get over it.
I wrote this post as a long-witted and not very coherent answer to my earlier question of where does inspiration come from and why, as an author, some things never leave me, with memories of what my mind digested when I was a child still haunting me, making my fingers move over keyboard.
I still can't tell you why [spoiler removed] and not any other myth or legend formed the foundation of What The Woods Keep, but what I can tell you is where my fascination with strange small towns come from (Uspensky's Victor travels from one quaint little town to the next as he investigates a series of supernatural crimes... In each town he's greeted by tensions and secrets...) and I can tell you why Hayden (the main protagonist of What The Woods Keep) struggles so much with things refusing to fit into her scientific view of the world (her struggles are not dissimilar from those of Victor.) But then, Hayden's whimsy reflects that of Uncle Fyodor who is serious but also maintains friendships with talking cast and dogs. (Though I'm yet to write a book with anthropomorphic characters, but I suspect I might get there eventually.)
In conclusion: those childhood memoirs, they stay with you.