When I was a teenager, I read Flowers in the Attic. You probably did too, if you are female and around my age. I don’t remember much about it, although every once in a while I see a movie version as I’m clicking past some obscure TV channel.
It’s a story of cruelty and abuse, rather crudely written. About four children who are locked in an attic, almost starved. And the beautiful older girl has her hair cut off. That’s about all I remember.
I mention this book because of the recent controversy about darkness in Young Adult fiction. We’re living on internet time now, and that controversy has already blown over, although I suspect it will occur again. These things are cyclical. But no one is seriously going to suggest censoring Young Adult fiction, or negatively affect a genre that is so profitable. After all, we live in a capitalist system. The market decides.
While it was still going on, serious and thoughtful people suggested that there was something troubling about offering such dark images to teenagers, that they genuinely thought such images did harm. And I thought back to my own reading of Flowers in the Attic. Did it harm me?
I have a complicated answer to that question that begins, yes. Reading that book, and others equally dark, put images into my head that I have sometimes wished weren’t there. Such books do have the ability to familiarize us with cruelty. They do make our minds cruder. There is a way in which they desensitize us to the real cruelty of the world by familiarizing us with representations of it.
But – and I write this as someone who kept her hands over her eyes during most of Nightmare on Elm Street and never went to see a horror movie again – for me, they acted like a vaccine. I was a sensitive child, and in a way, reading about darkness prepared me for the much greater cruelty and crudity of the world. Reality is worse than almost anything we can write. Growing up involved learning that lesson. Learning not to be shocked by the photographs of Abu Ghraib. It may sound silly to say that Flowers in the Attic prepared me for that. But the book did prepare me for the idea that people could behave in that way. The lesson shocked me then – the reality still does. But it was something I had to learn, to function in the world. (Which, after all, doesn’t actually work a whole lot like Little Women.)
There was another kind of literary darkness that I also read, and that affected me differently. It was the darkness of Edgar Allan Poe, of H.P. Lovecraft. The darkness in which Hyde roams London, in which Dracula feeds. That was not crude, ordinary human darkness, but a deeper psychological and metaphysical darkness – and it was profoundly freeing. Its message was – there is something more than this, more than ordinary human society, with its rules and judgements. There are monsters.
In a way, the second kind of darkness offered an alternative to and even combated the first. In the first, darkness was crude, meaningless. Just the way the world was. In the second, darkness offered something. In the darkness, you could fight monsters, or become one. Becoming a monster, in particular, meant escaping from ordinary human meaninglessness. Monsters didn’t wait for Godot. (They had probably eaten Godot in the first place.)
The second kind of darkness was valuable not because it conferred immunity, but because it provided the possibility of freedom. At least, I felt it was freeing. By the time I finished college, I had read every Poe and Lovecraft story I could find. The Lovecraft stories were more difficult to find back then. They had not yet entered the cultural mainstream. When you saw Campus Crusade for Cthulhu stickers and Miskatonic University sweatshirts, you smiled because you knew – here was one of your tribe.
I feel as though I should come to some sort of grand conclusion about darkness in literature, about the two types of darkness I’ve written about here. But I don’t have one. Today has felt dark, and I’m grateful that there’s a hand in that darkness, as monstrous as my own, to clasp. Perhaps my grand conclusion is this: I recently bought a new edition of At the Mountains of Madness, which I have not read for a long time. I think it will be the next book I keep on my bedside table, to read before I go to sleep each night. I will find it profoundly reassuring. And when I read the news, about what the crude, ordinary, human monsters are doing, I will think about how wonderful it would be if they could be eaten by Shoggoths. And I will look out into the darkness of the night, and feel that there is so much more than these human lives we live, this human world we have created for ourselves. There are wonders in the darkness.
I envy you discovering Lovecraft when you were young. I’ve enjoyed some of the short pieces, but not long ago I attempted to get through “At the Mountains of Madness” and just couldn’t do it. I think my younger self would have been enthralled, but as an adult I was only bored. (Please know I’m not dissing your taste here!)
I’m beginning to think I like the idea of Lovecraft more than I actually like Lovecraft. Does that make any sense?
Yes, I read Flowers in the Attic, in bits, at the library, furtively taking it off the shelf, reading furiously for a few minutes, and putting it back. I knew my parents would be distressed if I brought it home.
I think the furtive nature of the experience deeply colored my responses to the story. It suggested all sorts of macabre and illicit possibilities. I remember thinking that the end was a let-down. Too mundane, too crude, as you put it. Not worth the build-up.
But in that way, it was like the evil of the everyday world. True evil can be shockingly banal.
And Jeff P., I definitely understand what you mean about liking the idea of Lovecraft more than Lovecraft himself. He casts a very, very large, complex shadow.
Without darkness, no light. The shamen keeps the world in balance at the apex of these opposing forces, and it is a sacred duty. Every author who dips into the the dark side, is the explorer we require, the guide we disire. To be fully human we have no choice but to find, or fashion the way to integrate the poles of life. This is a wonderful musing, Theodora.
I enjoyed this post and was nodding my head about the second kind of darkness. I think for me it was Clive Barker who showed me the power of monstrosity . I disagree about Little Women though. Poverty, a beloved parent away in the war, his fate uncertain, being snubbed by society because of class, lack of money or eccentricity, struggling against sexism, learning that teachers are fallible, and worst of all dealing with the death of a sibling – I think Little Women is very dark in places. The difference is that there is no wallowing, or gratuitous cruelty and violence. The protagonists meet each challenge with good cheer and hope :0)
This post reminds me of the epigraph at the beginning of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline:
“Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
(Which itself seems to be a variant on a G.K. Chesterton quote from Tremendous Trifles: “What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.” Source: http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Talk:G._K._Chesterton)
Their world is laid out simply, dull and plain
so Vladimir and Estragon remain,
delaying while they wait to wait again…
but shoggoths dined on Godot’s tasty brain
so all the dark lies open, underlined
with meaning in the shadows, undefined,
but fraught with possibility, unkind,
and filled with monsters which we might unbind.
Jo, I love it! 🙂
I’m one of those people who actually likes Lovecraft for being Lovecraft. I don’t know, I wallow in the language, I think . . . (While recognizing what a mess he could be, particularly in his phobias.) But then, I have strange literary tastes.