Don’t fall for their cuteness; children/youths in fiction who are terrifying

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I was never a scout so I didn’t realise until Carmen Maria Machado’s Her Body and Other Parties that ‘brownies’ refers to a fairy tale about a tiny race of people who will tidy and make themselves useful while the adults of the house are asleep (I always assumed that the brownie organisation chose that name because it was cute or they wore brown uniforms or they sold brownies at some point in history).

The story is from 1870 by Juliana Horatia Ewing, and frankly even as a child I would’ve thought what a load of bullshit, with the twist being that after a long journey into the forest the girls learn that brownies are simply children who are suck-ups and wake up at dawn to do housework and don’t want any credit. And I say nah, kids aren’t that selfless and if they’re going to the effort of getting up at 4am to contribute you bet your sweet a that they’re not doing it anonymously.

Based on the books I’ve picked for this post; the changeling myth is probably a bit more realistic. According to that age-old legend, a changeling is a demon or fairy replacement who has been left in the place of a normal – usually unbaptized – child. The fairies or demons will give the abducted child to the devil or use it to strengthen fairy population; meanwhile if you have your suspicions, Irish folklore on changelings tells you to watch out for physical give-aways in your child like an adult level beard or long teeth.

So let’s talk about children/youth from literature who scare me and who wouldn’t be caught dead cleaning the house in secret just to be a nice guy – unless it was part of an elaborate, well-constructed scheme to gain trust from the adults and ultimately utilise that trust for evil bidding!

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

I wrote about Midwich Cuckoos in my fictional places blogpost, and while I generally try to avoid writing about the same book twice, a list of evil children from fiction would feel incomplete without a least mentioning this ominous pack of identical blonde youth (it’s probably also an incomplete list without mentioning Lord of the Flies too but I’ve not read that one so that’s a shame).

Midwich is a fictional isolated English village where one evening all the residents inexplicably fall asleep and wake up to find that every woman is pregnant. Similar to changelings, it turns out the entire village has been impregnated by aliens, with the book even being named after a real family of parasitic birds which lay their eggs in the nests of other birds, for other the birds to then raise.

And just like changelings, physical and mental differences make these children identifiable – with their golden eyes, blonde hair, shared mind and rapid development. Their evil deeds largely involve mind reading and causing ‘accidents’ to those they suspect mean them harm.

Rosemary’s Baby (Ira Levin, 1967) *spoilers

This is one of those rare books, where the novel is largely identical to the film – which for me made Rosemary’s failed attempt to reach out for help from an outside doctor even more tragic because I knew it was going to play out exactly the same as it did in the 1968 film adaption.

Here, a young married couple – Rosemary and Guy – move into a sought-after New York apartment building called the Bramford. This (fictional) gothic building has a historic reputation for witchcraft, but it’s vast and fancy and Rosemary and Guy are adults so they’re excited and move in anyway.

Now that they’ve got a fancy abode, Rosemary wants to start trying for kids however Guy only changes his mind once the couple become acquainted with their eccentric neighbours. Guy is an aspiring actor, and long story short, the neighbours are Satanists who promise Guy that his acting career will pick up if Rosemary carries the son of Satan.

While the book finishes with Rosemary choosing to raise her son anyway, despite knowing this, we don’t actually know how the baby turns out. His father is Satan though and he has piercing red eyes so surely he’s a bit of a rascal at the very least.

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)

Again this is another book I’ve written about in a previous post, but that post was five years ago so fuck it let’s revisit.

In a dystopian future where campy teen gangs rule the street while wearing matching elaborate costumes and talking entirely in futuristic Russian-cockney slang; the main character Alex is fifteen in the first chapter where, as the head of his gang of five – beats up a beggar, steals a car, tortures a writer and gang-rapes their wife, and ultimately unintentionally kills someone all in the span of two nights. The accidental murder is the crime with Alex is sent to prison for.

We need to talk about Kevin (Lionel Shriver, 2003)

This is a good book because you’re never entirely certain whether Kevin is inherently evil or if it’s his mother interpreting everything he did as malicious even as an infant.

The narrator is Eva Khatchadourian; a former travel writer who never wanted children but conceded to make her husband, Franklin happy. Kevin is her now fifteen year old son who is in jail following a school massacre he alone perpetrated. Told through letters to her husband, Eva traces their relationship and her feelings towards Kevin throughout his life, and it’s a classic nature versus nurture thing where you’re not sure if Eva’s perspective can be entirely trusted and you’re left wondering whether part of it was that Kevin could sense that his mother never liked him.

Sisters (Daisy Johnson, 2020) *spoilers (kinda)

In comparison to the last three books, the evilness is this one is more of you’re regular high school cruelty. I’m not going to give too much of this one away because it’s quite surrealist and blurry but its about two eerily close sisters, July and September, who are moving to their family’s abandoned beach house with their mother, following a mysterious incident that happened at school.

Told from July’s perspective, it turns out the catalyst for this mysterious incident was September wanting to take revenge on the classmates who had catfished July into thinking a boy she liked was talking to her, then subsequently convinced her to send nudes and sent them around the school because high school is awful sometimes.

Fictional places

Last year my birthday happened to be on the first night of White Night. I’m not a huge fan of crowds so I’d never bothered going before, but my tram heading home goes past Carlton Gardens so I figured why not take myself on an impromptu date around the park and go glorified Christmas light spotting?

It was really incredible though, and thinking about it I can’t believe it was nearly a year ago. There was this ominous ‘oommmm’ sound playing like you were entering a pagan forest and a woman on the Exhibition Building that looked like a god you could ask advice to. Basically it all felt very surreal, like the closest thing I could get to living in a magical fictional place like Wonderland, Macondo or whatever reality the Mighty Boosh takes place in.

So lets talk fictional places in literature given that we’re all currently very boring and restricted to fantasy based travels. I’ll be real with you though, in hindsight majority of the fantasy places I chose for this post are more terrifying than magical.

The Little Prince (Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, 1943)

According to this beloved French children’s classic, one of the perks of space travel is that the lifeforms found on other planets are just solitary humans in charge of their one planet. Each space person has a flaw yet they’ll also be keen for a chat, and ultimately you’ll leave their planet feeling as though you’ve learnt something about what’s really important.

The little prince lives on an asteroid known as “B 612”; its notable features include three small volcanoes, the baobab trees which the little prince needs to weed out every day to ensure they do not overrun the whole asteroids surface, and a talking rose – his one companion who’s a bit high maintenance and pretentious but means well.

Although the little prince does love his pain in the ass rose friend, he chooses to explore the universe to see if there are other friendships he can make. Before landing on earth in the desert he visits six other planets, each with just one adult inhabitant (who each need to check themselves).

There’s the elderly geographer who has never seen any of the things he records, a lamplighter who meticulously extinguishes and relights a lamppost every thirty seconds as the days on his planet only last a minute, a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking (so few children’s book nowadays have drunkards in them it’s a shame), or the alien/starman I relate to most in this book – the narcissist who is very proud of being the most admirable/datable person on his one-man planet.

The Midwich Cuckoos (John Wyndham, 1957)

In the eighties there were these identical adult triplets who were separated at birth that reunited and what they did with that was start a restaurant called Triplets. For some reason it makes me think of Midwich Cuckoos cause all children in that are described as looking eerily alike and them all pooling together for a zany business opportunity would also be a great alternative happy ending.

I so wanted to like this book. In theory the plot sounds well up my alley: everyone in this unnoteworthy (and fictional) isolated English village mysteriously fall unconscious for 24 hours, when everyone wakes up they initially seem unharmed yet after a month they realise every woman is pregnant. There’s a conspiracy, evil mysterious blonde-haired youths who have collective powers, plus there’s a great Simpsons reference to it, what’s not to love?

It isn’t bad but it just would’ve been improved with a lot more focus on the children acting like wrongins’ and a bit less philosophical brooding (the book didn’t even give detail on the village-wide riot the children instigated – I was pretty salty, I wanted details told in real time). Surprisingly though this book gives an interesting perspective on the real stigma a woman would face at that time unexpectedly falling pregnant without a partner, and I like that it wasn’t glossed over as a detail.

The Princess Bride (William Goldman, 1973)

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I read this for the first time a few months back, and I’m so glad I saved this gem for such a dogshit year. It such a magical, light-hearted, wholesome, funny book to get lost in when reality is a touch dull as fuck.

Embarrassingly when I was a kid and saw the 1987 film adaption it wasn’t my cup of tea (I’ve since done a re-watch and clearly younger Ellen’s judgement can’t be trusted).

Goldman presents the book a “good parts version” of a (fictional) book by S. Morgenstern – a fictional author from the fictional country, Florin. His commentary and fictional facts about the history of Florin are scattered throughout the story, and like the film adaption Goldman’s introduction tells of his father reading The Princess Bride to him when he was sick (in reality he wrote it for his daughters).

It’s set in medieval Florin, where the main character Buttercup reluctantly agrees to marry the heir to Florin’s throne, Prince Humperdinck, after her one true love – a poor farm boy, is presumed dead.

Now Florin is a pretty wicked and terrifying fictional place; it has a fire swamp, cliffs of insanity, shark invested water and an underground “Zoo of Death” where Humperdick collects deadly (fictional) animals to hunt. I’d be open to visiting there, even though it’s national mortality rate is likely really high.

The Shadow over Innsmouth (H.P Lovecraft, 1931)

While the decrepit fictional seaport town of Innsmouth isn’t Lovecraft’s most famous fictional city, it is a bus ride away from the one that appears the most in his stories, Arkham. Plus I opted for Innsmouth over Arkham cause its more menacing and dangerous.

Like Arkham, Innsmouth is found in Massachusetts (it is also loosely based on the real city of Newburyport, Massachusetts), and the main character who takes the ill-advised day trip there is a student of Arkham’s Miskatonic University.

The town reeks of fish, and during the day it appears virtually abandoned with its few inhabitants all sharing odd similarities in appearance with ‘queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes’.

Cut a long story short, for decades the villagers have been breeding with aquatic monsters known as the ‘Deep Ones’ with their offspring’s being part human/part amphibian hybrids. Once these offspring’s reach maturity they transform into Deep Ones and leave Innsmouth to live in an ancient undersea city. As with many Lovecraft stories the moral seems to be never go anywhere new.

Siblings in books

At 28 years old, a blindfolded Fyodor Dostoevsky narrowly avoided execution for anti-government activities, right as he stood in line of the firing squad, instead sent to a Siberian labour camp at the last minute (I swear I am going somewhere with this).

Unbeknown to the young Dostoevsky, this was a mock execution intended to instil fear in dissidents of Tsar Nicholas I. Yet, convinced he was about to die, Dostoevsky’s final thoughts before he was spared were of his brother,

“I remembered you, brother, and all yours; during
the last minute you, you alone, were in my mind,
only then I realised how I love you, dear brother
mine!” 

Despite this likely being one of Dostoevsky’s least favourite moments, I do love this story. It’s incredibly sweet that the future novelist shared that kind of relationship with his brother, and that perhaps it took facing death for him to fully appreciate how strong their bond truly was.

I’m reading Little Women at the moment, and was reminded of Dostoevsky’s ‘final’ thoughts within the ‘Dark Days’ chapter, where it takes Beth being close to death for each of her sisters to reflect on just how much she means to them, and what losing her would mean.*

“Then it was that Jo, living in the darkened room with that suffering little sister always before her eyes, and that pathetic voice sounding in her ears, learned to see the beauty and the sweetness of Beth’s nature, to feel how deep and tender a place she filled in all hearts, and to acknowledge the worth of Beth’s unselfish ambition, to live for others, and make home happy by the exercise of those simple virtues which all may possess, and which all should love and value more than talent, wealth or beauty.”

[*But I’m also super childish and, in between being sad, the fact that Beth’s doctor is named Dr Bangs is giving me big laughs – I don’t deserve classic literature!]

Sibling’s are interesting; they’re essentially friends your parents assign you for life. Yet despite them looking like you and being raised by the same crowd, there’s no guarantee you’ll hit it off or even like each other (obviously though I lucked out with my sister whose a legend – and I’m not just saying that cause she reads my blog). 

Plus given I only have the one sister, I can only imagine what it’s like to experience multiple siblings (and to see multiple alternative results of your parents’ parenting technique walking around). 

It’s interesting what’s unique and what’s universal about these relationships. So let’s brood over a few sibling relationships found in fiction and memoirs, to see what bits feel comparable to our own complex ties. 

We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Shirley Jackson, 1962)

For some reason, I do disproportionately go for American books and/or books written in the 1960’s. I’m not sure why that is, it’s just a pattern I’ve started to notice lately.

Anyway, written by the author of The Lottery (which does not include any tips on how to win the lottery), We Have Always Lived in The Castle tells the story of two ostracised sisters, Merricat (18) and Constance (28) Blackwood.

Both live with their elderly, wheelchair bound, uncle, on the margins of a town that despises them for the suspicious poisoning of the rest of the Blackwood family six years prior.

Although she is eighteen, Merricat is incredibly childlike, to the point where you will flip back at least once to double-check you got the age right. Whereas Constance refuses to leave the house as she is unofficially blamed by the townspeople for her family’s murder despite being formally acquitted.

The good/infuriating thing about this short novel is how many unanswered questions it raises and leaves open for interpretation. I’m into it, but at the same time I’m lazy and I wouldn’t have been against everything eventually being spelt out for me.

Plus from a sibling standpoint, I think it’s touching/miraculous that Constance and Merricat live in such isolation for so long, with essentially only each other for company, yet rarely piss each other off. I love my own sister dearly, but it would take less than a week living in similar conditions for a scrag fight to kick off.

A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams, 1947)

That’s another thing, I generally go for books which are on the shorter side or at least have a bigger font – I think it’s cause I’m impatient and like to get through things fast; and A Streetcar Named Desire is under 100 pages so here we are.

Blanche DuBois is Stella Kowalski’s older sister. It’s presumed that they haven’t been in contact for a while given Blanche hasn’t yet met Stella’s husband Stanley, and Stella wasn’t aware that they’d lost their family property or that Blanche has been fired from her teaching job (for sleeping with a student – Blanche is a bit of a hot mess).

As the family home is gone, what Stella thought was Blanche visiting is now her crashing at their very tiny New Orleans flat indefinitely, and immediately Stanley can’t stand Blanche for being a car-wreck as well as somehow convinced she’s still upper-class.

The feeling is mutual, as Blanche considers Stanley belligerent and coarse, and she regularly make’s it known to Stella that she can’t understand why she chooses to stay with him.

Without giving too much away, after Blanche and Stanley’s hostility reaches its peak, ultimately Stella chooses denial and her husband over believing her sister, who is too easily dismissable [and I don’t know why I’m so scared about giving spoilers, the play is over 70 years old. But I don’t know though, you might want to read/see it and go in fresh].

One reason Streetcar is considered Williams’ greatest work is its frank portrayal of dysfunctional family dynamics. It is very of its time yet its timeless and if you’re going to watch it, try and see it as a play – they change the ending in the 1951 film adaption because it was considered too dark (or alternatively you can always get a not-so-great gist from watching the Streetcar episode of The Simpsons, A Streetcar named Marge – that’s where I learnt prior to reading that there is some bowling in it but no partial nudity).

High School (Tegan and Sara Quin, 2019)

I really wish this book existed when I was a teenager. Rarely do I reread books but I will read this again next summer when its less fresh in my head.

So this one is a shared memoir of Canadian musicians and twin sisters Tegan and Sara, which primarily focuses on high school and their 1990’s adolescence. Starting in grade 10 (when they’re 15), each chapter swaps between which sister is narrating, and begins with Tegan’s perspective and hurt confusion when Sara starts wanting to spend more time alone with their shared best friend.

Unbeknown to Tegan, this becomes Sara’s first serious relationship, and it’s fascinating reading how two people, who are so close and in a lot of ways similar, how their story’s of self discovery and coming out could be so distinctive, as well as reading about two siblings both realising this huge part of themselves, for a long time in secret. 

Each chapter is a fragment story from high school, which lead to the sisters winning their first music competition and getting their first taste of success at 18. It’s touching and relatable no matter what decade high school was for you, and the line that stuck with me the most is close to the end, when Sara remembers her aunt’s response to her shaving her head – “you look exactly like yourself”

[Plus (in a non-creepy way) I’m a huge fan of other people’s family photos, and there’s lots of them in this book]

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers, 2000)

This is the breakout memoir of Dave Eggers, published two years after McSweeneys came into existence (the publishing house Eggers founded), and I’m not going to lie, a large part of why I wanted to read this was how good that title is. 

The title make’s it sound like it’s going to be hilarous, and while there are many little funny moments, the book’s focus is Eggers losing both his parents to cancer at 21 within weeks of each other, and becoming a guardian to his eight year old brother, Christopher “Toph”.

While this divides people, and admittedly the later chapters where he’s starting up Might magazine are weaker than the first chapters, Eggers’ shifting relationship with his younger brother and their experiences creating a new normal after such a heavy loss is uplifting and does make you think about what you were up to age 21 and whether you had your life together enough to handle that level of responsibility.

Fictional Couples whose happiness won’t make you want to be sick in a bucket

In hindsight, I think the main reason I didn’t have any interest in reading as a teenager was that – in my experience anyway, a lot of books directed primarily towards adolescent girls, tended to have a strong sappy romantic sub-plot; and being the cold-hearted cynic that I was/am, I genuinely believed that it was impossible for a novel to have romantic themes and not be a complete load of dull shite.

And while yes, I still wouldn’t be caught dead reading Romeo and Juliet (YOU’RE THIRTEEN, you will meet other people! A bit of get the fuck over it is in order), I’m proud to say that my palette has slightly widened over time. I won’t automatically dismiss reading something anymore based purely on the knowledge that a loved-up couple will be featuring a lot in it.

Don’t get me wrong, if a book isn’t a little dark, I will probably lose interest, BUT I’ve learned not to be so narrow minded. Falling in love is a big theme, and of course not every single fictional representation of it, is doomed to feel simplistic and clique. So here are a few fictional couples whose stories have helped me broaden my horizons.

Robert and Maria (For Whom the Bell Tolls, 1941)

This is such a beautiful book, seriously get on it.

Inspired by Hemingway’s own experiences travelling across Spain, reporting on the Spanish Civil War; For Whom the Bell Tolls takes place over the course of four days, and tells the story of an American volunteer Robert Jordan, who must blow up a bridge of strategic importance behind enemy (Fascist) lines.

For the offensive attack to be successful, the bridge needs to be blown up at a minutely specific time; and the story begins with Robert meeting a small group of guerrilla fighters, living within the mountains, who have been assigned to help him.

This group includes Maria – who they found in a horrifically traumatised state and took in. The cruelty inflicted on her, following the Fascist takeover of her town, is still a very fresh wound – yet her gentle demeanour hasn’t been poisoned. She and Robert are instantly drawn to each other and from the first night they are an item.

What’s particularly poignant about their relationship, is that while it moves fast as a consequence of the immense instability surrounding them, it feels realistic because Robert is frequently ruminating whether his passion for Maria is genuine, or if his feelings have only been intensified by the knowledge he could easily die during this mission.

Although some contemporary criticisms feel that Maria’s character is far too one-dimensional: factoring in its cultural/historical context, I’m not sure if that’s a fair assessment. But I would’ve loved to have known more about Maria’s personality outside of Robert.

Stephen and Mary (The Well of Loneliness, 1928)

As my previous blogpost on The Well of Loneliness, focused more on its obscenity trials rather than the book’s actual story, I figure I could talk about it here without doubling up.

Now the reason you’ll feel particularly invested in Stephen Gordon and Mary Llewellyn’s happiness is because prior to meeting each other as ambulance drivers during World War I, the novel details all of Stephen’s personal history.

Her incapacity, growing up, to comprehend her difference, her crippling loneliness, her unrequited obsession over a married neighbour, her mother’s eventual disownment of her – all of these experiences, despite the long held criticism that this book hasn’t aged well, have a deep, and timeless resonance. Plus, having a nuanced understanding of who Stephen is before she finds love, means as a reader you have a greater impression of how much Mary enriches her existence.

Another great quality of this class piece of literature is Hall’s additional effort to highlight the strong class element that restricted the freedom of queer women during this time. In the story Mary and Stephen are close friends with another lesbian couple, Jamie and Barbara, whose choice to live as a couple has left them ostracised from their small village destitute and ‘starvation poor’. As well as their influence on the overall plot progression, Jamie and Barbara’s existence within the story is vital because it highlighted the freedom Stephen’s wealth had given her.

Jean and Helene (The Blood of Others, 1945)

I was debating for a bit whether or not Jean and Helene belonged on this list, given technically it’s really not a love story – more an exploration into personal responsibility and what we owe other people. But when I read it years ago, I remember it partially strengthening my own, very limited, understanding of why certain things had turned to shit. And that’s pretty impressive from a book that’s premise was completely unknown to me before starting it (my motives for reading it were basically – I wanted to read some Simone de Beauvoir and it was the thinnest book I could find).

Set within a German occupied France, and like For Whom the Bell Tolls, also inspired by Beauvior’s own personal experience working for the French Resistance: The Blood of Others is the story of a brief affair relived through a succession of flashbacks, as the main protagonist, Jean, watches his former lover Helene, die of a gunshot wound (he wasn’t the one who shot her by the way, it was a French Resistance related accident).

What’s central to Jean and Helene’s story is that Jean is never sure that he loves Helene, yet he tells her he loves her anyway because he is fascinated by how Helene’s happiness becomes dependant on this imperfect understanding she has of him. In other words, it’s the classic existentialist mind-fuck where it dawns on you that you can only know a person to an extent.

 

 

Vixens

Look, we’re all human. Even the most moral of us are flawed. I’m sure, at some point in our lives, we’ve all experienced an internal struggle with choosing between the right thing to do, as opposed to the more fun/less mature course of action.

But then there are some people who take being a shit-lord up a notch. These are the types of characters in fiction who we love to hate, and whose terrible personalities/life decisions tend to be the root of the whole plot.

Here are three of my favourite female antagonists from literature who were just the worst.

 Cathy Ames (East of Eden, 1952)

I actually finished reading East of Eden two days ago. It had been a few years since I’d read anything by John Steinbeck, I forgot how much I loved his writing.

Anyway, the reason I read this book really fast was because every time I tried to put it down, Cathy would manage to do or say something, that completely topped the last previous shitty thing she did.

Who can leave a book for the night when Cathy goes and drops this line, ‘I wasn’t too tired for your brother’ – holy shit Cathy you actually said that to his face!!!!

East of Eden is beautiful and so much more than the awful things Cathy does, I’m even willing to forgive Steinbeck for calling one of the minor characters ‘Cotton Eye’ (NO! WHY! WHY DID YOU HAVE TO GET THAT BLOODY SONG STUCK IN MY HEAD!!!).

But Cathy’s storyline is what kept me so enthralled; and you know you’re dealing with a truly terrible character when this is how the introduction of her character begins,

‘I believe there are monsters born in the world to human parents’

Cathy has a talent for manipulation and is easily able to make herself the object of mad obsession. I don’t want to give too much away, but she takes what she needs and gets a perverse kind of pleasure in bringing out the worst in people. She’s also really crap at hiding her true evil nature anytime she has some alcohol.

Abigail Williams (The Crucible, 1953)

The Crucible was one of my year 12 books, and it has the honour of being the only assigned reading I had in High School, that I didn’t think sucked.

My English teacher gave what is possibly the best summary of its plot when she said, ‘Abigail really shits on her own doorstep’. Yes, yes she does.

The Crucible is a fictional play of the 1692 Salem witch-trials, based loosely on historical accounts. Like the actual events, what starts the allegations is Reverend Samuel Parris catches young girls – including his daughter Betty and adopted niece Abigail, dancing in the forest around a fire with his Barbados slave, Tituba.

The girls initially deny their actions were witchcraft, yet out of fear they begin accusing their neighbours of conspiring with the Devil.

In the play, Abigail is a bit of a ring leader, and the accusations quickly become less about self preservation and driven more by revenge and hate.

Lady Macbeth (Macbeth, 1606)

Macbeth is another set text I had for High School English. I was definitely too young to get something out of it (there was a lot of immature snickering on my part, when Lady Macbeth says ‘unsex me here’).

I remember we all had to watch the Roman Polanski film adaption from the 70s. There was this scene with a whole gang of really old naked witches hanging out in a cave. I really don’t understand what anybody got out of making that scene, there’s no mention of them being naked in the original play and I had to go wash my eyes out with turps.

Anyway, Lady Macbeth is the wife of Scottish nobleman Macbeth, in the classic Shakespeare tale of why you probably shouldn’t kill a king. Lady Macbeth’s ambition is the driving force behind Macbeth stabbing the king so that he could gain the throne.

 

Book Fate

Look, I don’t believe things happen for a predetermined cosmic reason. What’s the point in trying and living in this moment if it’s all already planned? But I do believe in book fate – I know it sounds strange, but let me explain.

I used to have a to-read list; but its length was getting more and more intimating, until it dawned on me that even if I ran away from all of my commitments and started living in a cave and drinking my own piss, there’s no way known I’d be done with that list in no less than thirty years.

So now I just let whatever I’m going to read next find me instead, and scarily what I’m reading tends to find me at exactly the right time and when I’m able to take the most out of it.

There are certain quotes and snippets of narrative, that I still love partly because of the solace they were able to give me at a certain point in my life when I first read them.

I needed to read Stephen Fry’s first two autobiographies – Moab is my Washpot and The Fry Chronicles, as an anxiety-ridden eighteen year old. This one line in particular made me feel like I wasn’t alone,

“I would always be the same maddening, monstrous, mixture of pedantry, egoism, politeness, selfishness, kindliness, sneakiness, larkiness, sociability, loneliness, ambition, ordered calmness & hidden intensity”

There’s the Fig Tree Analogy from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which at the time I remember thinking, it perfectly summed up that underlying fear of inadequacy when you’re surrounded by endless choice.

“I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and one by one they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

And then there are certain books which I probably would’ve quit if I had started reading them at any other time. For instance, Confederacy of Dunces: if I hadn’t have gone into reading it knowing that it was on Bowie’s list of top 100 books I would’ve quit it at the start (IF IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR DAVID IT’S GOOD ENOUGH FOR YOU ELLEN YOU SCUM).

I just love letting some scungy looking second-hand book walk into my life and suddenly it’s changed me a little, for the better. It also gets bonus points if it has one of those old library stamp cards taped on the inside.

M Train, Just Kids & Other Reasons I Adore Patti Smith

I have a good feeling about 2017. It has a lot of promise. Last week I got to see Shania Choir
– a choir that sings and dresses as Shania Twain (fuck my life’s brilliant sometimes! I lost my shit when they started singing ‘If you’re Not in it For Love’*), and this April I get to see Patti Smith – one of the coolest people, as well as the artist and poet that I admire most.

So let’s talk about Patti Smith – a woman whose round about my grandma’s age, but who I’d still gladly try to flirt with if we ever actually met.

There’s this Pattibeautiful clip from an old BBC documentary, Chelsea Hotel, where the young ‘odd little waif like figure’** reads her little prayer for New York.

Now, whenever Patti talks/writes about something she cares about, it’s done with a fragile, poetic eloquence. But the reason I love this poem and this piece of footage in particular is for three reasons

1. It sums up that feeling of moving to a new city and suddenly growing as an individual,

‘I had lived such a sheltered childhood, so family orientated, and all of a sudden I was on my own. And that’s when I learned anything is possible’

2. That Jersey accent, and
3. Because she was so young and shy at this point.

She was only in the midst of developing into the artist she’d later become, and I love thinking about that nervous 24 year old who would later create works which exude such strength.

And I know it’s stating the obvious, but I love her poetry and autobiographies (Just Kids and M Train) for a similar reason – because of the way she describes life, her struggles and the people she loves, with a vulnerability and rawness we can all somewhat relate to.

Her poems for example, after her husband and brother had died within two months of each other, ‘myself destined to live, listening closely to a silence that would take a lifetime to express’.

She’s led a full, fascinating life entwined with her creativity: my personal favourite story is how her lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg began with him trying to chat her up because he thought she was a boy.

Reading all her unique little moments is a reminder to try and live through as many adventures as possible – as the wise one once said ‘Jesus died for somebody sins but not mine’.

[Side-note: I think I was the only person at the Robert Mapplethorpe documentary who really wasn’t expecting to see THAT many penises.]

*I was a complete disappoint though cause I promised everyone I’d take my top off if they sang that song, and I didn’t in the end.
**That’s a quote from British journalist Charles Shaar Murray

Literary Troublemakers Who Had Stellar Sarcasm & Fibbing Ability

As someone who despite logic, still worries deeply what other people think, I find myself very drawn to characters who just don’t give a single fuck. Here are a few big beautiful loudmouths from literature who knew what they were about:

Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye, 1958)

‘it was the Saturday of the football game with Saxon Hall. The Saxon Hall was supposed to be a very big deal around Pencey. It was the last game of the year, and you were supposed to commit suicide or something if old Pencey didn’t win’

When this book first came out, a lot of critics interpreted Holden Caulfield’s character as disturbed. Maybe this says something about me, but I don’t think that’s fair. Personally, I think this grey haired sixteen year old is a realistic embodiment of being young and thinking – yeah I’m pretty fucking smart and everyone else is an idiot.

Golden lines such as ‘almost every time someone gives me a present, it ends up making me sad’ or ‘I’m not too crazy about sick people anyway’; remind me for example, of my favourite comment to come out of my then 14 year old cousin’s mouth – ‘I hate having to tell old people that their food sucks’.

For those of you who are unfamiliar; in The Catcher in the Rye Holden has just found out that he is being kicked out of another school. He decides to leave early before his parents have been notified, and go to New York for a few days, giving his parents ‘the opportunity to thoroughly digest the news’ before he comes back.

I loved this book and I really wish I had read it while I was still in High School (cause it wouldn’t have hurt me to be ever so slightly, less of a goody-goody). A few of the reasons Holden is on this list include:

  • having pride in his lying ability – ‘I’m the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life’
  • Yelling ‘sleep tight ya morons!’ through the hall of his dorm in the middle of the night, as he left
  • His overall life philosophy against ‘phonies’

Ignatius J. Reilly (A Confederacy of Dunces, 1980)

‘Talc you have been found guilty of misleading and perverting the young. I decree that you be hung by your underdeveloped testicles until dead. Zorro’

I noticed that like Holden Caulfield, Ignatius also wears a hunting cap! I’ve reached the only logical conclusion that hunting caps have eerie powers, and fashioning one increases your brain’s wise-ass cells.

Anyway, if you’re a masters student like me, reading A Confederacy of Dunces might make you a wee bit self conscious – like, oh dear god!!!! do I ever sound like that when I choose to use a fancier word?

Ignatius J. Reilly is a highly educated yet unemployable thirty year old who lives with his mother in New Orleans, and is quite deluded regarding how important he actually is. Interestingly, he perfectly fits TLC’s definition of a scrub given he also can’t drive.

He is excessively sensitive; with his ‘heart-valve’ issue, and his refusal to let go of an incident where he got motion sickness on a bus (describing it as as one of ‘the traumas that have created my worldview’). However his sense of shame is dead.

Notable moments in the novel where I was in awe of Ignatius’ ability to not give a fuck include:

  • His attempt to initiate a militant style coup the at Levy Pants factory
  • Getting into a fight while working as a hot-dog vendor, in his pirate costume
  • Refusing to mark any of the student essays while he worked as a professor

Captain Yossarian (Catch 22, 1955)

[on inkblots] ‘you can save yourself the trouble doctor everything reminds me of sex’

Set during World War II; Yossarian is a pilot who has completed his set amount of missions, and wants to be sent home. Throughout Catch 22 Yossarian is attempting to be classified as insane due to the reluctance of his superiors to send him home. However  this is struggle due to Catch 22, which specifies that ‘a concern for ones own safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind.’

Yossarian’s ability to cause trouble for the higher authorities means, that for Colonel Cathcart, the ‘very sight of his name made him shudder’. Moments where he was a massive pain in the ass include:

  • Falling in love at first sight with a woman he’d never spoken to, and inadvertently initiating a ‘moaning epidemic’ during a briefing.
  • Boycotting wearing his uniform after a dying man bled all over him, and accepting his heroism award naked.
  • Coming up with dynamite questions in the educational sessions such as ‘who is Spain?’ ‘why is Hitler?’

I also love when he has to share his tent with youths, how he does NOT appreciate the nickname ‘yo yo’

Remembering Being Not That Into Twilight

As you get older you do get slightly cooler than your teenage self – photos of  literally every haircut I fashioned in High School is testament to that. So if you were a huge Twilight fan-girl with a delightful Edward shrine I’m not going to hold it against you. And even if you stand by that decision and still love Twilight, to each is own – I respect your choice, and I promise to do the right thing and only laugh at you behind your back.

Anyway, because the target audience for Twilight has since grown up it may be hard to remember a time when it was actually very popular. Its funny thinking about it: friends from High School who I know adored those books, now make fun of the series, and I’ll just think to myself ‘Dude!!! where was that attitude back in 2008 when I needed you the most?’

I remember back in the day when we were all fifteen, and I was the weirdo for thinking Twilight looked like horseshit. My only ally was Tay – then being the complete Judas that she is, she came back to school, after a few days of being away sick, having read the entire series and completely in love with it (I do love you Taylor, but you are a bastard).

I don’t know what point I’m trying to make with this little reminiscence is, its great when your friends finally decide to hate the same things you do? I’ve never actually read the book and I’m only jumping to the conclusion that it wasn’t for me. Maybe there was a potential Twilight fan inside all along that never had a chance (not bloody likely, but maybe).

 

My Massive Crush on Lisbeth from The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Avid readers usually have that one book which got them hooked on reading in the first place. For a lot of people around about my age it tends to be Harry Potter, but for me it was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series.

I was 17 at the time, and up until that point I wasn’t a big reader. The only books I read in High School were the assigned ones for English class.

I can’t remember what it was exactly that drew me to these books, and sometimes I wonder if I would still love them  just as much if I re-read them now. But at the time I adored them, and I would talk about how brilliant the main character Lisbeth was to anyone who would listen to me.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was the first time I stayed up all night reading, the first time I’d carry a book around wherever I went, and I will always love it for sparking my relationship with reading for fun.

In hindsight though I think most of its charm was due to the crush I had on Lisbeth, given I’d lose interest really fast in every part she wasn’t in. Its funny thinking about it now – I would fantasise about her, yet it still hadn’t hit me that I might be a lesbian. I just loved reading about this strong female character, who had lived through some harsh shit but refused to be a victim and if necessary could kick some ass.

Thank you Stieg Larrson, you’re pretty much responsible for my ever-expanding bookshelf.