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.

Book Recommendations from Daria Morgendorffer’s Reading List

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My two favourite tv bookworms would probably be, Daria Morgendorffer from Daria and Mark Corrigan from Peep Show. Everyone’s favourite, Rory Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, shits me for one reason: I don’t think it’s realistic (regardless of her being gifted) that a teenager whose life is interesting enough that she’s in a quirky jam every week with her mother, has time to read 339 bulky and often dry as fuck classics on top of her schoolwork (give me a break, she’s just holding at least some of them to look like a boffin. I’m calling bullshit! No one under 20 is reading Ulysses unless someone’s holding a gun to their head for several months). 

Daria ran for five seasons, during which 62 books are either read, or referenced, by the brooding misfit – that’s a believable number (and I want only realistic standards for bookish types dammit! unless it’s Lisa Simpson; she’s been eight for 30 years, she can go read Gore Vidal and it not be weird that she’s in primary school).

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

The Simpsons Episode 25 GIF

Anyway the reason I’m bringing up every cynical teen’s hero is because I read a surprising bit of trivia recently; only seven of the 62 books Daria reads over the course of the show, are by women. 

Now for those of you who aren’t familiar with the character, this was unexpected because Daria is considered a bit of a 1990s feminist icon – and while she’s fictional, the writers/artists of the show would’ve thought carefully about what books to draw her with to best represent her personality and intellect. 

This got me thinking about my own reading habits and how I too could definitely stand to branch out and read more from different perspectives. 

It’s certainly not been an intentional choice, and this isn’t to say I don’t think the books I read aren’t varied: it’s more something I’ve noticed I could improve, especially when it comes to fiction – because in the fiction department I tend to go for old books or books regarded traditionally as classics and with that there’s a risk of complacence as well as not proactively searching for voices that were/are marginalised but are equally as worthy (or I could just read more fiction brought out in this millennia with an author who’s still alive).  

And I know out the four books I’m about to talk about from Daria’s reading list, only one is by a woman but I promise that with future blogposts I am going to make a better effort to read more diversely and have slightly less dead white guys. Anyway here are four of my favourites that the sarcastic legend is spotted reading! [Of the seven books from the list written by women, I’ve only read two and I’ve already written about Frankenstein in a previous blogpost so I didn’t want to double up] 

The Bell Jar (Sylvia Plath, 1963)

A bell jar traps whatever’s displayed inside – and while transparent, the glass warps the perception of what’s outside the bell jar. This is how The Bell Jar’s protagonist, Esther Greenwood, describes the growing isolation she feels as her mental health descends – ‘under the same glass bell jar, stewing in my own sour air’. 

Told from Esther’s perspective, The Bell Jar begins with the aspiring poet (and recent college graduate) completing a summer internship in New York City for Ladies’ Day magazine. She applies for a writing program which commences immediately after the internship finishes; but following her rejection, Esther moves back to her mothers for the rest of the summer and attempts to start a novel.

However, feeling as though she has no life experience to write something meaningful, teaming with the daunting realisation that college is over and none of the limited paths she has to choose from appeal to her, Esther feels the descent of the bell jar hovering above her head and must eventually undergo electric shock therapy and analysis at the mental asylum.

This is one of those books where I feel like you’re not really going to get a lot out of reading it until life’s thrown you around a little, or you’ve at least feared that your life is directionless.

It’s embarrassing but nineteen was too young for me, and my first impression of The Bell Jar was that it was average. I couldn’t understand what had spurred Esther’s breakdown: myself being a little too immature to get that that’s part of the point – as well as failing to read it with the historical context that opportunities for women were a lot more limited then, or truly appreciate that it was written by a poet who did end her own life less than a month after it was published. In other words I’m very glad I revisited it last year.

Nausea (Jean Paul Sartre, 1938)

You know how in Rocket Man, where it’s a Saturday night and they’re at a rowdy venue and you get the sneaky suspicion that a fight is about to break out so Elton can conveniently play ‘Saturday Night’s Alright’ (oh so subtle); Nausea is kind of like that, in that Sartre’s philosophical ideas are what he wanted to primarily discuss and the story fits around those discussions.

For the French existentialist/campus legend (apparently he once turned up naked at a university event, what a mad dog), “existence precedes essence”, in other words life is all about creating meaning through action.

Like The Bell Jar, Nausea’s main fellow is a writer, called Antoine Roquentin, who is having a ponder –not just about the point of his existence, but human existence in general.

Roquentin documents every thought and sensation he has in order to fully comprehend his own existence (sounding like a writer who’s got a wee bit too much time to kill) and comes to the conclusion that there’s no reason for any of us to exist, the past is meaningless and what he’s going to do with his newfound free will is to write a novel.

The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck, 1939)

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In 1948, Stalin allowed the film adaption of The Grapes of Wrath to be released in the USSR because it depicts destitute Americans and it heavily criticises capitalism. This backfired however as Soviet citizens turned out to be impressed that even the poorest Americans owned cars.

The first time I read The Grapes of Wrath I was also nineteen (the uni library had a stellar American classics section) and I reread it again this year because 2020 hadn’t made me cry enough on its own. 

I love Steinbeck, and I know this book has received contemporary criticism for having historical inaccuracies but it still has merit regardless; you can feel Steinbeck’s raw anger like he’s talking to you and his point has that rare quality of being both of its time and equally politically pertinent now. There’s a reason he received the Nobel Prize of Literature for it and if anyone wants to tell me it wasn’t their cup of tea that’s fine but you have terrible taste and we’re going to have to take this outside!

During the Great Depression over a half a million Americans migrated west in the space of two to three years; The Grapes of Wrath focuses on a fictional Oklahoma family, the Joads, who lose their farm due to draught, recession and the introduction of tractors. Their only option is to make their way to California and try to get work fruit picking. The book follows the Joads’ journey travelling on Route 66 with everything they own in a beat up Hudson, and the disheartening reality that awaits them as migrant workers, when they finally reach California.

Breakfast of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut, 1973)

This one’s a lot more fun compared to the other books on this list – it has many delightful illustrations from Vonnegut himself and a fascinating theory about mirrors being ‘leaks’ to different dimensions – good choice Daria.

So this one splits between two strangers, Kilgore Trout – an elusive and essentially unrecognised science fiction writer, and Dwayne Hoover – a mentally unstable yet respected car dealership owner and local businessman, Dwayne eventually reads a novel by Trout, after a chance meeting at an arts festival, and takes his book literally that he (Dwayne) is the only free-willed being in the universe with dire consequences. As the narrator, Vonnegut also interjects regularly to give his hot take on life.

[Images via Triple M, Bookglow, Scoopnest, and aerogrammestudio]

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.

Catching Dreams with a Trumpet & a Briefcase

“There are good reasons why we don’t want our eyes to be open, what does the world mean ‘How come I am a huge participant in this huge enterprise known as reality?’” 

That quote is from existentialist/debbie downer, Søren Kierkegaard, who believed that the majority of us sleepwalk through our lives. And he has a point really, some days you just do what you have to and internally replay Seinfeld quotes until its finally time you can head home and read your book (my life truly is gripping at the moment).

Then there’s French Philosopher/big-ol’ dandy, René Descartes’ how do you know you’re not just dreaming argument for Dualism (which to me will always sound like a really good name for a belief that duelling is the best form of conflict resolution); this suggests that there are instances where dreams feel so real that when you wake up, for a second you question whether it really happened, and therefore all reality is questionable.

And he has a point too really! Regularly when I’m sleeping in for five more minutes, I’ll dream that I’m not a dropkick and I’ve already made my way out of bed and I’m on the tram, and then I’ll wake up extra shitty with myself that I still have to psych myself out of my comfy-comfy bed.

Because dreams can be all lucid and weird, their origins and meanings – as well as their connection to our reality – is a theme that’s always ripe for fictional exploration. Whether you’re fond of the idea of the BFG roaming the streets of a night and sending nice dreams your way via trumpet. Or you’re re-watching Twin Peaks and you think Dale Cooper’s theory that “dreams come from acetylcholine neurons fire high-voltage impulses into the forebrain, these impulses become pictures, the pictures become dreams – but, no one knows why we choose these particular pictures” has some good points; seeing dreams as representing more than simply something your brain does to entertain itself for several hours of inactivity, makes life seem a bit more mysterious and almost magical.

So let’s talk dreams in literature and then leave feeling slightly jaded that so far your dreams haven’t shown strong signs that they have the power to shift reality or read the future!! I do feel a little ripped off, at the most my dreams are occasionally a laugh.

Slaughterhouse Five (Kurt Vonnegut, 1969)

I learnt a fun-fact a few weeks back, apparently Kurt Vonnegut managed a SAAB dealership in his day; SAAB’s were a underrated car, I respect Vonnegut more knowing he sold a babe magnet car then went home and wrote some classics of 20th century American literature, and he could also draw a tasteful a-hole – what a triple threat that man was!

For a while I didn’t want to read Slaughterhouse Five because the only thing I knew about it was that it references David Irving – a Holocaust denying ‘historian’/all round shithead whose research on the Dresden bombings has since been discredited. And its hard because at the time Slaughterhouse Five was written/published there was no way for Vonnegut to know that Irving would later be best known as a notorious Holocaust denier who exaggerated the death toll of Dresden to militarise historical memory. But it still isn’t great though that new editions don’t point this out to readers.

Anyway I’m side-tracking, I did eventually read Slaughterhouse Five and as a work of fiction it is really good aside from that one thing. In particular I love before the story begins how Vonnegut talks about the promise he made to the wife of an old war buddy that the story he would ultimately write would not glamourize war as the wife felt that books and movies sold a lie to young people by romanticising war.

Based on Vonnegut’s own experience as a prisoner of war who witnessed the Dresden bombings and it’s aftermath, the main character, Billy Pilgram, is too an American POW who witnesses the destruction of Dresden. Yet cause this is a Vonnegut book, Billy has this unique problem where he’s become ‘unstuck in time’, and occasionally when he feels asleep he’ll wake up at various different points in his life.

Billy’s presence in his past and future never alters his fate, it’s just something he can do, and I respect Billy for going with it and never really analysing why it is he has this gift.

Watership Down (Richard Adams, 1972)

I’ve written about Watership Down in a previous post so I won’t repeat myself too much here. Basically Fiver is the sensitive member of team. He’s a bit psychic and when he tells you he’s had a dream that the whole warren is in danger and every rabbit needs to leave now, he’s know what he talking about so don’t laugh at him just because he’s a wee bit eccentric.

The Dreams in the Witch House (H.P Lovecraft, 1933)

This one’s a short story belonging to the Cthulhu Mythos (a fictional satanic god who kinda looks like the every villain is lemons bit in Spongebob).

In this tale, a student of mathematics and folklore, Walter Gilman, decides to rent out a very cheap and very cursed attic room in a house known to locals as ‘the witch’s house’ (if the locals say don’t stay somewhere listen to them you fool!!).

As Walter is a fan of both maths and folklore (how convenient) he is interested in staying in this house because it once belonged to a woman trialled for witchcraft in Salem for her belief that she knew of lines and curve patterns which could allow one to travel across dimensions. Also as you’d except, the majority of this room’s previous occupants have died in mysterious circumstances.

Every night in this room Walter has strange feverish dreams (and props for Walter for even managing to fall asleep in a room he knows has a two century trend of dead tenants). In these dreams he shifts through ‘inexplicably coloured twilight’ vortexes, and envisions the witch moving closer.

Eventually the dreams reach a point where Walter has signed a mysterious book and he’s trying to stop the witch from abducting a child, and he wakes up in the morning to hear that a child’s actually gone missing.

Long story short the landlord abandons the house and years later, when workmen are demolishing the roof they find the space above the creepy attic is filled with children’s bones and the bone’s of the witch. Basically the moral of the story is never take an interest in maths.

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (Philip K Dick, 1968)

This is the book Bladerunner is based on. In this dystopia (set in San Francisco, 2021), the earth’s atmosphere is riddled with radioactive dust and the majority of people have relocated to a Mars colony. What’s more as radiation caused mass extinction of animals. protecting what little life remains has become the centre of society’s spiritual beliefs and owning pets has become so fashionable that mechanical animals are commonplace.

An incentive government offers for people willing to move to the mars colony are android servants. These androids are physically identical to humans, and the job of the main character, Richard Deckhard, is to ‘retire’ androids who escape the colony and try to disguise themselves as humans.

Despite having dream in the title, dreams are not a big part of this book’s plot. However, the religion the last earth dwellers follow, Mercerism, does involve plugging your mind into a box and fusing thought in a sleep-like trance, with a character who’s slowly trekking up a mountain to his death; the point being to encourage shared empathy.

The Lathe of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin, 1971)

A bit like The Butterfly Effect but with aliens; the main character, George’s dreams have the ability to shift reality to the point where the past can be restructured overnight to fit what George dreamt about.

George however hates this overwhelming responsibility his sub-conscious has, and goes to see a sleep therapist, Dr William Haber. Haber is sceptical at first but with the help of Haber’s trusty dream machine he’s been working on, Haber suggests things for George to dream about and becomes the only person who remembers what the reality was like before George fell asleep and changed everything.

The general gist is Haber gets too into having this level of power and attempts to sculpt a Utopian society, while George feels like he’s being used and tries to find a lawyer who’ll believe him. What I like about this book is that while suggestions can be made to George as to what he’ll dream about next, it’s realistic in that he has no control as to what form that idea will take as a dream.

Cabin Fever and Forced Isolation in Fiction

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via: tenor

I was on the beach in January when I first heard about COVID-19. My uncle made a stellar joke that the only cure for the coronavirus was a lime, and it would be another few days (after stumbling upon an article amid some mindless scrolling) that I realised it was an actual virus that existed and not a disease my uncle made up for the purposes of cracking a funny. 

Like everyone I’m currently spending majority of time inside – occasionally attempting to get some form of work done, and investing more time than I’m proud of attempting to nail the lyric’s to Joe Exotic’s ‘I Saw A Tiger’.

Right now, the days all feel kind of meshed into one. It’s frightening and it’s uncertain but it’s also making me appreciate so many little things which would’ve barely crossed my mind as a thing to be appreciative of a few months ago. I’m incredibly lucky for the stability I do have and for the friendships and relationships I can rely on despite how notoriously crap I am with checking my phone and responding to messages.

Anyway, if you’re currently on the lookout for some reading material that’s relatable but is also a break from thinking about COVID-19, here are a few literary explorations of ongoing and mundane isolation. 

My Year of Rest and Relaxation (Ottessa Moshfegh, 2018)

This was Moshfegh’s second novel, and personally I preferred her first book, Eileen, (which I’ve mentioned before) just because this is essentially about an unnamed narrator’s attempts to hibernate for an entire year [and I can always go back to living my own life if I wanna think about someone who takes a lot of day naps and only leaves the house at obscure times to do a coffee run – its greater meaning might’ve been lost on me]. But this book was the first time I found a new release in a Little Free Library so obviously I went for it.

Set in New York city between 2000 and 2001 pre-9/11, the young unnamed protagonist has lost both of her parents and this on top of being fired from her first job out of college, she chooses to put herself into a chemically induced hibernation for a year – hoping the extended rest will mean she’ll no longer feel tired all the time once it’s over.

Attempting to spend as much time as possible asleep, the only contact with the outside world the narrator has is, her incompetent psychiatrist who freely writes her prescriptions, and a best-friend she seems to secretly hate.

It’s an interesting enough concept, given everyone at one point wishes they could dedicate an extended period of time to sleep or skip over some months and wake up somewhere better.

The Memory Police (Yōko Ogawa, 1994)

Although this was originally published back in 1994, the English translation only came out last year. So for people like me who can’t speak Japanese, this is a 25-year-old new release; it reads like it could’ve been written now though, the story has a very timeless quality to it.

Set on an unnamed island – that happens to be detached from a larger unnamed island; the narrator in this one is also unnamed, and like the majority of her fellow islanders once the Memory Police (who dictate the island) choose to erase a particular object, animal, profession ect., all personal memories and feelings attached to that thing instantaneously disappear.

The secret minority who are capable of remembering, face persecution by the Memory Police, as do people who choose to keep or acknowledge forgotten objects; and due to boats being a forgotten object, locals have no remaining contact with life beyond the island. 

The unnamed narrator is a writer whose editor is being targeted by the Memory for his ability to remember. With the help of an elderly man, who is her only close companion left, the narrator builds a secret space under her floorboards for her editor to hide from arrest.

Basically its a good book to read in isolation because it makes you appreciate that at least you’re not living in a sci-fi Orwellian reality where all the potential things that could’ve entertained you like books or Netflix aren’t suddenly going to disappear on you.

Wide Sargasso Sea (Jean Rhys, 1966)

So spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read Jane Eyre, but the main twist in that is Rochester – the suave brooding fellow Jane has a crush on/the master of Thornfield Hall/her boss – has kept his ‘lunatic’ first-wife, Bertha (who he was technically still married to), secretly locked away in the attic.

Hearing that juicy twist was the primary reason Jane Eyre was on my to-read list, and so naturally I was bitterly disappointed that, what is arguably the most interesting bit of the story, only has roughly six pages dedicated to it. Hence why I prefer Wide Sargasso Sea (plus it’s a significantly shorter read, so it gets extra points for fewer pages because I’m a lazy shit).

Wide Sargasso Sea is an imagined prequel to Jane Eyre told from Bertha’s perspective that makes you entirely rethink how much you can trust Rochester’s side of things in the original classic.

Elaborating on details about Bertha (or Antoinette Cosway as she’s known in Wide Sargasso Sea) which Jane Eyre briefly mentions; this story starts with Antoinette’s isolated youth in Jamaica, being raised on a dilapidated former sugar plantation by her widowed mother, Annette, who is struggling mentally in isolation and holds a growing resentment for Antoinette.

Here, Annette remarries Englishman, Mr. Mason – the man who eventually ‘cons’ Rochester into marrying Antoinette. The book details Rochester and Antoinette’s (whom he renames Bertha) brief honeymoon together to Dominica, his progressing hatred for his new wife and ultimately settling into Thornfield Hall while keeping Antoinette’s existence a secret. 

Day of the Triffids (John Wyndham, 1951)

So bit of context for this fictional post-apocalyptic society: the triffids are these man-size plants that are capable of moving around and have a dangerous sting, and were just an everyday part of life in this society.

The main character, Bill Masen, was a ‘triffidologist’ before everything went to shit, who was recovering in hospital from being temporarily blinded by a triffid sting. The book begins with Bill feeling salty because he has a bandage over his eyes and everyone else is talking about how incredible and once-in-a-lifetime this meteor shower that’s happening right now is.

The next day, everyone who watched this mysterious meteor shower (so the bulk of mankind) has permanently gone blind, and now Bill’s frightened but also slightly smug and now the triffids suddenly harness the chance to do some evil bidding.

This book is a lot of survival, and the minority who do have sight attempting to create safe communities in the countryside while they wait for news or help from other countries which may never come. It’s an alright book, but be warned there’s like three pages in the middle where Wilfred mansplains why women are terrible and not helpful to the rebuilding effort – go fuck yourself Wilfred! Good luck repopulating by yourself there Wilfred!

Australian Reads

I only found out recently that my home town’s Mill Market (which might I add was already pretty wicked to begin with) inexplicably has a bunch of Wolf Creek props round the back – -WHAT? There’s just so many follow-up questions! Who was the weirdo/hero who bequeathed that shit to the city of Ballarat of all places? And why am I just hearing this news now? (and no, none of it was filmed in Ballarat obviously. Ballarat is in Victoria, Wolf Creek was filmed in South Australia)

We’ll talk about something else now, I’m just still reeling from that discovery.

Anyway speaking of Australian films, there’s one out at the moment called Ladies in Black (and sadly no, the guy from Packed to the Rafters doesn’t get tortured in this one too – what a bitter let down. I SAT THROUGH THAT SHIT FOR NOTHING!!!!!!!!!*), which is based on the first novel of Madeleine St John – the first Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize for Fiction.

Now I’ve not read The Women in Black – it looks a bit too heart-warming for my taste (plus a whole book of Sydney people making snooty remarks about how shit Melbourne is? Yeah nah), but it has got me thinking about other great Australian reads which I devoured and that are definitely worth a gander, they’re in no particular order.

Heat and Light (Ellen van Neerven, 2014)

Normally short story collections aren’t really my cup of tea, but each of these felt equally enthralling and left me wanting to know more: wishing they were longer but also a fan of an abrupt, not-quite, ending (which feels realistic given life’s stories are more fleeting chapters than endings).

Split into three sections – ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’; the stories, regardless of section they belong to, explore sexuality, contemporary aboriginal culture, family, heritage and identity, in a subtle, day-to-day voice which transports you into a fictional (yet very human) moment.

Even, the longest story in the collection, ‘Water’: which is set in the near future (in 2022, jesus that really isn’t far off) utilises fantasy/sci-fi to explore heritage and roots in a way way that’s surprisingly striking and poetic in how it explores love and heritage – as it is thought provoking on the current state of things [in the future there will be an Australia2 island inhibited by ‘sandplants’ – an intelligent race of plant-people] 

Axiomatic (Maria Tumarkin, 2018)

This is a confession, but embarrassingly prior to reading this I wasn’t actually familiar with Maria Tumarkin’s writing (and she teaches at my uni). The whole reason I bought Axiomatic was that it happens to have a really gorgeous cover – so yeah I’m that shallow.

Segmented into five popular axioms related to time, such as ‘Time Heals all Wounds‘ and ‘Those Who Forget the Past are Condemned to Repeat It’ – each saying acts as a springboard into its own distinct rumination of an important – and often overlooked – issue within Australian society.

Told from a deeply intimate perspective; Tumarkin interviews and gets into the nitty-gritty and everyday existence of individuals who are personally affected by the darker complexities of life – such as teen suicide, the Holocaust, navigating through a flawed child custody system, addiction ect. These essays then tie back into how popular understandings of time we tell ourselves, fit within these realities.

Eggshell Skull (Bri Lee, 2018)

If I ever have a son I’m making sure he reads this. No exaggeration, calling it powerful just seems like a huge understatement, and everyone I know who’s read this, pulled an all-nighter and finished it in two days tops.

Eggshell Skull is the debut memoir of Bri Lee, which details her time working as a judge’s associate for the Queensland District Court – an experience which gradually forces Lee to fully recognise and confront her own long-repressed memory of the sexual abuse that she herself had survived as a child.

It’s exhausting and heartbreaking reading the extent of sexual abuse cases Lee is faced with during – what was only a year – of her time working for the District Court.

And reading it, I was just in complete awe of the strength it must have taken to be witnessing on a daily-basis, what the process looks like for victims who are brave enough to make an official complaint, and how frequently the legal system fails to achieve justice, and yet in spite of that still being prepared to seek accountability.

(Again embarrassingly, I also solely bought this book for the cover, having no idea what it was on – it’s a pretty great cover to be fair)

Oscar and Lucinda (Peter Carey, 1988)

Basically, the main reason I connected with this book when I read it five years ago was that the character Oscar Hopkins reminds me a touch of myself – in that he’s a fidgety, painfully socially awkward type who get’s too easily fixated on things (Oscar has a strict and conservative upbringing raised by a Plymouth Brethren minister though, so I don’t know what my excuse is).

Set in the mid-nineteenth century, Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier are two misfits who find each other on a ship heading from England to Sydney. Oscar is a trainee Anglican minister and Lucinda is the owner of a lucrative glass factory in Sydney, and their friendship essentially revolves around their mutual obsession with risk and gambling.

Without giving spoilers, the two things I particularly loved about this book were,

  1. the underlying influence of timing, and how the two characters lived such parallel lives and could have been perfect for each other, yet they are ultimately victims of both circumstance and their own inherent shyness (shit sorry that is a big spoiler – I suck)
  2. that whole idea of a church made of glass seems pretty cool – you could work on your tan and do some praising!!!

[*how shit was Packed to the Rafters though?]

Isolation/Spending too much time on your own

An unavoidable downside to writing a lot, is that you do have to spend a big bulk of your time by yourself.

It’s just the unseen boringness of bashing out a quality article – no exaggeration majority of my time I’m in the basement of the library typing like a boss and being a wee bit territorial about the aisle I sit in (it’s my spot MOTHERFUCKERS I’ve earnt it!!! Do you think my ass shadow just put itself there hmmmm???).

Don’t get me wrong it’s all worth it in the end, seeing something you’ve written out there looking all pretty. But too much isolation can take its toll on your sanity. It gets lonely, plus it kinda kills the possibility of doing one of those a photo for a year challenges (Day 105 – a slightly different angle of this bit of the basement!!! #yolo)

Anyway so it’s got me thinking of fictional characters who’ve found themselves facing severe social seclusion. Here are three examples  to help ease any insecurities about you own real feelings of isolation.

Jane Erye (Charlotte Brontë, 1847) *spoilers

Literary analyses frequently credit the timeless quality of Jane Eyre to the relatable nature of Jane Eyre’s character. In fact at the time when the novel was first published, readers initially presumed that it was a true story because the book’s subtitle was ‘An Autobiography’.

And while finding yourself working in a manor where the Master’s secret, hidden first wife is locked up in the attic (the name Bertha really has died out eh?), isn’t exactly one of those hugely relatable experiences; the extreme loneliness and exclusion Jane faces throughout her early childhood is poignant because it feels like realistic rejection.

In contrast, although we never hear Bertha Mason’s perspective in Jane Eyre, she is another great, albeit more dramatic, example of fictional isolation.

Locked in Thornfield Hall’s attic for her hereditary madness, the reader only really has Rochester’s word that her mental descent occurred before her confinement.

And given there’s an actual scene where Rochester pretends he’s an elderly woman and starts giving guests in his house phoney psychic readings (perfectly sober too I might add) I don’t know if I completely trust his ability to spot irregular behaviour.

The Yellow Wallpaper (Charlotte Perkins Gilman, 1892)

This classic American short story, of an unnamed woman’s experience of postpartum depression and consequently the commonly prescribed ‘rest cure’, is an important glance into a wide history of mistreatment of mental illness.

Additionally, as a commentary on the correlation between women being diagnosed with mental illness and their place in a patriarchal society, The Yellow Wallpaper is an incredibly useful historical resource within feminism.

To quickly summarise it, following the birth of her child the unnamed protagonist has been diagnosed by her physician husband John, with showing symptoms of hysteria.

To aid her recovery they have rented an old mansion and she is confined to a room with bars on the windows and decaying yellow wallpaper. The complete absence of any kind of stimulus causes her to see a trapped woman in the wallpaper as she descends further into psychosis. 

Frankenstein (Mary Shelley, 1818)

As a piece of early science fiction, first time readers tend to go into  Frankenstein expecting horror, and while you do get that there are much stronger themes of rejection and loneliness driving Frankenstein’s monster’s actions.

Created by a scientist who becomes obsessed with perpetuating life, Victor Frankenstein, the monster only swears revenge on his creator after facing ostracism from everybody he’s been in contact with – including Frankenstein who is immediately repulsed by his creation and flees, leaving the creature to fend for himself.

The saddest part of the monster’s lonely existence though is, after months of secretly living in an abandoned structure, and learning how to communicate by listening to the family in the adjoining cottage, his hopes of becoming their friend is shattered when they do eventually see him and run away in terror.

I feel for him and it breaks my heart, but setting their cottage on fire in anger though might not have been the best way to demonstrate how they were wrong to judge you on your appearance.

Books which paint a grim future #we’reallreallfucked

Last year we all had to face the crushing disappoint that it was 2015 and the scum who wrote Back to the Future II had massively over-estimated how far hover-board technology was going to progress (we all still have to use non-hovering type transport like suckers and it leaves a bitter, bitter taste).

But if you want to be glass half full, at least we’re not currently residing in one of these dystopian societies from 20th century literature (*the key-word is ‘currently’ there. If there’s full anarchy by next week I don’t want to look like an idiot).

I’ll try not to give spoilers here:

Handmaids Tale (Margaret Atwood, 1985)

For me out of all these books listed, the state of Gilead sounded like the worst future hypothetical, totalitarian society to live in – specifically if you’re a woman.

It’s ruled by the idea of positive restriction, and the narrator known only as ‘Offred’ is of the first generation of women who is stripped of every freedom and valued solely on her ability to reproduce.

What’s particularly frightening is how Offred has no way of knowing what is happening in the outside world as the media cannot be trusted and she is not permitted to watch the news.

Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, 1932)

[It was quite a few years ago that I read Brave New World so forgive me it isn’t as fresh in my head]

In the World State, humans are mass produced in hatcheries and are conditioned to be the perfect consumer and to instinctively hate books and nature. Family, love and monogamy are now antiquated ideas and ‘everybody belongs to everyone else’ (a quote I’m sure Huxley sometimes bought out if he wanted to initiate a key party).

There is also the Savage Reservation where people from the World State can visit to be reminded of how good progress is.

Cats Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut, 1963)

In Cats Cradle the three grown-up children of an eccentric scientist each have a piece of his final invention ‘Ice-Nine’ which has the power of freezing all the worlds water. Most of it is set on the island of San Lorenzo where everyone follows an odd religion called ‘Bokononism’, which is pretty much a glorified foot fetish club (there’s a lot about the importance of sole-to-sole contact, its a strange book).

A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, 1962)

This is one of my favourite books, but I do have a bone to pick with it. At the start the main character, Alex Delarge, successfully cracks onto two girls using what it possibly the shittiest pick-up technique in history: the gist of the quote is ‘Come with uncle…you are invited’. What a load of false advertising, you couldn’t score your own hand with that line.

A Clockwork Orange is set in a future where the youths are excessively out of control (a terrifying world where A Current Affair doesn’t need to exaggerate as much). When Alex finally ends up in prison he agrees to undergo a kind of aversion therapy which leaves him feeling ill at the thought of violence and incapable of committing any act of violence.

Seemingly it sounds positive, but who wants to live in a society which can take away your ability to choose?

Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury, 1953)

In this future, books are prohibited but few people care, and firemen burn books. Televisions have become so big in this future that they’ve become rooms with four screens as walls and people refer to the television characters as their families.

Plus if you’re one of the few people who decide to piss the firemen off they send a large mechanical dog after you (kinda like a nastier version of Clifford the big red dog).

1984 (George Orwell, 1949)

This is true – there was an incident where Amazon removed all copies of 1984 from its Kindles after realising their version was a pirated text; so readers rebooted their kindles to find that 1984 had disappeared.

It was all a little interesting, and the kind of thing that possibly sparked some great conspiracy theories (it may be a sign of censorship to come, and I bet the lizard people who live underground were somehow behind it).

1984 is set in Oceania and told from Winston Smith’s perspective. Being a book of its time, aspects of Oceania are meant to mirror the Stalinist system. The Party controls everything: it rewrites history through censorship, monitors every action through telescreens, a new type of speech has been created to eliminate certain words, there is no way of knowing if you can trust anybody, and if you commit thought-crime you’re massively in the shit (I hear that sometimes they even force people to watch celebrity Big Brother in Room 101). Also if you’re still not convinced that Oceania isn’t pretty grim, sex is also forbidden.

Oh Sigmund you lovable perv.

This is a very obscure reference, but there’s an episode of Red Dwarf (a BBC sci-fi comedy from the early 90s) where they all get trapped in a physical representation of one of the character’s psyche – kind of like a way darker version of Inside-Out. It’s an interesting concept, and it makes me wonder what my own brain-world would look like as an actual place, and just how strange/fucked my Id, Ego and Super -Ego would be as tiny little people with their own personalities.

Plus I wonder whether they get into adorable, tiny little fist fights while I’m in the middle of making a decision sometimes (like if I’m about to send a risky text, is my Super-Ego screaming ‘think of your dignity!!!’ while trying to overpower my Id who’s throwing chairs?)

According to Freud our psyche consists of three parts:

  • The Id (or unconscious) is concerned with desire
  • The Ego is about negotiation with the real world and is driven with instinct to protect itself
  • The Super-Ego is the self-critical component of the Ego.

Our unconscious mind is sculpted by past experiences and repressed impulses. It is highly influential on our behaviour, beliefs, feelings and such, yet it is inaccessible to the conscious mind. However, these thoughts can be revealed through methods such as interpreting dreams, or ‘parapraxis’ (aka Freudian slips).

Interpretation of dreams is significant in psychoanalysis because when we are sleeping our conscious resistance is down (fuck knows what that dream I had the other night where my friend was dating a talking beach-ball with no face means). Specifically, in relation to reading, Freud believed that books and paper were female symbols, and that reading had the ‘unconscious significance of taking knowledge from the mother’s body’.

Our neuroses are the product of unconscious and conscious dishonesty, and then there’s the Oedipus complex side of psychoanalysis, which theorises that as children we go through developmental stages which include fancying the parent of the opposite sex (I love the idea of Freud pitching this theory and being like ‘we’ve all been there right guys? It’s not just me?’).

Basically according to Freud what our brain-world would look like a deep, possibly terrifying jungle with talking trees hurling your mamma jokes constantly (*side note: I do believe that Freud’s your mamma comebacks would have been second to none).

But if you do want to have a good stare into the unconscious (or as I’ve dubbed mine the heart of darkness), maybe don’t discuss your deepest fears and feelings with Freud himself. His theory of transference suggested that strong feeling, particularly sexual ones, which were focused towards others, frequently become redirected towards the doctor during the process of analysis (oh Freud, you gorgeous thing, thinking you’re so darn irresistible).

From a literature perspective, one particularly fascinating thing about Freudian theory is when literature references are utilised to explain concepts. For instance, the story of Tancred and Clorinda (from an epic poem, Jerusalem Delivered) is used to describe ‘traumatic neurosis’. Tancred accidentally stabs Clorinda and does not hear her voice until the second wounding, which Freud used as an example of how a survivor will replay traumatic experiences and be especially haunted by that which was unknowable to them during the incident.

Psychoanalysis was also used by Marie Bonaparte (a friend of Freud’s) to analyse Edgar Allan Poe’s psyche through his stories (apparently if you marry your cousin, you get a rep as being a bit weird).

The Most Notorious Nudist

[say what you will, he could do a strip-tease like a diamond]

I was a bit underwhelmed by The Invisible Man. In fairness though it was written in 1897, it was bound to age. Plus I don’t know why I was expecting big things from it, if I became invisible all I’d do different is make things move around, freak people out a bit for a laugh, and do a bit of eavesdropping.

But above all, for the most part of the book I was far too distracted to concentrate on the plot by the thought that it’s winter and the invisible man has to get naked every time he wants to be unseen. For some reason I initially assumed that he must be wearing an invisible pair of pants, but no he has to strut around nude in the dead of winter.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, the invisible man is a scientist called Griffin, who can’t turn himself visible again so plans world domination and is a bit evil. This bad-boy street image is emphasised in the 1933 film adaption when he steals a bicycle and an old man’s hat, and everyone loses their shit, the utter maniac!

The character is unlikable but I couldn’t help feeling sorry for him because he must be chilly. My heart also bled for Dr Kemp when the invisible man is in his house (each of his invisible ass cheeks are touching his lovely couch), and I shed a tear for the villagers who got more than they bargained for when he dies, becomes visible again and revealed the whole butcher shop to them.