Parenting, Reading

It’s Worse Than You Think – Cautionary Tales From Childhood – In Recognition Of Halloween

I’ve been, since age 5, an avid reader. Once I discovered the worlds that existed inside books, they have been my constant and steadfast companion. I most always have a book that I’m in the process of reading, and when I don’t….my life seems thrown into a chaotic miasma that I need to quickly find an escape from by simply picking up another book. My childhood memories are filled with colorful tales from glossy storybooks.

A great aunt of mine had a full set of hardcover books with the written counterparts to several Disney film adaptions that I used to pore over when we’d visit her. There were many photos from some of the live action films or drawings for the animated films, and even though I knew the endings to the stories (The Wonderful World Of Disney was Sunday night must-see-t.v. in my childhood, and at the end of the school year my elementary school had a film day with offerings such as Old Yeller and the like), I still read them – at least the Disney versions of them.

I’ve retained many of my childhood books over time. Some I had, when I became a parent, hoped to pass on to my own kids to read and enjoy themselves. Unfortunately in the age of video games and mutant teenage sponge wizards the books I enjoyed so much in my youth (The Hardy Boys, Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators, The Great Brain series, Matthew and Maria Looney’s adventures, etc.) hold little interest for the boys. No matter – they should find and read things they, themselves enjoy.

There have been, however, stories that they’ve enjoyed that are universal and long-lived. Stories that have been in existence for generations before the boys or myself or even my grandparents. Stories that, over the years, Disney and Pixar and DreamWorks have adopted and adapted, sanitizing and whitewashing what, if you read the original source material, are some pretty horrific tales.

Many of these are what are known as Cautionary Tales. Stories that were written not only to entertain but to inform and teach someone about a potential danger they could encounter.

Cautionary tales involve three essential elements:

  • A ‘taboo’ – some place, act, or thing that represents danger to a person.
  • A disregard of the taboo/danger – violation of the warning that has been handed out.
  • A horrific fate/conclusion – often quite grisly in nature.

The concept has been replicated time and again through the years in a variety of mediums. From the original folk tales verbally recounted to the written word being used as a method of recounting these stories to the ‘School Scare Films’ and ‘Army Training Films’ of the mid-20th century that warned young hitchhiking boys that ‘homosexuals were lurking on the highways to offer them rides and corrupt them’ and cautioned young soldiers that ‘fast and easy women would give them social diseases’. Youngsters were warned of the dangers of drug use and disobeying their parents.

Even the film ‘Gremlins’ is a cautionary tale, in which are laid down three very precise rules to be followed (without deviation) by the owner of a Mogwai – with the accompanying warning of dire consequences if you did not follow these rules -and the ensuing mayhem when the rules were (as expected) not followed.

As I said, my childhood is filled with many memories of these cute, cuddly tales with fleeing princesses finding friendly, hardworking midgets to shack up with and puppets who come to life as companion to a lonely old man who not only has an insect problem, but the insect talks and wears a top-hat, and all sorts of other squeaky-clean enjoyment to be derived from them.

What’s even more fun? Reading the un-sanitized versions of these tales as an adult and realizing what the real story was and the ‘lesson’ it was supposed to teach. When all the singing animals and flying throw-rugs and dancing dinnerware are removed, what you are left with are some pretty horrifying and often tragic tales.

If you’d like to investigate some of, in my opinion, the best (or worst, depending on your perspective) examples of this…I highly encourage reading the original Pinocchio story, the original Little Red Riding Hood story, the story of the Pied (which means multi-colored, by the way…it has nothing to do with pastry) Piper, and Cinderella. You’ll find far more blood, gore, and mass-kidnapped children than Disney will ever show you. Another example is the book ‘Struwwelpeter’ by Heinrich Hoffmann. In this book, originally published with the sub-title ‘Funny Stories and Whimsical Pictures with 15 Beautifully Coloured Panels for Children Aged 3 to 6′ – the stories center on such toddler-centric tales as ‘The girl who played with matches and burned to death’, and ‘the boy who sucked his thumb too long so a scary man with giant scissors cut his thumbs off’.  Just imagine conveying that one to your 5 year old just before you turn out the lights and close the door for their young mind to mull over until they fall asleep – if they can. Makes an episode or two of The Walking Dead before bed seem not quite so terrible now, doesn’t it?

There are also loads of good websites to check out as well. I have listed a few below:

http://www.ancient-origins.net

list25.com

and a pretty entertaining article from ET Online, called Peter Pan and 6 other beloved Disney movies based on dark horrifying books.

There are many others to be found in your favorite internet browser. If you really want a good scare for tomorrow night – read a few of them. They’ll put a chill in your blood if the change of seasons hasn’t done that already.

Wishing everyone a safe and happy Halloween full of spooks, specters, and spirits.

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Faded Pages - Out Of Print Authors

Faded Pages – Out Of Print Authors: Christopher Isherwood

isherwood

Twenty years ago I found myself cast in the show Cabaret. I knew of it, of course, having heard the music from the score, and having seen the film version with Liza Minnelli, Michael York, and Joel Gray…and had learned that there was a (non-musical) film based upon the story called ‘I Am A Camera’ with Julie Harris in the lead.

What I didn’t have any experience with as yet was the source material – The Berlin Stories of Christopher Isherwood.

I have dubbed this section of my blog as ‘out of print’ authors, and I am pretty confident that many of Isherwood’s works are out of print and therefore can be a bit of a challenge to find. Truth be told, I’ve not looked for a brand new Isherwood book in a store for years. I own much of his catalogue in hardback, snatched from the coffers of used book stores here and there over the years, devoured as I went along, and worth every penny and every moment spent to read them.

Isherwood, born in the UK in 1904, emigrated to the United States in 1939 when he was already an established author and playwright, as well as mentor to other authors and poets. During his early adult years he traveled extensively in Europe and China as well as a trip to the United States prior to settling in California and becoming an American citizen in 1946.

Isherwood then spent the remainder of his life chronicling his experiences, from early childhood through his adult years  (as well as working on travel diaries, plays, and non-fiction works about a religious monastic order called the Ramakrishna) which provided the source material for his fiction works and his autobiographical offerings, with each being equally as enjoyable and fascinating as the other. Much of Isherwood’s fiction can be then deconstructed and deciphered as to his motivation and perspicacity for the fictional works by reading its non-fiction counterpart or what, where, and who Isherwood ‘was’ at the time he wrote it or not long before. His inspiration for his novels is more than just largely drawn from his own experiences.

Admittedly (which may surprise some) I’ve not yet read The Berlin Stories. That said, I have indulged in PLENTY of his other books – The Memorial, The World In The Evening, Down There On A Visit, A Single Man, Christopher And His Kind, Lions And Shadows, and My Guru And His Disciple amongst them – and still have more to go, such as Prater Violet, A Meeting By The River, All The Conspirators, The Mortmere Stories, and Kathleen and Frank – as well as his collaborative novels written with other authors, his letters and diaries, and much, much more. To begin to read Isherwood is to find yourself with a treasure trove of material to select from.  There are also, for the diligent, articles he wrote over a series of years between 1943 and 1969.

Isherwood is, to me,  one of the best examples of ‘autobiography as fiction’ writers that the twentieth century is to be credited with. Less drug and drink addled than Kerouac, less oversexed than Miller, but every bit as enjoyable to read. While it might be challenging to try to find some of the works listed above, they are all (and I mean all) worth pursuing if you try one and find that you like his style. Many (if not most or all) of his books can be found on Amazon, of course, but I highly recommend the giddy feeling of finding him in a used book store somewhere between Washington Irving and James Joyce in the literature section and slowly collecting and savoring his work over time.

There are also books about Isherwood (none that I can say I’ve read personally) which give greater insight into a man hailed as one of the best writers of his time.

He may be out of print (possibly) in brand new copies – but Isherwood and his observations of his education, life, and experiences are never out of style.

Happy reading!

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