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Children, Crime and Consequences

The Agony Column for July 18, 2003

Commentary by Rick Kleffel


Douglas Coupland's art work, 'Tropical Birds': "The instant the fire alarm went dead, Motte heard a strange, almost surreal sound welling up faintly from inside, like birds chirping. Across the cafeteria, telephone pagers in the abandoned backpacks were going off, unanswered calls from desperate parents." from the Rocky Mountain News.

It took me years to admit to myself that having children had changed my reading tastes. No longer was I ready to read the kind of horror that gleefully folded, spindled and mutilated kids along with adults, pets and evil monsters. Slowly but surely I got a lot pickier about what I read. But old habits die hard, and as my charming children mutated into teenagers, I found my threshold rising. No, I don't think that I could read 'Cujo' again. There are still some books that I can't bring myself to read, no matter how well liked or highly recommended they come. But through a recent aberration, I found myself reading a lot of recent titles that did involve children in danger and children in the vicinity of crime. It's a genre with a lot of potential -- to appeal or repel. Sometimes both at once. It's easy to have mixed feelings.

Henry James plays on the ambiguous perceptions we have of children in 'The Turn of the Screw'.

Now, it's not as if this is a new development. Literature about children in terror has been used to terrorize children for years. It's a part of the curriculum and as it happens one of the more enjoyable slabs of literature shoved down the throats of kids in school. For myself, I found the touchstones of school-lit terror to be Henry James 'The Turn of the Screw' and William Golding's 'The Lord of the Flies'. Henry James' novella was actually the first of these I encountered. Despite its short length, 'The Turn of the Screw' actually maps much of the terrain for much of the child-oriented literature of terror to follow. James is such a masterful writer that even now, over a hundred years after its publication, critics are finding nuances that were not obvious. For me, 'The Turn of the Screw' was a revelation of the power of ambiguity. Miles and Flora, the two children of Bly are beautiful blanks upon which the reader, the governess, Douglas and James are able to project pure goodness and incisive evil. Miles and Flora are in a quantum state, fluctuating between good and evil from scene to scene, from reader to writer to narrator. Are they leaking evil or being polluted by it? James does with children characters what cannot be done with adults. Adults are finished; they're grown. Children, on the other hand, may change rapidly, from moment to moment and extreme to extreme. Are the "ghosts" seen by the governess projections of the children, or are they affecting the behavior of the children? Are they working with the children? James' powerfully simple language and plotting enable him to use the children as portals for a frightening number of both hopes and fears. If you haven't yet read this novella, take the time to do so and see where much of today's finest horror and suspense literature first found a small child's voice.

I had to turn off a recent and very accurate movie adaptation of this novel.

'The Lord of the Flies' pursues another path, just as powerful, but more directly disturbing and unpleasant. William Golding is working for something of an opposite effect of James. 'The Lord of the Flies' puts children in a situation where they are forced to behave like adults -- or die. It's a frightening and simple formula that has been copied relentlessly and exploitatively. The original is still too unpleasant for many a parent to experience. By forcing children to take on adult behavior, all the horror of that which is accepted in adults is emphasized by the children. The ugliness of politics becomes an analogue of bullying. Douglas Coupland recently told me in an interview about a series of Canadian public service announcements in which adults are portrayed in the manner of schoolyard bullies. A man in a suit is shown getting his lunch taken from him by office bullies, or pushed out of a queue for a train. The point is that this behavior is unacceptable for adults and should be unacceptable in children as well. 'Lord of the Flies' reverses that thought and shows that acceptable behavior for adults is unacceptable and disturbing when seen in children. The creation of civilization is an ugly process when seen in miniature. Killing is a lot worse when it's children killing children as opposed to adults killing adults. 'Lord of the Flies' retains its power because it boils the evil that men do down the evil that children do.

Machen tapped into the terror of illogic in his story 'The White People'.

Arthur Machen, a noted horror writer, also paved the way for children and evil with his powerful story 'The White People'. Unlike James and Golding, Machen tells his story from the point of view of the child. After a brief and very Victorian-style introduction, the bulk of 'The White People' is the chilling diary of a 13-year old girl. One day, like all children, she ventures beyond the confines of her safe world into a world of Faerie. Related in a nearly unbroken stream of consciousness, Machen's meditation is a powerful picture of innocence faced with a pure evil, an evil of illogic, an evil of things that cannot and should not exist. Machen makes excellent use of a narrator who is experiencing events she cannot quite comprehend, though she can describe them all too well. Few since have described a slow conversion from innocence to evil without any recognition of the process taking place as well as Machen. Guided by a beloved but sinister (to the reader) "nursie", the narrator experiences anomalies with expectation. "And there were other rocks that were like animals, creeping, horrible animals, putting out their tongues, and others were like words I could not say, and others like dead people lying on the grass. I went on among them, though they frightened me, and my heart was full of wicked song they put into it; and I wanted to make faces and twist myself about the way they did, and I went on and on a long way till at last I liked the rocks and they didn't frighten me any more." Though there's a strong supernatural element to 'The White People', it speaks to a timeless corruption within innocence. It's an upsetting perception of reality that can bring out the best in talented writers.

Jack Womack told me to read this novel of his first. It's a powerful evocation of a corrupted childhood in a world frighteningly close to ours.

My most recent bout of child-related reading began with Jack Womack's 'Random Acts of Senseless Violence'. Womack's vision of a pre-teen girl who grows into a violent -- but still likable -- killer is even more powerful now than it was when it was written. Womack created a vision of the near future that seems contemporary and compelling even though it was written some ten years ago. But it's the voice of his narrator, Lola Hart, and her perceptions of her family that lifts this novel into the stratosphere of fine literature. Lola Hart is a 12-year old girl living with her nuclear family -- her barely-employed father, her drug-addled mother, and her distant young sister in a New York on the verge of financial collapse. In the course of the novel, the Harts lose their small but nice apartment and are forced to move to a slum, where Lola begins her education in street life. Womack plays out a voice that reads like a combination of that of the young girl in Machen's 'The White People' and Alex from 'A Clockwork Orange'. The world he portrays is our own skewed by just a couple degrees of chaos and filtered through Lola's changing eyes. Womack effortlessly captures the changing voice and attitude of Lola as she finds herself changing to match her new surroundings. He carefully reflects the apocalypse without by the changes within. Escalating world events begin in the sidelines but quickly come to occupy center stage and serving to propel the plot. 'Random Acts of Senseless Violence' uses a child's voice to describe an adult's world. It breaks your heart as it tells you how it works.

Mark Haddon's wonderful novel 'the curious incident of the dog in the night-time' will easily make lots of year's best lists.

Having read 'Random Acts of Senseless Violence', I became intrigued by the idea of children's place in crime fiction. Yes, I know 'Random Acts of Senseless Violence' isn't exactly crime fiction, but that was the phrase that came to me, especially when I first heard about 'the curious incident of the dog in the night-time' by Mark Haddon. We have two reviews of this novel, both by myself and by Terry D'Auray. We both immensely enjoyed Haddon's masterful novel, though our takes on why are rather different. But Haddon has utterly nailed the appeal of the youth in a tale of crime in his first novel for adults. This novel has a tremendous potential to become a bestseller, and it deserves to be one. It's funny, touching, powerful and dense with facts and speculations. The uninformed observations from a child not capable of emotional connection of the adult world manage to make everything old new again. Most importantly, it's just totally readable. Few who pick it up in the store will go home without it. Haddon's narrator, the 15 year-old Christopher John Francis Boone is a character that the reader will adore being around. This brilliantly written, very thin novel will remind you once again of why it is so much fun to read.

If you can find a first edition of this novel, it's worth looking at. Even the US paperback includes the illustrations fro the hardcover, however.

As I was reading Haddon's novel, I was remembering a very different novel with a very similar title from last year. I didn't remember the title or author, but I remembered the bookseller who had recommended it, Michael DeSarno of Legends books. I gave him a call and as much of a hint as I could and he pointed me to Chloe Hooper's 'A Child's Book of True Crime'. He still had first editions, so I ordered one up. Published without a dust jacket, it features a lovely illustration and a nicely textured surface. It's definitely a book worth owning for the format, which includes interior illustrations as well. Hooper's novel is a bit of a mixed bag, depending on your feelings about erotic literature. Her tale is narrated by a hot-tot-trot teacher who's having an affair with the father of one of her students. The man's wife has just written a true crime work about a jealous wife who brutally murdered her husband's lover then killed herself -- or perhaps disappeared. When the student's drawings start to hint at violence, the teacher begins to imagine that she's got herself into a bad situation.

It's a brilliant setup. Hooper's prose is strong and there are lots of quotable portions of the narrative. Hooper fills the novel with fascinating facts about children and violence. Even more inventively, she writes a children's book that is interspersed in the narrative, in which cuddly animals try to determine the culprit to the true crime. She gives the children a strong voice, recounting discussions about God, life and death that seem authentically child-like. But her narrator is a bit addled by her attraction to the father, and the portions of the narrative that follow their potentially fatal attraction to one another serve only to soften the focus on the discussions of children and evil. Now, the production of the first edition of this novel is nothing short of wonderful, and the questions it raises regarding children's perceptions of violence and evil are fascinating. The illustrations for the children's novel are delightful. I'll look very closely at Hooper's next novel. If she continues to indulge her inclination to the erotic, then I may give it a pass; if she follows up on her predilection for facts, I'll be springing for it straight away.

Laurie King's 'Keeping Watch' contains the origin story for a character who protects children in danger -- even if they're in danger from other children.

Laurie King is noted for a couple of series of detective novels, but her most recent novel, 'Keeping Watch' takes her in a new direction. Following one of the characters from her novel 'Folly', she plays int he same subject as Henry James, and does so remarkably well. 'Keeping Watch' was a novel I actually might not have elected to read had I not been asked to interview the author, as the subject matter is ont he dicey side of what I think I can tolerate. Allen Carmichael is a fairly wrecked Vietnam veteran who specializes in rescuing children from abusive parents. King does an excellent job of creating a man who has been over the edge and returned able to face situations that many people -- including myself -- can't face, even in fiction. She describes with fascinating detail a sort of "underground Railroad" for abused women and children. She then sends Carmicheal on his resuce mission -- only to find that the child he may have rescued may be more dangerous than the abusive father he was recused from. Likie James, she plays with our ability to perceive a child as a victim one second, then a perpetrator the next. It's a gripping tale of terror that never goes so far into pathos as to have the reader rendered into hopeless sorrow. King plays fair with the mysterious aspects of her story while giving her characters room to grow and come to life. It is on the mystery side of the genre gap, but only barely. 'Keeping Watch' demonstrates that King is capable of mining depths without plumbing them.

Alice Sebold tapped into the mainstgream consciousness with her novel 'The Lovely Bones'. But that doesn't mean that I can actually make myself read it.

I mentioned earlier that there are books I just can't bring myself to read. Amongst those is 'The Lovely Bones' by Alice Sebold. I met her while I was interviewing her husband, author Glen David Gold whose novel 'Carter Beats the Devil' I just adored. Ms. Sebold was very nice and wonderfully astute. We talked a bit about the use of supernatural themes in more mainstream novels, and she suggested some fascinating books for me to read. I really, really intended to read her novel. Terry D'Auray went so far as to loan it to my wife and I. But knowing what was between the covers, I decided to give it a pass. I've been in the vicinity of events remotely resembling those she describes; the rape and murder of a teenage girl, and the slowly unraveling family life that follows. Judging from Terry's review, I think I made the right decision. While I know for a fact from both Serena's review and Terry's review of this novel that it's a powerful and well-written piece, I also know that the painful place it inhabits is someplace I can't go as a reader. Make no mistake; when Alice Sebold writes another novel I'll be first in line. You can also make no mistake that this novel develops the themes of children, crime and consequences with a power and craft that's the reading equivalent of being hit upside the head with a sledgehammer, as artistically as humanly possible. And make no mistake that if you've not known a crime victim, you would find this exploration searingly informative. But if you expect to read this novel and not be moved far beyond your normal emotional boundaries -- that's a big mistake.

Coupland's cover evokes the dots and lines behind the faith of children.

Yes, embarrassingly enough, I did ask Douglas Coupland about the slight similarities between 'The Lovely Bones' and his latest novel, 'Hey Nostradamus!'. He was lightning quick to correct me; 1), 'Hey Nostradamus!' was in the mail to the publishers before 'The Lovely Bones' was released (no surprise there, but) 2) "You haven't read my other novels, have you?" [Uh, no.] "I've used dead teenagers as narrators before; this isn't the first time." 'Hey Nostradamus!' begins with the post-life narration by a 16 year-old girl of a Columbine-style massacre that takes place in 1988 in a Vancouver high school. From the beginning, Coupland uses his teenage narrator to get directly to issues of faith in a way that would not be possible were she an adult. Her thoughts are a fascinating combination of matter-of-fact acceptance and naïve belief in the love she shared with her boyfriend, Jason, to whom she was secretly married. Coupland leavens his narrative of tragedy and terror with a good deal of black humor, rendering the novel readable where otherwise it might not be, by me at least. He also pursues his story in a unique fashion. He ignores the perpetrators and the police and follows the victims of the crime. The novel's next section finds Jason, eleven years later in 1999, leading a rootless but not entirely unhappy existence. The next section traces the life of Heather, who has tried to love Jason and become a part of his life. The final section, an elegiac coda, brings the reader back to Jason's father. Beautiful, funny and moving -- without ripping out your heart -- 'Hey Nostradamus!' is a searing look at faith and the lives of the victims of child-crimes.

All that innocence, wasted, calcified by terror into an acceptance of the undeniable awfulness of this life. Children who perpetrate crimes, who are the victims of crimes, children who solve crimes -- there's a howling abyss beneath the flat recitation of what happened. It's delicate territory, but in the hands of great writers, putting children in harm's way is the author's way of preventing the horror. By writing about it, by committing it to paper as fiction, it remains firmly in the realm of the unreal. We can assimilate it -- or not -- and be changed by the knowledge. Reading can be one of the most powerful experiences we humans can have. Sometimes we need to pass a work by, to acknowledge its power but leave it undisturbed. Maybe someday I can read 'The Lovely Bones'. But not while my kids are still teenagers.