Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Haunted by Childhoods: Three Ghost Stories

Thandie Newton and Kimberly Elise in the 1998 Beloved adaptation

I started this blog post in August 2014. It's been in the drafts section of my blogger account since then - out of sight, but never quite out of mind. It began as a simple Halloween-themed rambling for my little-read blog: a selection of literary ghost stories. But as I wrote about each piece, I realized something connected them all, and not just that they were all ghost stories about children. I needed to stop and think about what it was I was trying to say.

Then I procrastinated for two years and just finally finished this post!

Anyways, when I re-read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein earlier this year, I was struck by Victor Frankenstein's anti-climatic, almost comical reaction to the "birth" of his creation. He sees that his creation is alive, panics, and...leaves the room. To sleep. He literally just shuts down, leaves the room, and goes to bed. When his creation seeks him out in his bedroom, he goes outside and sleeps in the courtyard. Then he stays away from his apartment for the day, hoping the thing will leave.

Oh. Never mind, don't want you after all.
BTW, check out my dick windows.

Victor's utter fecklessness in the face of crisis amused me, but also hit at one of my deepest fears. I don't have kids, and don't know if I will ever have one or even want one. But sometimes I picture motherhood, and I am terrified I would react just like Victor. What if I went through labor, held my new baby in my arms, and felt...nothing? Or felt revulsion? What if the crying, screaming, pooping thing got to be too much for me and I just closed the door walked away (just like with this blog post!)?

Victor's panic and denial are understandable (I mean, the reality that one has bestowed life upon a giant mutant corpse hits pretty hard), and he feels extremely justified in his actions, but his "child," just as understandably, doesn't feel the same way. The creation is never able to get over the pain of that early abandonment.

And there's the crux of the conflict between parent and offspring. The adult, with their adult mind, adult body, and adult words, exercises a lot of control over the life of the child. Their choices - whether made out of desperation, love, selfishness, or necessity - shape the child's very existence. Because children are, by nature, helpless, things are done to them; they have little to no agency.

It's unavoidable for parents and other adults to take actions that impact a child's life. And it's tempting to hush up, smooth over, or outright deny unpleasant things that happened (as Carol Ann Duffy captures in her poem "We Remember Your Childhood Well"). But the adult can't control how the child feels about those actions and what the child will eventually do with those feelings. The creation abandoned in Germany returns as a monster in Switzerland. Ben Solo becomes Kylo Ren. Christina Crawford pens a memoir. Kelly Clarkson sings a beautiful patricide of a song.

I think this uncertainty and tension shows up in our ghost stories. Children are easy to subdue, lie to, or abandon, but they remember.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

In 2006 the New York Times independently asked 100 writers, editors, and critics to name the best American piece of fiction of the past quarter century, and Beloved was the top selection. It's not hard to understand why once you've read Morrison's masterpiece, which explores the shame that haunts a nation and the skeletons hidden in individuals' closets. Inspired by the true story of an enslaved woman who escaped the South and later killed her daughter rather than return the girl to slavery, Beloved deals with what lead to that choice and its repercussions.

It's impossible not to sympathize with Sethe. As a slave, Sethe is raped and tortured, and later separated from her husband. Despite all this, she still manages the Herculean effort to get her four children to freedom in the North. When men arrive to bring Sethe and her children back to slavery, back to the place where she and her loved ones were brutalized, she does the most merciful thing she can think of: she attempts to kill her children before they can be captured.

Sethe with her returned daughter in the 1998 adaptation

She only succeeds in killing one: a toddler girl posthumously called Beloved. The slavers abandon their pursuit, and a local lawyer takes pity on Sethe and gets her released from prison. But her life, of course, can never be the same. Her two oldest children now fear her, and soon flee from home. The house seems haunted.

And then years after the awful event, the ghost of the child returns with the body of the young woman she would be but the psyche of the toddler she was. Her feelings about Sethe are complex. She's desperate for love and affection from her mother, but she's also furious about her murder, and embarks on a series of escalating acts of revenge. There's no reasoning with her why what Sethe did what she did and that the real enemy is slavery itself - her mother killed her, and she's hurt and angry.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

This novella by Henry James is a classic. A group of vacationers are staying at a remote country estate, and tell ghost stories to each other. One captures the audience's attention more than the others.

The story starts with a governess assigned a strange job: look after two children in an isolated mansion, and no matter what, do not contact the children's uncle, who is their legal guardian. At first everything seems fine (as it always does). The little girl, Flora, is sweet, and her brother, Miles, who is away at school, is assured to be the same. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, is kindly. The grounds are beautiful.

But then comes the news that Miles has been expelled from school for being "an injury" to the others. Mrs. Grose seems horrified and defensive, but not necessarily surprised. When the governess starts to see what she believes to be ghosts, she becomes convinced that they are the children's previous caretakers, Peter Quint and Miss Jessel. Mrs. Grose reveals the two had unsavory dealings with Miles and Flora. While what exactly happened isn't spelled out, sexual abuse is heavily implied ("Quint was much too free." "Too free with my boy?" "Too free with everyone!" / "He did what he wished." "With her?" "With them all.").

From The Innocents, a 1961 adaptation

None of the adults at the house spoke out during Quint and Jessel's tenure, and no one dared tell the uncle about it. The new governess now knows there were and are problems, but whether she's equipped to deal with those problems is another matter. As the children act out in increasingly alarming ways, she becomes convinced that the ghosts of Quint and Jessel are trying to possess them, and she focuses her energies on protecting the children from these evil spirits. Whether or not the ghosts are real, it's clear the children have been failed by the adults in their lives.

"The Bees" by Dan Chaon

In the Dan Chaon short story "The Bees," Gene has an ideal life. He lives with his wife, Karen, and their young son, Frankie, in the Cleveland suburbs. However, their household is suddenly plagued by a strange phenomenon: Frankie repeatedly screams in the middle of the night, waking his parents but not himself, and without an accompanying nightmare. Their pediatrician can find nothing wrong. The screaming episodes leave Gene feeling increasingly on edge, and he starts experiencing a buzzing sensation, like the sound of bees. He wonders if his secret past is playing a part in the disturbances.

Many years previously, an alcoholic Gene married his pregnant girlfriend, Mandy, when they were nineteen. He made a few attempts at being a father to their son, DJ, but could be cruel and short-tempered. He mostly saw DJ as an adversary, and abused both him and Mandy. After giving five-year-old DJ a black eye, he took off and moved far away - drunkenly crashing his car in process.

Gene eventually sobered up, but by then was unable to track down Mandy and DJ to apologize and provide financial support. So he moved on, and until the screaming incidents with Frankie, he has mostly managed to put his firstborn son out of his mind. As the screams and sound of bees continue, Gene begins to be haunted by visions of DJ dying in a fire. Is his eldest really dead...and even if he is, would that stop his desire for revenge?

"The Bees" was first published in McSweeney's #10, which was then republished as McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales. You can read the beginning here.

Illustration for "The Bees" by Howard Chaykin

Image Info:

Beloved header image: Movie Stills DB

Frankenstein illustration with dick windows: Theodore Von Holt engraving for 1831 edition

Sethe and Beloved: Cineplex (Full disclosure: I have never been able to bring myself to watch the film due to certain scenes, but Matty Steinfeld has a passionate and informative defense of the film here)

Miles being creepy: The Ghost Central

Howard Chaykin illustration: from McSweeney's Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales