It’s a fine line between sweet and saccharin. The former is a base expression; friendship, romance, acceptance, family, the latter can be forced laughter, weak punchlines, one-dimensional characters and way too much schmaltz. This can make audiences giggle, if only for their inanity, but it stops at the point of achieving classic status as comedy or warmth, whereas the former can quickly become a staple in our own imaginations. Standing as a benchmark in our own lives, important and special in all sorts of ways.
Growing up when I did I was of an age when the majority of the kids cartoons and the main children’s author of the age shared one crucial thing in common. They all HATED children.
Okay, ‘hated’ is a strong word. How about ‘severely disliked’?
Roald Dahl made no bones on the subject. In fact you could say that only Israel was a subject he ‘severely disliked’ more. Not all children, certainly not his own children, but he was honest when he admitted that why his books were so popular with his readership was the serious danger his characters often found themselves in. From child-eating giants, to wicked stepparents, to witches that turn you into mice (permanently! Hollywood dusted the movie adaptation with saccharin) to the school where the headmistress routinely locked her pupils in a homemade iron-maiden for hours at a time, I think it’s safe to say the quest narratives in Roald Dahl’s books were well identified from the get-go.
On television the results were similar. Kids were either being exiled to worlds of magic and terror (Dungeons & Dragons), or time travel disasters were catapulting them into the past (The Girl from Tomorrow). Evidently a recurring theme for kids drama was to see how much peril you could expose them to, and hope they rose up to meet it. It’s almost as if the creators of these shows had endured corporal punishment when they were young (not unlikely considering the era) and had bought into the concept of “It’s good for you”, “it never did me any harm”, etc, and had used it accordingly.
And we knew it. And we didn’t mind!!! This might have something to do with why kids in warzones still ‘play war’ with smiles on their faces. The indestructibility of youth? Perhaps.
Combine this with an interest in Cert 18 (R-rated) movies during my teen years and you have a pretty good foundation for possessing an affinity with the dark and marginalised. The first R-rated movie I saw in the movies was Alien 3, (I wasn’t 18) and I was blown away by its mythology. If you’ve seen the film, or if you haven’t and heard the criticism levelled towards it, I implore you to watch this piece on YouTube.
I agree with virtually everything in this. To the extent that I’d place the movie in my Top 5. Because, like similar movies charting the struggle of the oppressed for their basic freedoms and survival, it doesn’t mince words, with each line being delivered with pragmatic spite. Nor does it offer false hope, they’re all criminals, and they’re all Alien-fodder, we know it and so do they. Maybe that counts for something? In the next life if not this one.
I recently finished Emilie Autumn’s semi-autobiographical novel entitled ‘The Asylum for Wayward Victorian Girls’. A rambling tie-in to Autumn’s most recent album, it tells both the story of herself (Autumn suffered a well-documented breakdown a few years prior that required her to be sectioned / committed for a time) and her fictional alter ego ‘Emily’, as she endures the hell of Victorian Asylum life, a shocking semi-fictional tale, where most of the girls are little more than subjects for scientific fascination or the secret and illicit sex trade occurring between the upper class.
The conditions are horrific. The body count off the scale, through a combination of disease and outright murder by the physicians. All of this pointing to the fact that the stigma of mental health can erase a person from society, to the extent that they become less in the eyes of that society, and taken to the extreme in this case. However in reality such practice occurs, and is sadly still prevalent in recent history as the number of genocides or regimes over the last 100 years can attest.
My love for tales including such suffering raises eyebrows, because I am neither sadistic nor masochistic in my life. Reflecting this, I can only surmise that I recognise the understanding that the greatest triumphs in life are worth so much more, and taste so sweet when they come from the struggle that, at times, can seem unendurable. You have to suffer for anything of value. A handle that applies to everything from higher education to childbirth. Very catholic, apparently (so my catholic friends tell me).
My #1 favourite novel is ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexandre Dumas, and it’s not difficult to see why. Supplemented with movies including ‘The Shawshank Redemption’, ‘Spartacus’, ‘In the Name of the Father’ and ‘V for Vendetta’, they all speak of the injustice of the society, the suffering of the protagonists and the final battle and victory for the oppressed, even if that victory comes with the freedom of the grave and the name becoming legend.
Most of the characters in these examples find themselves tossed in with the other rejects and criminals and find themselves forming impromptu families. The same with Autumn’s tale, her friends including the likes of Joanna, Christelle, Flea and Jolie Rouge. The latter an obvious play on the phrase “Jolly Roger”, she is also known as ‘The Captain’, and is the closest thing to a brooding consigliere figure the novel has, as a trusted advisor to Emily’s main character, and giving me an obvious affinity towards her. She also has her head forcibly shaved during the narrative (a practice I used to do in college, many years ago) and the girls each give her a token of their own hair following this treatment in kindness, so that she’ll have something to wear until her own grows again.
And there’s the rats. They speak. And that ties in with Neil Gaiman’s novel ‘Neverwhere’, a known favourite of mine. It is this hodgepodge of family and friends that attracts me to prison stories. You’re here, either by guilt or admission, and you have to make the best of it. Of course there is a second reason why I like prison and jailbreak stories.
The ending. Payback is a bitch, and in Autumn’s tale there is no exception.
The girls finally break free, murder their jailers, which both the reader and the girls have no qualms about. And then sit down to think about their future.
It is an interesting resolution. The idea being that where can the girls go, now that they are free? Back to a society that was hardly progressive to begin with, even before the stigma of mental-illness was shackled round their necks? Hardly. So in the end they agree to stay in the Asylum and it becomes a haven and a sanctuary for the different.
With unlimited funds, and a mountain of creativity, and a solitude and a freedom from the stuffy Victorian society, the Asylum flourishes. Music, art, cooking and baking, textiles, jewellery making, writing, all established and flourishing. It is very sad then, at the end, during the prestigious Winter Ball that, with all the girls on the roof of the Asylum, watching the fireworks and the stars, the Asylum begins to collapse.
Rubble and flame block all the fire escapes, leaving everyone with the one choice no one on this earth should have to make: stay and burn, or jump.
“’Well, where shall we sail to next, Captain?’ I asked her, so that all around me could hear….
‘An entirely new destination, I think! The routing has only just been mapped, and we shall be the very first to explore it if we board the ship at once”….
“Anchors aweigh!” shouted the Captain, raising her ancient pirate’s hat high into the air… And then, we jumped”.
It is to be expected. This, after all, was an alternative reality in the novel, and it has to end. I don’t think it promotes suicide as an option to one’s problems. In fact Autumn goes out of her way to reject that idea, the book being littered with advice to seek professional help and support should the reader feel that way. What I like though is how it ends with a Peter Pan feel of ‘Second Star to the Right, and Straight on til Morning’. As well as the love they all have for each other, for the new family that they’ve found.
When I first started my nursing I used to write down stories and scenarios, and I used to fill them with characters based off the people I worked with. These people, these friends over the years, are now mainstays in my writing, to the extent that some of them have even made it into my proper “grown-up” attempts at authorship. Many of them now occupy a pool of characteristics in my head, but they still revert to those special scenes in movies or books when the hero or heroine needs support. Kirk Douglas’ Spartacus, inspiring his friends in the ruined arena that has been their lives for so long, to Valerie’s letter in ‘V for Vendetta’ (powerful as it’s transplanted virtually word-for-word for the movie adaptation).
When you wander off the path you need your friends. When you’re stuck at the bottom you need whoever you can find. But the environment amplifies the experience. The monsters are vicious, the perils will shred you to pieces and laugh, but those you are with will fight for you until their last breath. And the victory will be sweeter because of it. And the stories that are born from these experiences? Well, the stories will be the sweetest things of all.