Saturday, April 22, 2006

Type Cast 14

Everything I never needed to know as a kid I learned from books. And then some.

Although neither of my parents pursued a post-secondary education, they hardly let that stop them when it came to dishing out dire warnings about what happened to people who didn’t take up reading. As my mother succinctly put it, “If you don’t read, you end up on the welfare”. This was no idle threat – “the welfare”, a fate somewhere on the calamity scale between prison and “the mental”, was a very real possibility in rural New Brunswick. I went to school with kids who clearly disliked to read, and to bathe, and my parents convinced me that the two disinclinations were interrelated.

By the time I reached reading age, my older brother had already amassed a well-mangled collection of Golden Books and first readers. The Golden Books were singularly unremarkable, and deserved all the punishment he gave them. Fluffy bunnies got lost in the woods (in the middle of the afternoon, the idiots) while plucky puppies chased butterflies down dark, hollow logs. All that frolicking was supposed to be very exciting, but I lived next to the Atlantic ocean - a place where people regularly got into real trouble, usually while drunk.

The first readers were no better. With titles like Helicopters and Gingerbread and Sunflowers and Jellyfish, they were about as titillating as the local United Church’s Dimes For Delhi campaign. I craved books that would take me away from my charm and adventure-starved surroundings.

Luckily, my father spent part of his 1930s childhood in New York City, and he kept a cache of Little Big Books from that era stashed in his desk drawer. The desk drawer was a forbidden zone, so naturally I riffled through it at least once a week.

Little Big Books were compact picture books, about the size of a coffee mug (or a child’s hand), laid out like photo-novellas. On one side of each left/right spread was a line drawing depicting the action described in print on the other side. So, if you didn’t know what the word “keelhauled” meant, you just looked at the picture of the poor pirate being dragged across the bottom of the ship. The drawings were lurid and curvy, in the gleefully horny way many cultural products from that morally lax, impoverished decade were, and never failed to present both male and female protagonists in the most flattering, clinging clothes. Ah, innocence.

Most of the titles in my father’s Big Little Books collection were print versions of popular films and radio shows from the time (such as Buck Rogers and Little Orphan Annie), and were therefore alien to me, but the successful format was adopted by other publishers who focused on classics. Tarzan, Great Expectations, and Moby Dick all got the pictorial treatment, to much lasting effect, but the book that swallowed me was Dracula – a novel I still adore today.

The editors smartly cut out much of Stoker’s original text, especially all of Professor Van Helsing’s boring God-mongering and, for obvious reasons, Dr. Seward’s drug addiction and Lucy Westenra’s sluttiness, thus paring the tale down to one of invader vs. protectors, evil outsider against a family – a compelling narrative when one’s entire existence revolves around the home and the primal fear of losing one’s family is so keen.

Count Dracula was every boogeyman rolled into one red-eyed monster, a creature without remorse or depth. Like a shark, he existed only to kill. I was entranced by this display of undiluted malevolence. All the books and films produced at the time for children paled in comparison. The villains were only mildly evil, and more often just misunderstood, and the heroes were more bumbling than valiant. I grew up in the age of the anti-hero, the ethically grey and forgiving 70s. As an adult, I’m grateful for this useful fuzziness, but as a child I wanted, as all children do, absolutes and rules.

The more I read and re-read Dracula, the more the pictures and the words blended together. My experience of the book became cinematic, literally a moving picture show. And, no matter how often I read the story, I experienced the same overwhelming sense of dread as the narrative built to a climax. I would hypnotize myself with terror, becoming at times Jonathan Harker, Dr. Seward, or Mina Harker. I could feel the Count at my back, his fangs and claws dripping gore down my neck. I was a melodramatic kid, to say the least.

At some point Dracula was taken away from me. The official reason was that the book was a valuable collectable - but even parents without post-secondary education know a nut case in the making when they see one. To my eternal shame, I tried to recapture the magic and the fright by reading all of Baum’s Oz books. But Dorothy Gale is no Lucy Westenra, and talking trees just aren’t much of a scare once you’ve been held down in the sand and had a half-dead dogfish squished over your face.

After the Oz books, I spent five years wallowing in superhero comics, and then went on to read Stephen King’s anxiety-making masterpieces The Stand and The Shining, followed soon after by Harold Robbin’s The Lonely Lady, during which I experienced all new kinds of horrors.

I feel sorry for child readers today – their books are so timid and cheerful. Apart from the notable exception of the His Dark Materials series by Philip Pullman - a genius fantasist Christopher Hitchens has rightly called “the most dangerous author in Britain” - there’s not much out there designed to instil terrified wonder in a young mind.

Dread is a useful emotion, a feeling that should be learned, and mastered, at an early age. Like a vaccine, fictional dread inoculates you against the inevitable anxieties to come. Even in my most worried adult moments, I’ve never been as certain of my impending demise as I was sitting behind the couch with Dracula in my chubby hands and my mother’s rosary wound around my neck.