Experiencing Childhood Literature as an Adult(ish)

[Note: Sweet mother of god, this is a long entry. Still, stay with me…I think/hope it will be interesting.]

Yes, I watched the Lifetime movie adaptation of Flowers in the Attic this weekend. Don’t judge me. I can explain.

Reading Stephen King’s On Writing, I came across his suggestion to read terrible books along with the great ones to learn how to be a better writer. A title he mentioned specifically was Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. My older cousin read this when she was about 15, over a decade after the book was published. If you are female and read this book, this is about the age you read it. If you are male, ask your female friends/girlfriends/acquaintances. Trust me, the average age a girl read these books is 14-17…likely before they could realize what terrible, over dramatic, insipid books they were. (I can think of another wildly successful series in recent memory which fits this description). My cousin gushed about this book.

I was 12 or 13 and couldn’t have cared less. I grew up on Narnia, Xanth, The Hobbit, and (later) The Chronicles of Prydain. If if didn’t have elves, magic, or fantastic creatures, I wasn’t interested. Put a freakin faun, griffin, or glowing spherical bauble in that attic, and I was all yours. More on that later.

As an adult, the Dollanganger novels drew some interest because my interests had expanded and (mostly) because of Stephen King’s mention of them. I got a copy of Flowers in the Attic and couldn’t. It defeated me. Always happy to corrupt, my dear friend had an old audio book recording she forced on me. I listened to it.

It was terrible. Excruciating. Melodramatic. Poor ear for dialogue. And that’s being kind. Yet, it was interesting enough that I listened to all five books, and I learned tons about writing. They were just as bad, terrible, in fact, but…strangely interesting. The absolute best review I read compared these books to a bag of greasy potato chips: you know it’s bad for you, you know you shouldn’t, you know you’ll hate yourself later, but it’s just tasty enough to take that next handful. While listening to these books I was walking home and something happened in the second book which was so annoying, so out of character, so stupid, that I rolled my eyes involuntarily and hard enough to give myself a pounding headache. (For those poor initiated few, it was Cathy’s reaction at the end of Petals on the [Goddammed] Wind to a certain funeral. Bitch spent the whole book getting revenge only to suddenly experience remorse and love and throw herself on the coffin and shriek, “I love you!” Lying whore. Go sleep with your mama’s husband again.)

Anyway, the mini series for Flowers in the Attic was much more like the book than the 1987 version, even to the grandmother’s moments of softness and overzealous punishments. Someone read the 5th book, poor saps. Ellen Burstyn, of course, was amazing in a melodramatic way. Essentially, she was perfect for the part.

Do I recommend reading these books? No. Not at all. They are interesting enough to get your attention, but you will feel dirty at the end of them. Not because of the content, but because you actually read that shit. You keep reading/listening because it’s such a train wreck. It’s like a sick dramatic version of those lovely SyFy movies — Sharktopus, Mongolian Death Worm, Sharknado, et. al. Or, like a bag of greasy chips. But, if you want to learn about bad, over dramatic writing, try reading the first one, Flowers in the Attic. Mr. King wasn’t lying. It will teach you more than you could learn in an entire semester of creative writing courses.

The mini series was, for a lot of people, living out that shamed corner of their childhoods. For me, it was goddamned funny. They are making the next book into a Lifetime movie, I heard. Next time, I’m drinking while watching it.

But that wasn’t the only movie I watched this weekend.

As a kid growing up in a very (very) religious household, by way of fantasy I was allowed only Grimm/Anderson’s fairy tales and Narnia. (If you have read previous posts, you may ask how my mother managed to fit Stephen King and serial killer novels into the acceptable list of books, but eliminate other fantasy. I think a certain book I was forced to read later will explain that: Fantasy was dangerous, apparently. It was the literary version of a sack of sweating TNT).

As an adult, having fallen far from those early days of forced religion, the Narnia books took on a layer of distaste for me. I felt like they were forcing religion down my throat — but by being sneaky about it.

When I was in my early teens I was forced into a living situation with someone who had been biding time, fearful for my immortal soul. I was forced to read a book called Turmoil in the Toybox. Essentially, it was about how every single toy and cartoon show from the 80s was nothing more than a thinly veiled attempt by pagans, New Agers, and Satan Himself to grasp at my soul.

Even as a very young, sheltered, naive, vulnerable, exceptionally wounded teenager, I recognized this book as pure, histrionic comedy. I was forced to read it and, in very serious book-club like weekly meetings, had to have hour-long discussions about the book and basically to listen to how all my beloved escapes and fantasies and cartoons were nothing more than evil. Thundercats, He-Man, Rainbow Brite, Care Bears, The Smurfs, etc. They were all evil, according to this book. They involved magic, skeletons back from the dead, sorcery, rainbows (a sign of New Age, which was supposedly a prettier version of Satanisim, packaged prettily for the impressionable young adult), etc. I think the only 80s toys that were acceptable were Popples. Remember them? Neither does anyone else. They were marsupial rabbit-things so boring that they couldn’t even offend the craziest of Christians. Remember the song by Clannad, Theme to Harry’s Game? Beautiful, calming, Celtic-ish music. Wonderful. I tried to play it for this person and it was immediately turned off. The verdict? New Age subliminal messaging to turn me away from God. Obviously, right?

I’m telling you, I was moments away from being locked in a closet to pray, just like Carrie White (but sadly lacking her telekinesis).

The only fantasy I could read — and only after having our book club meetings about all the religious symbolism within each — were the Narnia books. And read them I did. Oz books were out. Prydain? Never. Xanth? Only on the sly. The Hobbit? I would have had to go to my closet to pray. I was an avid reader, always above my peers, and reaching for something that could challenge me. Instead, I was handed other religious fiction (Yawnfest) and forced to rerread books it was time to still love yet grow away from. I started to hate Narnia. I grew to resent something I had once loved, to groan at the Biblical overtones, and to despise the obvious reaching for children’s minds.

Flash forward several years, and my views have softened. It’s good fantasy for the age group and beyond. Then this weekend, I finally sat down and watched Voyage of the Dawn Treader, which was somehow my favorite book of the series as a kid.

Perseverance of literature, my ass. Dignity be gone. I lost my shit.

All of Narnia up to that point (save one hamhanded line Aslan said about having a counterpart in Lucy’s world), was pure genius. As Lucy and Edmund (perfect casting for both, by the way) said goodbye to Narnia, I felt, even as an adult, a depth of sadness I couldn’t have expected or explained. I felt absolutely betrayed…by Aslan and by Narnia. I was bitter. Let me explain a little.

My reaction astounded me. But thinking the slightest bit about it, I realized that, like it or not, Narnia has shaped me, my reading habits, my interests, and my love of fantasy . Fauns, dryads, centaurs, I tend to feel incomplete without them. Watching Edmund and Lucy say goodbye was emotional, and I realized what I couldn’t have known during my childhood: I was turning to them with no other options — yet they were my sanctuary. They were my foundation. I was repelled by the Biblical messages in them because I was forced to acknowledge them and celebrate them above the fantasy and otherwise brilliant storytelling. But I was also (secretly) able to experience them on the level that they were just damned good stories. Regrettably, this was overshadowed by the pounding of the religious messages into my cranium.

I read the first three books over and over, and never read the last because I didn’t want Narnia to end. I loved those books. Experiencing them as an adult only clarified that, made its influences in my fantasy writing and ideas stand out, even to this day. Watching Lucy and Edmund say goodbye, as cheesy and melodramatic as it sounds, was like saying goodbye to the parts of my childhood which were both great and terrible. I felt like I could finally get rid of the bitterness.

I’m planning to reread them, to read The Last Battle for the first time ever, and to enjoy them for what they are — brilliant fantasy which began the shaping of my imagination.

I don’t plan to weave drunkenly down memory lane as often or as intensely as I did this weekend. But I think I can leave the bad parts behind.

Still, am I sick for wanting to pick up a copy of Turmoil in the Toybox, play old Thundercats and He-Man episodes in the background, and laugh until my stomach hurts?

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~ by Darren Endymion on January 20, 2014.

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