"One ought, every day at least, to hear a little song, read a good poem, see a fine picture
and, if possible, speak a few reasonable words." ~Goethe

~ also, if possible, to dwell in "a house where all's accustomed, ceremonious." ~Yeats

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Candy and Poison

My Victorian Lace House Ghost: Constance Chauncey

Halloween Haiku
Such little steps
In love of candy
Knocking at my door!

by student,
Patrick McDonough
Community College
of Philadelphia
Fall 1997

Sam's Post - Trick - or - Treat Inventory, 2002


[Okay, forgive me. Here's some literary criticism.]

In the Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, French critic Julia Kristeva says that apocalyptic laughter is neither jovial nor joyful: " . . . laughter bursts out, facing abjection, and always originating at the same source, of which Freud had caught a glimpse: the gushing forth of the unconscious the repressed, suppressed pleasure, be it sex or death" (Kristeva 205-06).

This is the kind of laughter in Margaret Atwood's collection of very short stories, Murder in the Dark. One of the opening sketches, "Horror Comics," describes the darkly humorous after-school activities of two twelve-year-old girls. For instance, they like taking comic books from drugstores and reading them on the way home, "dramatizing the different parts, in radio voices with sound effects to show we were above it." Or on winter nights they enjoy throwing snowballs at unsuspecting grownups, "being careful to miss, doubling up with laughter because they didn't even know they were being aimed at" (Atwood 13).*

When they accidentally hit a woman, they experience not the contrived horror of the lurid comic books but the true horror of abjection. Though they do not have the vocabulary to express what they have witnessed, the threatening glare of their angry victim does not escape them: "We ran away, shrieking with guilty laughter, and threw ourselves backwards into a snowbank around the corner, holding our stomachs. . . . But we were terrified. It was the look on her face, pure hatred, real after all" (Atwood 13). Theirs is the laughter of fear and abjection, neither "trustful, nor sublime, nor enraptured by preexisting harmony. It is bare, anguished, and as fascinated as it is frightened" (Kristeva 206).

Likewise, the hilarity in these unsettling stories is bare, anguished, fascinating. It turns out that life is not all Tom, Betty, and Susan after all. I wonder if Dick and Jane would ever make poison, like the brother and sister in Atwood's story about "Making Poison"? Even Atwood wonders:

"Why did we make the poison in the first place? I can remember the glee with which we stirred and added, the sense of magic and accomplishment. Making poison is as much fun as making a cake. People like to make poison. If you don't understand this you will never understand anything" (Atwood 10).

[Now, was that so bad?]

*A similar passage appears in Julie Myerson's book Home: The Story of Everyone Who Ever Lived in Our House (see my post "Our Island Home"). Myerson recalls "The Ghost Club":

"We used to creep up on suspicious - looking people,
anyone we didn't like the look of."

"And then?"

"And then report back. We had meetings -- with biscuits.
We made badges." (148)

Myerson doesn't mention making any poison . . . but . . . same idea!

Next post will be on Saturday, November 14th
Between now and then, be sure to read
my shorter, almost daily blog posts on

(more Margaret Atwood, Bill Bryson, Halloween, etc.)


Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Tom, Betty & Susan In The Autumn


From My Little Blue Story Book, 1953
It's that neighborhood time of year again, as anyone who was raised on Little Red, Blue, and Green Story Books can tell you. For some it may have been Dick, Jane, and Sally; for others it was Tom, Betty, and Susan. You know who I mean! And you know who you are! Can we ever really forget that mesmerizing presentation of the post - World War II American Dream?

Trick - or - treating, picking apples, raking leaves: our little reading group pals did all these things in a safe, orderly autumnal world. Every autumn it seems that our neighborhood becomes a page right out of those nostalgic Little Books, complete with big old trees, sidewalks, harvest - time flower beds, and pumpkins on the porches. Remember how it was nearly always fall in those stories? Certainly never winter, rarely spring or summer.

When I started first grade back in 1963 (at the romantically named "Eugene Field Elementary"), the school was in the process of upgrading from the 1940s reading series to the newly published 1960s imprints. Already absurdly nostalgic at the age of 6, I somehow discovered the old worn out books from 1948, '53, and '57 -- lying unused on a dusty classroom shelf. I was irresistibly drawn to these old old copies and wanted nothing to do with the new series. However magical the updated editions were, the older books were even more so! I relentlessly implored my teacher to let me use them instead of the newer set. Sensing their artistic appeal to a little girl's imagination, she kindly rescued an entire set from the discard pile just for me.

Oh how I loved those images and that glimpse into the perfect life. What I admired most about Mother was her set of glass (we always had plastic or aluminum) mixing bowls, one in each color: green, yellow, blue, red! Wow! Where did she get those? I always wondered what was wrong with our family that we didn't measure up to those flawless Americans. Betty and Susan always had matching coats and dresses, sweater sets, or a new set of play clothes, whereas we were always wearing hand me down corduroys from our cousins. It was like Robert Frost and the Garden of Eden and Norman Rockwell all rolled into one, except that I was standing just outside the bubble. I was envious but incredibly intrigued.

How could I ever get inside? I would need a mother who didn't go out to work and a father who wore a hat!

Ah well.

Now, of course, no one uses the hopelessly simplistic and outdated "Readers" any more (though collectors can find used copies on the web). Still, a trace of those good old days lingers whenever Halloween rolls around, with plenty of unique costumes, trick - or - treating and all the whimsical trappings your heart desires -- pumpkin soap by the kitchen sink and little pumpkin candles in the window sills, miniature candies, stickers, cookie cutters, spider webs, jack - o - lanterns, even orange twinkle lights! Dick, Jane, and Sally may have gone down in history; yet the ghosts of Tom, Betty, and Susan come each year on the autumn wind to walk home after school and play in the leaves along the way.


All Illustrations by Ruth Steed
Bowls, Towels, Blue Car & Pumpkin Stand, above
from My Little Green Story Book, 1957

See also: "Dick, Jane & Bill (Bryson)"