The things that scare us

Readers remember those moments in their reading adventures when they discovered foreshadowing and understood it in perhaps, The Scarlet Letter, or understood symbolism in, perhaps, Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat,” or felt that they were in on the satire of Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, the irony and tone of Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant.

But, what about the things that scare us – and I don’t mean fantastical creatures, like trolls, vampires, or zombies. I don’t mean terror and dread that, while they are the effects of horror, are more like a form of tension, because you, as reader, have already discerned it in the background. Is it the shock of discovery or the horror of discovery? Shock is Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” but terror and dread is reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” and knowing things are not what they seem, things are enigmatic, and at the end there is no resolution. Read Gilman and take your guesses at why she is there in that room with the yellow wallpaper. Read Jackson. The ending is not horror; it is shock. Gilman or Jackson? Each of their stories is under 5,000 words.

The power of literature is that in reading and upon re-reading the effect still resonates and is still evocative, probably deepens with lived experience, with intellectual awareness and development. But, what about the things that scare us – do they still scare us, when we return to them years later?

What is that scared you the first time? Was it reading Stephen King’s “The Boogeyman” or its antecedent, E.T. Hoffmann’s “The Sandman”? Was it reading Stephen King period? Or perhaps, you forgot Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily”?

I don’t find vampires scary. I don’t confuse horror with cruelty, which is somewhat voyeuristic and numbing to me. Cruelty is a phenomenon; it is consistent behavior and an expectation and it often involves relationships: children, spouses, coworkers. Cruelty of children? Read the anonymous Lazarillo de Tormes, or spend time with any of Dickens’s street urchins.  Spousal cruelty? Read Hawthorne’s underrated “Wakefield.” Coworkers? Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener” started it all. Horror is unexpected.

Unexpected as seeing the noir film genre come to an end in “Cape Fear,” when the ambiguity of noir films turns to true psychological horror.  Unexpected as when writers started to empathize with evil and create adventures in amorality. Patricia Highsmith and Ripley, anyone? Raymond Chandler had chastened James Cain for writing “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” because he had changed pulp fiction forever by writing from the criminal’s point of view. Dexter, or Lechter, anyone?

And the thing that scared me?

For me, it was The Adventures of Pinocchio. Do I hear a chuckle and bad jokes of ‘tell the truth…tell a lie’ because I’m not speaking about the Disney film, although the Snow Queen in the mirror did frighten me. I’m speaking of Carlo Collodi’s fantastical tale about the wooden puppet that wanted to be a boy. At least that part Disney got right, although they revised Collodi dramatically: they turned Geppetto is a nice geriatric patriarch, added a goldfish and a cat, a whale, and a talking cricket, ‘Jiminy.’ Collodi’s cricket talks but is nameless. Last time I checked, ‘Jiminy’ is not an Italian name. Collodi, had he lived, would have cursed Disney for what the studio had done to his Pinocchio.

There is not enough space to dilate on how profoundly influential Collodi was in developing the Italian language at a time when the nation was struggling to standardize Italian. Alessandro Manzoni, a Lombard, chose Florentine Italian for The Betrothed (I promessi sposi), and Giovanni Verga, a Sicilian, chose his island’s dialect for The House by the Medlar Tree (I Malavoglia). Collodi prevailed linguistically. Children in Italy sing ‘Carissimo Pinocchio’ around Christmas and there is even a television program of the story with Gina Lollobrigida as a maternal Blue Fairy, which is unlike what Collodi had intended.

That which scared me in Pinocchio’s tale was the Blue Fairy in all her appearances in The Adventures. In Collodi’s Italian she is ‘La Fata Turchina.’ Read the description of her:

“una bella bambina, coi capelli turchini e il viso bianco come un’immagine di cera, gli occhi chiusi e le mani incrociate sul petto.”

If you don’t know Italian I will simply explain without translating. She is a very ambiguous and unsettling figure. She is “white as a wax image,” keeps her eyes closed and has her arms crossed on her chest: there’s no doubt – she’s dead.

Children’s literature tends to be moralistic: teach a child ‘right and wrong’ and the virtues of good behavior. When Pinocchio doesn’t listen to the cricket’s advice he is chased by assassins and hung from a tree. When he refused to take his medicine, the dark mice come with a coffin.  All of this is very nice, if you want to scare your kid straight — but what’s with the Fairy?

She has more to do with the underworld and the otherworld than with parental approval. She is chthonic; she is scary; she is meant to be. She’s a phantom, a zombie; a child zombie. I would like to see her played by a snow-white Nicole Kidman, and Pinocchio done in the style of “The Others,” which, by the way, is Henry James’s novella “The Turn of the Screw,” if you didn’t know.

When Pinocchio comes back from his adventures and looks for the Fata Turchina, he finds her tomb. Actually, she’s always been dead. But, if we take Pinocchio as the story of a path to awareness, we understand why Pinocchio can see that she is dead: because now he is aware. And after he realizes this, he will be able to see her again, though he now knows she is dead.

There are a lot of characters in Pinocchio that are not only scary, but also unsettling and disquieting  (the Germans calls this ‘das Unheimliche’). This reinforces the interpretations that Pinocchio is mostly an initiation story, a mysterious metamorphosis intended for adults. Isn’t all children’s literature cloaked in simple language but intended for adults? The Grimm’s Brother’s tales, anyone? We should not forget that other “children’s tale,” Antoine de Saint Exupéry, Le petit prince. And if you are interested in the adult version of what happens to Pinocchio after his childhood then read Robert Coover‘s Pinocchio in Venice, in which he is an adult, a now retired professor in America, who returns home to die. Death for him means turning back into wood.

At first appearance The Adventures seems like a heroic quest: puppet wants to be a boy. In the end, Pinocchio becomes a boy. I felt then – as I feel now upon re-reading the tale — that my horror has deepened, because the puppet does achieve boyhood, at the expense of conformity; he became, as Alberto Manguel explains in his essay ‘How Pinocchio Learned to Read,’ a model citizen; and for me, all the more horrifying, because Pinocchio is “a good little boy who has learned to read, but Pinocchio never becomes a reader.”


About gabrielswharf

gabriel’s wharf is a blog on the random thoughts and writings of author Gabriel Valjan. His stories continue to appear online and in print journals. Winter Goose Publishing publishes his Roma Series.
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