We have been doing a series of throwback posts of our conversations with storytellers, artists, poets, academics. These posts are found in our Behind the Books website and are being shared here now in our new home. This essay written by Dr. Mitch Ong was posted back in February 2012.
As a child, Friday was the highlight of my week. Like all other children, it meant the end of the school week for me, and I could forget all of the books for at least one night. But more importantly, it was the day my favourite weekly horror comics came out, and it was also the day Twilight Zone came on in the evening.
I don’t think this was approved reading and TV programming for an elementary school student, but I devoured them hungrily, thrilled to settle down for a good scare. And though the two mediums produced very different sorts of scares (the komiks, being locally produced, took a lot of its monsters from local folklore, and The Twilight Zone was, well, The Twilight Zone), I loved them both dearly.
So, come closer, my dearies. Come closer to the fire. Draw your blankets around your shoulders and let me tell you some strange stories…
Love Poison Number 9
Is it strange to think about horror and the occult during the month of love? After all, love is personified by Venus, also the goddess of beauty. Her son Cupid, god of desire, is typically represented as an adorable, chubby boy armed with magical bow and arrow. Most of us forget that Cupid is borne of Venus’s love for Mars, the god of war. And so here we begin our little discussion about the mysterious, the dark, the beautiful and horrifying, the stomach-lurch-inducing: Love.
A few months ago I was fortunate enough to stumble upon the collection of Secrets of Sinister House in the public library. In bliss, I was transported to my childhood by the black and white illustrations done in the classic komiks style. Many of these horror stories are moral tales; we always find, in the end, some sinner punished– horribly, terrifyingly, with death or… (pause for effect) a fate worse than death! Interestingly, quite a number of the tales in the collection are of the gothic genre and put the spotlight on a woman and her love. If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, then women and their loves make for great horror material. We are probably familiar with stories about love betrayed come back to haunt the betrayer; exact vengeance, even. There are also those ghost love stories about eternal love, ever loyal and giving, willing to sacrifice.
Love and fear are twins, essentially made of the same stuff, and come to life together (or at least, closely after one another). We do not understand love fully without encountering fear— fear of loss, of death, betrayal, of not being enough, of being given what we actually deserve. We yearn for love, and are afraid we’d never find it. When we have it we’re afraid we’ll lose it. Fear is love’s grotesque siamese twin, growing out of its side, ever near, whispering bitter doubts while love whispers sweet nothings. Perhaps love and fear are tied together so closely because they feel so similar— the sweaty palms, the goosebumps, the wildly beating heart, the not-knowing-what-to-do-with-yourself feeling, the feeling that something you’ve never encountered before is coming, and will devour your entire being. Also, they both make you want to throw up.
But love is also magic, it is phenomenal, it is the power behind creation, that which makes the impossible, possible. It is strange as it comes in so many forms, something unique to the individuals involved. It is magical as it defies
definition, measurement and explanation; and perhaps most of us prefer to perceive it that way— our own special means of travelling to heaven and then hell all within the span of time it takes to open and read that innocuous-looking text message telling us “let’s jst b frends”.
For a love that’s lasting and true, some people call on the powers of the occult, believing in those who purport to create love where there is none, distill it from mysterious elements and pour it into a bottle. I’m not one to make judgements (all’s fair between Venus and Mars, yes?), just warnings. Be careful where you get your love potions. You really don’t want to end up like the young man who bought Love Poison Number 9. It allowed him to steal his best friend’s great love; but when she died in a tragic accident, he had no idea she would come back, dead and all, to give him all the loving he needed for the rest of his life.
Apparently, he hadn’t read the fine print; it said, “For love that even death cannot part.”
The Remarkable Transmogrification of Billy
Most children do not like being children. I remember the feeling very well. Despite (or perhaps because of) the occasional indulgences allowed us by adults, we are all too aware of our powerlessness– too many people telling us too many times about the very many things we can’t do, as well as the long list of things that we should. “Just you wait until I grow up!” we say behind their backs, shaking our little fists at them. And yet, at the cusp of puberty, while undergoing the fearful transformation into adulthood, we flounder and flail, and sometimes wonder, is there a way to turn back into who/what we were before?
Turning into an adult is about as scary and magical as turning into a frog, ugly skin included. The body is rapidly changing into something with long limbs we are learning to control competently; we move as if through muck, with as much poise and grace as any frog has.
Unfortunately, it is not just our looks we have to contend with. We have to deal with the responsibility that comes with turning into adults— love and heartaches, sex and STDs, paychecks and bills. Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s Mirror Mask chronicles a young girl’s brief, fantastical journey to find herself, and Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked this Way Comes provides us a darker look into two young boys’ encounter with growing up, responsibility, and an evil carnival run by a soul-sucking Mr. Dark.
In both books, a lot of the action takes place in a carnival, or carnivalesque space, and perhaps that’s not such an odd analogy for life during adolescence— lots of greasy, salty food, lots of looking at yourself in the mirror, taking risky rides, and meeting all kinds of freaks and weirdos (what did your momma tell you about men with tatoos?). Both books end happily enough, and the young girl and the two boys escape largely unscathed, though slightly changed– which is how most of us who go through adolescence end up.
Except for poor Billy. Tsk, tsk, tsk.
The Man in Apartment 126
– where we learn that monsters are people, too. (Or is it, people are monsters, too? I’m not sure.)
“People are strange when you’re a stranger, faces look ugly when you’re alone,” so goes a song by The Doors. Having lived in cities all my life I am all too familiar with the strangeness of people. Huge volumes of people rush past my field of vision (obscuring it!) as I stand waiting for the right bus to come at the same time and location everyday, and yet never once see a familiar face. In the heat of a new day, the smoke and dust from thousands of vehicles assaulting our eyes and noses, teeth are bared, growls escape from our throats as words, elbows, knees and feet are employed as weapons in the battle for space in a bus crammed to past its manufacturer-dictated capacity. In the apartment building where I live, next door is a man who screams at his son, who cries horribly. On the pedestrian bridge near the university, an old lady and a little boy sit by the dirty, concrete steps which they’ve covered with some old newspapers, a tin can at their feet. Well-dressed people walk past, not even sparing them a look, let alone change.
Monsters, people. People, monsters. What’s the diff?
If you need to know more about the monsters, ghouls and ghosts that haunt and hunt us, here are a few good reads. Catherine Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture” tells us the story behind one of the worst, and creepiest of all the villains from the fairytales of our childhood. This is a particularly delicious story that brings out the bitter in love, and makes you wonder who the villain(s) really is(are). I won’t tell you who it is, because I want you to enjoy this brilliant story yourself, but it’s not the Big Bad Wolf. So let me tell you about other stories instead.
Bruhahahaha, Bruhihihi by Corazon Remigio is about children trying to figure out who, or what, exactly, the suspiciously witchy old lady next door is. Meanwhile, in Monster Mess (by Margery Cuyler and illustrated by S.D. Schindler) we meet an entirely different sort of monster— one who cleans your room!
Oh, and the Man in 126? He’s a pussycat. An absolute darling, if you can ignore the horns and the fangs.
Many other writers have written about the value of the horror genre— how it allows us to explore the dark side of humanity, to confront the evil in and around us. So I’ll write about something else.
No matter how un-putdownable a book may be, the fact is you CAN put it down. That is comforting when you are reading something disturbing. That makes the experience of fear and dread tolerable, and even pleasurable– because it’s all under your control. You can take it in small doses, or gobble it down greedily, pushing on through sleepiness, hunger, and aching neck through to dawn to come to a satisfying end. None of us, in real life, have that kind of power over every fearful thing we come across– we can’t postpone puberty, we can’t make our demanding bosses wait indefinitely, we can’t stop someone falling out of love. Disasters happen; they happen to all of us, but at least with books we can decide when to face them. This little exercise of control, the bit of bravery and success we experience when reading these books, I think, affords us some measure of hope for dealing with the impossible, some courage to confront the bizarre, and some strength to face the disturbing in real life.
So until next time, my dearies, try to keep the monsters under your bed well-fed, the creepy clown in the carnival out of your head, and the white lady stumbling after you laying a hand on your shoulder. *wild cackle*
Michelle Ong has just obtained her Ph.D at the University of Auckland. She has been teaching at the University of the Philippines for over 10 years, and has worked together with many organizations within and outside of the Philippines for children. Mitch is mother to Rio, who, to her delight, loves books. One of the first books Rio was ever read is Olivia Saves the Circus, by Ian Falconer, and it remains a favorite to this day. Someday, she’d like to open a library for children.