To the untidy end
When I was a kid, I often stayed in my grandparents’ manor house in England. It was a musty, falling-down place, lacking mains water or electricity. A shambles of soft floors and collapsing ceilings, of drafty corridors and mildew, of sooty chimneys, spiders, spook and shadow. I adored it.
Almost all my formative memories are of that house and its rambling, uncontrollable briar of a garden.
Me, yes me, who shrieks at a cockroach in my plastic-coated Tokyo house, grew up in thrall of those cobweb-draped, moldering halls. Under every stone was a treasure of beetles and woodlice. Behind every wooden panel and boarded-up chimney something fluttering and alive. I was a grub in the earth and I didn’t care.
Somehow I dealt with the lack of clean water. I don’t remember ever taking a bath. Somehow I made do with a gravity privy that was positioned at the top of a little windswept tower on one side of the house. You had to climb a winding, unlit staircase to reach it. Somehow I survived the winter chill that seemed to have bedded into the manor’s half-meter thick pebble-dashed walls and crawled out on midnight rummages, looking for humans to freeze.
Dealt? Made do? Survived? No, I loved the place. And best of all, I loved the little curtainless bedroom at the end of the passage on the top floor, past a wind-rattling rank of locked doors and boarded-up rooms.
Here was the bed I chose to sleep in, with a view over the tacked-on scullery roof to the ramshackle gardens beyond, and one wall full of shelves of moldering books and magazines.
It is here I learned to be defiant of anything that stank of the supernatural. Enough went bump in the night in that creaky, scurrying, owl-haunted house for it to cease to have any power to frighten me. I was utterly prepared to shout “Boo!” back at any ghost that dared infiltrate my room.
In fact, I left my door wide open on the black corridor to invite them in, but they resolutely refused to bother me.
I’ve never had any truck with the spirit world since. And I’ve never been afraid of the dark.
Most of the books and magazines on the shelves in that library were from the 1930s and earlier. I grew up reading them — from beautifully gothic Rupert The Bear adventures (I thought The Old Man Of The Sea particularly evocative) to Meccano magazine with its powdery illustrations of how the future was supposed to look, forged of powerful machines.
It was here I devoured the ‘classic’ pre-1900 English children’s literature, and met the Victorian and Edwardian horror writers. “Dearth’s Farm” by Gerald Bullett and “The Voice In The Night” by William Hope Hodgson were my favorite candlelight reading.
I was, though I wouldn’t have known it so early, sowing the seeds for a lifetime’s obsession with rationalized scientific horror of the type I now write.
Of all the books my grandparents owned, the one I returned to most was a small, fat, bright red volume of Greek myths by Nathaniel Hawthorne, which I’m certain was called A Wonder-Book For Girls And Boys though it seems also to have included some or all of the stories in Tanglewood Tales, without any of the introductions or frame story for either.
Once, when I had a bad fever, my grandmother brought it to my bed to keep me company. I vividly remember poring over the pages in a delirium of sweat and imagery.
The book was literally falling apart. The pages were brown, crumbly at the edges, and several leaves were missing. It was full of stodgy, nannying prose. But I devoured it cover to cover, and longed for those missing pages.
I can picture the edition precisely in my mind, but I have never seen it online. Since the stories are now in public domain, innumerable other versions are available, though quality new printings have ceased.
One story in Wonder-Book affected me more deeply than any of the others. This was “The Dragon’s Teeth,” Hawthorne’s retelling of the myth of Cadmus and Europa.
Partly, I guess, it was because pasted in the book was a solitary monochrome plate, a thing of swooning Victorian sentiment that depicted the maiden Europa in her foaming dress, draping garlands around the neck of the beautiful white bull that has appeared on her Arcadian beach.
Later, just out of frame, she will climb on the animal’s back and be carried into the waves.
I think I associated this painting, right from the start, with the loss of innocence that, for me at least, was still years in the future. In other words, you didn’t have to understand sexual symbolism to understand that a virgin with a bull (even if you don’t know what ‘virgin’ means) suggests that something significant is taking place – perhaps triumphant, certainly irrevocable.
As a sickly kid with a fever, this was potent stuff. What made “The Dragon’s Teeth” so important, though, was the rest of this story. Europa’s abduction is the last we hear of her. Hawthorne casts her out of his narrative. Gone and goodbye.
Instead the story focuses on the attempts by her brothers and mother to find her. They never do. One by one they grow weary and old and give up the quest. Eventually even her beloved brother Cadmus, now an exhausted and elderly man, abandons her to start his own life.
There’s no happy ending. There’s no ending at all.
This had never happened before, in any of the other stories I’d read. The first thing you learn, as a child encountering literature, is that every tale has a neat and tidy structure. No action is without its purpose, and no character leaves the narrative without having undergone a learning transformation.
Certainly, in any competent novel, no character simply vanishes from the plot and is never heard of again.
In reality, of course, this happens all the time. Loose ends are our normal experience of life.
“The Dragon’s Teeth” opened the door on a world of possibilities that have rarely been acknowledged – and absolutely never explored in successful literature. From my earliest days writing my own stories, I tried to emulate it.
Of course, I soon learned that you don’t get good grades unless you follow the set formula. This is the set formula: there’s a hero, and he’s knocked down. But he gets up again and is the better for his experience. Almost all literature boils down to this, and just about every mainstream movie you’ve ever seen.
Arguably, you can boil “The Dragon’s Teeth” down to this formula, too, though it’s a particularly skewed example. Cadmus is devastated by the abduction of his sister, but eventually he learns to move past it, as all brothers must when their sister strikes out on her own and is virgin no more.
Still, any sensible work of fiction would have had redemption of a different kind, undoubtedly involving a tearful but triumphant reunion.
It’s only when you reach the end of the story that you realize just how devastating the opening scene was. Irrevocable loss is something you only recognize long after it’s happened. It washes through you, forever, like waves on an empty shore. Hawthorne has simply reframed death in a way that kids would understand.
No heaven. No afterlife. No ghost at the window. These are the lessons of “The Dragon’s Teeth.” For how marvelous must Europa’s future have been, that she would never once remember her childhood and her family and her home?