Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Best Cure for Insomnia

I will always love this poem because it served as a tonic for me when I was going through a bad patch of insomnia last year. I strongly suggest putting this to memory so that if you're ever in need, you can let it rock you to sleep.

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod by Eugene Field

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
Sailed off in a wooden shoe—
Sailed on a river of crystal light,
Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring fish
That live in this beautiful sea;
Nets of silver and gold have we!”
Said Wynken,
And Nod.
The old moon laughed and sang a song,
As they rocked in the wooden shoe,
And the wind that sped them all night long
Ruffled the waves of dew.
The little stars were the herring fish
That lived in that beautiful sea—
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish—
Never afeard are we”;
So cried the stars to the fishermen three:
And Nod.
All night long their nets they threw
To the stars in the twinkling foam—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
Bringing the fishermen home;
’T was all so pretty a sail it seemed
As if it could not be,
And some folks thought ’t was a dream they’d dreamed
Of sailing that beautiful sea—
But I shall name you the fishermen three:
And Nod.
Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
Is a wee one’s trundle-bed.
So shut your eyes while mother sings
Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
As you rock in the misty sea,
Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:
and Nod.

General Uncanny Ugliness and Horror and Pain: A Look at The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

"The story had held us, round the fire, sufficiently breathless, but except for the obvious remark that it was gruesome, as on Christmas Eve in an old house a strange tale should essentially be, I remember no comment uttered till somebody happened to note it as the only case he had met in which such a visitation had fallen on a child....'If the child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children?' 'We say of course,' somebody exclaimed, 'that two children give two turns! Also that we want to hear about them.'" -Henry James, The Turn of the Screw

What is about creepy children that makes them so disturbing to adults? Of course, anything creepy has the potential to be disturbing, but creepy children especially seem to have their own special power. This power has made them a recurring motiff in popular culture and imagination. They run rampant in many classic horror movies (Village of the Damned, The Omen, and The Exorcist being just to mention a few). Children belong to another world in a way, and since every adult was once a child, they can observe and vaguely remember this world without really being able understand it anymore. At least not in the same way. Also many adults prefer to view children as innocent creatures, blissfully unaware of the evil that goes on in the world, and a buffer between them and it. When this buffer disappears and children become part of that evil, it implies the world's balance is basically shot. But it's often forgotten how vulnerable children are. They live at the mercy of adults and consequently they see and experience very adult things whether they mean to or not. It's this reality that lies at the center of Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, one of the best ghost stories of all time and the mackdaddy of psychological horror.

Note: I don't give away the ending of The Turn of the Screw but I do reveal a good amount of the plot.

First published in 1898, James's novella begins with a group of guests gathered for Christmas holidays who pass the evenings telling ghost stories. One of them, a man named Douglas, produces an old manuscript and reads it aloud. It is the memoir of a young lady he once knew and tells of how she, as a 20-year-old parson's daughter, took a position (her first) as governess for two orphans living in a large, isolated manor house in the English countryside. Their guardian, having inherited them from his brother and sister-in-law who died in India, is too preoccupied with his swinging London bachelor lifestyle to take care of them himself. The job has its drawbacks--no company besides the kids, some servants, and a housekeeper; a strange rule that no matter what happens the governess must take care of it herself and not trouble the Uncle; and then there is the matter of the previous governess who died....but oh well! She takes the job, of course.

At first, everything goes swimmingly. The kids, Miles and Flora (ten and eight respectively), are angelic, well-behaved, beautiful children, even though Miles was just expelled from school for reasons unknown. Mrs. Grose, the housekeeper, is helpful and kind, if a little overly happy to see her. And the Uncle is so handsome and charming and seemed to like her so much during the interview. Surely, he'll come and visit once in awhile, even though he obviously wants nothing to do with the kids. Nothing to worry about. But then strange things start happening. Our heroine sees ghostly figures of a man and a woman around the grounds and notices peculiar, less than angelic behavior from the children. She starts wondering what it all means and what, if anything, she can do to stop it and save the kids. If it isn't too late.

What makes The Turn of the Screw so brilliant and such a fascinating read is its remarkable ambiguity. The heroine comes to believe the house is haunted by the spirits of the former governess, Miss Jessel, and the Uncle's former valet, Peter Quint, who had an illicit affair before both dying under mysterious circumstances. She also believes that the spirits are trying to possess the children and that the children are aware of the dark presence around them. Because of the way James structures the story, it's very possible that ghosts are haunting the house, but it's just as possible that our heroine is crazy. Her perspective skewers everything, making us question the truth at every turn, even as she's desperately confiding in us, assured of our belief. The book is a perfect example of how effective a first person narrator can be when used in a certain way.

Also fascinating is the air of unseemly sexuality that literally coats the whole book. I never like to accuse an author of intending a certain message with their work when I don't know it for a fact, but the book does make a very powerful statement about the repressed attitude towards sex in Victorian England. There is a palpable longing in Douglas's voice as he describes the young woman to his fellow guests before reading her story. He describes her interview with the Uncle as a "seduction exercised by the splendid young man. She succumbed to it." This sexual language continues throughout the story as the governess describes her impressions of the house, the ghosts, the Uncle, and even the kids, which led me (and many critics) to wonder "is the house really haunted or does she just need to get laid?" And then there's the passionate, probably sadomasochistic relationship between Miss Jessel and Peter Quint which may have extended to include the children. Whether or not their spirits are haunting the house, Quint and Jessel clearly left a strange mark on Miles and Flora. It's never revealed for certain what exactly the children saw or were forced to take part in, but the hints are more than enough to scare us. The governess's fascination with this leads to one of the book's most disturbing aspects. As Douglas warns his audience in the prologue, The Turn of the Screw is a sort of love story. But who is the governess in love with? The story never says so outright, leaving it entirely up to the reader and laying the foundation for something truly frightening. Or as Douglas calls it "beyond everything...for uncanny ugliness and horror and pain."

You've been warned. Once you read it, it won't go away.

P.S. The Turn of the Screw's been adapted many times in many different mediums. It's been turned into everything from an opera to a graphic novel to a Kate Bush song and of course, many, many movies. One of the best of these is The Innocents released in 1961. I loved The Innocents mainly because it managed to retain all the ambiguity of the book. At the end, I was just as confused and unsettled as I was at the end of the book. It also features great performances by Deborah Kerr as the governess and Martin Stephens and Pamela Franklin as Miles and Flora. The Innocents in turn inspired The Others starring Nicole Kidman (also worth checking out). Once you've read the book, I also highly recommend "Accursed Inhabitants of the House of Bly" by Joyce Carol Oates which retells the story from Jessel and Quint's point of view.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Hidden" Horror Movies; or Horror Movies Not Generally Considered Horror Movies

It's that time of year again. The time when brisk air, carved pumpkins, and costumed kids converge to create beloved Halloween. And with Halloween comes horror movies. Most of us know the classics whether we've seen them or not: Psycho, The Shining, The Exorcist, Scream, Halloween, Friday the 13th, Nightmare on Elm Street, et cetera, et cetera. The list goes on and on (as do the sequels in many cases). But everybody's talking about them this time of year, and so in honor of the holiday, I wanted to do something (I hope) a little unorthodox.

The aforementioned films have a monopoly on the "horror" label and deservedly so. They are a willy-giving bunch, but at least they're safely marked by their given genre. Below are my top six favorite "hidden" horror movies. You will not find these under a horror label, but in their way they are a scary lot. Note: I have not included any war movies or movies built around atrocities. I don't know anybody who was surprised by the horror of Schindler's List or Saving Private Ryan. Instead, these are movies with an eerie atmosphere despite being hidden under non-horror labels, that provide a frightening journey no matter the conclusion. I know these six are not the only hidden horror movies out there. There are many more that I know of. It should be noted that I first saw four of these six movies in childhood and these four are all officially considered "kids' movies." Whether that label is appropriate for all of them is debatable. However, I don't think this label prevents them from being scary movies as well. Maybe not hardcore horror, but frightening just the same. These are six movies I have seen many times and know very well. They are all favorites of mine and they all have a reputation for getting under my skin.

And so without further ado:

My Top Six "Hidden" Horror Movies

I'm going to try really hard not to include any spoilers, but read at your own risk.

1. Cabaret.

In my humble opinion, Bob Fosse's 1972 adaptation of the classic Broadway musical is chilling enough to rival any blood'n guts horror movie. Set in Germany in 1931, it revolves around the Kit Kat Klub, a seedy nightspot, and its performers and patrons. The movie lures you in with promises of good old-fashioned musical fun. Fun sex jokes! Liza Minnelli! A gorilla in a dress! What's not to love? What's there to scare the shit out you? Well, Germany in 1931. We see early on that the Nazi Party is beginning to make waves, but this isn't a war movie or even a "Nazis on the side" movie like The Sound of Music. The focus isn't on the Nazis' crimes but on their steady rise to power. We see them before the war and before their countless atrocities, when they were a vision of hope and promise to a Germany devastated by WWI and the Depression. The musical numbers in the Kit Kat Klub eerily reflect the political climate and the main characters' various reactions to it, all the while professing to be a refuge from the outside world. Watching over all is the sinister Master of Ceremonies (Joel Grey in an Oscar winning performance), a grinning enigma who recognizes the coming evil with a knowing wink as if it's a private joke for us. Ultimately, Cabaret is a meditation on the nature of escapism and how easily it can curdle into apathy. Very scary, indeed.

The Scariest Scene: Just over halfway through the film, we find ourselves at an outdoor cafe in the heart of the German countryside. People of all ages are talking, listening to music, and having fun. It's a pleasant, even familiar scene. Then an angelic-looking young man (blond hair, blue eyes, innocent face) gets up and starts singing a lovely song about the glory of the Fatherland with the refrain "Tomorrow Belongs to Me." At first, the camera stays fixed on his face and on a few faces in the audience, all listening intently, before panning down and revealing the boy's uniform and swastika armband. As the song continues, people in the audience stand up one by one and passionately join in, until almost everyone in the cafe is singing, except for an old man who wants nothing to do with it. Relying on our knowledge of what lies ahead, the scene paints a chilling picture of the seductiveness of evil. Because it's such a rousing, beautiful song and because the scene is filmed with such intensity, I always feel compelled to sing along. Terrifying.

2. Pinocchio

I know that Disney is generally considered a far cry from what most people think of as "horror," but for many kids (myself included) they are some of the first movies we see, and so they are some of the first movies to scare us. This has a psychological effect that doesn't fade easily. Pinocchio and the other animated Disney movie on this list (I restricted myself to two) both scared me more as a child than The Exorcist scared me as an adult.

Released in 1940, Pinocchio was Disney's second full-length animated movie. Based on Carlo Collodi's 1883 cautionary tale of a wooden puppet's quest to become a real boy, I think it's their best animated product to date. In addition to breathtaking artwork, an excellent voice cast, beautiful music, and a truly touching story, there's a distinct darkness to Pinocchio, far from anything Disney produces nowadays. Over the course of the episodic story, the titular hero ventures from one character/situation to another. And because he's a day old block of wood, he has a bad habit of falling in with the wrong people. This leads to the stuff of nightmares (I can vouch) including a crazed puppet-master, a terrifying carnival, a whale named Monstro (Monstro!) and the scariest close-up of my childhood. None of these villains are defeated by the way; they are merely escaped. Though Pinocchio gets his happy ending, the world remains an unsafe place.

The Scariest Scene: Pinocchio thinks he's in for the time of his life at Pleasure Island, a so-called "happy land of carefree boys," with no school, no parents, no rules, and nothing to do but be bad and have fun. It's a politically incorrect extravaganza complete with free cigars, free beer and one of the most frightening atmospheres I have ever seen on film. You know right away something's not right with this place and before long, you and Pinocchio get a disturbing wake-up call. It's nighttime and all the other boys have mysteriously disappeared, leaving Pinocchio alone in a pool hall with his new friend Lampwick, a tough guy who's taken him under his wing. Elsewhere in the park a spurned Jiminy Cricket looks on as the demonic Coachman loads donkeys into crates headed for the salt mines and the circus. These donkeys are none other than the bad boys transformed. Back at the pool hall, Lampwick jokes with Pinocchio as his transformation begins. First Lampwick grows ears, then a tail, and finally, his head changes to a donkey's. Lampwick starts panicking and begs a terrified Pinocchio for help but it's too late. In silhouette, the transformation completes itself and Lampwick, once a know-it-all tough guy, disappears into donkeyskin, screaming for his mother. And before Pinocchio can catch his breath, he sprouts a pair of donkey ears.

3. Return to Oz

The 80's was really a wild card decade for kids' movies. We got such dark, experimental fair like The Black Cauldron, Labyrinth, and their comrades that nowadays it's hard to believe what got past the censors. This 1985 unofficial sequel to The Wizard of Oz (made by Disney, believe it or not) offers a dark, depressing, downright frightening view of the Oz we thought we all knew so well. Based on the second and third books in L. Frank Baum's series, the movie finds Dorothy back home in Kansas, suffering from insomnia brought on by worry about those she left behind in Oz. Talk about never being satsified. It should be noted that this movie follows the books in that Oz is a very real place, not a dream world. Dorothy must contend with quack head-doctors, a mental asylum where cries of the damned echo through the corridors, and even a near brush with electro-shock therapy. And all this before she gets to Oz. And when she does reach Oz, it's a sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. The yellow brick road is in pieces, everybody in Emerald City has been turned to stone including the Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow is nowhere to be found. Being the badass she is, Dorothy sets out to discover what the hell's going on, rescue the Scarecrow, reclaim the ruby slippers, and basically set the world to rights. Along the way, we get a witch who collects the heads of young maidens and switches several times a day, a pumpkin-headed creature who I am sure laid the foundation for Jack Skellington, scary faces floating from rock to rock and a king voiced by Nicol Williamson! Clearly, the Oz of our childhood lies in shambles and we have to clean up the psychological residue.

The Scariest Scene: The Wheelers. The freaking Wheelers. Men with wheels for hands and feet who burst out of nowhere in the Emerald City courtyard, laughing manically, with nothing but the worst intentions for our heroine. Turns out, they're lackeys for a higher power--latter day flying monkeys if you will--but that doesn't make their first appearance any less terrifying. It's especially effective because the scene starts out with Dorothy in the silent courtyard. Then, from out of nowhere, a creaking wheel...and a hint of something dashing out of sight behind a column. That's all it takes to make the scene scary. But sure enough, there's more.

4. They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

This movie is the cinematic equivalent of being kicked in the stomach. Based on Horace McCoy's 1935 novel, it follows a number of very different characters as they participate in a dance marathon. Dance marathons were a real phenonemon during the Great Depression. Contestants would dance for as long as possible, breaking only for ten minute "naps" every few hours. In return, they were fed and taken care of (so to speak) and provided entertainment for a live audience. The last couple left standing won a huge cash reward. Some went on for months. McCoy's novel is a depressing read, so much so they couldn't film it in the already depressed 1930's. They had to wait until 1969. At the center of the film is the friendship between a pair of Hollywood hopefuls, gentle Robert (Michael Sarrazin) and cynical Gloria (Jane Fonda), though it's a relationship that proves to be as destructive as it is tender. The marathon has a kind of purgatorial feel to it. The characters all want something, whether money or food or recognition, and they all think the marathon holds the key to getting it. But the emcee Rocky (Gig Young in an Oscar winning performance--anybody noticing a trend here?) knows better. Worst of all, like Cabaret, this movie implicates you. You can't sneer at the goggly-eyed audience watching the spectacle without realizing you're one of them.

The Scariest Scene: The exhausted contestants are forced to don track suits and run around the race track for ten minutes straight in what is known as the derby. At the race's end, the last three couples will be out. Shot in real time, the scene is physically and emotionally painful to watch especially when you remember that every contestant is there willingly and desperate enough to submit to this humiliating brand of torture. Most frightening of all are the close-ups of the contestants' faces after the derby is over, ranging from relief to hysterical crying to sheer terror, as the crowd cheers all around them. The reality show will be premiering any day now.

5. Watership Down

This 1978 adaptation of Richard Adams's modern classic is one of those unfortunate films that gets dismissed as a "kiddie movie" simply because it's animated. But anything that begins with a stark creation myth featuring slaughtered bunnies and "the Black Rabbit of Death" ain't for the kindergarten set. I received it at the age of ten as a replacement for The Velveteen Rabbit. My father's reasoning: "Well, this is about rabbits too. You'll probably like it." Thing is, it's about rabbits killing each other. The fun begins when one of the rabbits living in a seemingly peaceful warren has a vision of a "bad danger coming." The few rabbits that believe him flee from their home in search of a new place to live. Along the way, they encounter all sorts of dangers, some from other rabbits, some from other dangerous animals, and some from the ever-reliable Man. The animation is great and the voice cast is one of the best ever assembled (including some of the best actors of the 20th century: John Hurt, Richard Briers, Denholm Elliot, and Nigel Hawthorne to mention a few) but it holds nothing back. It's one of the most violent films I've ever seen, animated or otherwise, and it tells a serious, even bleak, story. And yet every time I see it in Barnes and Noble's, it's in with the kid's movies. I guess kids need their serious, bleak stories too.

Scariest Scene: During their journey, the rabbits encounter an officer from their old warren, badly bruised and terror-striken. Sure enough, the bad danger came and sure enough, it was Man building on the land. What follows is a horrifying recreation of the destruction of their warren. Despite or perhaps because of the surreal animation, the scene is all-too realistic. Most of my Watership Down scars have healed since I first saw it, but this is the one scene I still can't watch.

6. Dumbo

This movie more than any other makes me wonder how Disney became synonymous with dumbed-down, sugar-coated kiddie faire. It's a devastating misnomer considering how dark the early movies are. Released in 1941, Dumbo runs a tidy 63 minutes and for the first 53, it's downright nihilistic. Life is shit. Worse, life is a shitty circus. You may be the cutest, sweetest creature ever born (or drawn in this case) but if there's something a little different about you, you will ridiculed and abused by everyone around you. Only your mother will love and care for you, but she will be taken away and locked up for trying to protect you from the cruel circus patrons (damn you, Baby Mine). After she is gone, you will be disowned by everybody you know and forced to work with scary, drunken clowns who don't care about your well-being at all.

The animation in Dumbo draws heavily from German expressionism (as did Cabaret, appropriately) where reality is distorted and exaggerated to convey internal angst. One of the most impressive and unsettling shots in the movie shows the construction of the Big Top from the perspective of the center pole, creating the sense that this giant dark shadow is consuming the world. It's really no wonder I grew up thinking of the circus as the gateway to hell. Most of the human characters are caricatured or seen only in silhouette and most of the animals are much larger than little Dumbo, emphasizing how alone he is for most of the movie. Thank goodness for Timothy Q. Mouse, (Edward Brophy in an Oscar winning performance--sorry, just kidding. Couldn't resist.) his one and only friend. Thank goodness for those last ten minutes. Dumbo is a character who truly earns his happy ending. His victory is joyful, but it follows a hell of a journey. Like Pinocchio, no villains are defeated. There aren't even any real villains. Life itself is the villain. A shitty circus of a villain. Thanks Disney.

The Scariest Scene: How do you think this would go over in modern day Hollywood? Imagine a storyboarder brainstorming. Okay, what if the clowns spilled some alcohol in Dumbo's water bucket and he and the mouse drank it all? What if they got so drunk that they actually started hallucinating? Hallucinating what? Big, pink, terrifying elephants without eyes, of course! Yeah, that would go over great. The Pink Elephants on Parade scene is the definition of random, obviously born of a desire to show off some awesome animation. It does cause Dumbo to fly for the very first time (not that he can remember it the next morning) but holy cow! That monster made up of elephant heads? Craziness. I couldn't watch it all the way through until I was 12. It makes me regress faster than you can say the two times table. The fitting climax of an hour long nightmare.

And that my dears, is all there is. There isn't anymore. Till we meet again.

Monday, October 19, 2009

The Kind That Likes to Grow Up: A Look at Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

"All children, except one, grow up. They soon know that they will grow up, and the way Wendy knew was this. One day when she was two years old she was playing in a garden, and she plucked another flower and ran with it to her mother. I suppose she must have looked rather delightful, for Mrs. Darling put her hand to her heart and cried, 'Oh, why can't you remain like this forever!' This was all that passed between them on the subject, but henceforth Wendy knew that she must grow up. You always know after you are two. Two is the beginning of the end." -J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan, Chapter One: Peter Breaks Through

There's nothing like a pornographic excursion to really clear the senses. Last week, I read Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls after years (literally years) of anticipation. I had been intrigued since I first heard the premise: the heroines of Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, and Peter Pan meet as grown women in a Swiss hotel on the brink of WWI and swap the stories of their childhoods, in particular the stories of their sexuality. Only instead of the familiar Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland of yore, we in the audience bear witness to three very different sexual awakenings all starring the beloved icons of these classic tales. A friend and I searched for this graphic novel (i.e. comic book) in all manner of strange places since the on-line prices were always too expensive and no stores seemed to carry it. Before finally finding it at Barnes and Noble, the only place I had seen it for sale had been in the NYC Museum of Sex where I had a very strange encounter with a very sweet boy who very awkwardly tried to strike up a conversation about it. But I can barely talk to a boy in a neutral setting, let alone one where I am holding a huge book of porn in both hands. So I didn't get a good look at him or the book. Finally, last week, I got it thanks to a trusty gift card and an understanding (or oblivious) check out girl. I had been warned that this wasn't light erotica I was venturing into. No "and then his hand fell on my breast and we succumbed to the sweetness of Cupid's love juice." No, they told me, this was porn, plain and simple. Hardcore. "Ah," I said scoffing, "but I am sophisticated and wise now. I have been at college. I have gone to dances where boys ran around wearing nothing but condoms and duct tape. I can take anything."

Silly little green girl.

I flew through the massive tome once in a frenzy and then went back to the beginning and flew through it again. I have to admit I didn't pay much attention to the bookending story at first, though it became clear almost immediately that our three heroines swapped plenty of fluids in addition to their stories; I was more interested in what had been done to the source material. Probably the scariest thing about the book is how much sense each of the retellings makes. As someone who sometimes prefers reading the same books over and over to reading new ones, I'm very drawn to how old stories can be retold, particularly how fantasy works as allegory for real life and how easily fantasy elements can be transformed into realistic elements without losing their magical qualities. I don't want to give away too much for the uninitiated reader, but perhaps it takes only a dirty mind and/or a brave imagination to guess how these new age fairy tales were transformed into pornographic coming of age stories. It soon made perfect sense to me that the stories of Wonderland, Oz, and Neverland could have resulted from the traumatic experiences of these women as a way to make sense of their lives, not the other way around. And considering I read Lost Girls a week ago and have known the three books that inspired it all my life, that should say something about the psychological punch it's capable of.

But believe it or not, I didn't actually intend for this entry to be about Lost Girls, even though it is what inspired me to write it. No, it's really about Peter Pan. I've wanted to write about Peter Pan for awhile. It's my favorite book. I feel a little bad admitting it because there are so many books I love but it's the truth. Every now and then I find a new book that I think has usurped its place in my heart, but the feeling never lasts long. Peter Pan is one of the books I've marked my life by. I had read bits through out my childhood, but didn't read it seriously or all the way through until I was twelve. The best books change the world in little subtle ways only you can see. After reading it, my world became a little sadder, a little sweeter, and a much fuller, richer place, all because suddenly this book existed in it and it had found me. I've read it countless times since. It's the book I turn to when I'm lonely, when I'm sad, when I can't sleep, when I need to laugh, when I need to cry, when I need to feel like a kid again, and when I need to be reminded why I had to grow up. Every time I read it I notice something different and learn something new. It grows with me without ever changing.

I doubt I need to summarize it, but you can never tell who the rock has hidden lately. Spoiler warning. Peter Pan is a boy who refuses to grow up. He lives in a world called Never Neverland made up of the dreams, desires, and fears of children everywhere. Together with his fairy friend, Tinkerbell, he visits the three Darling children, Wendy, John, and Michael, and takes them away to Neverland. There they have adventures with Peter's orphaned comrades, the Lost Boys, as well as Indians and pirates, especially Peter's nemesis Captain James Hook. In the end, all the kids, except Peter, return to real life and grow up.

Peter Pan, the character, first appeared in J.M. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird in 1902. Two years later, the famous play Peter Pan premiered on the London stage where it remains a Christmas tradition. In 1911, Barrie turned the play into a novel called Peter and Wendy. Time and fame turned this new title back into Peter Pan before long, and the book is rarely published as Peter and Wendy now, though that is its actual title. A Broadway musical starring Mary Martin followed as well as many movie versions including: Disney's 1953 animated venture; Steven Spielberg's 1991 critical scourge/loving gift to children of my generation, Hook; Freud's personal favorite, a 2003 feature film with the subtext ratcheted up to eleven; and the Oscar winning Finding Neverland in 2004. All this love and attention has turned Peter Pan from a character in his own right to a symbol of eternal youth. However, does Barrie's original book paint him as the heroic figure so many adaptations embrace? Is he even the main character? I say nay.

Peter Pan is at its heart, the coming of age tale of Miss Wendy Moira Angela Darling, storyteller extraordinaire, eternal mother, and perfect foil to Peter Pan. We know from the opening paragraph that Wendy is destined to grow up and Peter Pan tells the story of her whole life. It shows us her parents' courtship and early marriage (both of which are wonderfully satirized), her birth, the birth of her brothers, and her early life in the days before the arrival of Peter Pan. Or at least the arrival of Peter Pan, the person. What Peter is exactly is a delightful mystery that I still don't quite understand. He is a person, a real boy. Obviously, he must be since he appears in the Darling nursery "on that never-to-be-forgotten Friday" and takes the three kids away. But he's also an idea, a spirit representing everything you could ever want out of childhood. He lives in Wendy's mind for years before she actually meets him. When he appears as flesh and blood in her bedroom, begging her to join him in Neverland, he is literally a dream come true. How can she refuse? The act of indulging her most powerful childhood fantasy sets her on the path to becoming an adult.

Feminist is a complex word and a dangerous umbrella term, but I don't think it would be farfetched to say that, stereotypically speaking, Wendy as she appears in Barrie's book is not the typical feminist wunderkind we girls are brought up to admire. After all, more than anything, she wants to be a mother and a homemaker. She comes to a land of eternal freedom and youth and inflicts structure on it. She takes the Lost Boys under her wing. She spends her days doing housework, mending clothes, cooking, and essentially raising nine children while still a little girl herself. She brings adult reality to the Neverland. Her icky, unmentionable, undeniable feelings for Peter are also very grown-up. So much so that Peter can't understand them and certainly won't indulge them, a realization that finally pushes her over the limit and out of Neverland. There are no grown-ups in Neverland except Wendy. There are pirates and Indians but these are a child's fantasy of adults. Wendy is the real deal. In the 2003 movie, Wendy's personality was radically altered to suit the expectations of a 21st century audience. This time, Wendy doesn't want to be a mother; she wants to be a pirate and adventurer. She tells stories not to entertain the kids around her, but because she wants to be a published author. She wears a sword, uses it frequently, and appears generally badass. This is all well and good, but it is not Wendy. The entire point of her character is that even before she goes to Neverland, she wants to grow up, even though she may not know it. She desires one of the most adult roles in life--motherhood--and by going there, she assumes that role and makes Neverland grow up too. But that's not what Neverland is for; finally, she has to leave in order to become what she is meant to be. After all, as Barrie says, "you need not be sorry for her. She was one of the kind that likes to grow up. In the end she grew up of her own free will a day quicker than other girls."

Many opinions I've encountered (including my own for a time) tend to favor Wendy as the unfortunate one, a would-be hausfrau who gives up a life where anything is possible to be just like everybody else. To most audiences today, growing up remains the enemy. But Peter is the one ends up alone. By refusing to grow up, he refuses not only to die, but also to live. By the book's end, he has no one except Wendy (when he remembers her) and the generations that follow her (when he remembers them). He is empty, "so light that if you got behind him and blew he went faster." But Wendy has the courage to grow up and live life with all its joys and sorrows. There is undeniable sadness in her decision, (what grown woman hasn't looked in the mirror and said something like "woman, woman let go of me" as she does) but Peter is pure tragedy. He is left alone, doomed never to change. Wendy transforms.

Of all the stories in Lost Girls, Peter Pan's retelling was the one I was most nervous about and least surprised by. The subtext it invokes is all there in Barrie's book. There are moments of incredible darkness, eeriness, confusion, and sexuality in the book that show up tenfold in Lost Girls, albeit with vivid X-rated illustrations. Some of it was disturbing to see. The phrase lost innocence kept popping into my head a lot while I read, as in "how can they do this? these pictures are robbing the book of its innocence!" But then I remembered Peter Pan is all about lost innocence, what is lost by growing up and what is lost by staying a child. Who am I to fault someone for trying to communicate that in an unorthodox way?