Diana Wynne Jones died earlier this year. We never met. But she did write an autobiography—long for an essay, and painfully short for the book it should have been. You can read the whole thing here, and you should. It includes a violent encounter with Beatrix Potter.
This passage is not really about bedtime stories, but it does involve both bedtime and stories:
Then my grandfather went into the pulpit. At home he was majestic enough: preaching. he was like the prophet Isaiah. He spread his arms and language rolled from him, sonorous, magnificent, and rhythmic. I had no idea then that he was a famous preacher, nor that people came from forty miles away to hear him because he had an almost bardic tendency to speak a kind of blank verse – hwyl, it is called, much valued in a preacher – but the splendour and the rigour of it nevertheless went into the core of my being. Though I never understood one word, I grasped the essence of a dour, exacting, and curiously magnificent religion. His voice shot me full of terrors. For years after that, I used to dream regularly that a piece of my bedroom wall slid aside revealing my grandfather declaiming in Welsh, and I knew he was declaiming about my sins. I still sometimes dream in Welsh, without understanding a word. And at the bottom of my mind there is always a flow of spoken language that is not English, rolling in majestic paragraphs and resounding with splendid polysyllables. I listen to it like music when I write.
Samuel R. Delany remembers Little Red Riding Hood. These are his own words.
The night in 1944 that my mother, pregnant with my sister, went into the hospital to have the baby, my Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Myles came over to Harlem, woke me up out of my crib, and took me with them, in the car, my uncle driving, to stay with them for a few days in Brooklyn. My sister was born when I was two years and seven months old–and I have almost traumatically distinct memories of the whole evening, though nothing particularly unpleasant happened. In the car, while we drove through the November night, my aunt held me on her lap and told me the story of Little Red Riding Hood. (As I recall, I knew the tale even then.) Next she sang me the lullaby “Go, Tell Aunt Rosie,” to which, finally, I went to sleep, to wake up the next day, in their row house on MacDonnough Street in Bedford Stuyvesant, and talk to my mother in the hospital on the phone. All I said was “Hello,” and “I love you, Mommy,” while, in the dark mahogany second floor hallway, at the phone table, my aunt positioned me between her knees and held the phone to my ear.
Haddayr Copley-Woods also remembers ghost stories at bedtime–especially Tailypo, as told by her mother.
The tale of Tailypo is similar to The Golden Arm, a story often told by Mark Twain. Both of them break the forth wall, loudly, on the very last line.
Neither story lends itself to sleepiness.
Kelly Link remembers her mother reading Goodnight Moon. Whenever she came to the bit about the quiet old lady whispering hush, she always shouted “HUSH!”
Now that you know this, the line “goodnight nobody, goodnight mush” will forever seem like part of a Kelly Link story. It will harrow you with fear and wonder.
What is the very first bedtime story you can remember?
I’ve been collecting answers to this question for years now. Most are scribbled on little bits of paper and stuffed in a desk drawer. Some are serving as bookmarks. Others are lost, or stolen.
It’s time to gather these descriptions of bedtime stories—the very first bedtime stories, the ones that left a mark—and put them somewhere safe. Like the Internet.
A pattern might emerge from such a collection. Truths might be revealed. Secrets might be discovered. The potent and protoplasmic elements of bedtime narrative may well merge to become something monstrous and beautiful.
Maybe. Only one way to find out.