Tagged How to Keep Children Awake

Dave McKean meets the Wolfman

Busy with book stuff, but here’s a bedtime story I’ve been saving. Except it isn’t a really bedtime story. But it is how the artist Dave McKean answered my favorite question, and his answer certainly qualifies as an early influence, so I say it counts.

The first thing I really remember sort of having an affect was this terrible, boring, bland, banal television program called Nationwide that was on in England at about 6 oclock. It was just local news, it was dull and boring. And, you know, you’d come home from school, my Dad would come home from work, and it was just on in background, we’d have some tea. It was just drab stuff, you know, go out to see the latest patch of cabbages growing in Norfolk, I mean it was just dreadful stuff. And one evening they said “Now we’re going over to the Isle of Wright for a story, and younger viewers may find this disturbing.”  This had never I mean this was really a strange thing to say, and we all went like this [slowly turns head away from imaginary tea to imaginary television] and this piece came up with these families reporting that they had seen this figure who was erect like a man, but very shaggy. And people had been calling it a wolfman. And this particular couple said that they had woken up at three in the morning and seen this figure in their doorway, and it bounded down the stairs and out of the house. Now the context is the thing, the context is banal program about local events, and it was a strange story, totally deadpan, absolutely played straight. I still don’t know if they were joking. It might have been April the First, might have been a stupid joke like the spaghetti trees. It might have been, but I still don’t know, and it terrified me. It absolutely terrified me, and I absolutely remember, with the hallway there in the doorway, doing this [wakes up with a start, checks the imaginary doorway] to see if the wolfman was there. 

You don’t know what you take from these things, but I think what I took from it is context is everything. You play one expectation against something else. It’s very powerful. And actually that’s something I’ve always tried to do in the stories, the things that we’ve done. You think you know its one kind of story, and you twist it or change it…

(Transcribed from the Q&A following this event.)

Habituated to the Vast

Catherynne M.  Valente‘s mother, a Broadway singer, often used “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” as a lullaby. Cat called it the “Tina Song.”

Cat’s grandmother chose The Arabian Nights over showtunes when she offered bedtime entertainment. Someone once said of The Arabian Nights that “through reading these stories, my mind became habituated to the vast.”

It’s a good quote. Charles Dickens might have said it. Patrick Rothfuss tells us that the quote belongs to Dickens, but Wikiquote insists that Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote it in a letter about giants and magicians and genii. The internet gives conflicting answers. It’s possible that a magician masquerading as Charles Dickens pretended to be Coleridge in order to forge that letter about giants and genii.

Regardless, reading Cat Valente will also habituate your mind to the vast.

Neal Stephenson’s Childhood Euphemisms

Neal Stephenson seemed especially surprised by this question. His forehead scrunched up as he tried to work his way back to his very first bedtime story.

“I remember D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths,” he said, “but that wouldn’t have been the first. Too many amputations, too many gods ‘marrying’ people. In D’Aulaire’s book Zeus is always ‘marrying’ mortal women…”

He promised to keep thinking about it.

Stephenson’s novel The Diamond Age is partly about the formative powers of bedtime stories, by the way.

Hwyl-Dreams of Diana Wynne Jones

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.

Tobin sings the blues of Anne Boleyn

When I asked M. T. Anderson about his earliest bedtime memories, he smiled and said, “My father used to sing ‘Anne Boleyn’ at bedtime.”

Then he sang it himself, and sang it well. Here’s a recording of Stanley Holloway singing almost as well.

In the Tower of London, large as life,
The ghost of Anne Boleyn walks, they declare.
For Anne Boleyn was once King Henry’s wife,
Until he had the headsman bob her hair.
Oh, yes, he did her wrong long years ago,
And she comes back at night to tell him so.

With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm,
She walks the bloody Tower,
With her head tucked underneath her arm,
At the midnight hour.

She comes to haunt King Henry, she means giving him what-for
Gadzooks, she’s going to tell him off, for spilling of her gore.
And just in case the headsman wants to give her encore,
She has her head tucked underneath her arm.

With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm,
She walks the bloody Tower,
With her head tucked underneath her arm,
At the midnight hour.

She walks the endless corridors, for miles and miles she goes,
She often catches cold, poor dear, it’s drafty when it blows,
And it’s awfully, awfully awkward for the queen to blow her nose,
With her head tucked underneath her arm.

With her ‘ead tucked underneath her arm,
She walks the bloody Tower,
With her head tucked underneath her arm,
At the midnight hour.