Something unexpected came up when we offered our home as an evacuation refuge to a close friend and her family during the recent wildfire conflagration. Two small, preschool children would have come to our home. And I have a devil in my living room.
Strangely, I never thought about it before. His name is Guillermo…
He is two feet tall and surveys all from atop the faux-antique radio that hides our turntable. He is fire-engine red with two sets of horns: tiny white nubs and a set of awesome black sharpies, a mouthful of wicked white teeth and a tongue Gene Simmons would envy. He is the first thing you see when you enter our home dominated by Mexican folk art. For those lacking the inclination to envision him, this is Guillermo:
Guillermo, by Adriana Brydges
Now this should come as no surprise: I am a Horror writer after all. I like scary things. And there is a reason I still refuse to look under my bed at night that may or may not have anything to do with watching scary movies as a kid, sneaking late-night episodes of The Twilight Zone, Grimm’s Fairy Tales and strange things I saw as a child. But the problem is that children handle scary things differently, and I never stopped to consider that even one human child might ever set foot in my home. What does one do to mitigate the Horror? How does one peel a child off of her mother and stuff the eyeballs back in their sockets, convincing a five-year-old that she will still be here in the morning with all of her limbs and her little brother intact? (It took the cats three weeks to realize that Guillermo was not a cat-eater, and an additional three days to quit puffing up. We would not have this wide luxury of time in an evacuation.)
We have almost no storage. (Well, we did before it got full. Now we don’t.) And with the city on the verge of rampant wildfire, it just doesn’t seem politically correct to foist Guillermo off on neighbors. We could throw a drape over him, but that just makes Guillermo look like a devil ghost… We could set him on the balcony, but there might be something unnerving about having a devil peering in your sliding glass doors…or glaring at neighbors as only a red devil can do.
I can’t help but ponder how it came to this…one innocent act of sheltering art and now there is the potential for unspeakable Horror. My husband and I never gave Guillermo a second thought until this very moment, when we discussed the impact of wedging four more people into our place. I have made my peace with the concept of there being possible monsters in our closets and spooky images on our walls. The abundance of crosses and crucifixes in our house are not relative to the number of devils within. For me it is a matter of style and décor, a conscious choice to mock the unconscious. But what would a child think?
It all started innocently enough (with the devil, that is)…
Guillermo came to us by way of his creator, my niece, artist Adriana Brydges. Her new husband was not particularly taken with the idea of having a devil in his living room, so when word of Guillermo’s pending eviction was made known at a family gathering it was surprisingly my husband who offered him sanctuary. And it is more than appropriate – with me being a Horror writer and with our combined love of Mexican folk art (which contains the occasional religious or death motif). But never once did I think about what complications our innocent love of Guillermo might spark in those who walked unsuspecting into our home…
So that got me scrambling. I immediately started brainstorming…Our place is too small to hide Guillermo…How to explain him in such a way that a good, church-going child with the love of Jesus in her heart would not need therapy after a night in our living room?Shi Shi Dogs…..That was what came to me. (Did I mention I write Horror?)
These were my first Horror animals, which I encountered originally in Okinawa, and again later in Taiwan, closer to their actual mythical origins. As terrifying as they would seem, I fell in love with them as a child of four and have loved them ever since. So I was thinking: if I could fall in love with a face like that as an impressionable kid, wouldn’t the same magic and logic hold true for Guillermo? Maybe Guillermo just needed a little PR…a spin doctor… After all, there has to be a reason Shi Shi dogs were calming to me despite their demeanor and tendency toward an alarming array of colors. If they are always depicted as ferocious and accompanied by fire crackers and sparklers and incense, then it must have had something to do with they way they had been explained to me…So I tried comparing them to our little devil.
Like Guillermo, Shi Shi dogs have particularly gruesome faces, bulging eyes that case terrible gazes, snarling mouths loaded with teeth, clawed feet… And they have a rich spiritual history. Also called Temple Dogs, Japanese Foo Dogs or Lion Dogs, Shi Shi dogs tend to be found posing around the entrances of Imperial Palaces and tombs, Buddhist temples, and the occasional Chinese restaurant (dogs will be dogs, after all). They also come in pairs – male and female – and are relegated to specific purpose and design: the male is identified by his paw resting upon the world, the female by her offspring nesting on her back; mouth open representing protection of the guarded structure from the assault of outward evil spirits; mouth closed representing the protection of good spirits within, with the mouths also symbolizing the states of birth and death and all that lies inbetween.
I look again at Guillermo….Mouth Open: Protection against evil spirits without….Would this work on the sophisticated kids of today?
By now I am thinking…This can’t really be all that unusual, right? I’ve been in homes with African masks, Pacific Northwest Indian art, Goth décor, medieval sword/cutlery….Surely other people have had these “problems”…. How to explain a love of the strange and unusual?
Writing Horror is all about climbing into this self-gratifying world of odd creatures and mythical rules. You tap into those childhood fears; some you embrace, some you hide in your closet. But it is your world. You create access and control. What do you do when a child wanders into that space? (I’m thinking I’m lucky I don’t have children of my own to put through therapy…)
I remember seeing my fair share of odd things as a kid growing up – things that creep me out still: portraits of strangley proportioned people painted in the American Folkart style…babydolls with demonic eyes…I still have nightmares about the ball-and-claw furniture feet on my grandparent’s Queen Anne style furnishings…Yet I slept with Shi Shis beside my bed for years and have a devil in my living room. How does one predict future PTSD and run interference for sensitive children?
Then I can’t help but think of things already out there meant – even designed – to scare children: everything from literature, to movies and video games … even dolls and toys. Am I worrying too much because of my personal choices in art? Is it some new, unexplored dimension of misplaced Horror-writer’s guilt? My own neurosis? Significantly, as adults we look back on childhood scares and savor the experiences that no one can replicate quite so completely as they were experienced in childhood. But exactly where is the line, and need we be concerned about crossing it as adults?
“It depends on the child…”
That is not apparently how HarperCollins felt earlier this year when they decided to reissue Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz – but with a new illustrator other than original scary artist Stephen Gammell. Friends With Bivalves has a very nice post discussing this HarperCollins anniversary publication on their site (http://indecentandimmortal.worpress.com/2012/02/16/on-childrens-literature-and-censorshipt-a-brief-look-at-art). It would appear that HarperCollins caved to some 30-years of parental pressure to censor the artwork (which combined with the text is one of the reasons that Horror grew in the area of urban myths in the ‘80s…). Apparently illustrated childrens’ books (and hence art) are not on the same review levels as other forms of literature. This directly implies a conspiracy of budding censorship in publishing, literary theorists, and art – especially Horror art. This scares me more than the book…
But what does all this mean? The implication is that children are potentially irreparably damaged by scary art. Is that a point of real debate? Is it overkill when you can’t attend an R rated film and not see young children in attendance with parents who want to watch an adult-themed movie and don’t seem bothered by exposing the kids to whatever adult issues float two stories above them? Where is that concern? What about what children see on the internet? On television? Out of their own windows? For that matter, in stained glass windows? Outside Buddhist temples? In cemeteries?
Sometimes Horror has to do with how an adult successfully explains something, or reacts to something. Children take their cues from adults… How else could we sit in church and not be viscerally bothered by the gruesome images of Christ crucified? How else do we explain Halloween? Or a giant rabbit that sneaks into your house to leave chocolate eggs? Or fairies that reach under your pillow while you are sleeping to take a tooth in exchange for coin?
For most people Horror is a choice. Sometimes it is a coping device. But not everyone (parents or their children) is comfortable in a world that opens the door to questions about spirituality, life, death and – as the Shi Shi implies – everything inbetween. This is especially true where children are concerned…and this is an issue for Horror writers with art-packed living rooms everywhere. How the heck do I explain this? Or should I? How do I keep the wrong side of such images out of someone else’s head?
This is not usually the problem. As a Horror writer, I am usually working on the reverse end of the question. But it is something that Horror writers might consider; sometimes the wrong audience winds up with your nightmares in their heads. It’s one reason why some authors have been roundly criticized for “using” children to advance a scary plotline… But scary starts in childhood; it is the purest root of fear. That is where we go when we write Horror, digging deep into the psychological stew of terrifying half-remembered images and bad dreams. We can’t scare you until we scare ourselves…
Maybe that’s why I have child-scaring art in my house; maybe I am still trying to scare the adult out of my inner child…to engage fear the way it used to engage me. Isn’t that what every Horror writer wants – to tap into that primal place of childish imagery where everything was possible and logic was skewed? Or am I a giant vulture, picking apart my own theories of death – chiding what awaits me as it awaits us all? Isn’t having Guillermo in my living room a sign of “mission accomplished?”
Right now I am thanking the fire gods for putting an end to the evacuation threat that led to this debate. Because I still don’t have a good answer for how to explain the devil in my living room. I am still at a loss for what I should have done – or thought about doing – with Guillermo. But at least now I know I have a social problem: I love scary in a world where many people don’t. I keep company with Victorian ghost stories, Zombies, Mummies, monsters and Cthulhu. I think there is no better way to spend an evening than with wine coolers, chicken wings and Rod Serling. I am not an expert in child psychology…I only know that children are a whole different species of being – ultrasensitive to the nuances we adults gloss over to avoid the discomfort of admitting them to our reality. And some people don’t want that – and the heady accoutrement it entails – in a living space.
As things slowly slide back into that void of normalcy, so does my social problem recede. Once again I can boast of my dedication to Horror, collect scary stuff and watch monsters move about in the dark. It’s apparently an advantage for some Horror writers to live in a kid-free zone. I get it; I have a devil in my living room. His name is Guillermo… I love him, but I don’t want to impose.