I thought about buying a little paint-it-yourself statue of Ratty (the real Ratty) in order to commemorate the event.
But they cost over $10 and you have to have them shipped from the UK, which is expensive, and besides, I don't want to contribute any more to image consumerism. I think that's why I took down all my posters, for those of you who were wondering.
I haven’t posted much lately because I’ve been dealing with a crashed computer and the consequent frustrating efforts to restore my technological life. I say frustrating because, even though I backed up a lot of important stuff about a week before the crash, I’m finding now as things get back to normal that a lot of “unimportant” stuff didn’t get saved. I experience occasional bouts of regret and sadness at the awareness that files I rarely used but kept on hand “just in case” are no longer available to me. Curiously, this regret is mingled with a sense of lightness as I realize how unencumbered I am by the intellectual detritus that’s built up on my computer over the years. Which, when I think about it, makes no sense because it was all electronic bits and bytes and had no “real” existence at all until I called it up on the screen. It’s not as if I cleaned out a closet and tossed a bunch of old clothes and shoes. It’s not as if I went through my books and culled out the ones I know I’m never going to read again (or ever, in the case of some titles). It’s not as if I went through the medicine cabinet and pulled out all the expired prescriptions and the ancient bottles of “Tr. Merthiolate” from the Southern Pacific Memorial Hospital, Inc, and the sticky cough drops that are so old that when you try to take off the wrapper there’s this sort of viscous webbing that stretches between the lozenge and the wrapper and it reminds you of mozzarella cheese when you pull a piece of pizza away from the whole, or of the first X-Files movie when Scully pushed her latex-gloved fingers against that fireman victim’s chest and the goo covering his corpse kind of stretched out in a disgustingly gooey way. So yeah, losing computer files isn’t anything like that.
But I’m not going to dwell on computer crashes and lost data. Since Halloween is coming up, it’s time to talk about what is the Scariest Book. I know, I already posted about The Pony Engine, but stuff that scares you when you’re a kid doesn’t necessarily affect you the same way once you’re grown up.
One of my favorite Halloween books is Northanger Abbey, by Jane Austen.
Of course, the hilarious book cover notwithstanding, Northanger Abbey is not really a scary book. In fact, Jane Austen wrote it as a parody of the scary books of her time. That makes it a perfect book for this particular seasonal celebration because -- in the words of someone whose name I no longer know and whose words I actually don’t remember either so I’m going to have to paraphrase because I lost all that information when my computer crashed and that’s annoying because she said it way better than I can -- it describes the folly of trying to scare yourself on purpose, which is what Halloween is all about.
In case you do want to scare yourself, though, and you choose literature as your method, you may want to select something a little more suspenseful. As for me, I always thought Mary Stewart’s books were pretty suspenseful, the first few times I read them, anyhow. And I remember once, when I was babysitting for this couple who had three or four boys, and the boys were all in bed because it was getting on towards 11:00 pm and the parents had said they were going to be late, and I was bored so I looked at their bookshelves for something to read, I selected Sleeping Murder by Agatha Christie. I was in my early twenties at the time and yet, if you can believe it, I had never read a single book by Agatha Christie. I decided to give this one a try.
I really do not like being in a room late at night with a light on when the room has massive windows and no curtains. Because, when the light is on, you can’t see outside. Yet anyone who happens to be lurking out there has a clear view into the room. And they can see you sitting there, huddled on the couch, reading a murder mystery, all alone.
I’ve come across a lot scarier things since that time, but Sleeping Murder has a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf, first, because it truly gave me the creeps (I know, the circumstances had a lot to do with it), and second, because it introduced me to Agatha Christie.
I’ve never read anything by Stephen King, since I’m not really a horror fan. Horror seems like a cheap way of scaring people (like those “horrid” novels mentioned in Northanger Abbey), whereas with suspense you must take pains and use skill in creating the atmosphere of psychological fear. But that just may be the literary snob in me speaking.
Yet it seems to me that it’s getting harder and harder to “scare” people nowadays without resulting to the cheap tricks of horror. For instance, I read Dracula, by Bram Stoker, and found it interesting and entertaining, but I certainly wasn’t horrified by it like people in the 1890s supposedly were when they first read it. The increased graphic content of tv, film, and literature has made people (including me) more callous to horror and suspense. Sure, I’ve read page-turners, books that were so intriguing I couldn’t wait to find out what happens next. But I wasn’t really scared. When I try to think of a book that I’ve read in the last ten or twenty years that has really frightened me, I can’t come up with one.
Any suggestions? Any truly scary books you’ve read that don’t rely on graphic descriptions of maiming-type mayhem to frighten the reader?
However, The Little Engine That Could is not the exact book that made me so uneasy in my youth, although I must say that the clown in the green polka dot suit gives me a bit of the fidgets. No, the book responsible for so many sensations of apprehension and dread is actually called The Pony Engine, which is either an earlier version of the same story, or something from a parallel universe that somehow found its way to our Earth through a rip in the space-time continuum.
The other day, a copy of The Pony Engine mysteriously showed up at the Bottom Shelf, so I bought it and brought it home to remind myself of some of the more scary moments in my youth.
I don't have too much of a problem with the cover. I just have a few questions that have gone unanswered for the last 45 years:
1. Why is that bear dressed like an engineer? If he is indeed the engineer, why isn't he in the cab, driving the train? Why is he sitting out front with his legs crossed? And why exactly does he even have his legs crossed?
2. Why is that girl sitting on the smoke box? Isn't that kind of really dangerous? Not to mention extremely hot? She's not even wearing trousers, for crying out loud.
3. What's that stuff coming out of the smokestack? It looks to me like maybe that girl dumped a thousand sparklers down there.
4. Why is there an infant on this train? This is a circus train, right? Is this baby somehow part of a circus act? Do they toss it to and fro on the trapeze? Does it crawl under an elephant's foot or into a lion's mouth? I just don't get it.
5. What kind of animals are those? Why are they strange colors? What kind of circus is this, anyhow?
But, as I say, that's not the creepy part.
This is the Express Engine that refused to help the Weak Old Circus Engine after it broke down because, says the Express Engine, "I can't bother with you. I pull only the finest trains."
The Express Engine has slightly evil eyes, which is mildly disturbing. But that's not the creepy part.
This is the so-called Lone Engine, who refuses to help the Circus Engine because, in his own words, "I've done enough. I need a rest." It is a very grouchy looking train and I wouldn't want to ask it for help. But that's not the creepy part.
This is the creepy part. This is the train that haunted me for years. This is the Rusty Dusty Engine that complained it wasn't strong enough to help.
Well, along comes the Pony Engine to save the day, but there's just something, something subliminal or something, in this picture that really gives me the willies. Or maybe it's just a cumulative effect, one picture of horror after another, building up until the breaking point. I can't think of another book from my childhood that causes such uneasiness in me. I know this is supposed to be a story with a moral, a great lesson, but the only lesson I learned from it was no way am I going to ask people for help. It's too scary.
There's another version of this story I'd like to get. It's the 1930 edition of The Little Engine That Could, illustrated by Lois Lenski, the same person who wrote Policeman Small and The Little Airplane and all those cool books, plus many others. Isn't it friendly and non-scary looking?
A first edition of this book sells for over $500. Now that's creepy.