When I was preggo for the first time, I got a lot of tips and warnings and advice on what my life would be like after the baby came along. None of which prepared me in the slightest, by the way. Anyway, the one thing nobody actually bothered to warn me about, but which I could have used the warnings for, was just how dramatically having kids would impact on my reading choices.
Seriously, it’s like I’ve done a complete 180 here. I’ve always been a lover of dark fiction, right? Horror, noir, the uncanny. Now I head into such reads with significant trepidation, because there be monsters, you know… But not just any monsters. Very particular monsters. Narrowly defined, tightly specific monsters.
I’m talking about the “hurt children” monsters.
And I can no longer cope with them.
It’s not an uncommon thing, so I’m told. The inability to read about or watch anything that involves children being hurt, or in my case, children being hurt or missing or damaged or vaguely anguished or mildly disappointed or occasionally distracted from perfect blissful peace, because ffffffffuck me if I haven’t become a sensitive soul in my middle-aged motherhood.
You might think this is a small thing. And it is. It’s not exactly geo-political-cold-war-negotiations level significance in the world. But it’s also the thing I was least ready for from motherhood and considering the dark and horror fiction is supposed to delve into uneasy, disturbing and confronting subject matter, then dear innocent children are often excellent subject matter for creators of such fictions to use as story fodder, and suddenly I find myself cut out of a good many reading experiences.
It’s driving me more than a bit batty.
Like the other day. There I was, trawling audible.com – as one with a significant driving commute tends to do – and coming across a rather well-reviewed horror novel with an interesting premise. Goodo, just let me download that and try it out.
So I start listening to Hex by Thomas Olde Heuvelt and by about half a dozen chapters in I can say the premise remains interesting, even if the execution thus far isn’t entirely to my taste. But that’s okay, not everything is, and the reviews are pretty good, so it’s the kind of thing I’d probably keep reading (or listening to, as is the case) and I suspect after getting a bit further in I’d forget about the fact the prose style doesn’t really do it for me and just be caught up in the story.
All good. Except. The very early chapters set up a premise that’s clearly intended for pay off later in the novel – teenagers teasing their parents with rhetorical/philosophical questions over which one of them they’d save and which one they’d let die if forced to such an awful choice. And one of the spoiler-free reviews I stumbled across happened to mention that the 300 year old evil witch haunting figure in the novel cursed the town after being forced to make just such a choice, kill one child to save another. And…
Nope. Sorry. Not going there. Won’t do it to myself. Six very short chapters in and I’m done.
This is no reflection on this particular book. While the prose style didn’t grab me, the story may well have if I’d given it longer, and it’s not the fault of the book I can’t cope with the idea of children being hurt by their parents, or parents forced to such horrific choices. It’s horror, people. It’s meant to disturb and upset in a safe, fictional kind of way. That’s the point of the genre.
But that’s the thing about this kind of subject matter. Since I had kids of my own it’s no longer so safe, or even so fictional. The real world intrudes of the fictional one for me now, to the point where I can’t read about a family in a small town with a 300 year old ghost that hangs about and everybody is just used to, without thinking about my own kids. And as soon as that happens, bam. It’s not fictional upset anymore, it’s genuine, real-world anxiety.
And I am not likely to deliberately up my real-life anxiety levels just for the sake of finishing a novel that didn’t really grab me to begin with, know what I mean?
All of which makes me a pretty selective horror-genre reader these days. My social media feeds went a bit nuts when the teaser trailer for the remake of It hit, because apparently it looks like a good adaptation of the book. Not that I’d know, because I’m not going to watch it. I’m not even watching the trailer. The inciting incident of that novel is the death of the protagonist’s younger brother at the hands of Pennywise, so no, not for me, not anymore. Despite the fact I loved that novel back when I was fifteen and based an entire Genre vs LitFic debate with my far more literary English teacher around it.
The acclaimed new adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which all of my feminist friends are going nuts over? Yeah, I’m not watching that either. You do know they steal her kid off her, right?
I have made myself read through this block, when the book is good enough. David Mitchell’s Slade House opens with a doomed child. His The Bone Clocks also involves the disappearance of a child. I’m a fan of Mitchell from way back and I wanted to read both those books and I did. I am glad I did. I loved both of them. But it took some dogged determination to work through the hurt-kids bits.
I still haven’t read Helen Garner’s This House of Grief. I adore Garner’s non-fiction work. I’ve been a huge fan since first reading The First Stone back int he 90s, and not just because I was at Melbourne Uni through that entire period and lost track of the number of arts-undergrad arguments I got into because I agreed with Garner’s take on things at the time. But I can not read her take on the Farquharson murders. I can’t bring myself to do so.
Oh, and I’m so glad I read Toni Morrison’s Beloved all those years ago, because no way could I cope with it now, and it’s just one of those books that should be read.
So what’s the point of all this?
The point is that I don’t just read for escapism. If you do, that’s cool, more power to you. Sometimes escapism is what I want, and if that’s all I was after, all the time, then no probs. I’d just read that which doesn’t challenge me too much and relax into it and have a good time.
But I also read – or watch narrative screen stories – because I want to be challenged and provoked and unsettled. I want to be made to think in a way that hadn’t occurred to me before. I want to engage intellectually and emotionally with the fictional narratives I’m consuming. And horror and dark fiction is meant to turn our common fears upside down and shake them around, pull them apart, dissect, slash, tear and ground them into pieces, then stick those pieces back together in a grotesque imitation of truth.
Fiction is meant to confront and challenge and provoke. I read it for those reasons. But now I’m finding myself actively avoiding the most confronting variations of it.
Which annoys the hell out of me, because I’m not the kind of reader to avoid confronting fiction. Or at least I wasn’t before. But post-parenthood me turns out to be quite the sook when it comes to selecting reading matter.
And that is probably the most unexpected change becoming a parent has brought to my life. Just how big a sook I can now be.