In Dangerous Children: Seven Novels and a Story, Kenneth Gross explores our complex fascination with strange children in works of fiction. Below, he reflects on what drew him to the weird kids featured in his book.
Does it matter that Dangerous children is released so close to Halloween? There aren’t really any nightmarish children in the book, no monster children, no vampire children, witch children, werewolf children, or ghost children. There is no murderous child like that of The bad seedno demonic or possessed children like those of the omen Where The Exorcist. No children turning into adult savages like in lord of the flies. Nothing scary or gothic. But the eight imaginary children I watch in the book are quite strange, sometimes a little ghostly. What is dangerous about these children slowly invades you.
There are many things we never know about them, let’s try as we can. These children may indeed appear to be wondering welike that shadow child staring at readers from the wonderful cover of the book designed by Rae Ganci Hammers – though you might as well think that child’s face is turned a way on our side. Not knowing which one could be one of the dangers.
The book is a kind of reading memory. It looks at characters I kept tripping over for many years and couldn’t get out of my head, from both realistic and fantasy fiction. They are innocent children who are not so innocent, children who know things that children shouldn’t know, whose life and words have a strange side, confusing but fascinating, foreign but close to home. They possess a disturbing life energy, a hunger, but also a supernatural power of survival. They are dream children who invade our sweet childhood dreams. They evoke lost, dead or unknown childhoods. These children have a deeper and stranger sense of play than adults usually admit, breaking loose from ordinary rules, transforming and even doing violence to play. Sometimes their language is awfully clear. Sometimes it’s close to nonsense. And they can also keep a mad silence.
Some come from books that people consider children’s literature, although these books have always found devoted readers among adults. There’s Lewis Carroll’s Alice, relentlessly curious, with a cool courage to face madmen (as William Empson said) and challenge their mad games. There’s Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, always hungry and in danger of being devoured by others, both more violent and more desperate than people remember, while JM Barrie’s magical boy Peter, is crueler, more unpredictable and sadder.
Other of these dangerous children appear in books written for adults. by Henry James what Maisie knows includes one of them, a child heroine who knows more about adult weakness and desire than her miserable, desperate guardians realize. Maisie keeps this knowledge to herself, but she uses knowledge with determination and love. You may feel that it would be frightening and possibly dangerous to be loved by such a child. The object-like creature Odradek in Franz Kafka’s “The Worries of a Family Man” is a kind of child, but he has survived generations of mortal children.
These children may seem dangerous to adults simply because they are so vulnerable, so in danger. Or else they are dangerous in their character, so illegible, so ambiguous in their pretended innocence. They are dangerous because of what adults do not understand about these children and because children remind adults of what they do not understand about them. themselves, fears or desires that they want children to carry for them. It’s usually adults’ own anxieties that come out when they call a child – as happens in these books – “monster”, “horror”, “snake”, “idiot”, “traitor”, “thief”, “Devil”. “crazy”, “common espionage” and “awful baby”.
One thing I love about these books is how the children’s voices and the adult voices are always intertwined, dancing together, going through strange places. We find in these books adults who are much more childish than children, or otherwise childish. Adults who have pushed aside bad childish things, or whose childishness is mixed with a very adult combination of power and blindness. Books can remind us how much in us never grows.
I chose my eight texts at the start of the writing process – the list also includes that of Richard Hughes A strong wind in Jamaicaby Elizabeth Bowen the death of the heart, and Vladimir Nabokov Lolita. I kept thinking of dangerous or scary children in other fables, novels, and movies, characters I didn’t write about or only touch on in passing. There were many, many of which I love and which I’m sorry I can’t say more about (starting with the supposed demon children of james the turn of the screw, a real Halloween story, where the real danger lies with the narrator). But in the end, all these other examples made it clearer to me how much my own eight children were clamoring for my attention. They belong together, are part of a curious family – a family in which the judgment of adults, malicious or well-meaning, can only be wrong, and the children are an odd combination of bewildered and wise. —Kenneth Gross
Kenneth GrossThe books of include The Dream of the Moving Statue, The sound of Shakespeare, Shylock is Shakespeareand Puppet: An Essay on the Strange Life, which won the George Jean Nathan Award for Drama Criticism. A former member of the Guggenheim and Bogliasco foundations, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Bellagio Study Center and the American Academy in Berlin, he teaches English at the University of Rochester.