Because of my book Dragonfly–okay, and because of stories such as “The Bone Man”–I’m sometimes considered a horror writer. As such, the editors of Erebos: Journal of the New Darkness asked me, not long ago, to write a piece for them about the most important horror book I’d ever read. What follows is, in part, what I wrote, with slight modifications for this blog:
The assignment is, of course, impossible. What is the most important fallen leaf in the forest, among all those leaves that fall each year and become part of the rich compost from which new life springs? Can any writer choose one single book? I guess I could name any one of dozens and commend it as eloquently as possible. I could make any number of choices, and as Kipling said of the ways of doing the tribal lays, every single one of them would be right.
Mind you, I’m talking specifically about horror here. My selection, then, which must stand as the representative for all the fairy tales, all the grand and dark adventures, is an unlikely one in that it’s not a story at all: my choice is Der Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffmann.
Titled Slovenly Peter in English, the book is a set of cautionary tales designed, supposedly, to teach children how to behave (or perhaps more importantly–how not to). The children in the stories–just like us, except that they’re more German and wear clothing styles of long ago–all get fair warnings. Don’t play with matches. Eat what’s on your plate. Don’t torment animals. Watch where you’re going. Don’t tip backwards in your chair. And whatever you do, Conrad, don’t suck your thumb! Not only do the children receive instructions–in some cases, they even hear the dire consequences of ill-advised behavior.
Do they listen? Yeah, right. As I said, they’re just like us–that’s what makes the book so effective. The lucky ones just get dog bites (which, in the illustrations, spew bright blood), lose their satchels in the ocean, or take a lump on the head. The less fortunate ones are burned to cinders, waste away to nothing and die, become grotesquely disfigured . . . or, in one of the most traumatic dolings of punishment, have their thumbs snipped off by a very frightening stranger.
I’ll never forget that image: little Conrad, happily sucking away on his thumbs while his mother is out of the house–the door flying open, and the “great tall red-legged scissor-man” bursting in. This cruel-faced intruder (with his long, streaming hair, his flying coattails, and his twiggy limbs) is a tailor, we’re told; he certainly has the giant scissors to prove it. He doesn’t deliver ultimatums, doesn’t offer final chances: he’s just in through that door (at a dead run, judging from the picture), SNIP, SNIP, and out again–and Conrad is left with stumps for thumbs. Stumps which, yes, spout blood in two neat fountains to his left and right. He looks unhappy.
I’m not sure to what degree Mr. Hoffmann really intended his book to correct behavior. I don’t know, of course. But if I had to speculate, I’d be tempted to think he knew he would fascinate and delight his young readers as much as he would terrify them. As a child, I was afraid of the scissor-man, but he held an undeniable appeal. I came back to the book again and again, just as we all always go back again and again to the campfire where the scary stories are–as we always climb to the dark attic or descend the cellar stairs.
Der Struwwelpeter hit me at an impressionable age. It didn’t sugar-coat the horror. The horror’s consequences didn’t dissolve in the morning light. In its gross hyperbole, the book also delivered honesty. The dangers do lurk; they’re out there. Accustomed patterns can dissolve at any moment. We live in a world of trapdoors. That scares us, but enigmas that we are, we also celebrate it.
Anyone who’s read both Dragonfly and Der Struwwelpeter will know exactly where the villainous Mr. Snicker came from: he’s lifted whole-cloth from Hoffmann–he is the great tall tailor, with a haircut and a few extra pounds around the waist.
There’s a little bit of Der Struwwelpeter in every horror story I write.