Humour in Children’s Gothic Fiction – Cross

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In her analysis of the comedic turn in Children’s Gothic fiction, Julie Cross writes:

A Series of Unfortunate Events The Bad BeginningWithin children’s fiction, the comic Gothic can no longer be ignored… Many texts aimed at older junior readers (around ten years of age and above), most part of a series or which have sequels, now incorporate the mix of ‘horror,’ ‘humour,’ and the Gothic. Perhaps the best known is Lemony Snickett’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (started in 1999)….” (p.57)

Cross notes a dismissive attitude towards the junior readers of Gothic humour among critics, observing a common perception that such readers are not able to access sophisticated comic Gothic texts. “However,” she writes, “I argue that, maybe surprisingly, much of the humour in some comic Gothic texts for younger readers also relies on a sophisticated understanding of irony, parody, genre convention, and ‘higher’ order cognitive forms of humour, such as the perception of, and ultimate enjoyment and even acceptance of, incongruity. Incongruity forms of humour, where a reader perceives a difference between their expectations and the ‘reality’ (Morreall 1987: 6), are generally acknowledged to be within the cognitive, even ‘intellectual,’ domain of humour….” (p.58)

Dimanche Diller in Danger“The unheeded complexities of such texts [as Henrietta Branford’s Dimanche Diller triology], and the opportunities they offer for sophisticated reader understanding, should not go unrecognised. Comic Gothic texts for younger readers should be acknowledged as containing more than the unsophisticated, farce-like humour, and gross, sometimes even scatological humour which I believe are generally associated with the comic Gothic for young readers, due mainly to the limiting critical attention to the works of Roald Dahl, particularly his classic comic Gothic texts such as The Witches (1983) and Matilda (1988).” (p.58)

“…negative views about children are not unusual. According to Cunningham (1995: 2), it has been common ‘to imagine the history of humankind as equivalent to the life cycle of a human being,’ with a gradual ascent from savagery/childhood to civilisation/adulthood. Lurie talks of children as ‘savages,’ ‘uncivilised’ and ‘pre-social’ – she talks openly of children as ‘an unusual, partly savage tribe’ (1990: ix). She sees childhood as a separate culture, rather like a primitive society, or rather, several primitive societies, one leading into the other, with the period from the age of about 6 to 12 years of age corresponding to ‘early civilisation’ (194-195). Such recapitulation theories may represent the more extreme end of the tendency, in our society, to perceive of children as ‘human becomings,’ rather than as human beings (Lee 2001: 8). According to Lee, children’s lives and activities in the present are envisaged, in the main, as ‘preparation for the future,’ with childhood being seen as a journey towards a final, complete destination. Of course, this also implies that adulthood is perceived as a finished state, but this is increasingly questioned, even within psychology itself (Buckingham 2000: 14). Unhelpful, over-generalised beliefs about the essential differences between children and adults obviously extend to perceptions about humour preferences. Jalongo (1985) cites Dunn (1921), who believes that ‘humor as the child sees it and humor to the adult mind are not one and the same’ (1985: 109) and Sadker, Pollack, and Miller state that children are able to see ‘few incongruities,’ and so their sense of humour is ‘somewhat different and more limited than adults’ (1977, in Roberts 1997: 11).” (p.63) “Betsy Byars (1993) also states that ‘the gap between what adults think is funny and what kids think is funny is considerable.’ Although it would be ridiculous to deny some notions of a biologically determined developmentalism, I believe it is also foolish to deny that maturity does come with experience, and children need to be given the chance to experience higher forms of humour and literary sophistication, as different children will obviously perceive and appreciate differing forms of humour at varying time.” (p.64)

The Witches - Roald DahlThere is so much more to the genre of child comic Gothic that has been passed over in the critical clamour to look only at the developmental aspects of one author’s works, although this is somewhat understandable given Dahl’s huge level of popularity.” (p.64)

The comic Gothic increases the genre’s acknowledged ambiguity, instability, and boundary crossing, because of its juxtaposition of the incongruous – fear-inspiring characters and terrible situations which may cause reader anxiety, but which are often also seen to be humorous and comically incongruous.” (p.65)

Discussing the parody of melodramatic conventions in Dimanche Diller in Danger (and how they are “mixed with a typically Gothic level of apprehension and anxiety about what is going to happen to Dimanche” (p.70)), Cross writes: “The irony of narration is also important, being prominent in this trilogy and in contemporary comic Gothic texts for junior readers in general. As Horner and Zlosnik reveal, though in relation to adult Gothic, the comic turn is often located in the telling (narration) of the story itself (2005: 9). In addition to the parody of melodrama in the use of foreshadowing, there is also the strong parody of the overt, intrusive, opinionated and often ironic narrator of melodrama: such parody can be useful in providing comic distance from the horrors of the Gothic. In a review of Branford’s texts, Michael Thorn 92002: 1) points out the ‘lugubrious narrative tone’ of the narrator of this trilogy, for children still too young (in terms of reading ability) for Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events. In addition, the stories, like Snicket’s, do lack the usual cheerful tone of most children’s tales, certainly those which most obviously contain lots of humour. From the second sentence of the very first book, the narrator addresses readers, after informing readers that Dimanche is an orphan, having lost both her parents at sea. [Cross quotes Branford: ‘]And let me tell you right now, this is not one of those stories in which the missing parents turn up in the end. You must just take it from me that every now and then fate deals someone a cruel blow.[‘] (Branford 1994a: 7)” (p.70)

Cross continues: “Although the stories, true to the spirit of melodrama, do end with the heroine triumphing and villains receiving their comeuppance, there is no happy ending in that Dimanche’s parents are indeed lost forever. [-p.71] This is typical of the comic Gothic, which despite slapstick and farcical episodes, often contains elements of more serious, normally less palatable undertones of life’s unfairness, offering a bitter-sweet experience.” (pp.70-71)

“The humour of this sort of parody for young readers, as Jon Stott points out about other texts, is in the story turning ‘things upside down’ and/or looking at ‘serious story conventions humorously’ (1990: 224). In doing this, such texts are actually self-reflexive and foreground their own textuality, and this can, at least in theory, provide young readers with a subconscious awareness of deliberately constructed literary devices. Irony, in particular, may help produce a certain level of beneficial detachment from any unthinking identification with the ideologies of the text….” (p.71)

“…the humour in these texts can serve other functions than merely ameliorating fear through humour, and also extends beyond the well-documented psychological temporary relief from societal restrictions provided by simpler, cruder forms of humour. In fact, in Branford’s trilogy, perhaps unusually for a book aimed at such a young readership, there is surprisingly little recourse to what developmentalists such as Kappas sometimes term early, cruder types of visual humour (Kappas 1967: 69). Branford’s inclusion of more complex, higher forms of humour, such as parody and irony, as well as acknowledging young children’s cognitive abilities and their perceptions of incongruity, can actually reinforce and even add to the schema for the playful ambiguity of the child Gothic in developing readers. This ludic quality of higher forms of humour in the comic gothic, then, serves to add even more to the essential hybridity of the Gothic.” (p.72)

Ref: (italics in original, emphases in blue bold, mine) Julie Cross ‘Frightening and Funny: Humour in Children’s Gothic Fiction’ pp.57-76 Eds. Anna Jackson, Karen Coats and Roderick McGillis (c2008) The Gothic in Children’s Literature: Haunting the Borders. Routledge: New York

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