Challenging normative masculinity and femininity in children’s horror – Heinecken

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According to Dawn Heinecken:

Horror fiction for children, including stories of the gothic, the uncanny, the supernatural, and the occult, is a dominant genre within present-day children’s literature. To date, the developing scholarship around this phenomenon has focused on the works of contemporary writers (Brennan et al., 2001; Jackson et al., 2008; Gooding, 2009). Absent from existing scholarly discussion is a consideration of [-p.119] earlier novels by writers whose works of horror fiction clearly precipitated this trend. [/] Most notable among these early practitioners is John Bellairs.” (pp.118-119)

“Featuring disturbing and uncanny imagery and plots revolving around ghosts, witches, possession, and the resurrection of the dead, his novels emerged as a significant contrast to the serene tone of children’s literature in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century (MacCleod, 1985). Popularly as well as critically acclaimed, fan websites such as Compleat Bellairs and Bellairsia.com attest to his continued significance as a major writer of children’s horror (Stasio, 1991; Sutherland, 1980).
Yet despite Bellairs’ importance in the development of children’s horror fiction, there has been no serious examination of his work to date. While popular accounts of Bellairs’ success often point to the ways that the chills of his novels are mediated by humorous elements and a reassuring message of adult love and protection (Stasio, 1991), such framings overlook the ways that his books may nonetheless be experienced by readers as terrifying, if only temporarily. Indeed, more significant than the reassuring resolution of his novels is their particular construction of the monstrous and the horrifying.

As critics of adult film and literature have noted, horror is a constantly evolving genre, whose shifting forms and content express the uncertainties haunting a society at any given time; it has been particularly expressive of fears related to gender and sexuality (Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 4; Williams, 1995, p. 7). Horror may function in a ‘‘reactionary’’ manner, punishing transgressions of conventional gender roles and reinforcing stereotypes, or it may function to subvert existing structures of power located around race, class, gender, and sexuality (Badley, 1995, p. 102). This essay provides a close reading of Bellairs’ foundational trilogy, The House with a Clock in Its Walls (1973), The Figure in the Shadows (1975), and The Letter, the Witch and the Ring (1976), to argue that, like works of adult horror, the trilogy is usefully understood as an exploration of the period’s fears and
anxieties related to gender and sexuality.
Published in the early and mid-seventies, Bellair’s trilogy may be situated against the mainstreaming of horror for adult audiences during the Post-Vietnam period (Schweitzer, 1999, p. 1; Carroll, 1990, p. 2; Colovita, 2008, p. 7), a mainstreaming which has been tied to the upheaval of traditional gender and sexual relations brought about by the feminist, anti-war, civil rights and gay rights movements (Clemens, 1999, p. 185; Magistrale and Morris, 1996, p. 2). These movements radically transformed discourses surrounding masculinity, destabilizing Cold War notions of a (white) masculinity built around an ideology of toughness and the image of the breadwinner and suggested the need for ‘‘a range of alternative masculinities’’ to replace this ideal (Winter, 2003, p. 118).” (p.119)

Clover […] observes that the reframing of masculinity in horror films is often dependent upon particular constructions of femininity and the female body that displace women to even more marginal realms of feminine excess (p. 105).
The three occult novels forming the original trilogy of Bellair’s series reveal a similar pattern of masculine revision and feminine displacement at work in children’s literature. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the larger culture of the late sixties and seventies, the trilogy rejects hegemonic notions of masculinity and proposes a new form of manhood for young readers built around a reevaluation of the relationship between masculinity and femininity. However, the series continues to reinscribe heterosexist norms at the same time femininity remains tied to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.120)

“As Barbara Creed notes, horror is often dominated by images of the ‘‘monstrous feminine,’’ those qualities of Woman that are ‘‘shocking, terrifying, horrifying and abject’’ (p. 67).” (p.121)

“Often citing the biographical features of his novels, John Bellairs worked to challenge existing gender norms through the construction of shy, clumsy loners as his protagonists. Like other forms of children’s literature emerging in the seventies, his works of children’s horror are particularly reflective of the period’s changing discourses around masculinity (Herzog, 2009, p. 72). However successful his novels are in deconstructing hegemonic masculinity, they are less so in challenging dominant notions of femininity and sexuality. Despite the apparent gender nonconformism of his characters, women and the feminine are closely related to the monstrous in Bellairs’ trilogy, and ultimately female identity remains linked to loss and uncertainty.
After the completion of the original trilogy in 1976, Bellairs worked primarily on two other horror series featuring the adventures of Anthony Monday and Johnny Dixon. He died in 1991 before the completion of a proposed fourth novel in the series, The Ghost in the Mirror, which was substantially fleshed out and published posthumously by Brad Strickland in 1993. Using the drafts and notes left by Bellairs, Strickland authored three subsequent novels in the Lewis Barnevelt series.” (p.129)

“While children’s horror of the seventies suggested the need for a refreshed, renewed masculinity, it was left up to later works of horror to formulate power as a necessary ingredient of femininity.” (p.130)

Ref: (emphases in blue bold, mine) Dawn Heinecken (2011) Haunting Masculinity and Frightening Femininity: The Novels of John Bellairs. Children’s Literature in Education (42):118–131

Abstract: “While developing scholarship around children’s horror fiction has focused on the works of contemporary writers, this essay provides a close reading of the novels of John Bellairs, a leading and early practitioner of the genre. It argues that the first three novels in his Lewis Barnevelt series may be understood as addressing some of the same anxieties related to gender and sexuality as those found in adult works of horror. Echoing changing discourses about masculinity at work in the late sixties and seventies, Bellair’s novels propose a new form of manhood for young readers at the same time they continue to tie femininity to loss, lack and unspeakable desires.” (p.118)

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