Last week, I wrote about Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories, Trigger Warning. But there’s a quote in there that struck me the first time I read it, and struck me again when I was writing that blog post. It’s this one:
“I wonder, are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . .”
I had a book like that. Well, to be fair, I saw the movie first, but when I was in high school, I read the book. It was The Picture of Dorian Gray. One night, when I was three or four, it was on television. In those days, there was one television in the house, and whatever was on, was on. Needless to say, it was quite some time before I slept well. At four, I had never considered the Big Ticket Items that Oscar Wilde gets to in this book. Selling your soul. Having a soul that can be sold. The existence of evil. The horrors of getting old.
If you’re not familiar with this novel, you need to read it. But in a nutshell: Dorian Gray is a young dilettante – gorgeous, young, vain – who has a portrait done of himself. As he stares at it, he muses, “How sad it is! I shall grow old and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young . . . If only it were the other way! If it were I who were to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that, I would give everything . . . I would give my soul for that!” (Moral of Story #1: Be careful what you wish for. Because you never know who is listening.)
To be fair, it’s been ages since I read it – when I was older, in high school. But it’s that movie version that has stayed with me, that final scene in which Gray dies and his staff rushes in to find a hideous old fiend dead on the floor . . . while the portrait has mysteriously regained its youth. It. Freaked. Me. Out. Because it was the first time in my life that I understood mortality. I don’t think any four-year old should have to understand that. At least, not under those circumstances.
And yet. What else have I learned from books? There weren’t many books in the house when I was growing up, so I read the encyclopedia (took me about a year; I think I was four or five?). I would go to the library and just grab books off the shelf. I ran through the usual things like Billy and Blaze and other lovely books that are now out of print, but I always read at least one grade level ahead, usually two – and as I grew older, the gap got wider. So by the time I was in sixth grade, my classmates were reading Sweet Valley Twins and I was reading Dean Koontz. 🙂 Want to talk about disturbing? I was the only sixth grader who knew what a hermaphrodite was (thanks to The Bad Place). But hey. They were interesting and fast-paced and not only did they teach me about the world, they also taught me how to write. No one tells a better story than Koontz. I’m convinced of that. I’m just boycotting him until he gives us that final installment in the Christopher Snow series.
I learned history. Empathy for humans and animals alike. More so for animals. I learned about ciphers and encryption. Race relations. Ancient Greece and Rome. Ghosts and things that go bump in the night, things that still haunt my writing.
And yes. As Neil Gaiman says in Trigger Warning, these books upset him because “I was not ready for them . . . they troubled me and haunted my nightmares and my daydreams, worried and upset me on several levels, but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”
The Picture of Dorian Gray disturbed me on several levels. It haunted my nightmares and my daydreams. It was so far out of my comfort zone as a four-year old, I don’t think I ever found my way back to my comfort zone. I think most of us have that one book, the one that changes us in some fundamental way. I think that’s why people are afraid of books. Because books make you think. They force you to confront new realities, new ways of thought.
They’re bloody dangerous, books.
And they are not safe places.
But would we have it any other way?
I think not.