Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Revolting Stories

Anyone with children knows they don’t like the boring stories where everyone is good good good and it all comes out nice in the end. Oh, I suppose they like them, but if you can, in the telling, toss in some terrible little detail, let them know the hero is kind of a scamp in ways – kind of like them – they like those stories even more.

Especially – and this holds true for girls as well as boys – if they’re gross in some way.

Thus the success of things like Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes:

This also explains the success of one Hector Hugh Munro, known much better to the world of short tales as Saki. Louis Untermeyer includes two of Saki’s shorts in this compilation. The first is a rather dull telling of a man on a train with a mouse in his knickers who fains to undress in front of a sleeping woman in the same compartment. Of course he does undress, of course his wall of Jericho falls to the floor and of course the woman sees him with his trou down around his ankles. But she’s blind and needs assistance, at the station, to call a cab, so the man’s nuclear blushing is all for naught.

Much better is the story of “The Story-Teller,” a bachelor who tells a rather horrible little story to a trio of bored children on a train in the company of their boring aunt. In the bachelor we see a man a trifle upset at being stuck in a train compartment with three children:

The smaller girl created a diversion by beginning to recite "On the Road to Mandalay." (And here and here!) She only knew the first line, but she put her limited knowledge to the fullest possible use. She repeated the line over and over again in a dreamy but resolute and very audible voice; it seemed to the bachelor as though some one had had a bet with her that she could not repeat the line aloud two thousand times without stopping. Whoever it was who had made the wager was likely to lose his bet.

After listening to a deplorably boring story from their aunt, the bachelor proceeds to tell one of his own, out of passive-aggressive revenge.

"Once upon a time," began the bachelor, "there was a little girl called Bertha, who was extra-ordinarily good."

The children's momentarily-aroused interest began at once to flicker; all stories seemed dreadfully alike, no matter who told them.

"She did all that she was told, she was always truthful, she kept her clothes clean, ate milk puddings as though they were jam tarts, learned her lessons perfectly, and was polite in her manners."

"Was she pretty?" asked the bigger of the small girls.

"Not as pretty as any of you," said the bachelor, "but she was horribly good."

There was a wave of reaction in favour of the story; the word horrible in connection with goodness was a novelty that commended itself. It seemed to introduce a ring of truth that was absent from the aunt's tales of infant life.

Oh yeah. I’ve been there. A story is going rather poorly, but as soon as you inject a bit of naughtiness, the listeners perk right up. This is probably how many comedians decide to turn blue.

The bachelor’s story focuses on Bertha, of course, the horribly good little girl who, while wandering in the Prince’s park because of her overbearing goodness, is caught and eaten by a wolf who heard her hiding in the myrtle bushes because her medals of goodness clinked as she shivered.

The bachelor, of course, revels in his telling of the improper tale, which the children ate up with glee:

"The story began badly," said the smaller of the small girls, "but it had a beautiful ending."

"It is the most beautiful story that I ever heard," said the bigger of the small girls, with immense decision.

"It is the only beautiful story I have ever heard," said Cyril.

A dissentient opinion came from the aunt.

"A most improper story to tell to young children! You have undermined the effect of years of careful teaching."

"At any rate," said the bachelor, collecting his belongings preparatory to leaving the carriage, "I kept them quiet for ten minutes, which was more than you were able to do."

"Unhappy woman!" he observed to himself as he walked down the platform of Templecombe station; "for the next six months or so those children will assail her in public with demands for an improper story!"

Full text of the story is here. What follows is a slightly dreary reading of the story. Why such short stories are popular with dreary readers, I can’t quite fathom. Unless, of course, they’re still children at heart.

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