Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Re-Reading Project: The Forbidden Game

Jenny glanced back over her shoulder. They were still behind her, on the other side of the street but definitely following. They matched their pace to hers; when she slowed to pretend to look in a store window, they slowed, too.

There were two of them, one dressed in a black T-shirt and leather vest, with a black bandanna on his head, the other in a long flannel shirt, black-and-blue plaid, unbuttoned. Also unwashed. They both looked like trouble.

The game store was a few block ahead. Jenny quickened her pace a little. This wasn’t the best neighborhood in town, and she’d come here specifically because she didn’t want any of her friends to see her. She hadn’t realized, though, that Eastman Avenue had gotten quite so rough. After the last riots, the police had cleared things up, but many of the vandalized stores still had boarded windows, which gave Jenny a creeping feeling between her shoulder blades. They were like bandaged eyes turned toward her.

I’m fairly sure that The Forbidden Game trilogy were the first books of L.J. Smith‘s that I read, probably around the time they were published in 1994. By the time I started tracking my reading in 1996, I was already an earnest L.J. Smith fan and had read most of her books. Between 1994 and 2000, I re-read all of L.J. Smith’s book compulsively and if I remember correctly, The Forbidden Game was my favorite series during this time.

Emilie's original battered copies of The Forbidden Game trilogy

Emilie’s original battered copies of The Forbidden Game trilogy

Most of L.J.’s books feature teenagers dealing with extraordinary circumstances or creatures with minor adult supervision. Sometimes, as in The Forbidden Game, they are relatively normal teenagers. Later, L.J. would write about the psychically gifted, a coven of modern-day witches, vampires, and more in her other series. But The Forbidden Game is like Labyrinth meets Jumanji meets Norse mythology. Maybe it’s because I just re-watched Labyrinth (on a huge screen outdoors in a field by the river with food trucks nearby, perfect), but I totally suspect now, as an adult, that L.J. might have modeled Julian from The Forbidden Game on Jareth from Labyrinth.

In 1998, I was 16 and I moved from my hometown in Georgia to Mandeville, Louisiana (a suburb north of New Orleans, across Lake Ponchartrain). This is my cut-off for the books I’m reading during The Re-Reading Project and it was also a pivotal year for L.J., who stopped publishing for more than a decade. Stranded in unbearably humid Louisiana as a surly teenager, I re-read all my L.J. books and sought out other L.J. fans online. The Internet was relatively new to the casual home user and I explored webrings (remember those?) and e-mail during that first summer away from everything I knew. I also wrote my first book and I was heavily influenced by L.J.’s books when I wrote it, especially The Secret Circle. By the time I went off to college in 2000, L.J.’s fans still didn’t know what had happened to her and were still waiting for her to publish the last book of a 10-book series which was supposed to wrap up before the new millennium. All of this feels like ancient history to me now, but that last book, Strange Fate, still hasn’t been published, which I’ve written about here before.

At the end of my earlier post about L.J. Smith and Strange Fate, I’d noted that she’d been fired from writing The Vampire Diaries and that new books were being written by a ghostwriter. There’s a really good Wall Street Journal article I just found while researching for this post that talks about what happened and how L.J. is using fanfiction to write and publish her version of new Vampire Diaries books. It’s a very bizarre (and cautionary) story. It also explains why she stopped writing for a decade.

So while I’ve never read the two stand-alone books that L.J. first wrote, though she was only publishing actively for less than ten years (particularly 1994-1998), she managed to create several series that had an enormous impact on me as a person and a writer. But, in college, I mostly put the books away. While I’ve always had them on my bookshelves (till now, they’re in storage), I haven’t re-read them. Starting around 2008, all of her books were republished in shiny new omnibuses and both The Secret Circle and The Vampire Diaries were made into t.v. shows. New books were published for both series (which I haven’t read). Out of nostalgia mostly, I bought the reissues of all the books and even some of the new books, but I still didn’t re-read them. I was afraid that the experience of reading them could never be the same as it was when I was a 14-16 year old and that somehow the books would be diminished.

But when I started thinking about doing The Re-Reading Project, I knew that I would have to re-read something by L.J. Smith. I thought for a long time before I decided on The Forbidden Game, since it was my first series of hers and my favorite. So I dug both the original copies and my big omnibus edition out of storage. They were in a box that a friend helping me pack one day had labeled:Emilie's Formative Years

When the time came to read this month’s selection, I was once more in D.C. I’d read an engrossing thriller on my Kindle during the flight and started a Gillian Flynn book once I arrived (wait for the Quarterly Reading Report!) and I found myself dreading The Forbidden Game a bit. It was too big to fully ignore, but silently reproached me every time I passed it while carrying my slim, engrossing Gillian Flynn novel. Finally, I picked it up and began reading.

Forbidden Game 2010

At first, all my worse fears came true. I was bored. I thought Jenny and her boyfriend Tom were about as interesting as cardboard. Julian, the bad guy, was a little too reminiscent of Jareth. All of Jenny’s friends, the background characters, were marginally more interesting, but they also felt a little too purposefully cast (Audrey, the globe-trotting rich girl, Michael the schlubby funny guy who somehow won her, Zach the sullen anti-social computer nerd/artist, Summer the ditzy but sweet flower child and Dee the athletic black girl). But, as the story progressed, I was turning pages faster and faster, remembering why I’d liked the book and the characters and finding new nuances and details that the younger me wouldn’t have noticed, particularly in each of the character’s fears as they encounter them. I don’t remember being particularly interested in the second book when I first read the series, but that was the one that came alive to me now, especially the difficulties that the friends face now that they’ve returned to the real world without one of their own. The third book is interesting for all the ways that Jenny has changed, especially in her relationship with Dee and with Julian, and also because of the “road trip” aspect of the kids having to finish the game in a different state. The details of how they get from California to Pennsylvania are hilarious. In a pre-9/11 world, they fly across the country with, among other things, a crowbar in a duffel bag. Since I had just flown for the first time in a long while and was baffled how I was going to wash my long hair for 10 days with less than 3 ounces of shampoo, that was something I especially noticed.

Except for that and a few other small things here and there (the clothes! and the phone situation in book 2), the books aren’t as dated as I thought they’d be. While reading them now, at 32 years old, could never be the same as my experience reading them as a teenager, I was pleased about how enjoyable re-reading them was, both as an exercise in nostalgia and for their own sake. I prefer the original covers, which give you an idea of what the game world and Julian look like, over the rather static picture of an updated Jenny alone, which is why I included them above. Plus, a book as heavy as the omnibus can really kill your wrists (but it did lay open very satisfyingly).

I’m not sure when I’ll re-read any more L.J. Smith books, but I’m no longer afraid to. Perhaps I’ll go back and finally read The Night of the Solstice and Heart of Valor, her first too books. If you look at her website and her Wikipedia page, L.J. Smith has plans for new installments of this series too, in addition to Strange Fate. She plans a fourth book for both the Dark Visions series, as well as The Forbidden Game (called Rematch!). I suppose I could always re-read each series when and if each of these new books is published. Should be interesting to see if it comes to pass and how old I am when it does.

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The Re-Reading Project Guest Post: Children’s and Household Tales

The wolf thought to himself, “What a tender young creature! what a nice plump mouthful—she will be better to eat than the old woman. I must act carefully, so as to catch both.” So he walked for a short time by the side of Little Red-Cap, and then he said, “See, Little Red-Cap, how pretty the flowers are about here—why do you not look round? I believe, too, that you do not hear how sweetly the little birds are singing; you walk gravely along as if you were going to school, while everything else out here in the wood is merry.”

Little Red-Cap raised her eyes, and when she saw the sunbeams dancing here and there through the trees, and pretty flowers growing everywhere, she thought, “Suppose I take grandmother a fresh nosegay; that would please her too. It is so early in the day that I shall still get there in good time!” and so she ran from the path into the wood to look for flowers. And whenever she had picked one, she fancied that she saw a still prettier one farther on, and ran after it, and so got deeper and deeper into the wood.

When I was a girl, the tales my mother told at bedtime weren’t fictions. They were the lens through which I saw the world, the overlay I superimposed over my experience. I dropped bread crumbs in the deep dark woods behind my house. I told my little brother and sister about the witch who lived in our rotting barn. I heard her cackle, a high wheezing sound like the wind during hurricane season. At night, when I looked out of my window at the dizzy moon, I heard the howl of the wolf.

I can still hear my mother’s voice, telling the tales she told me when I was little. I loved those stories, and I was thrilled when my father gave me a beautiful edition of the Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales – collected with Aesop’s Fables and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen –to read by myself. At six or seven, I stayed up, late at night, reading and rereading those stories.

Mary and Grimm

When I had my own daughter, three years ago, I looked forward to telling her the tales of the Brothers Grimm. But when I picked up my book to reread them, I had an altogether different experience than the one I had as a girl. The awe and wonder I once felt for these tales quickly faded as I noticed their underlying assumptions about gender: Why does Little Red Riding Hood fall for the wolf’s scam?, I wondered. Is her head filled with nothing but flowers and sunbeams? And how convenient that the huntsman happens to pass by just in time to save her from the belly of the wolf.

Another of my childhood favorites, “Rapunzel,” was similarly disappointing, this read, especially the moment when the title character accidentally reveals her affair with the prince. Apparently lacking the intellectual capacity to deceive her captor, Rapunzel slips up while the enchantress climbs her hair, saying: “Tell me, Dame Gothel, how it happens that you are so much heavier for me to draw up than the young King’s son—he is with me in a moment.”

Scattered throughout the book are a few stronger heroines. There is Grethel from “Hansel and Grethel,” who pushes the “godless witch” from the gingerbread-house into the oven. There is the miller’s daughter in “Rumplestiltskin,” who despite weeping a great deal in the beginning takes a semi-active role in defeating the little man at the end. (Both my daughter and I take great pleasure in the moment when she guesses his name, and he cries out miserably, “The devil told you that! the devil told you that!”) And there is the heroic sister in “Seven Ravens” who travels “to the very end of the world,” where the sun and moon try and fail to devour her on her way to save her seven brothers. But by and large, the magic and simple beauty of these tales is marred by the overabundance of wicked old women and foolish damsels in distress.

So how did these tales, which likely began as stories told by women to women and children, become so problematic? When I finished rereading Children’s and Household Tales, I decided to find out. It turns out Little Red Riding Hood – titled “Little Red-Cap” in my translation after the German “Rotkäppchen” – is first referenced as a 10th century oral French story folklorists call “The Story of Grandmother.” In this early incarnation, instead of needing rescue, Red cleverly escapes the wolf on her own by telling him she has to relieve herself. But in the first version of the tale to appear in print, “Le Petit Chaperon Rouge” (1697), male author Charles Perrault includes no such happy ending: Red strips for the Wolf, gets into bed with him, and is eaten. In a moralizing message at the end of the tale, Perrault uses a double entendre likening “gentle wolves” to predatory gentlemen “following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes.” The Brothers Grimm, it seems, added the now-popular ending of a heroic huntsman cutting Red and her grandmother from the belly of the wolf in their first edition of Children’s and Household Tales (1812).

A similar pattern of the heroine gradually weakening over time can be seen in the history of the Rapunzel tale. In all versions of the story, the basic pattern is the same: a mother craves a plant while pregnant, eats it, and the owner of the garden takes the child as payment. Then the child is placed in a magical tower, where a prince falls in love with her and climbs up her hair. In the first version to be published in print, “Petrosinella,” by Giambattista Basile (1634), a gossip tattles on the maiden’s nighttime activities with the prince, rather than the maiden betraying herself, and the maiden plots her own escape using three magical nuts. In the next known variant, Persinette (1698), Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force has the maiden betray her own affair with the prince by complaining to her captor that her dress is getting tighter, but adds the bit about the power of the maiden’s tears to heal the prince’s blindness at the end. The Grimms’ version (1812) has the weakest heroine,  with “Rapunzel” making the foolish mistake of admitting that the prince has been “with her” and only being reunited with the prince when he stumbles blindly upon her in the wilderness.

The gradual weakening of the heroines of these tales –from the stronger girls of earlier variants to the “tender young creature[s]” of the Brothers Grimm – makes me wonder what has been lost, over the centuries, as these stories have been told and retold in print. What details might we reclaim from the past, or add for the future, so that our children will see more than tender young creatures, wicked witches, and wolves in the world?

***Mary McMyne Wolf Skin

Mary McMyne is the author of Wolf Skin (Dancing Girl Press, 2014)a chapbook of poems that retell European folktales from alternate perspectives, such as the huntsman from Little Red Riding Hood, the witch from Rapunzel, and the woodcutter’s wife from Hansel and Gretel. She teaches at Lake Superior State University, where she is co-editor of the journal Border Crossing. Her stories and poems have appeared in Word Riot, Pedestal Magazine, Painted Bride Quarterly, Los Angeles Review, Apex Magazine, New Myths, New Delta Review, Poetry International, and many other publications. Her poetry has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Rhysling Award. Her criticism has appeared in American Book Review. A recipient of the Faulkner Prize for a Novel-in-Progress and a Sustainable Arts Foundation Promise Award for her fiction, she is currently at work on a novel set in 12th century Germany, which speculates about the historical roots of several well-known fairy tales.

 

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