Thursday, October 16, 2014

15 Days 'Til Halloween: The little things (Sylvester and the Magic Pebble)

Since Halloween is both a holiday for kids and a festival of frights, I thought I'd take this opportunity to talk about a storybook that scared the BEJEEZUS out of me when I was a wee lad of maybe six or seven years old:

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig is an award-winning children's book; but it's no Cat in the Hat or Where the Wild Things Are, so some of you may be familiar with it and some of you may not. It is not an intentionally scary book, as far as my adult mind can reckon. Like any truly worthwhile bit of children's entertainment, it has its moments, of course. It's not in the let's-all-cooperate-and-share vein (which has its own worth too, granted, but more as a pro-social teaching tool than as narrative art that can and should stick with someone past early elementary school or so), it actually has conflict and tension and stakes, but arguably still of a fairly manageable level, with brightly-colored and gently-rendered illustrations of the anthropomorphic animal characters. It's not unexpurgated Grimm's fairy tales. But for pure, abject existential terror, there's not much else in my childhood which stands out quite so hauntingly.

Sylvester is a young donkey who collects things, like interesting-looking pebbles. And one day he happens to find a magic, wish-granting pebble, which in the context of the story is a fairly unusual object. Human-like animals aside, it's a pretty mundane world that Sylvester inhabits, and the magic pebble is his special secret little treasure.

So clearly right off the bat we have a premise in which it was all too easy for me to project myself. Sylvester's not just a collector (ahem) but also a bit shy and quiet and maybe even nerdy, when suddenly an element of the utterly fantastical is introduced into his life in the course of indulging in his usual solitary pursuits (which, it goes without saying, was a daydream I had all the time growing up).

One day Sylvester is frightened by a lion (the implications of the co-existence of savage feral animals and domesticated civilized animal-people is never fully explored, not that this occurred to me as a young'un) and a panicked Sylvester wishes he were a rock, because the lion couldn't hurt a rock. His wish comes true, but since he now has no hands (he's not a statue donkey, he's a big oblong boulder) the magic pebble drops to the ground. And if he's not holding the pebble, or at least making physical contact with it, he can't make any more wishes, including the wish to turn back to normal. So he is stuck as an inert stone, but still very much mentally awake and (at least inwardly) aware.

WHICH IS HORRIFYING. This is basically the nightmare at the heart of Johnny Got His Gun, right? A nightmare so terrifying that Metallica wrote a song about it and then underlined it by making a video that referenced both film versions of that novel. Of course I didn't know about the Dalton Trumbo novel when I was a little kid, and Metallica's "One" came much later, but the concept struck a chord in me. I don't know why exactly this should be a particularly devastating fear of mine; maybe it's just the fact that I'm a natural extrovert and I need other people's attention and energy, and therefore extreme isolation strikes me as absolute torture. And maybe, too, in the case of Sylvester and how much I identified with him, I could see myself making a similar mistake, a reflexive mental spaz with dire consequences.

The book then spends a little time describing how Sylvester's parents looked all around for him when he didn't come home, but could never find him, and this also struck terror into my little heart. All well and good now in my rational adulthood to chuckle about how we used to freak out in the 80's about stranger danger and child abduction, blowing them out of all proportion, but living through those times was not always so fun. There was always an undercurrent in the PSAs and school assemblies and whatnot that we kids needed to be careful and protect ourselves not only for our own sakes, but for the sakes of our poor parents who would be so heartbroken if anything ever happened to us. Which must have worked on some level, whether via programming or due to social instinct, I don't know. I do know that when I was little and watched the Wizard of Oz and Dorothy is unafraid about running away from home, but then changes her mind when she imagines how distraught Auntie Em is, it made perfect sense to me. So the plight of Sylvester's parents, the horror of their loss as well as their not knowing what had happened or why, was pretty dang chilling to me.

The story has a happy ending, as one day Sylvester's parents (presumably now somewhere in the "acceptance" phase of their grieving process) go out for a picnic and discover a nice big rock to spread the lunch out on, which of course is the metamorphosed Sylvester. And they happen to notice the magic pebble in the grass, and think how it's the kind of thing Sylvester would have liked, and they set it on top of the boulder. Coincidentally, at the same time, Sylvester's consciousness, floating around in some mental limbo within his geologic prison, is thinking fondly of his mother and father and wishes he could be reunited with them. The pebble grants his wish, changing him back, and everyone is overjoyed and the picnic becomes a celebration.

But even at the tender age of six or seven, that resolution struck me as a bit pat. It was pure dumb luck that Sylvester's parents found him, found the pebble, and put the magic wishing object in contact with their transmuted son at the same time he was idly wishing. There was no comforting lesson about how devoted parental love, or Sylvester's own indomitable spirit or individualistic intelligence, or anything like that, led to his salvation. The message of the book did not seem to be "Disasters happen, but here's how to proactively navigate the storm" but rather "Self-inflicted disasters happen, and there's not much you can do except wait and see how it's all going to turn out due to forces beyond your control." Which, yikes.

I admit, I have not revisited Sylvester and the Magic Pebble at any point. I believe it was checked out of the public library for me and returned a couple of weeks later, so it's not like I could pull it down off my parents' shelves again when I was thirteen or nineteen or twenty-seven. It deeply creeped me out well through my childhood, just popping into my consciousness at random intervals to unsettle me. If I were to run across it again, maybe I'd find that it's perfectly benign, certainly much less sinister than I remember it. But that's assuming I could bring myself to open the cover and risk falling under its spell, and I'm not entirely sure that I could.

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