Margaret Wise Brown: Author of Dread

If you want to scare yourself tonight, just read some children's books.

I have to put on a brave face when my son requests one of a few books that we own by the popular children’s author Margaret Wise Brown. They are not horror books of course, no monsters lie within, but there are different sorts of fear, and Brown was a master–probably unintentionally, but no less effectively–of subtle psychological and cosmic horror, and it’s still hard for me to get through her work without a lasting case of existential dread.

Popular accounts of Brown paint a portrait of a carefree life lived to the full. Apart from rosy gloss, the outline of her life seems like the backstory for a ghost: an ignored child of rich, separated parents who packed her off to Switzerland every year for boarding school. A B.A. in English, a broken engagement to a decent fellow, and thereafter a string of affairs with less than memorable literary figures, untalented womanizers, a longer relationship with an elder, maternal lesbian, before a final engagement to a third-string Rockefeller before an untimely death caused by a freak accident. Despite her less than ideal life, her published work continues to be devoured by most American children, and this is not so unusual, since melancholy is a fixture of children’s literature from Hans Christian Anderson to J.M. Barry. But something darker has entered the works of Brown. It is a fact that children are as enraptured by fear as they are by joy, and this, I think, explains the enduring popularity of Brown’s books. We do not own them, they own us.

It is not sadness that emerges from Brown’s work, but an unpleasant mixture of anxiety and fear. Children’s literature always peers into the inner world of the child, but Brown does not find fairies or castles there, but stark figures and forms which appear at first ordinary, but on closer inspection are arranged by a deep and dark logic, that presents itself but eludes the understanding. The Great Green Room in Goodnight Moon, probably the most popular children’s page ever illustrated, is characteristic. Look at Clement Hurd’s illustration for longer than a minute and a chilling mood slowly emerges.

click to enlarge

Let’s start with the color. The red and green bisect the room. The green consoles while the read seems to bode ill and the blue-clad bunnies are suspended somewhere between them, without any hint as to whether they will ascend or descend. Both the old lady on the left and the child in bed seem confined to their islands of chair and bed, as though moving outside of them is not an option. The child seems symbolically safer, blanketed in green, though he, no less than the lady on the chair is encircled by a sea of red, like a lake of lava.

As for the shapes and forms of the room itself, symmetry is the first perceptible feature, but it is not long before you notice things are slightly off. The spacing of the windows checks out, the clock, the hearth, the picture of the cow is nicely centered. But instead of producing a comforting consistency, the crease of the page runs just off to the side, creating the illusion that the very book you’re holding has shifted off its center. The moon peers up through the bottom of the window, as though the room were floating through space, and I’ve never been quite sure whether the pinstripe drapes  mirror each other. The chiastic pattern of the light scattered by the bedside lamp is nearly perfect, but it cuts cleanly through the room like a spotlight. Worse, the table it rests on obscures its lower hemisphere, creating a perplexing bubble of shadow. The room, which seems at first to respect symmetry, subtly mocks it, and perhaps you too for expecting such psychic comfort. A good night’s sleep doesn’t seem to be on the cards in this room, and the successive “good nights” to the objects therein begin to seem more like desperate pleas for a consolation that cannot possibly come in a place which has lost its center.

Furthermore, the objects in the room are oddly spaced. Some things are very close together, others far apart, but nothing really rests on top of anything else, as one might expect from a room full of clutter. It’s as though the objects lie along invisible geometric planes and ellipses that are not available to us. Some unseen internal principle appears to organize the room, like magnetic forces, or light scattered through a matrix of refracting mirrors. Things seem to swirl around the ashen rug in the middle. The tangle of yarn that the kittens (black and white) are tussling for is the only disorder in the room and it’s right in the center. The heart of order is chaos. In the dead center is the ball itself, a black knot (or rather “naught”) like a navel simultaneously holding everything together and threatening to suck everything into it.

All of this amounts to an unease that persists throughout the goodnight wishes on subsequent pages, (particularly when “nobody” is deemed worthy of a good night wishes).

You might object that it is Hurd, not Brown that gives one the creeps, but by this you reveal that you haven’t read many books by Brown because all of them conceal sinister images and themes (The Runaway Bunny being the possible exception that proves the rule, but I’m not totally convinced). When Brown sent her notes to Hurd, she included Goya’s Boy in Red to guide his thoughts.

He seems to have gotten the message. She probably sent Leonard Weisgard the same thing, because the palette is unmistakeable. Red Light Green Light turns from childlike anxiety to outright fear. I’ve never read a scarier children’s book. If Goodnight Moon is a bad trip, Red Light Green Light is an outright horror show. Somewhere between 1984 and Salem witch lore, I can’t imagine a place I want to be less than this Picassoesque rendition of a New England township rendered only in brown, black, and white governed by the all-seeing oculus of the traffic light that appears somewhere different on every page with either its red or green light illuminated. The red and green of the bedroom in Goodnight Moon appears to have bled into the world, and the results are, well…let’s just go over a few things.

The uncanny of the object placement in Goodnight Moon is back, but this time it’s screaming at you. After a few pages, one gains the unmistakable impression that someone is trying to get a message through to you and the idea of randomness becomes less and less plausible. Why is it green here, and red there? Why does it appear on this half of the page here, and the other half there. Out in the town, people can be seen but as though petrified in time. A horse and buggy sits next to a delivery truck. A parson and a few nuns leave a church, but one apparently built in a Protestant congregational style(???) The only colors that appear beyond the shadows and highlights and the sepia between them is the titular binary which hides in plain sight on every page. A steeple here, a doorway there, trees all around. Like Goodnight Moon, a maddening awareness of something begins to spread over the mind as you begin to notice that windows and doorways which circumscribe the full forms of the objects in the town, as though the cows and trees are straining to stay inside of them, fleeing the oblivion beyond the page.Besides, is anything really moving? Presiding above all is a dark moon with only a sliver of light that seems only to emphasize its vast black interior. Cripes, what does it all mean? Seriously, just take a moment to appreciate what parents go through reading this to their kids…

You to console yourself that it’s all just whimsy and randomness; stop trying to spook yourself. But this pleasant escape is obliterated when you get to the Parlor. Looking out from the hall there is a window with a bedroom wedged impossibly behind it. Out the window, a white cow grazes underneath the moon, as though a deliberate perversion of the popular rhyme, while a black cat (not fiddling) faces opposite in the foreground, occupied by something on the sill. The three are arranged in completely different places along both vertical and horizontal axes–the tabby a few feet away in the house, the bovine a few feet more outside, and the celestial body hundreds of thousands of miles beyond the atmosphere–yet they appear flattened out, as though they are actually right next to each other. It all adds up to some kind of eldritch cosmology, or the portent to a deep and horrible truth, or perhaps only half of one, since the picture is only completed by noting the scene at the opposite end of the spread: door disconcertingly ajar, framing a tall and short tree, two cats facing away from each other…and finally the gargoyle of the street light which stands with BOTH LIGHTS ILLUMINATED as if to taunt the rational nature with an unsolvable metaphysical contradiction.

This is only one page.  Get me out of here.

Lest you suppose that two points do not constitute a line, there are other examples. Little Fur Family at first tells a fairly quotidian story about a Beatrix Potter-like clan of furry creatures. You aren’t too concerned at first that they appear to have no discernible species (they’re somewhere between wombats and bears, but also the size of gerbils). They get dressed and make food. But then the little fur child goes outside and it pretty much turns into Twin Peaks. He is surprised at first to find that other creatures do not share his own features (he notices, for instance, that fish have no hair) and goes on a search for something like him. A normal author might wrap this up as a little metphor for how nobody is like you and you’re special like a snowflake and oh isn’t that nice, nighty ni–but then he finds a tiny version of himself in the grass and he kisses it and it runs down a tiny hole.

Not making this up:

Then he caught a little tiny tiny fur animal The littlest fur animal in the world
It had warm silky fur and
even a little fur nose.
So he kissed it right on its little fur nose
and put it gently back in the grass
and the little tiny tiny fur animal
ran down a hole into the ground.



We could spend many more words unpacking the Freudian implications of this scene, but then he goes back to his house and his mother sings to him:

Sleep, sleep, our little fur child,
Out of the windiness,
Out of the wild.
Sleep warm in your fur
All night long,
In our little fur family.
This is a song.

This is a fine enough resolution so long as you ignore those foreboding lines about the windiness and wilds without, or the final line reminding you that anything that may have comforted you in this verse is really only a song, and does not necessarily correspond to reality. So you close the book and then you notice the picture on the front cover, which seemed innocuous enough but now you notice the blood red sun, hanging strangely above the family, but apparently illuminating nothing like a sleepless eye at the apex of some invisible triangle, watching us all…

Oh wait, that’s a ball. Time to stop. It’s never easy to return to waking life after staring into Brown’s abysses. It’s hard to know for sure what’s staring back but it’s certainly nothing good.

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