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Killer Kids

The Bad Seed

by William March
Ecco Press, 217 pp., $9.95 (paper)

First published in 1954, when it was an immediate and much-discussed bestseller, The Bad Seed has long been out of print and its eccentric author, William March, author of five previous novels and three short story collections, long forgotten. Popular culture swallows the creations of individuals and excretes them, so to speak, as autogenetic-mythopoetic figures: of those worldwide millions familiar with Frankenstein (that is, Dr. Frankenstein’s unnamed creature) and Dracula, for instance, presumably only a small fraction know that these are literary creations, still fewer the names and identities of their authors. Popular culture has no memory, or sense of chronology; “history” is a matter of costuming, not a complex matrix of forces yielding complex meanings. To the degree to which horror fiction is successful, it tends to be detached from a specific author and from the vehicle of language itself. So with The Bad Seed, which germinated a mass-market harvest of evil, murderous children where none had previously existed; or, if they’d existed, had been too nuanced and ambiguous in their meanings, thus too difficult of access, to have emerged as mythopoetic.

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’ gods,/They kill us for their sport”—Gloucester’s remark in King Lear indicates a general acknowledgment of childish cruelty. Yet there are remarkably few child-monsters in folklore, fairy tales, popular myths and legends, still fewer in literature. Where a child or young person would seem to be evil , he or she is likely under the spell of another, or of the very Devil. The ethereal, childlike Carmilla of Sheridan Le Fanu’s dreamy gothic tale “Carmilla” (1872) is revealed to be a vampire, deadly even to those who adore her; but Carmilla is a descendant of an accursed Austrian family of aristocrats, “long extinct,” and presumably not to blame for being a blood-sucking monster. Henry James’s subtly imagined The Turn of the Screw (1898) presents us with not one but two haunted children (“If [one] child gives the effect another turn of the screw, what do you say to two children—?”) in the angelic Miles and Flora, whose innocence, or corruption, is the focus of their new governess’s excited concern. More boldly than in any other work of his fiction, perhaps because the genre is gothic, a tale of apparent ghosts, thus not “real,” James approaches Victorian taboo subjects of sexual perversity and sadism in The Turn of the Screw; most daringly, he explores the mystery of child sexuality.

Since the art of the novella is elliptical and suggestive, and we observe the children exclusively from the perspective of their new governess, we are never able to know with certainty to what degree the children have been corrupted by the now-deceased Peter Quint and their former governess Miss Jessel, or whether in fact they’re quite innocent, victims of their new governess’s zeal to save their souls at any cost. Perhaps the predominant theme of this relentlessly analyzed classic is our inability to know, let alone guide or control, the inner lives of others; our tragedy is to pursue, as the obsessed governess has done, an elusive “truth” to the point at which it becomes pathological and destructive. Are little Miles and Flora under an evil enchantment, from which they must be saved, or are they simply secretive children who prefer fantasy worlds, and fantasy adults, to the “real” that surrounds them?

The only weakness of Benjamin Britten’s powerful opera adaptation of The Turn of the Screw is that the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are portrayed as unmistakably present, while James’s novella retains its ambiguity to the very end; little Miles dies of fright in the governess’s arms, his secret (if he has had a secret) intact. We are not even allowed to know if the boy has been expelled from school for having told boys he “liked” secrets of (homo)sexual love learned from Peter Quint, nor do we know whether Flora’s hysteria and her outbursts of “shocking” language are a consequence of her having been thwarted in her alliance with Miss Jessel, or the result of her new governess’s exaggerated vigilance. The fated children are not monsters, however, but victims; one or another adult has destroyed them.

Altogether different “evil” children figure in Richard Hughes’s A High Wind in Jamaica, or The Innocent Voyage (1929) and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954). In Hughes’s lyric, macabre tragicomedy ten-year-old Emily, daughter of an English family residing in the West Indies, commits an act of murder for no apparent reason, stabbing to death a defenseless man; she pursues another small child with the intention of killing her, but tires and loses interest; her court testimony condemns to death an innocent man for the very murder she herself has committed. “It is a fact that it takes experience before one can realize what is a catastrophe and what not”—Hughes explores the nuances of such an observation from a number of angles in this eerie, magical, and now unfortunately little-read tale of middle-class English children on a ship, bound for England, that has been captured by a motley crew of modern-day pirates.

A High Wind in Jamaica is part fairy tale, part horror parable, a gripping portrayal of the ways in which Emily and her companions are affected by their bizarre outlaw experience on the sea, and in turn affect their pirate-abductors. What Hughes seems to see as the natural amorality of children, their feckless “innocence,” contrasts with the troubled, conscience-stricken responses of adults. For here is a further turn of the screw: the little girl as heartless murderer, though not lacking in emotion and even childish sentimentality. As in James’s novella, the child’s private world is inaccessible to even sympathetic, attentive adults; Emily’s father, reunited with her in England, though knowing nothing of her savagery, instinctively shrinks from her. And the omniscient, unnamed narrator, whose consciousness has floated deftly in and about A High Wind in Jamaica like the very sea breeze itself, draws back at last from the enigmatic little girl in her new school in England:

In another room, Emily with the other new girls was making friends with the older pupils. Looking at that gentle, happy throng of clean innocent faces and soft graceful limbs, listening to the ceaseless, artless babble of chatter rising, perhaps God could have picked out from among them which was Emily: but I am sure that I could not.

Is Hughes suggesting that all little girls, all children, are potential Emilys? Is their, or our, savagery primed to be released in the right “outlaw” circumstances? Or is Emily an anomaly, as she seems to have been among her child-companions, none of whom has behaved as she did?

A High Wind in Jamaica is too poetic and subtle a work of art to make explicit its meanings, unlike the self-consciously high-concept Lord of the Flies, in which, as the author described his didactic intentions, “the defects of society [are traced] back to the defects of human nature.” Golding’s allegory would seem to have been influenced by readings in popular anthropology as well as by both A High Wind in Jamaica and Joseph Conrad’s symbolist masterpiece “Heart of Darkness” (1899) in marooning representative British schoolboys on a desert island and tracking their gradual reversion to savagery. In vogue during the 1950s and early 1960s, Lord of the Flies was taught in high school and college English classes for its readily explicated symbols and its value as a stimulus for “discussion.” Though much of the novel is in fact sparely and elegantly written, like Golding’s later, much-praised allegorical work (The Inheritors, Pincher Martin, Free Fall, The Spire), there does seem to be a paint-by-numbers quality to its structure and periodically articulated epiphanies. The schoolboys—Ralph, the natural “civilized” leader; Piggy, the myopic, good-hearted, fattish, and bumbling intellectual; Jack, the demonic tribal chieftain; Roger, the sadist, torturer, executioner, and right-hand man of the chief; Simon, the mystic—are types rather than characters, like masked performers in a ritualistic play. Predictably, the novel brings us from the boys’ initial hope of maintaining their civilized inheritance—

We’ve got to have rules and obey them. After all, we’re not savages. We’re English, and the English are best at everything. So we’ve got to do the right things.

—through a gradual breakdown marked by incursions of primitive dream-visions, paranoia, and violent outbursts to the final debacle, the murder of Piggy and the triumph of madness. Ironically, the last sane boy, Ralph, is being pursued by a gang of boys intent upon killing him and mounting his head on a spear, when as in a cinematic flourish British naval officers arrive on the island to rescue everyone. These bemused adults see not the vicious creatures we know them to be but merely “little boys, their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands,” the psychopathic Jack, painted like a savage, the remains of Piggy’s spectacles at his waist. Comments the naval officer, “Fun and games.”

The “Lord of the Flies” is a hallucinatory beast the boys have come to worship out of terror at their predicament, a projection of their demonic selves. It’s given symbolic visual form as the decapitated head of a butchered sow they’ve mounted on a stake. The mystic Simon seems to hear this fly-buzzing horror speak:

Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill!” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

This is an unlikely “vision” for a boy, as heavy-handed as Ralph’s epiphany at the novel’s end with its self-conscious echo of Conrad:

He gave himself up to [tears] now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and, infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

It’s doubtful that Golding can have had actual children in mind in this allegory: he describes twelve-year-olds as “little boys.” Lord of the Flies is a grim anti-pastoral in which adults are disguised as children who replicate the worst of their elders’ heritage of ignorance, violence, and warfare. The novel’s final image is that of a British naval cruiser on the horizon. Golding’s interest is not in children but in recreating, in a stark and suspenseful drama, a demonstration of mankind’s curse of “original sin”—in post-Conradian cliché, mankind’s “heart of darkness.”

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