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.”

By contrast, the child-murderer Rhoda of William March’s The Bad Seed is not representative of other children, or even of adult wickedness. She’s sui generis, a freak of nature masquerading as an angelic little girl of eight; surrounded by well-intentioned but foolish adults who react to her outward, innocently beguiling behavior in mawkish, stereotypical ways that must have given March, allegedly a hater of children (he was one of eleven siblings, and might be said to have been an intimate observer of the genre child), a grim pleasure to record. Pigtailed, always immaculately dressed and doll-like, Rhoda is “quaint”—“modest”—“old-fashioned”—a “remarkable little creature”—though in fact (as we come gradually to learn) she’s a machine for murder, having inherited the “seed,” or gene, for such behavior from her mother’s mother, who’d killed, among numerous others, all but one of her own children. Speaking of this grandmother-psychopath, and unwittingly of the child Rhoda, an avid collector of lurid true-crime tales says:

The thing that made these people what they were wasn’t a positive quality, but a negative one. It was a lack of something in them from the beginning, not something they’d acquired. Now, color blindness and baldness and hemophilia [are] all caused by a lack of something…and nobody [denies] that they [are] transmitted. Feeble-mindedness [is] a lack of something, too; and certainly it [is] passed along from generation to generation….

Bad seed, bad blood, bad gene: here is a grim genetic determinism which, if true, and it’s a debate that has probably endured through millennia, renders every environmental factor, including education, moral instruction, religion, law, psychiatry, the model deportment of others and their love, civilization itself, quite useless to effect change in the allegedly afflicted individual.1

It would seem to be the case, as experts in the pathology of serial killers might argue, that such sociopathic behavior can’t be prevented except forcibly by imprisonment, and this extreme view is March’s, who may well have identified with both Rhoda the “bad seed” and her stricken mother Christine. (March’s unhappy private life, his apparently miserable childhood, and his adulthood plagued by mysterious breakdowns, phobias, and neuroses, is illuminatingly discussed by Elaine Showalter in her introduction.) “The essential and terrifying pattern” of a life determined at the instant of conception is the stuff of tragedy, but March’s treatment is rather more melodrama, and, unexpectedly, in some of the lulls when the monstrous Rhoda is offstage, Wildean drawing room satire in which pseudo-intellectuals prattle at length about such topics as Freudian psychoanalysis (“My incestuous fixation on [my brother] is so obvious that it doesn’t need elaboration…incest being so trite. What was more interesting in the eyes of my analyst was [my] latent penis hostility and penis envy [and] my impulse to mar and castrate men and women both”), the rapid decline of America(“…The age we live in is an age of violence. It looks to me like violence is in everybody’s mind these days. It looks like we’re just going to keep on until there’s nothing left to ruin”), and repressed, or “larvated” homosexuality:

What does ‘larvated’ mean?” asked Emory. “That’s one I hadn’t heard so far.”

It means covered, as with a mask,” said Mrs. Breedlove. “It means concealed.”

It means something that hasn’t come to the surface yet,” said Kenneth Penmark.

Most of the characters of The Bad Seed are “larvated.” These include the voyeurist janitor, whom the vengeful Rhoda will burn alive and whose demotic stream-of-consciousness may have been the author’s attempt to simulate debased “lower-class” speech; Rhoda’s hapless mother Christine, who comes to the belated recognition that she is both a daughter and mother of psychopath-killers; and, of course, little Rhoda herself, March’s parody of the good little pigtailed girl-child of Victorian sentiment. So unmitigatingly wicked is Rhoda, it would be a rare reader, however opposed in principle to the death penalty, who would not wish for her demise; the Warner Brothers film of 1956, starring the child actress Patty McCormack in a much-lauded performance, hoped to placate audiences by having Rhoda struck by a rather stagy lightning bolt at the film’s end—a comic-grotesque “moral” ending to an otherwise excruciating fable.2 The ironic ending provided by William March, in which Rhoda survives her mother’s suicide without a backward glance, is far more plausible.

Reissued with a chic-tacky cover of a little blond girl-mannikin in a generic 1950s living room, and with a cogent, funny introduction by the feminist cultural critic Elaine Showalter, The Bad Seed is not an accomplished work of imaginative fiction like A High Wind in Jamaica, nor has it the ambition of the schematic Lord of the Flies. But it remains an inspired “suspense thriller” of more than ordinary intellectual pretensions that gains momentum as it proceeds, away from Wildean comedy and in the direction of tragedy; focusing upon the crisis of conscience in Christine Penmark, the only fully realized character in the novel and the only character for whom March seems to have felt any sympathy. For how does a parent deal, after all, with a child who is a monster? Wholly sociopathic, soulless, undisturbed, and certainly unrepentant of her crimes, which to her are not “crimes” at all? In Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child (1988) a similar crisis occurs, focusing upon the mother of the “evil” Ben, with more circumstantial detail and a more realistic examination of what we would call “family dynamics,”3 but Christine Penmark is the mother of only this single child and bears the brunt of recognition: “I alone am responsible. It was I who carried the bad seed that made [Rhoda] what she is.” Like March, Christine even embarks upon the composition of a novel about a woman who comes to the gradual recognition that her child is a monster, in the hope that, imagining how the novel might end, she might imagine how her and Rhoda’s story might end. Christine does work out an ending, but it’s not the ending of The Bad Seed.

If, forty-three years after its original publication, The Bad Seed retains little literary interest, it retains a considerable cultural significance. For The Bad Seed, a fantasy of child-hatred by a bachelor with a misogynist streak, struck a chord of recognition in millions and became a watershed of sorts: following its popular success in 1954, the metaphor “bad seed” would not only become permanently assimilated into our common American vocabulary, but March’s bold image of the deceptively innocent “evil” child would be the inspiration for a flood of novels and films about psychopathic, demonically possessed, and/or simply murderous children. Among these titles, of widely varying degrees of worth and popular success, are The Exorcist, The Other, The Omen, The Changeling, Children of the Corn, Kill Baby Kill, Child’s Play, The Midwich Cuckoos (film version Village of the Damned), The Good Son, Mikey, Bloody Birthday, The Reflecting Skin. Unman, Wettering, and Zygo is about slightly older, prep-school demons; Stephen King’s first, enormously successful novel Carrie (1974), made into an equally successful horror film, is the vengeful fairy tale of a just-pubescent girl-child with telekinetic powers. Classic short stories of the genre are Ray Bradbury’s “Small Assassin,” “The Veldt,” and “The Playground”; Jerome Bixby’s “It’s a Good Life”; Richard Matheson’s “Born of Man and Woman.”

Rosemary’s Baby ends with an inspired cradle scene in which not a demonically possessed infant is enshrined but the very Devil himself in human-cherubic form. How can any normal mother resist loving her baby? The surreal cult film The Brood, written and directed by David Cronenberg, features a “brood”—or litter—of murderous suckling tots engendered out of their beautiful mother’s ferocious hatred; they have no existence apart from her hatred, a lethal psychic force of which she herself is unconscious. The subgenre of “possessed” or alien children overlaps thematically with the popular Fifties science fiction subgenre of invasion novels and films, the most famous of which is Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), that touchstone of American paranoia. This is the film of the McCarthy era that ends with its hero in the middle of an expressway screaming, “They’re coming! They’re coming!” as cars zoom indifferently past.

Most of these titles are generic horror, unlike The Bad Seed which contains no supernatural elements (and is therefore a suspense thriller), but all those that feature children have in common the phenomenon of the “evil” child who must be exorcised or destroyed by forces of (adult) “good.” We can isolate 1954, two years after Dwight Eisenhower’s crushing defeat of Adlai Stevenson for the presidency, as a curious watershed year before which, in popular culture, children were usually portrayed as angelic, and after which children might be as demonic as adults.4 There came to be a zestful communal repudiation of the taboo against acknowledging distrust, hatred, even loathing of children.

William March is especially chilling in dramatizing Rhoda’s single-mindedness of purpose, her alarming insect rapacity, the very antithesis of the scattered concentration and emotions we know to be characteristic of actual children: the lurking adult monomaniac in pigtailed disguise. Rhoda even arouses in the voyeurist janitor a perverse love, though March doesn’t develop this aspect of his theme; the girl-child as nymphet, not only inspiring lust in adult men but participating to a degree in this lust herself, would remain a fantasy for Vladimir Nabokov to evoke in Lolita, or The Confessions of a White Widowed Male (1955).5 Here, famously, the old taboo against acknowledging sexual desire for children, and acting to consummate that desire, was broken for the first time in “high” art.

By demonizing the child, American pop consciousness could overlook the abuses of actual children, surely as prevalent then as now, though yet to be named and categorized. (“Battered children,” “battered women,” shelters and medical facilities to treat them had yet to be invented.) Why, when a taboo is repudiated, is there such a rush of communal relief and excitement? Do we secretly yearn to hate that which we have been obliged to love? Is there a perverse thrill in believing the very worst about what had seemed to us only yesterday the very best? Is the profane simply more viscerally stimulating than the sacred? (As John Berryman speculates in his prologue to Berryman’s Sonnets: “The original fault was whether wickedness/was soluble in art.”)

And what is the curious consolation of “bad seed” politics—the belief that genetic inheritance determines entire lives? Does it comfort us to be told that our efforts at social amelioration are worthless? That the “darkness of man’s heart”—“original sin”—has sullied us all, but some more than others? Is it a comfort to believe that the wicked are, in the bad seed sense, like the child Rhoda, not to blame for their wickedness, but that they deserve to be punished anyway? And to punish them, if we’re good people, is in fact “good”? Precisely because it lacks the complexity, subtlety, and ambiguity of what we call art, American popular culture, like American politics (which is a branch of popular culture), is a mirror that tells us more about our collective soul than we might sometimes wish to know. > Reading is a learned skill of prodigious complexity, but this provides no reason in itself for scepticism about the existence of a gene for reading. All we would need in order to establish the existence of a gene for reading would be to discover a gene for not reading, say a gene which induced a brain lesion causing specific dyslexia. Such a person might be normal and intelligent in all respects except that he could not read. (The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection, W.H. Freeman, 1982, p. 23.)

  1. 1

    Theories of the genetic inheritance of criminal characteristics and tendencies have always been controversial, for obvious reasons. If there is a murderous “x chromosome” that might be detected in fetuses, what then? Present-day genetic research seems to be ever more specifically pinpointing genes for various kinds of behavior that, in earlier eras, would have been considered volitional, a consequence of “free will.” This discussion of dyslexia by the biologist Richard Dawkins parallels William March’s amateur theorizing:

  2. 2

    The film, oddly, is far less cinematic and sensational than the novel, being a too-faithful adaptation of the Broadway stage adaptation by the workmanlike Maxwell Anderson. Potentially grueling, dramatically spectacular scenes like the one in which, in the novel, poor Leroy the janitor runs as a human torch, burning alive while Rhoda looks on smirking and licking her ice cream cone, are not visualized, nor are the “recovered memories” of Christine’s ax-wielding mother, which Alfred Hitchcock would have brilliantly exploited. There is even an absurd, mood-shattering postscript in which an exasperated stage-mother Nancy Kelly puts her naughty stage-daughter Patty McCormack over her knee and spanks her—as if frustrated audiences had been lusting for such a reaction through the film. (A good old-fashioned American spanking as punishment for three murders.) And Patty McCormack looks gigantic for an alleged eight-year-old. In effect, The Bad Seed awaits its full realization in film.

  3. 3

    Of The Fifth Child, which reads like a nightmare parable, Doris Lessing remarked that the child Ben “isn’t evil at all. He’s just out of the right place. If he is in fact the result of a gene which has come down through many centuries, all he is, is a different race of being that’s landed up in our…complicated society.” In Conversations with Doris Lessing (Ontario Review Press, 1994), p. 176.

  4. 4

    In Lillian Hellman’s earlier The Children’s Hour (1934) as well as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (1953), “demonic” (but not demon-possessed, and not murderous) adolescent girls conspire to bring down essentially good, decent, independent-minded adults. Hellman’s play explored issues of female sexuality (lesbianism) in a conservative, conformist, private-school community; Miller’s play, set in seventeenth-century Salem, Massachusetts, during the era of the Puritan witch trials, was a powerful critique of the anti-Communist/Red Menace hysteria of the 1950s. It is interesting to note that both playwrights chose spiteful adolescent girls as deceitful informers bent upon destroying exemplary adults. (Miller’s play drew upon historical documents, but the real-life accuser of martyred John Proctor was a child, not a sexually precocious adolescent.) Where the “invasion” novels and films of the 1950s imagined demonic forces from other planets (i.e., overseas), these more complex and realistic works of drama imagined demonic forces in the very phenomenon of “accusing” and “informing.”

  5. 5

    In his afterword to the Berkley paperback edition of Lolita, Nabokov speaks of having completed the handwritten manuscript of the novel in spring 1954, coincidentally the season of Bad Seed publication and controversy. Though Nabokov the aesthete would have distanced himself from March, his novel bears a significant cultural relationship to March’s. Humbert Humbert fantasizes the child Lolita (with whom he has just had sex for the first time) as possessing a body “of some immortal daemon disguised as a female child” (p. 128).