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 …

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