Monday, February 20, 2012

Guest Post : Edgy Content Musing #2 - Murder and Teens in Literature

Hi readers , I know I have been a bit slack on the Literary Musings of the Phantom Paragrapher. This will become a more regular contribution to my site as I welcome:
Imogen - she is a freelance writer from the UK and has written for a few online magazines.
So with a big HELLO , we welcome Imogen with her first post about Murder and Teens in Literature.

Edgy Content Musing #2 - Murder and Teens in Literature
My last “edgy content” musing dealt with the topic of suicide in teen/YA novels. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but these things really do happen and it’s only realistic that they’re reflected in fiction.

As I said in my previous post, there is a point to covering these tricky topics in fiction: often there’s a moral to the tale or they really do make you think about how these events affect young people and their loved ones.

It seems fitting, then, that we take a look at murder and teens in literature and film and ask whether storytelling is a helpful medium to deal with these events. (These books/films may not necessarily be aimed at teens/YA, but I think it’s fair to say that young people will access and enjoy them.)

The Lovely Bones

I’m going to start with one of the literary sensations of the last ten years, The Lovely Bones (2002), by Alice Sebold, which was released as a film in 2010. 14-year-old Susie Salmon is raped and murdered after she takes a shortcut home from school. The book tells how she looks down on her friends and family in the aftermath of this tragedy from her own personal heaven. She watches as her bereaved father tries unsuccessfully to nail the killer: he is suspicious of his neighbour, George Harvey, but he leaves town before evidence linking him to the murder of Susie and other girls is uncovered. The Salmon family unit breaks down, with Susie’s mother embarking on an affair and leaving her husband and surviving two children. Susie’s classmates, too, are traumatised. In a poignant episode, she temporarily swaps places with a friend and fulfils her dream to make love to a boy from school with whom she’d started a romance. There’s some kind of poetic justice at the end, with Harvey dying in a freak accident in the snow.

What I find touching about this book is that it simultaneously provides us comfort in two different ways. Firstly, by portraying Susie as being in a safe place—her own personal heaven—after the ghastly events that led her there, and from where she can keep in touch with her loved ones on Earth. Secondly, there’s the comfort of seeing how bereavement exposes others’ faults—being realistic about human inadequacies and how we deal with grief takes the pressure off somehow.

Heavenly Creatures
Incidentally, Peter Jackson, who directed the film of The Lovely Bones was also behind Heavenly Creatures (1994), the true story of how a mother was murdered by her daughter and her daughter’s best friend in Christchurch, New Zealand in 1954. The film portrays the two teenage girls as obsessive and living in a fantasy world—from details uncovered during the trial this is a pretty accurate depiction of events. This is a true story, so critics can hardly complain that events described would incite other teens to do the same—it’s a fait accompli. The details of the case also provided inspiration for Harriet Said… by British novelist Beryl Bainbridge. Published in the late 1950s, it underwent several rejections first. One publisher commented, “What repulsive little creatures you have made the two central characters, repulsive almost beyond belief!” I think this says it all: there will always be a part of society that denies that children or teenagers are capable of horrific acts, but it doesn’t mean they don’t exist!
Did you Know that the UK  mystery author Anne Perry was one of the girls portrayed in Heavenly Creatures. Her real name was Juliet Marion Hulme , she was the daughter's best friend.

The Wasp Factory
Going back a generation, The Wasp Factory (1984) by Iain Banks is another classic. 16-year-old eunuch Frank narrates the story of his life so far, and calmly reveals that he killed three younger children—two cousins and a brother—before he reached the age of 10. What is chilling is the calmness in which he recalls the events. It’s as if they’re part of his experiments in discovering what it is to be male (I won’t spoil the twist in the tale if you haven’t read the book). Disturbing? Yes, but a pretty realistic description, I think, of a young psychopathic mind.
Lord of the Flies
But portraying the murder of/by teens is no recent phenomenon. Step back a little further in time and you’ll find other iconic teenage/YA books dealing with the subject. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954) tells the tale of a group of boys stranded on a desert island, and how their attempts to govern themselves end in anarchy and disaster. This includes the murder of one of the boys in a chillingly primeval scene where he is hysterically mistaken for a beast. The book was not a success at its outset, and soon went out of print. But the very fact that since then it has been adapted for film twice, is now a recommended text on many a school syllabus and was named by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the best English-language novels proves a point: the realistic portrayal of the brutality of human nature holds a fascination for us. It’s like holding a mirror up to yourself and seeing the ugliest aspects of your soul—in other words, it’s the ultimate horror story.

Jude the Obscure
Going back even further and Jude the Obscure (1895) by Thomas Hardy includes the murder of two children by their brother, who then commits suicide by hanging. Hardy received bad reviews at the time of publication: no doubt the child-murderer was an unpalatable truth at the time. But the book is now a classic and has undoubtedly stood the test of time.

Researching this post, I found it was much easier to find examples of murder of/by teens in older literature, rather than in present-day work. What does this tell us? I think it shows that in this day-and-age, when all manner of uncomfortable topics concerning teens are discussed openly, murder takes the prize for being the last taboo.

Your teen may be the picture of cosiness curled up on the trendy new
chaise sectional sofa, book in hand, seemingly engrossed in a world of escapism. Don’t be horrified when you take a closer look at what they’re reading and “murder” jumps out at you. Bad stuff happens—teenagers are murdered and themselves murder. Surely literature and film should be free to portray reality without fear of reprisal, as they have done through the ages?

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