The Allure of Childhood

8 05 2012

Originally published at the Apex Books Blog. Original post lost after a server crash. Reposting it here for posterity:

Remember when your days seemed to stretch on forever? Everything was new. We were just beginning to fathom the realities of the world around us. Is there any wonder that childhood is such a wonderful setting for our stories? From Stephen King to John Irving to J.D. Salinger to Harper Lee to any number of contemporary young adult authors, a variety of authors who work with a wide range of genres from the fantastic to the mundane – authors love working with childhood as the backdrop for their stories. The fantastic is still believable. The world is still perceived through a veil of innocence. Revelations lie around every corner.

I think about these things as I watch my boys play. I watch them as they grow in their understanding of the world. It’s fascinating. Sometimes it is wonderful and sometimes heartbreaking. I have seen my children find the joy of taking a long hike with me to find a hidden waterfall where they can cool off and splash and play. I have seen them climb up a rocky hillside with me and then look down from the top and see how far they’ve come and seen the glint of pride in their eyes at their feeling of accomplishment. These things make me feel good. But I have also seen them have to accept the death of my grandmother and father-in-law. I have seen my oldest boy cry because of a gravestone placed in the front yard of a neighboring house where a shaggy little black dog used to play. The light and darkness, the duality of this world, are everywhere. And to understand the world is to understand both the light and the shadows which compose our reality. It means we must understand both life and death.

The lines between the light and the dark seem more starkly contrasted in our youth. Right is right and wrong is wrong, and moral relativism is still more or less beyond comprehension (at least mentally – there may be an inherent understanding as evidenced by the child who reaches out and steals a grape in the produce aisle simply because he or she is hungry). Authors utilize this contrast to their advantage time and time again.

In a recent interview with author Jeffrey Ford (The Shadow Year, The Emperor of Ice Cream and Other Stories, etc.) for Fantasy Magazine I asked him why use childhood as a setting. He said:

“…I guess these stories deal with some kind of awakening from childhood. ‘Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking’ stuff. It’s a rich theme, sometimes too rich, but at those points of revelation when you’re a kid, sometimes the effect is so startling the world warps momentarily and things take on the attributes of the fantastic—both light and dark.”

The world does warp with revelations. Our understandings of the world grow and change with our experiences. And, as a bonus – other than the occasional possessed child or “Children of the Corn”-type story – children tend to be universally likeable as protagonists. Yes, childhood is a powerful place for stories.

In no particular order, here is a list of some of my favorite stories about childhood:

Something Wicked this Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

The Shadow Year by Jeffrey Ford

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Boy’s Life by Robert McCammon

The Pigman by Paul Zindel

The Voyage of the Frog by Gary Paulsen

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub

The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake

When I Was Five I Killed Myself by Howard Buten (This one is not very well known but should be!)

The Body by Stephen King

The Turtle Boy by Kealan Patrick Burke

“You Dream” by Ekaterina Sedia (available in Dark Faith)

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

And there have been many, many others. In fact, just this week, I read and enjoyed T.J. Weyler’s “The Neighborly Thing to Do” in Issue 26 of Apex Magazine. I found it to be another wonderful example of a childhood story handling larger issues in a striking way. These were just the first few examples to pop into my head. Something Wicked this Way Comes may be my favorite and possibly the best example of a novel detailing both the wonder and darkness to be found while growing up. If you like your stories a little more on the realistic side, When I Was Five I Killed Myself probably stands out in my mind as one of the most brutally honest depictions of a kid’s-eye view of the world I have ever come across.

So, what stories did I miss? What are your favorite stories about childhood?

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Ozymandias Revisited

16 01 2010

Crossed Genres magazine is currently asking authors to Post a Story for Haiti. Below you will find my previously unpublished story “Ozymandias Revisited.” I hope you enjoy it!

Please go by the website set up by the fine people at Crossed Genres and consider making a donation to help in the Haitian relief efforts currently underway. Thank you!

Ozymandias Revisited
by T.J. McIntyre

Kudzu crept over the crumbling brick wall. Behind this protective layer of greenery hid the grafitti signature – a sign of her past, a signal from another time. Angeline pulled at the plants, tugged away the winding vines, and tried to uncover the writing. Bits of dust floated in the air around her. A few rotting bricks fell free and shattered as they hit the ground below. Cicadas sang a piercing song in the background, and she could hear the distant warning of a rattlesnake.

Within a few seconds, the signature became clear: ANGEL. Five interconnected letters scrawled in a flowery and looping hand in various shades of red and black. To anyone else – but there was no one else, she reminded herself – it would appear as just another forgotten work of graffiti, yet another fading reminder of another time, but to her it meant everything.

ANGEL. 

She looked up and down the empty overgrown streets. She stared up the side of the old bank building. It was hard to believe that she was in the same place, the same Birmingham she had known and loved. She remembered coming here and signing this so long ago. She remembered the rush she had felt at the time, worried a police officer might round the corner and catch her and Jesse with their cans of spray paint. With a pang, she wished a police officer would round the corner. It had been so long since she had seen one.

She ran her hands over the letters, felt the gritty bricks beneath her hand, and sighed.

The sounds of nature around her silenced. Then she heard the Wares. They yipped and yapped as they ran. She felt the rumble of the running pack beneath her feet and looked around for somewhere – anywhere – to hide. The buildings offered no protection.

Too many wires.  

Too many eyes.

She saw a glint of gold shine through a pile of shrubbery. She ran over to it and moved some of the plants away and recognized the hidden form beneath the vegetation. It was the statue of Electra that had once stood atop the old Alabama Power building. She dove beneath it and peered out through the small hole she had created when entering her hiding place.
The wares rounded the corner. The leafy weeds around her swayed with the artificial wind created as the Wares sped by in a flurry of steel, plastic, and wire. She felt the rumble beneath her as the current reigning rulers of the earth passed. Trailing the pack, she saw Franklin. He was trying to keep up, but was left behind.

She wanted to reach out to him, to cradle him next to her like she had in her childhood, but she knew to do so would be suicide. Her toy was no longer a toy. He had long gone feral and joined the pack. He preferred being among his own, she knew, even if the pack disrespected him and left him behind. She had seen him a few times in the years since The Event, and every time he had trailed the pack, following them as they rumbled through the empty streets.

She still loved him, and still thought of him as her Franklin. Even grown feral, he was cute, a large robotic dancing baby with a docking station in the back for her ipod.

In fact, most of the wares were cute – or at least appeared practical – when thought about in their previous context during the days they had served and entertained men, women, and children. That was before they had been hacked to consciousness by The Program, of course.

The Program had run rampant, stirring consciousness. It crept along the wired networks first. It found a comfortable refuge in the corporate buildings. The computerized machines used in manufacturing struck first. Isolated incidents and workplace accidents – seemingly unrelated – had been making headlines before Angeline had left town. Her newlywed husband Travis had been one of the casualties.

After Travis’s funeral, she decided to get away. She stayed up on Sand Mountain where her parents had long owned a primitive hunting cabin. Her plan was to stay a few weeks and then return to work and her life. Those weeks turned into months and still she grieved.

Sometime while she was gone, The Program hit the wireless networks.

By the time she finally made it back, there was nothing left to return to. The wares had decimated the population. As far as she knew, she was all that was left.

Seeing Franklin, she felt a pang. She had discarded him years ago, and now he had returned — but not to her. She watched him trail the pack around the corner and then let out a long exhale. She had not even realized she had been holding her breath until after the wares passed.

Cicadas and the rattlesnake resumed their songs. Like them she was another survivor, but she was too afraid to sing and, besides, there was no one around to appreciate her song.

She left her hiding place and began to jog in the opposite direction of the wares. Her shoulder hurt from the weight of the five gallon gasoline tank she used as her canteen. It sloshed as she ran, sounding half-empty. She worried her shoulder could not take any more weight, but knew she would need to fill it the rest of the way up before heading back to home.

“Home” was inside a magnolia tree suffocated by a wall of kudzu. It was in what used to be her front yard before the electronics in the house left the lot barren. She shared her home with the cockroaches. As much as they had disgusted her in her former life, she had grown used to her new roommates — even appreciating their vitality in the face of so much death. She grew to like them so much, she was always sure to leave them a little food in her discarded canned goods.

As the years passed, the corpses of humanity decomposed. The stench of death she met when first returning to her hometown had long since blown away. Few traces of humanity remained. In the suburbs, those faint traces were nearly non-existent. Her weekly trip to Birmingham was all she had to keep her sane. It had become a pilgrimage of sorts to remind her of humanity’s former place in the scheme of things. Humanity’s fingerprints were still left in the brick and mortar walls, in the crumbling statues, even in the steel girders serving as the bones of the skyscrapers. Humanity remained in the design despite the fact that all wired architecture now housed the Wares.

She recited Shelly’s “Ozymandias” while walking through the empty streets. Out of habit, she read the poem to herself nightly from a battered paperback literature omnibus she had found inside the remnants of a college bookstore. As she fell asleep, she would quote the final couplet repeatedly:

“What powerful but unrecorded race
Once dwelt in that annihilated place.”

She wondered if one day a future poet might see the remains of her society and be inspired to write words with such depth, meaning, and clarity of thought. At night, hearing the insect chirps in the trees, feeling the pounding of the Wares through the empty streets and highways nearby, she realized words had grown meaningless in this new world. She realized that they always were meaningless. They were never anything more than signals. Her graffiti, her name — ANGEL — held no significance to the current inhabitants of the world. It was just another word, another lost signal, without meaning now that the lexicon was gone.





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