I am SO not a horror fan.
Horror movies have ensured that I will never relax in a bathroom with a shower curtain. Or a clown. Or a little boy doll with chubby cheeks. (Although, I must admit, I haven’t encountered either of the latter in my bathroom, I remain vigilant.) But what I didn’t realize was that horror is best served up from the most familiar, beloved places. Take being a grandmother—apparently we run equal chances of eating small children and getting eaten by big bad wolves.
I noticed this recently when looking for books and movies for my grandchildren. The years have really not been kind to some of them… Disney movies have messages that now make us cringe. (Beauty and the Beast: kidnapped girl falls for her captor, which causes him to turn into a rich handsome prince with better table manners and they live happily after. That makes sense, right? And don’t even get me started on pervy guys who assault sleeping girls…)
At the bookstore I picked up The Tale of Peter Rabbit (“Don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor”—Beatrix Potter). All righty then.
I considered other classics. Santa? (“He knows when you are sleeping. He knows when you’re awake…” Creepy much?) How about Narnia? (Grownup sis Susan can’t come any more, but the rest of them can stay—as long as they all DIE first.) The Rainbow Fish? (if you want people to like you, you have to give them all your pretty shiny stuff, including your own body. “You won’t be as beautiful, but you will have friends.” WTF???)
What about all the sweet fairy tales of childhood—the ones I now realize feature grandmother-eating wolves, stepmothers who are actual homicidal monsters, and other witches who EAT children. Then there are all the messages about “real” toys—Winnie the Pooh, Puff the Magic Dragon, Buzz and Woody from Toy story, and so many others—who are abandoned and forgotten when their child owners grow up.
I picked up an old favorite, The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, flicking through the pages as I imagined reading it to my grandchildren. I’d tell them about how The Boy—a child like them—got sick and almost died. About how all his stuff (including toys which had become “real” by being loved) were then burned. Burned! And that’s when I realized how many beloved children’s stories are basically horror stories even Stephen King would blush to tell. (Somehow, that shower doesn’t seem nearly as scary now…)
Here’s my own attempt at cozy horror, with a little help from our friends over at the ever-addictive plot generator.
The Curse of the Adorably Fluffy Velvet Bunny
A Horror Story
by Sids Toys
Whilst investigating the death of a local
dedicated subverter of the adult world child, The Boy uncovers a legend about a supernaturally-cursed Velvet Bunny circulating throughout Grade Two. As soon as anyone plays with the adorably fluffy soft bunny, he or she has exactly 42 days left to live (or until their next report card comes out, whichever is sooner).
The doomed few appear to be ordinary children during day to day life, but when photographed, they bear a surprising resemblance to their teacher, Miss Fremble. A marked child feels like a fuzzy stuffed toy elephant to touch, which makes their final days excruciatingly painful because everyone just wants to hug them and rub their soft little cheeks.
The Boy gets hold of the Velvet Bunny, refusing to believe the superstition. A collage of images flash into his mind: a wooly lamb with a black velvet face balancing on the soft cheek of a
dedicated subverter of the adult world child, an old newspaper headline about a collapsing tower of wood blocks in a fatal schoolroom accident, a hooded hanging monkey ranting about thumbs, and a water fountain located in a sunny place.
When The Boy notices his cheeks have stuffed toy elephant-like properties, he realizes that the curse of the adorably fluffy soft Velvet Bunny is true. He calls in his best friend—no, they really ARE only good friends; these are children here, you perv—an innocent child named Justa Girl, to help.
Justa plays with the adorable fluffy soft Velvet Bunny and willingly submits herself to the curse. She finds that the same visions flash before her eyes—the wooly lamb with black velvet face balancing on her warm cheek is particularly chilling. Justa joins the queue for a supernatural death.
The Boy and Justa Girl pursue a quest to uncover the meaning of the visions, starting with a search for the hooded hanging monkey. Will they be able to stop the Velvet Bunny’s curse before their time is up?
- If the Velvet Bunny is an alien entity who will eventually destroy all life because why the heck not, and only succumbs when The Boy gets Pink Eye—which as everyone knows is fatal to alien bunnies—it’s Cosmic Horror.
- If The Boy lives in a huge ancient house without central heating where everyone sounds like they’re auditioning for a BBC Jane Austen adaptation, Justa is actually the ghost of a long-dead child, and poor housekeeping has led to every door creaking and considerable evidence of spiders, it’s either suburban Scotland, or—if the Velvet Bunny drinks his blood at night, or is part of the Dr. Who Christmas Special—it’s Gothic Horror.
- If the Velvet Bunny is just a velvet bunny and The Boy is being manipulated by Justa (who has never accepted that her own parents couldn’t be arsed to give her a velvet bunny of her own), it’s Psychological Horror and The Boy will both use it as defense in his (inevitable) homicide trial plus as basis for his best-selling book and screenplay.
- If their teacher, Miss Fremble, is actually Satan—which you can tell by her intense focus on grammar and proper formation of cursive letters b and capital Q, plus by the way her head revolves a full 360 degrees as she paces down the rows of desks —and Velvet Bunny is really The Boy’s guardian angel who is, unfortunately unable to save him because, well…he’s a stuffed toy, it’s Religious Horror. The Boy can only be saved when Justa accidentally drops Velvet Bunny in the bowl of holy water she keeps in her lunch box for just such an eventuality and uses it to wipe Miss Fremble’s unholy cursive from the chalk board.
- If Velvet Bunny’s curse is actually a mutant strain of mildew that is causing rapid brain damage resulting in hallucinations, death, and/or decidedly unpleasant body odor, it’s Science Horror. If the mildew turns into an epidemic which causes the dead to reanimate and attempt to infect and/or ingest the living, it’s either Zombie Apocalypse Horror or the next US Presidential election cycle.
- If the Velvet Bunny’s curse causes The Boy and Justa to lure their (blonde, of course) teen babysitters (followed by the entire high school football team because why not?) down to the basement where they are systematically turned into teenaged tomato soup, it’s Date Night Horror and will most probably become a franchise with lifetime employment for The Boy and lucrative product placement licenses for the Velvet Bunny.
- If the cursed object and children are adorable reminders of our own innocence and everything we hold to be good and lovely, only to have them turn into a total brain screw that questions all we hold dear, it’s either Cozy Horror or we’re trapped in a Groundhog Day version where we’re forever forced to relive the 2016 election returns, pretty much the Worst Horror Ever.
To discover an exquisite little example of cozy horror as a novella, see my review below of Doggem: A Tale of Toy Dogs and Dark Deeds by John F. Leonard.
BLURB: Doggem: A Tale of Toy Dogs and Dark Deeds by John F. Leonard
Sentience? I’m just a throwaway toy, an inanimate object. How can I have thought and emotion? Opinion and experience? I’d shrug my shoulders if I could. The world is brimful of mystery.
All the kids adore Doggem, the class cuddly toy.
They each get to take him home. Hug him and love him and show him their world outside of school.
All they have to do in return is write his diary.
It’s George Gould’s turn and he’s going to introduce Doggem to a rather unusual family.
Before we go any further, it’s worth pointing out that both the stuffed toy and little boy are far from ordinary.
Doggem is no longer your run-of-the-mill snuggle doggy. Designed to fall apart after a few years. Perfect for squishing and squashing into a comfort blanket.
He’s a million miles from that now. Doggem has just become a living creature. Thinking and reasoning. Trying to make sense of an unexpected existence.
Strange places and scary experiences are in store during this sojourn with his latest custodian. Things no respectable fluffy dog should ever have to witness. It might end up in deadly territory.
Make no mistake, there is magic here. Some of it as black as a starless night.
Well, George is descended from decidedly dicey stock. There are folk in delightful George’s lineage who have indulged in practices of a somewhat shadowy nature. The ramifications of which aren’t ready to be consigned to history. They want to spill out of the past and have their say in the future.
DOGGEM is a spooky little tale about toy dogs and dark doings. A gently disturbing horror story. But beware, this charming cocktail of witchcraft, imagined folklore and paranormal fantasy might just bewitch you.
Not easy to pin down genre. Without doubt it has a certain heart-breaking beauty to it. Maybe it’s a modern fairytale. A scary one, flavoured with a dash of the occult, written for an adult audience. After all, fairy tales feature the supernatural and have a magical aspect to them.
They often have old cottages and eerie, unnerving woodland settings.
Wickedly enchanting women and innocent children.
Ancient evil and everyday greed.
Doggem is a short story, one in a series of sinister tales from the Dead Boxes Archive.
The Dead Boxes?
Some objects are frightening things and the Dead Boxes definitely fall into that category.
They can be easily overlooked. Ordinary on the surface. At first glance anyway. A mobile phone, a piece of art …a child’s plaything.
Take a closer look. You’ll see something unique.
You could very easily have one and not know it.
They hold miracle and mystery. Horror and salvation.
None are the same. Except in one regard.
You don’t need one.
You might think you do, but you really don’t.
A Short Story.
From the Dead Boxes Archive.
- UK – https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B07L318QLJ
- US – https://www.amazon.com/dp/B07L318QLJ
- Aus – https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B07L318QLJ
My Review: 4.5 stars out of 5 for
Doggem: A Tale of Toy Dogs and Dark Deeds by John F. Leonard
The Velveteen Rabbit meets Rosemary’s Baby.
John F. Leonard’s little story of Doggem is a sweet tale of a small boy, a favorite toy, murder, horror, and (possibly) the end of the world. Narrated by the toy dog Doggem—whose job is to go home with the five-year-olds in Mrs. Snady’s class and inspire them to practice their fledgling writing skills by writing up Doggem’s diary—we soon realize that the recently sentient toy is an unreliable narrator at best. His vocabulary and observations are far removed from those of his tiny guardians’ abilities, while he himself freely admits to ‘many failings’:
I’m already digressing. I fear that will be one of my many failings. Acquiring a voice when muteness was your original condition tends to engender a certain garrulous quality.
Despite our immediate suspicions, Doggem’s observations and comments convey an intelligence that is both clueless and timelessly jaded. We start to get small hints that George is such an unusual child that he was actually the source of Doggem’s change from toy to sentient being. “Some strange and unknowable energy smeared across the universes and settled behind my glassy eyes.” But almost immediately we realize that something else is going on as the still innocent toy and child overhear troubling adult comments.
If I have any complaint about the story, it’s just that it is too short. The genre demands a slow buildup, and I think the questions raised by the unreliable little narrator would have been even more devastating with a little more description behind them. With such a short story, descriptions of people and settings are necessarily pared back to the minimum, but are nevertheless razor sharp. Describing George’s mother, for example, Doggem observes, “There was a certain sharpness to Cath Gould’s features that meant her face eluded true beauty. As if God had taken his eye off the ball at the last minute and allowed something snappish to creep into the mix. She was a strikingly attractive woman nonetheless, never more so than when she was charming her way through a difficult subject.”
Or as the little family, Doggem in tow, heads for a reluctant and ominous visit to his grandmother, we hear about menace in the surrounding woods. “How heavy the branches sat against the sun. As if they were tears in the fabric of reality rather than vibrant, growing things.”
But as the story swiftly develops into malice, evil, and death, we realize how unreliable Doggem’s observations really are. Is he reporting what actually happened? Is George a strange child or the pivotal result of untold years of plotting with evil? Is Doggem, who owes his awareness and “real” self to George, also part of that growing evil? Or even, is the entire tale something made up by the retired schoolteacher recording the events?
I have my theories, but you’ll have to read this elegantly simple and elaborately confusing little jewel of a cozy horror tale and decide for yourself.
***I received this book from the publisher or author to facilitate an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.***