Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Why Philip Pullman should be SHOT,

or at the very least have all his fingers lopped off with bolt cutters so he can never write another godawful fucking horrible awful book again.

I don't have enough bad things to say about His Dark Materials, and very few good things to say about it.

(Warning: Spoilers Ahead)

After everyone told me how great they are, and given my general taste in reading, I fully expected to enjoy them. Expected it so much that I even splashed out and bought nice editions of all three books at one go, with sturdy acid-free paper and everything so they would last and be wonderful treasures on my book shelf that one day my kids could read. Really, I did.

My kids will never read these books. Not until they're at least 30.

Are you getting the sense that I didn't like them?

Minor, run-of-the-mill criticisms include trivialities such as:
  • the main character wasn't terribly likeable or sympathetic
  • in fact, most of the human characters were complete cunts (except for Lee Scoresby, who gets killed for the very reason that he's the only decent dude therein, and in Pullman's world we kill off all the nice characters just make sure you cry that little bit extra)
  • The plot wasn't tied together very well at the end. You read and read and read looking to see how it all connects, and there's this never-ending section of crap to slog through that isn't really relevant, and then one character shows up on the last page and explains everything in 4 sentences. Not the best story-telling in the world.
  • Several key things never get explained (like how the knife came into being), and are just left dangling
  • they weren't nearly as anti-religion as I had been led to believe
But my biggest, single, number one criticism is this:


When it comes to frightening children, Pullman makes Walt Disney look like Mother fucking Theresa.

Now I don't have a problem with a bit of scary stuff and suspense. You need conflict to create drama, and you need drama to make it worth reading, otherwise it's all a bunch of Dick and Jane crap. But there's a line.

Harry Potter is not the be-all and end-all of kids' adventure fiction, far from it, but for the purposes of comparing His Dark Materials with magical adventure fantasy fiction aimed at a similar age group it will suit well enough.

In Harry Potter there is a thing called a Dementor. It's a scary being that sucks people's souls out through their mouths. That's creepy. It's a fate worse than death. In His Dark Materials there's a thing called a Specter. It attacks adults and eats their consciousness effectively making them zombies. Same concept, really. The difference is that JK Rowling doesn't graphically describe scenes where a father is attacked by a dementor, but while fleeing has carried his 3-year-old son into a river, who is then dropped into said river as father becomes a zombie, and flops about, drowning, screaming, crying, begging his father to pick him up. Dad ingores the kid. Mentally, he's gone. Baby is drowning in river at his feet.

It's sick.

It's incredibly sick.

Pullman's brand of terror happens to be the one that pushes my buttons the most. It's not blood and guts and brains being spattered about. Most kids don't find that stuff scary, and neither do I. What terrifies me is separation. I had wicked separation anxiety as a kid, and still struggle with it from time to time. This was triggered by a traumatic event that happened when I was 2 or 3, where I thought my mom was being taken from me forever. What Pullman does is to think of every kind of painful separation -- physical, emotional, spiritual, whatever -- and then throw it at you, over and over again in waves, in every conceivable permutation: children being separated from parents, friends from friends, people from daemons (souls), you name it, he takes it away.

I'm still angry at Pullman because I can't get these images out of my head. I wanted some light reading for the holidays. I chose some "children's" literature that had been recommended to me by several people whose judgement I generally trust. Damn near ruined my Christmas. I spent every day in tears, shaking with terror.

The only reason I read all three was that by the end of the first book, if I had stopped, it would have been like turning off a horror movie at the scariest part, which I know is the worst thing you can. You have to watch to the end so you can see everything comes out OK eventually. That was the one and only reason I kept reading.

I still have every book I've ever owned. When I read a book, I keep it (unless it's a library book, obv). These are the first ever books I've deliberately gotten rid of. When I got back from Pirate's I woke up, grabbed the books, and took them straight up to Oxfam. I don't even want them on my shelves. I don't want to look at them. Fucking awful books.


Rimshot said...

So then what you're saying is you liked them? I'm sorry, it's not quite clear from your post.

Welcome back from you excursion(s)!

Ezri said...

May I suggest an anti-terror book? There is no way this book can be frightening, and anything else that makes me laugh that much is probably not legal so I went with that.

Find yourself Gideon Defoe's "The Pirates in an Adventure with Scientists" (this is book 1, but there is also, "The Pirates in an Adventure with Whales" and "The Pirates in an Adventure with Communists"

There are pirates galore, and between their busy lives making jumping castles with squid and cultivating luxurious beards, they also find time to beat the wicked Bishop of Oxford and his evil circus and dress up as French school children.

This is as anti-scary as it gets - plus there's oodles of pirates :)

Ezri said...

Hi Rimshot :) Looks like we're posting at the same time, though it's about 3 in the afternoon here as opposed to 7 at night -

Belladona said...

I nearly threw up at the first detailed description of the 'cut' separating child from daemon as well as the child who wanders about calling for his. It's a bit sick. In fact I'm feeling a bit upset just thinking about it.

Whether it is anti-christian depends somewhat on whether you believe the Authority is supposed to be the christian god or not. I'm unsure what I think about that, though if he is it does seem quite a gnostic point of view to me which I've never heard mentioned in connection.

llewtrah said...

And yet I am still looking forward to reading them. They are aimed at kids rather than discerning adult literary critics.

Billy said...

I think they are aimed a bit older than the Potter books; teenagers in the main. I like them, although they are a bit too intellectual for me.

Vicus Scurra said...

Yes, they were fucking bollocks.
I have to disagree with you, however, about your stance on scaring children. I'm all for it.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

Rimmer: hi!

Ez: ooh, pirates! will totally look them up. sounds just da ting.

bella: yeah, mee too. i'm with you on the god thing. i didn't think they were all that anti-religious, because it seemed to me that you could easily dismiss pullman's idea of the Authority as having very little to do with the christian god.

llewtrah: um, my very point was that i was not providing a discerning, literary criticism, but bawling that they are NOT for kids, whatever the publishers say.

billy: i'm not so sure. the movie, certainly, has been marketed for the HP crowd, and that may well inspire the same kids to read the books (or have them read to them).

vicus: just out of curiosity, have you spawned?

B said...

It seems to me that you have a very specific fear that you developed in childhood and that you carry with you to this day. These books clearly were very scary for you because they include many instances of your deep rooted fear. I'm unconvinced that they qualify as deeply scary objectively though.

The three books taken together portray God as a dictator who must be brought down by humanity in alliance with others. This is the anti-religious aspect.

I have to say I don't remember finding them remotely scary myself and I don't think I'd have had a problem with them as a child either. I'll guess I'll have to reread these books to be sure.

I don't accept the idea that childrens literature (or film for that matter) should be free of scary aspects (and since when was disney remotely scary anyhow?).

A personal point now: I find books (and films) with much embarassment in them excruciatingly hard to read (or watch). I hid behind sofas as a kid when embarassing humour aired on TV. As a result there are certain aspects of life I have found it difficult to deal with (I am very afraid of embarrassing situations for instance).

It seems to me that experiencing all emotions through film and literature is a very good preparation for life. Leaving fear out would leave children naive and over cautious.

Perhaps you and I should do a movie exchange. You can show me some high quality embarassing films and I'll show you some superb horror films. I expect we'd both end up better able to cope with some situations life throws at us.

ZB said...

the main character wasn't terribly likeable or sympathetic

So? And? What's your point?

in fact, most of the human characters were complete cunts

Sounds like most humans to me.

The plot wasn't tied together very well at the end. You read and read and read looking to see how it all connects, and there's this never-ending section of crap to slog through that isn't really relevant, and then one character shows up on the last page and explains everything in 4 sentences. Not the best story-telling in the world.

Why? Explaining things isn't a story. Tying loose ends up isn't a story or real life. I admit he loses it in book three but it's an fictionalised response to Paradise Lost - which is a great poem but a turgid read - if you want cookie cutter shite, Rowling is under plagiaristic shite in waterstones.

Several key things never get explained (like how the knife came into being), and are just left dangling

See last point. Tolks might have explained how the ring came into being and even it's relationship to S but he didn't really explain it.

they weren't nearly as anti-religion as I had been led to believe

The church is an evil bunch of sycophantic ideologically crazed murdering bastards and God's a feeble, senile old man who makes the lying bastard in the wizard of Oz look like a paragon of virtue and decency? Seems pretty anti church to me. What did you expect? It to be a monologue on how great science is instead? He's pretty scathing about both, which is how it should be.

They're terrifying.

Yep. The best children's books are. Feed the little bastards Richard Scarry until they can read and then scare the shite out of them.

Open your Christmas present. Report back. I need to know if you think it's shite or not.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

b: you must love Fawlty Towers, then! (a lot of the early Disney movies were very scary, such as Bambi and Dumbo and Pinochio. The films got a lot better when Walt finally popped his clogs.)

zb: i strenuously disagree with you on your point that the best children's books are terrifying. The best children's book of all time is Vanuk Vanuk, and it's not remotely scary.

Vicus Scurra said...

Is that an offer?

Chaucer's Bitch said...

erm, no. not actually. ;)

Vicus Scurra said...


Jerseygirl89 said...

Someone tried to talk me into reading these and I resisted. Mostly because I didn't like the person. But now I have another reason. The towering pile of "to-be-read" books next to my bed thanks you.

Warrior Two said...

I did not like the books much either. I particularly had a hard time with the bear fight, which-while cleaned up for the movie, was still too grotesque, IMHO.

As for Rowling being shite, her books are enjoyed, revered, loathed, banned, and endlessly discussed by millions of children and adults alike. I think the fact that far fewer people know or care who Philip Pullman is speaks volumes.

GreatSheElephant said...

I loved the books and didn't find them scary at all, apart from the bear fight which was revolting and not cleaned up anyway near enough for the movie (given everything else that got changed/cut from the movie, why the hell they left the final bit of the bear fight in given that toddlers are being taken to see this film I will never understand). I found the theological aspects fascinating (although I still don't quite understand what dust actually is). They are some of the few books I regularly reread and I can't wait for the fourth one.

Chaucer's Bitch said...

joisey: you're welcome.

W2!: funny, the blood and guts doesn't bother me in the least. it's the emotional torture i can't cope with. as for rowling, i don't equate popularity with greatness (i give you exhibit A: Britney Spears), but I take your point.

GSE: there's going to be a FOURTH one!!! Ceiling Cat save us.

Geosomin said...

I deliberately put off reading/posting this until I finished the books, and although I was dissapointed by them, I can't say I hated them. I could see though if separation was a real anxiety for you...well this wouldn't be the books for you. It genuinely chilled me when I read parts of it, and I found a lot of the concepts and ideas interesting, but entire characters like Mrs. Coulter, Asriel to be rather shiny and without depth. The major plot line (after spending a third of the last book going "OK are we going somwhre or what?a") is wound up with a quick sentence or two...I felt like I was given a digestive biscuite when expecting a piece of pie.
I can't say I wouldn't read thema gain, because they had a lot of neat ideas in them, but they weren't well explained, except when convenient or when he wanted to force the reader into an emotion. That drives me more crazy than glossing over something. The anti-religion thing was more laughable to me...at times I started laughing at his blunt slams (like the whole god as a gibbering old fool not recognising anything. I kept thinking "therapy dude...you have issues").
And honestly, I don't think it's too scary for kids. He actually adressed the consequences of things...somethign a lot of authors ignore, because they think kids won't understand it. I think that kids will be scared of anything, no matter what you do. Everyone will have their own thing...I like to think that if something scared my kid, they'd ask me about it or just stop reading. Me? I was let to watch the Fog when I was 4...so it's fog and zombie and dark isssues for me.
I am sorry they were such a bad experience for you. Me? I found the Notebook far more painful to read than this. But it's at the heart of many things that deeply scare me...