Some dreadful automata.
“And still the new mother stays in the little cottage, but the windows are closed and the doors are shut, and no one knows what the inside looks like. Now and then, when the darkness has fallen and the night is still, hand in hand Blue-Eyes and the Turkey creep up near to the home in which they once were so happy, and with beating hearts they watch and listen; sometimes a blinding flash comes through the window, and they know it is the light from the new mother’s glass eyes, or they hear a strange muffled noise, and they know it is the sound of her wooden tail as she drags it along the floor.”
The New Mother, from Anyhow Stories, Moral and Otherwise by Lucy Clifford, 1882.
On my other blog I was speculating recently about the apparent reversal there has been in popular culture’s view of automata, mannequins and puppets over the past century or so: from jolly good fun to more or less guaranteed nightmare fuel. One-hundred and twenty years on from Clifford’s Anyhow Stories, it’s hard to comprehend that these were stories she once told to her own children at bedtime. They’re absolutely bloody terrifying to me as an adult. The last few pages of The New Mother chill me and almost make me want to cry every single time I read them. The only person who I can imagine reading these to a child nowadays is Josef Fritzl. You can read the whole book here if you don’t feel much like sleeping soundly tonight.
The equally traumatising and borderline psychologically child-abusing Struwwelpeter likewise comes unashamedly replete with children committing minor acts of disobedience and receiving in return overkill burnings, drownings and visits from the great, long red-legged Scissorman who breaks in to cut off their thumbs. It’s from the same period and it was also devised by an apparently loving and normal parent for his children, and it was marketed as a book for the very young to great success.
In short: a century ago coulrophobia was apparently an alien concept, but tacitly or directly threatening children with dismemberment, cruel abandonment and vastly disproportionate retribution was an accepted part of responsible parenthood. Now it’s the other way around: we all recognise the joke when Bart Simpson says he can’t sleep because the clown will get him; porcelain dolls are a horror film trope. Meanwhile even films for adults come with prissy, spinsterish warnings that they “contain scenes of mild peril.”
This train of thought reminded me of yet another odd and out of print book I have- Automata & Mechanical Toys by Mary Hillier (1976). The scans I’m posting here struck me as particularly illustrative of the shift in consensus perception of these kinds of toys, from good clean fun to props on the set of John Doe’s apartment in Se7en. Clifford’s book doesn’t disprove this thesis either, since the horror is not really about the visual uncanny. Indeed we as readers don’t “see” The New Mother ourselves, only disturbing signs that she has taken up residence; the light from her eyes, the scraping of her tail. The children in the story never lay eyes upon her either, having fled in terror while she was forcing her way into their home.
Let’s start with this little beauty, shall we? This is somewhere in the neighbourhood of what I conceive of The New Mother looking like, only worse, and six feet tall, and dressed like a Victorian governess in a black poke bonnet. Imagine it walking. Towards you. And it wants to be your mother. “Celluloid head, glass eyes, human hair” is an evocative and disturbing triad, isn’t it? Although not as bad as “human head, celluloid eyes, glass hair.”
It also reminds me of the Quay Brothers’ Street of Crocodiles, an animation that has haunted me ever since I saw it in the late Eighties or early Nineties. I saw it again recently, and it’s still brilliant. Continue Reading