‘You remember me . . .’ Whoosh. Those three words still send a little thrill of terror down my spine. I don’t think I’m the only adult for whom, when they look back on their childhood reading, the books that scared them are remembered with a particular intensity. Just as childhood nightmares stay with us, so do stories – some of them seeming quite innocent to adults – which wobbled some fragile pillar of childhood security.
Dracula, which I read far too young, still sticks with me: the spider walking outside the castle; the horrible flush on the monster’s face – ‘the eyes were open and stony, but without the glassiness of death’ – when Harker first finds him dormant in his coffin. And Ray Bradbury’s superbly spooky short stories, ‘Skeleton’ most of all. The Great Long Red-Legg’d Scissor-Man in Struwwelpeter. The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. And, above all of these, Grinny – in which the three words with which I began this piece take on a special significance.
Grinny, published in 1973, is a children’s novel by Nicholas Fisk that has long been out of print. The narrator is 11-year-old Timothy Carpenter, who lives an ordinary suburban existence with his father and mother and 7-year-old sister Beth. In the very first paragraph, the doorbell rings and he answers it. On the step, ‘with two ginormous trunks’, is a little old lady. ‘I’m your Great Aunt Emma,’ she says. ‘You must be Tim.’
Here is how she is described in Tim’s diary, the entries in which make up
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‘You remember me . . .’ Whoosh. Those three words still send a little thrill of terror down my spine. I don’t think I’m the only adult for whom, when they look back on their childhood reading, the books that scared them are remembered with a particular intensity. Just as childhood nightmares stay with us, so do stories – some of them seeming quite innocent to adults – which wobbled some fragile pillar of childhood security.Dracula, which I read far too young, still sticks with me: the spider walking outside the castle; the horrible flush on the monster’s face – ‘the eyes were open and stony, but without the glassiness of death’ – when Harker first finds him dormant in his coffin. And Ray Bradbury’s superbly spooky short stories, ‘Skeleton’ most of all. The Great Long Red-Legg’d Scissor-Man in Struwwelpeter. The gingerbread house in Hansel and Gretel. And, above all of these, Grinny – in which the three words with which I began this piece take on a special significance. Grinny, published in 1973, is a children’s novel by Nicholas Fisk that has long been out of print. The narrator is 11-year-old Timothy Carpenter, who lives an ordinary suburban existence with his father and mother and 7-year-old sister Beth. In the very first paragraph, the doorbell rings and he answers it. On the step, ‘with two ginormous trunks’, is a little old lady. ‘I’m your Great Aunt Emma,’ she says. ‘You must be Tim.’ Here is how she is described in Tim’s diary, the entries in which make up the substance of the narrative:
She is rather a queer old party. Very short, with a hat with a veil, and gloves, and a way of smiling vaguely. Her teeth are very good (false?) and she is very neat. Her shoes hardly have creases in them over the instep, as if she never walked, yet she is quite spry considering her age and soon she and Mum were chattering away about the journey and so on.While Tim and Beth are disconcerted by this unexpected arrival, whose name has never before been mentioned, their parents take her in immediately. One moment Tim’s mother is asking: ‘Who? Great Aunt who?’ Then the queer old party says: ‘You remember me, Millie!’ At once, Millie exclaims: ‘Great Aunt Emma! Oh do come in, you must be freezing. Tim, help with the luggage.’ Great Aunt Emma – or GAE as she is abbreviated in Tim’s diary – is ensconced in the spare bedroom. Without discussion or warning, and with no end in sight, she is now part of the family. And it soon becomes clear that there is something very strange indeed about her. But even as Tim and Beth come, bit by bit, first to notice and then (though only ever partly) to understand her strangeness, their parents remain completely oblivious. Even now, as Tim writes in his retrospective Introduction, ‘Of course, I can never talk to my father and mother about Aunt Emma – they quite literally would not hear me.’ One of the compelling oddities of Grinny is the way in which it’s framed. As Tim’s Introduction explains, the diary entries that make up the main body of the text have been published at his urging by his writer friend Nicholas Fisk. Tim, now the book has been published, is 15: ‘I was too young to have done anything about Aunt Emma when she was with us because I was never sure what it all meant and even when everything got frightening and sinister I could neither have proved anything nor gone to someone for help.’ Here, in compressed form, is the stuff of childish nightmares – that combination of impotence (you’re just a child; nobody will believe you) and incomprehension in the face of a threat. But here, too, is that sense – used to similarly disturbing effect in adult horror fiction including Dracula, Frankenstein and Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves – of the authenticity of what in film shorthand is sometimes called ‘found footage’. We’re exposed, unmediated, to the story unfolding in contemporary documents in real time. There’s no reassuring sense of an author making it up or shaping the story to make it make sense. And the diaries of this 11-year-old boy – bright, a little pretentious, loquacious, slangy, telegraphic – sound like the diaries of any 11-year-old boy. Tim’s bickering and competitive relationship with Beth, and his scorn at the way his friend Mac likes to ingratiate himself with her, will be absolutely relatable to any reader with a sibling. He’s an 11-year-old boy who is proud of his relationship with an author, and who is even trying to shape himself as a writer: ‘I find I am writing very slangily. Various uses of “chuffed” in this entry and lazy use of “and”. Memo: if you are going to write this much, even in a diary, you might as well write it right.’ The gathering horror of the situation jars, especially at first, with the tone – which is at times reminiscent of P. G. Wodehouse or even Molesworth. The pages are filled with memos-to-self, rhetorical questions in parentheses, daily trivia, multiple exclamation marks, tags like ‘Etc., etc.’, and abbreviations. I think that’s one of the things that makes it more rather than less disturbing. It isn’t full of creaking Gothic furniture, or the foreshadowing and foreboding that make lesser horror stories scream, paragraph by paragraph, that they are horror stories. And Great Aunt Emma’s oddities are, at first, just that: oddities. Why does she seem to be nervous around electricity? How can she smoke untipped Gauloise after untipped Gauloise? Is that connected to Beth’s growing unease at the fact that – under the fag smoke – she doesn’t smell of anything at all? How come – such a sinister detail, because so unexpected and incidental and unexplained – the tops of her shoes are uncreased? Beth nicknames her ‘Grinny’ because of her incessant disconcerting smile. Grinny always finds ways of deflecting questions about her own life. And she asks odd questions – to the extent that nobody is quite sure whether she’s making a joke or not. Is she being funny when, after the children mention a championship-winning ‘cast-iron conker’, she seems to expect it to be made, literally, of iron? When she breaks in on the family bathing naked in the swimming pool they nickname ‘Muscle Beach’, she seems oblivious to the idea that they might be embarrassed by being seen undressed. Beth becomes convinced that Grinny is not human – and her conviction is cemented when Grinny slips on ice and breaks her wrist. Here’s Tim’s diary entry:
‘The skin was gashed open but there was no blood. The bones stuck out but they were not made of real bone – they were made of shiny steel!’ I have these words right. Beth did say what I have written. I am quite certain about asking her what sort of bones, what sort of steel and so on. Her answers were, that the steel was silvery shiny and that the bones looked smaller than proper bones – more like umbrella ribs. When I asked her what umbrella ribs look like, she answered (correctly) that they are made of channels of steel, not solid rods like knitting needles. She said that GAE’s bones were in ‘little collections’ of these steel ribs and that the skin had been torn by a few of the ribs breaking away from a main cluster and coming through the skin.What makes Grinny so effective is its extreme oddness and the specificity of that oddness. We are in the territory of what Freud called the unheimlich. The root of that word – heimlich, homely – points to why it is so disturbing in this context. Grinny is inside the home, inside the place that in most children’s literature is the locus of comfort and security, and which children leave to have their adventures and return to at the end. And here the adults, who in most children’s literature are the guarantors of the home’s comfort and security, are no use at all. Grinny has them hypnotized. Did you ever have one of the kind of recurring dreams where you are running from monsters, and you reach the safety of your mother and father – and then they reach down to their chins, and slowly pull off their masks . . . ? Yes, me too. As the children come to realize with deepening terror, Grinny is the trial balloon for an alien invasion. When they see a flying saucer out of the window one night, and rush to wake her, it becomes clear that her sleeping habits are . . . unconventional.
Grinny was lying flat on her back on the bed, with her arms by her side above the covers. She was rigid and still, like a corpse or an Egyptian mummy. But she was luminous. There was even a faint glow through the bedclothes. I went closer – I wasn’t frightened yet – and saw another thing: her eyes were wide open. She was staring at the ceiling, staring at nothing. And her eyes were lit up from inside. Like water when you put the lens of a lit torch in it. Her mouth was open. She was grinning. I don’t mean she was making the movement of smiling, I mean her mouth was set in a grin. And from her open mouth I thought I heard a slight fluttering, twittering sound.That fluttering, twittering sound – which in my imagination resembles the unworldly blips and squawks of a tape drive or a dial-up modem – is the language that the children come to call ‘Grinnish’. When Grinny is disconcerted or under extreme stress, her speech starts to break down and her English is interspersed with Grinnish. The story gets stranger still, as the children learn to fight back. They discover that they can scramble Grinny’s circuits with what they call ‘eyes right’: a trick of keeping your eyes fixed a foot or so to one side of her head, rather than looking at her directly. It is nowhere explained why this works or really how they hit upon it. Again, we are in the territory, I think, of the logic of dreams – and of that atavistic space in which barely understood home-made magic is used to keep the illegible terrors of the universe at bay. It connects, in my mind, with the magic that the children use to fight the monster in that other great book about childhood terror (though emphatically not one for children), Stephen King’s It. The fact that so little is spelled out seems to me to explain why the novel is so terrifying. We know Grinny is a threat, an existential threat – not only to the planet but, more viscerally, to the safe order of childhood experience itself. But she can’t be folded into a knowable scheme of the universe. We have a series of irreducible nightmare images ‒ a bloodless wound; a sheaf of umbrella-spokes; a watery light in the eyes; luminous teeth; uncreased shoes; and a dull metal ‘torch thing . . . as busy and unstoppable as a rat, never pausing from its nibblings and humped-up scurryings and lunges and tugs’. And we have an untranslatable shrill inhuman language, counterposed (in a book where language is to the fore) to the oh so human language of Tim’s diary entries. Forgotten? Why, no, Nicholas Fisk: I remember you.
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 78 © Sam Leith 2023
About the contributor
Sam Leith is literary editor of the Spectator and the author of a number of books including You Talkin’ to Me? Rhetoric from Aristotle to Trump and Beyond and Write to the Point: How to Be Clear, Correct and Persuasive on the Page. He’s currently researching a history of children’s literature to be published by Oneworld in 2024.