The Girl has developed a child’s love of the macabre, and pores over the images in her history books; the beheading of the French queen, the canopic jars of Egyptian mummies and the human sacrifices the Druids left in bogs like ours. I keep an eye on her to make sure she is not reading anything too graphic, or oversharing with her Catholic school peers, but I like the fact that an eight-year-old remembers the disgusting cures of the misguided Pliny the Elder.
When she asked to see her first horror film, though, I discouraged her; she is media-sheltered by the standards of modern children, and our weekly movie nights lean towards Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire.
After she handled Shakespeare well, however, and a mystery like The Thin Man, I felt she was ready, and showed her the 1932 version of The Mummy. The film seems tepid by today’s standards, and she was not overly frightened – but she did feel sorry for Boris Karloff as the titular villain.
“He was just trying to get his loved one back,” The Girl said. “I almost wish he had won – I liked him better than that other guy.”
Villains are almost always more attractive than heroes, I said – you’ll find that in real life too, especially as you become a teenger. But they’re still wrong. That’s why you don’t always do what you feel like doing.
“I know,” she sighed. “I just felt sorry for him.”
Those villains make the most interesting characters, I said – much more than simple cartoon villains, and sometimes more interesting than heroes. They’re called “anti-villains,” villains that aren’t really so bad.
“Are anti-villains real?” she said.
In real life, any villain is an anti-villain, I said. No one is just a cartoon, and everyone is complicated -- most of us are villains sometimes, or in someone else's eyes.
“Is almost everyone a hero too?” she asked.
Everyone you meet is the hero of their own story, I said – that’s just normal. If you want to be special, though, you should try to become a hero in other people's stories.
As The Girl and I prepared for bed at the end of a long day, I took Treasure Island from the shelf and opened it to where we left off last night.
“Before we read the next chapter, can I read to you from my scary insect book?” she asked. I agreed, and she curled up on the bed next to me and began reading excitedly about hawk moths and bombardier beetles.
I’m not sure what slowed first – her reading or my listening – but eight hours later we woke up in the same positions, the book sprawled across her, her sleeping head on my chest.
Our poultry, I’m sorry to say, have seen a high attrition rate. We got a duck and drake in the hopes of doing what our neighbours did -- training them to walk to the canal and return to the house at night – but the experiment failed, and the ducks remain in the canal. One hen died, while another turned out to be a late-blooming cockerel, so we were down to one adolescent rooster and two harried hens.
Thus I took the day off work, picked up The Girl from school and set off to buy four more hens from a farmer friend. We gently boxed them in cardboard and made our way home, The Girl pressing her ear gently against them to make sure the hens were not too agitated.
When we arrived home, she proudly carried the boxes into the chicken run. “Look, Cloudy!” The Girl said to the cockerel, “We got you new girlfriends!”
“Daddy, I love reading about death,” The Girl said.
What sort of things about death, I asked?
“Well, I used to not like scary things, but I’m okay with them now,” she said. “That’s why I wanted to see the scary movie.”
You did just fine with it, I said, silently thinking that most children these days see things far worse than that. I’m glad she has reached these limits at this age, and no further.
“I just like reading about death,” she said. Are you turning into a goth? I asked.
“What’s a goth?”
Originally, German tribes that fought the Romans, like in your Asterix comics, I said. Later, though, it came to mean intense and melodramatic, like that version of Faust they tried to put on in The Band Wagon.
“Oh right!” she said, brightening – Jack Buchannan’s hammy turn was her favourite part of the film, and she was imitating him for weeks afterwards. “Can I be a goth?”
Life is melodramatic enough for a child, I said. Why this interest in scary things?
“Well, I wasn’t scared when we saw the man die in the traffic accident, and I want to keep on being brave.”
I get it, I thought. Listen sweetie, I said, I’m proud of you for wanting to be brave, but watching someone get hurt in a book or on the telly doesn’t take any bravery. You have to be able to do the right thing in real life even though it hurts, or might hurt – that’s brave. And that man wasn’t just a body lying on the road, he had a name and a life that ended that day.
“I know, Daddy,” she said more softly.
Okay, I said. If you want to learn more about death, I asked gently, do you think you could kill an animal -- like one of the chickens if we needed the meat? If you want to keep eating meat, you might have to do that.
She tried to look as cheerful as she could muster about this. “Maybe …”
You won’t have to today or tomorrow, but eventually, and I’ll try to be there to help you. Okay?
“Okay,” she said, accepting this quietly.
In the meantime, what did you want to see for the next movie night?
"Can I see Dracula?" she asked.