Friday, August 2, 2013

Too dark in Neverland

This is my copy of Midnight in Never Land. The Post-It notes are tagging introductions of characters from the original Peter Pan (green), bits taken straight from Barrie (blue), bits that directly contradict Barrie (purple), gold star moments (yellow, for some reason), and moments I found completely jarring (pink). You can see why reviewing this would be difficult. I can't really do so without spoilers,and that isn't fair to readers or writers, but if you would like a spoiler, I can give you it in one word. Ask in the comments or contact me directly. I think it will explain a lot.

I picked up this book due to a misleading description, expecting a real prequel to the Peter Pan story, one about events that happened in Neverland before any of Barrie's characters set foot there. Instead I got another retelling of how the characters we know ended up on the island.

James Hauke is a perfect summation of this book as a whole. From the beginning he's half Barrie, half original creation. Gone are Eton and Oxford in favor of the self-made man, and gone is the playful humor that made him so unpredictable to his men. This James (named James Matthew after Mr. Barrie, as the book Capt. Hook also did) is well-written and his character development compelling. He was believable and complicated. He also wasn't Captain Hook.

Mr. Smee is the other character of most complexity, with a twist to his story at the end. Painfully, Disney is a definite influence here (Skull Rock, the name Mary), making me twitchy as I wouldn't tangle with their kopyright kops, and at times I thought this might almost be a dark version of the "Starcatchers" series.

My favorite aspect, and an opportunity I think the authors squandered, was some brief comparison between Peter Pan and Anansi. There was some real opportunity here to create a story of depth that tied in several mythologies to make them even more universal, but the story stopped short of following through. Instead, the book resorted to a conventional horror narrative by the end that wasn't false to what had come before, but left me disappointed.

I began reading retellings of Peter Pan because I felt like needed to know what's out there, what's commonly accepted as part of the mythos (whether correct or not), and if I'm writing something too close to someone else's interpretation that I need to redo. I went into this with my sword drawn, ready to defend my James from all takers. And yes, there are interpretations that make me grit my teeth, the kind that tell me to get back to work and fix it if I'm that concerned. But I didn't expect this reading to be so far from enjoyable. Yes, it's partly possessiveness, but it's also because these retellings are joyless, lacking in the humor and levity that make deeper themes easier to take in.

Wee James staves off the onslaught.

With the exception of the "Starcatchers" series (which goes too far into silliness in my book, but I'm finding that less objectionable as I continue this project), these tales are almost unrelentingly grim. Yes, of course there are dark themes in the original, which have too often been stripped out (*ahem* Disney). I'm working with them too. That's where the texture and depth are found. But to explore those at the expense of the jollity and whimsy of Barrie--I'm finding these books so bleak I'm not sure I will, or should, continue reading them. I don't think I'm gaining anything except the amusement in seeing which sources authors are obviously familiar with. Even Peter Pan in Scarlet is more gloomy than not. I'm fond of dark fantasy in general, but I guess...not here.

In addition, I'm finding too many examples of a pet peeve of mine: it's apparently too easy to strip the magic out of Neverland in the attempt to explain how everything began. In MiNL, the island gets its name from a scrawl on a map: "Never Land Here." And why can't Tinker Bell just be a pots and pans fairy? Why can't mermaids just be mermaids?

Another observation? Every one of these was written after 2001. An entire literary thesis lives in that.

I was looking forward to reading "The Child Thief," but I don't know anymore. Maybe that's a project for a time when I've finished The Stowaway, or when it's on hiatus before revising. For the time being, I'm in need of a chapter of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens. The downfall there is that I begin channeling Barrie's writing style after about a chapter (a useful skill when writing executive director letters for non-profit newsletters, but not so much when doing my own work), but I think it's worth the risk. And maybe the world could use a little more Barrie right about now.

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