Some Thoughts on Rabbit Holes and Filling Them by Daniel Hale

My opinions on the adaptation or reimagining of established classical or fairy stories has changed pretty significantly in the past few years. In my play writing class, I was told to write a play based on the story of Hansel and Gretel, which at the time I found frustrating. I didn’t like being told what to write and found the concept smotheringly restrictive. I copped out with a half-hearted attempt at satire, as a sort of protest, and figured mine would probably be the standard take on what my classmates would decide to do.

I’m pretty embarrassed about that now. One friend of mine retold the story in a jungle setting, with a modern, more heartwarming take on the relationship between brothers and sisters. Many of the other plays were about on par with mine, if not under, of course, but the point was that the assignment was not so shortsighted as I’d believed it to be, and could even be enjoyable, had I just gotten over myself and made more of an effort.

Since that class I have written a divinely-inspired Batman story, a Lovecraftian take on British claymation show, The Trapdoor,and a spooky Victorian version of Scooby Doo(not to mention my own contribution to a certain anthology of reimagined fairy tales). I’ve enjoyed looking back on stories from my childhood, nursery stories in the public domain, trying to find a new angle to bend the story in a new way.

That being said, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderlandis beginning to drive me towards hookahs and mushrooms.

I will bet you any amount of suitably eccentric currency that more people have watched or read an adaptation of the story than have actually read the book itself. There are just so many, after all, running the gamut from quirky to disquieting, and everywhere in between. Tim Burton. Walt Disney. American McGee. Marilyn Manson even began work on a film that would have Lewis Carrol descending into madness, which could only be a good time. There have been films and video games and comics, romances and horror stories and erotica and YA fantasies.

I only got around to reading the book myself a couple years or so ago. What struck me immediately was how far off the mark the new stories have it. Alice is a little girl who falls asleep and has a very bizarre dream, and the story itself reads pretty much as you’d expect a little girl trying to explain the dream would sound. About the only thing the new versions get right are the names of the characters—the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar—and even then, they’re nothing like as they were originally. Sometimes they’re human. Sometimes they’re warped, monstrous versions of themselves. Almost always they are more coherent, and sensible, than they were when the original Alice met them.

I could try to summarize Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland{or rather, Alice’s Adventures Underground, which was the original title) for you a little better, but it really is just one thing happening after another, as in dreams, without any clear connection between the sequence of events. Alice meets dodos swimming in a river, and a cat that’s all smiles. She meets an enormously hatted (and headed, if the illustrations are anything to go by) gentleman taking tea and posing the famous question about ravens and writing desks. She gets told a variety of strange and confusing rhymes and parables about a Walrus and a Carpenter, and Mock Turtles, and corpulent twins whose parents did not love them well enough to give them more respectable names. Then, just as everything gets all ‘off with her head,’ Alice wakes up.

Wonderland isn’t anything like what we’ve been led to expect, you see. It isn’t one with Narnia or Middle Earth or Oz. The inhabitants aren’t just a little stranger than your standard fairy tale kingdom citizenry, for there is no kingdom. The word ‘Wonderland’ doesn’t even appear anywhere in the story. Everything Alice encounters really is just an iteration of her own subconscious, and the psychology of Carrol’s opus is a subject quite beyond my scope.

I’m not really sure why I decided to take my own stab at putting Alice someplace new, except that it seems expected of a certain kind of fantasy author. Reading the original story definitely got me thinking about the gulf between how it was as Carrol wrote it and the stories by people who supposedly emulate it. The quaint Victorian fantasy seems to have been put aside in favor of a darker, more suggestive take, depending on which version you’re looking at.

These versions tend to be the ones I like the most. I enjoyed the video games by American McGee, which take place many years after Alice’s last visit to Wonderland, now warped by the trauma of watching her family die in a fire. The games are incredibly off-putting and not a little gory, while still maintaining an ethos similar to how the tale was originally written. But again, there was more of a cohesiveness in this Wonderland than actually existed.

This past year I read Alice, by Christina Henry, which takes place not in Wonderland, but in Old City, where a girl named Alice escapes a mental asylum after several years of confinement, her memories in severe tatters. She ventures into the city with her homicidal beau Hatchet, in search of answers in a city divided up by semi-mystical criminals: the Walrus, the Caterpillar, the Rabbit, the Carpenter…

Madness seems to be a popular take in modern retellings, proving the Cheshire Cat’s prediction that We Are All Mad Here, and then some. More than that, however, is an underlying sinister quality, a sense that beneath any veneer of tranquility is a predatory menace, looking to ravish innocence, embodied by Alice, in the vilest ways imaginable.

If you’re any kind of Alice buff, you know where that is coming from. Lewis Carrol (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was known to be a family friend of the Liddels, and often entertained their children with fantastic stories and games, most particularly the youngest daughter, Alice. Once again, I won’t go too far out of my way to summarize the particulars of the research surrounding this relationship, except to say that, what with a Dodgson’s photography hobbies and love of children, the sudden schism between Dodgson and the Liddels, a slew of psychological treatises analyzing a children’s story, and a few supposed ‘missing pages’ from Dodgson’s diary, it is widely agreed that there was something iffy going on there.

I was happy enough to join popular belief of Wonderland’s less savory connotations, until I actually started looking into it and found how little of the evidence is actually solid. It’s strange; for all that the popular view of Alice’s time was that children were paragons of inviolate virtue, it really wasn’t all that long after the story’s publication that the critics raised their eyebrows and people started to talk. And really, I don’t get any definite feel Carrol was anything more than a guy who liked playing with kids. He took some photos that would definitely seem iffy today, but different times, remember. Inviolate virtue, and all that.

If this is where the madness comes from, it’s a pretty poignant source. Lewis Carrol was demonized for desires he may or may not have harbored. I think those rumors, true or not, have permeated much of the imagery of what we consider Wonderland, changing it into something that cannot entirely be attributed to the times in which we live.

About the nearest thing I’ve read to anything like a faithful adaptation was After Alice, by Gregory Maguire, which certainly seemed more Victorian in its atmosphere. It wasn’t quite so well received as his other work, attaining just under a 3-star rating on Goodreads. Set that against more upsetting takes, like The Sea Was as Wet as Wet Could Be, by Gahan Wilson, and really consider for a moment just how much the times have changed.

Weird horror and dark fantasy tend to be my preferred wheelhouse, so the story I wanted to write would be angling more towards the twisted interpretations. I’ve gotten as far as a title: A Girl Where a Hole Should Be (not a habit I encourage other prospective writers to develop, by the way, needing a title before you start the story), and a notion of the proverbial rabbit hole as more prison than portal. There would be your standard themes of madness grounded a little more in reality, with an aim to play a little more fairly with Carrol while still maintaining the sumptuous nonsense we’ve come to expect. That is the plan.

It isn’t going well, so now, I think, the story is on hiatus.

One writing habit I do encourage you to practice is working out the story, whether on paper or in your head, before you start writing it. I didn’t do that so much here, but I think that’s only part of the problem. The other part is coming to grips with everything that’s out there: the greater cannon of Wonderland and Lewis Carrol lore, the lives of Carrol the girl who would become the Alice we know, the academic papers and theories, the rumors and gossips, the whispered imagery of drug use and child abuse and other, less well-thumbed takes falling into our out of the rabbit hole. I won’t say it’s all been done, and I’m the first person to argue that any concept has infinite directions from which to tackle it (with the possible exception of zombies), but when you consider it all, and your own firm commitment to try something different, to write it without falling back on the tired trope of a children’s author who was sick in his heart and head…

Well. Suffice it to say that I’m leaving this alone for now. Not forever; I’ve had ideas before that jostled themselves to life days, months, even years after I thought them. But for now, it needs processing, somewhere in the back of my head, where I can’t watch and worry over it.

But that’s okay. It’ll be there when I get back, in the hole, with Alice and the rest of them.

 

Daniel Hale writes horror and dark fantasy. His stories have been published in several anthologies and his debut collection, “The Library Beneath the Streets.” He lives in Akron, Ohio.

Photo (c) Nikogeyer’s Alice in Wonderland.

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