Note: I made these meringues one weekend this spring, intending to write up the post during the week. Then a crisis occurred, and some tangentially related crises. These weren’t negative crises, per se, but they were major, and the upshot is that I made a major change in life direction.
So I moved out of my old place three weeks ago, moved again into a new place this past week, and thanks to a disabled telephone pole in the neighborhood, won’t have internet at home until Monday. I should’ve at least reblogged this post in the meantime, but neglected the blog all summer.
I’m back, though, with a two parter. If the Halloween store open in your local ex-Borders is any indication, we’re just in time for some spooky seasonal theming. Please enjoy…)
The Meringues from that Joan Aiken Story Featuring the Gloves of Growing Destruction
Part 1: About the Story
“The Birthday Party” is a smashing little short by the recently departed Joan Aiken, as collected in A Creepy Company.
I love Aiken’s work because it’s so atmospheric, so British (remember I’m a half-Brit so this my anglophilia is more legit than yours), and oh dear Lord the furniture and the food. Her kids’ Victorian pastiche The Wolves of Willoughby Chase remains in my unsung top favorite books for roughly seventeen years, and this collection of brief, uniquely weird, authentically dark fantasy/horror stories has had a special place in my heart and mind for a little less time than that.
(Side note: I’ve deprived myself by avoiding the rest of the Wolves series for all this time, partly because the character focus switches from the first book and partly because nothing gets under my fingernails quite like scrumptiously twee steampunk, and nothing says “scrumptiously twee steampunk” quite like a heroine named Dido Twite.
But I did stumble on a copy of the second Wolves book recently, and I did attempt the first chapter. And, to you decades’ worth of fans, I do stand corrected. I should’ve known better than to put “Aiken” and “twee” in the same sentence. (oops).
“Aiken” and “scrumptious”, on the other hand…)
“The Birthday Party” is a contemporary story (late 1970s) that, given its language and trappings, clearly takes place in Britain (though my American edition of the anthology translates “Mum” as “Mom” throughout). The children’s party in question is hosted by a mother who is a “notable cook”: see Part 2, when posted, for more scrumptious details.
The class outcast, plump, freckled Juniper, is invited under said mother’s duress. “She’s sure to do something horrible and spoil everyone’s fun”, daughter/birthday girl Sigrid predicts, reluctantly writing out the invitation.
Juniper’s something of an outcast in her own family, too, and in genral. She never seems to grow out of the “awkward phase” people say she’s going through. Her only supporter is an old, wealthy, unpleasant client of her father’s, who admired the toddler Juniper’s throwing food on the floor and has spoiled her with “presents wholly unsuitable, deplored by Juniper’s mother,” ever since.
The most recent gift, now Juniper is around ten, is an “absurd pair of elbow-length blue suede gloves, completely unsuitable and unnecessary,” which Juniper wears proudly to the party she assumes she’ll hate.
She does hate it. Juniper maintains her outcast status with her peers and wins the disgust of the adults, losing the sympathy of the Sigrid’s mother, who’d lamented earlier how unkind children could be. The party devolves into a secret, kid-hosted, Juniper roast. Aside from cracks at her appearance, the comments aren’t uncalled for.
Fortunately for Juniper, though, her new gloves have some very special powers, and thanks to an demonstration on her hated piano teacher, she now knows exactly how to use them…
Casual horror fans will notice the parallel with Stephen King’s Carrie, written earlier in the decade. “The Birthday Party” is briefer, of course, and much snarkier.
Interestingly, though, both stories deal with victims who to some degree perpetuate their own victimhood. For Carrie White, this is tragic: she struggles to present herself as anything other than a pathetic victim, and even decenter sorts of people feel compelled to treat her with contempt. Her epic meltdown comes after she finally feels and shows some confidence, and peers begin to accept her in turn. That bit of hope makes the final humiliation unbearable.
Juniper has no hope. She is what she is and shows no desire to change. There’s a sense that she copes with her loneliness by seeing herself as better than everyone else, and treating others accordingly.
The gifts reinforce this. After all, no other girl in Juniper’s class receives a crocodile skin bag, a ruby watch, and talking, mobile, fire-setting suede gloves before she hits puberty.
It doesn’t help the bad fairy godmother responsible is the only person in Juniper’s life who hasn’t given up on her.
Still, Aiken doesn’t expect us to excuse Juniper’s behavior. We pity her occasionally, but we’re allowed to dislike her as much everyone else does. She’s weak and hurt, but she’s mostly selfish, mean, and vindictive. She responds to rebukes with retribution. Now, armed with the gloves (heh), she can inflict even more damage on those who call her on, say, being snotty or not practicing the piano.
Unlike Carrie, Juniper needs no shattering provocation to wreak destruction.
Juniper is not tragic. She learns nothing. Like this story, she’s refreshingly, unapologetically, unremittingly horrible. She’ll go on doing what she’s always done, getting back at people, only more so. By the end, she may have killed Sigrid’s whole family, and she probably won’t stop there.
It’s terrifying to think of Juniper wielding such power.
But for a while, reading about it’s hilarious.
And, as Juniper consoles herself on her grudging walk to the party, “At least the food [is] good.”
Part 2 to follow ASAP.