May 9, 2013

Douglas Clegg's "Neverland"

The April 2010 Cover.

The Darker Side of Childhood;
 The Darker Side of Imagination
Douglas Clegg's Neverland weaves together a story of family secrets,  the loss of innocence, and unfettered imagination in a unique Southern gothic masterpiece

When I read Neverland, I thought of another work of dark fiction, Brom's The Child Thief. The Child Thief utilizes J. M. Barrie's' Peter Pan as its source material, and reimagines the titular character as an impulsive, troubled,  violent young boy who steals children away to a Neverland that resembles our darkest dreams. When Brom explained his reinterpretation, he noted that when he read Barrie's Peter Pan,  the Boy Who Never Grew Up was  a joyful, plucky childhood trickster who also had elements of cruelty and an occasional thirst for blood. 

"Here is a quote from the original Peter Pan," Brom writes on his website. ''The boys on the island vary, of course, in numbers, according as they get killed and so on; and when they seem to be growing up, which is against the rules, Peter thins them out […].' Thins them out? Huh? What does that mean? […] How many children had Peter stolen, how many had died, how many had been thinned out? Peter himself said, 'To die will be an awfully big adventure.'" 

If Barrie's Neverland is the place of enduring childhood, then it's reasonable to assume that joy and playfulness will exist there eternally, as well as cruelty and danger. Douglas Clegg's Neverland is a work that speaks to the harsh truth of childhood:  children can be cruel, deadly, and dangerous, and a child's imagination can accommodate both the beautiful and the obscene.
 Peter Pan from "The Child Thief"
(c) by Brom Image Source

Neverland opens with ten-year old Beau, who travels with his family every summer to Gull Island, North Carolina, to vacation at his Grammy Weenie's decrepit Victorian house.  The vacation serves as a family reunion every year, where Beau's parents, grandmother, and sisters share the house with his aunt, uncle, and cousin. Except every year, tensions between family members grow stronger, everyone argues with each other, and relationships start to fall apart.

The "Peter Pan" of this story would be Sumter, Beau's cousin and a young, peculiar boy who has christened an abandoned shed in the forest "Neverland." It's the ultimate clubhouse--isolated, filled with old junk and trinkets, superstitions, and an air of mystery.  And its number one rule is no grown-ups allowed.  It's the perfect safe haven for Beau and Sumter whenever the adults squabble and drink; a place they can truly call their own. 

When Sumter invites Beau to Neverland for the first time, it's to share a secret. Sumter claims he has found "god" in the shed, a spirit he calls "Lucy." From that moment on, the book dives into an intense, disturbing journey where childhood games become dark rituals, dreams become nightmares, and a child 's imagination knows no boundaries. 

Clegg is a master of characterization and creates an authentic voice with his depictions of Beau, Sumter, and the other children in the novel. He absolutely nails the dialogue between these characters. I never once doubted their age or their behavior, and I felt a sense of youthful nostalgia when I read their interactions with each other. 

"Rundown Shack" (pd) by Oven Fresh
Beau and Sumter are well-rounded characters, and although Beau is the more sympathetic of the two, I still cared for Sumter even though he is more emblematic of the hyper, mischievous child who doesn't know when to quit. It's hard to love or pity a child who should be kept in permanent time-out; the fact that I cared for Sumter despite this is a tribute to Clegg's ability to give his characters a sense of depth and humanity.
The suspense and tempo of the novel is well-measured. Between scenes of genuine horror are small moments filled with micro-tension, courtesy of the messed-up family dynamic in Grammy Weenie's house. There's a constant sense of unraveling at work here, so the stakes always feel high; there's always something to lose. 

But the horrific moments are truly memorable. Neverland  has conjured images I will never  be able to forget. A child's imagination is of the purest kind, in that there is no agenda or logic or rules--it is unadulterated thought and emotion. To construct nightmarish visions with that same kind of purity leaves me breathless. I can't stress how genuinely freakish and bizarre some of the imagery is in this book, images that grew from the mind of a child…images that grew from the mind of an author who is aware and open to the power of a child's mind.

Neverland  is a haunting work that explores the darker regions of childhood, of play and ritualism, and the pure, limitless power of imagination. When there are no boundaries--when there's no such thing as Never--anything can, and will happen.
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