Book Review:

The Cultural Construction of Monstrous Children: Chapters on Anomalous Children from 1596 to the Present Day, edited by Simon Bacon and Leo Ruickbie

Reviewed by Sean Ferrier-Watson

Collin College

Review of The Cultural Construction of Monstrous Children: Chapters on Anomalous Children from 1596 to the Present Day, edited by Simon Bacon and Leo Ruickbie, Anthem Press, 2020. 242 pp. Hardcover (ISBN: 978-1785275203).

Monsters and children—one terrifying and deformed, the other innocent and delightful—seem incompatible. While monstrous and anomalous children are hardly new ideological and social constructs, the conflation of monstrosity and childhood still has the power to shock and appall us. The Cultural Construction of Monstrous Children is an ambitious collection of scholarly chapters that attempt to understand and dissect notions of monstrous children from 1595 to the present day. The collection includes an international gathering of contributors from across the academic spectrum, ranging from the social sciences to the arts and humanities.  

The best pieces in the collection are some of the first chapters. Part I, “Historical Case Studies,” looks at period pieces recounting reports of supposedly real monstrous children—possessions, witchcraft, werewolves, and feral children. Leo Ruickbie’s “I Was a Real Teenage Werewolf” and Gerd H. Hӧvelmann’s “Deviance on Display” are exceptional pieces of scholarship. Ruickbie works with a translation of the seventeenth-century account of Jean Grenier, an accused werewolf in France, and explains the unusual circumstances and trial. His case drew the attention of famed witch-hunter Pierre de Lancre, who found and observed the boy as he served his life sentence in a monastery. Ruickbie analyzes the confusing and often contradictory testimony in the trial transcript reproduced by de Lancre and reveals the bewildering logic used to convict the child. Ruickbie’s essay segues nicely into Hӧvelmann’s piece on feral children, particularly on the case of Kaspar Hauser, who mysteriously arrived in Nuremberg, Germany, with a letter in hand indicating his delivery to Captain von Wessenig. His lack of linguistic and social abilities drew both international intrigue and suspicion. Ruickbie and Hӧvelmann use their case studies to demonstrate longstanding questions about the nature of childhood and how easily anomalous children can be transformed by others/by their culture into monstrous children.

In the second and third part of the collection, the chapters focus on fictional and popular interpretations of monstrous children. Part II and Part III are each titled “Factual Anxiety in Fictional Representations,” but have different subtitles—Part II is labeled “The Undead Child” and Part III is labeled “The Monstrous Child.” These sections examine the way fiction has dealt with monstrosity and childhood in both classic and contemporary works of fiction. Jen Baker’s “Imprints: Forming and Tracing the Malevolent Ghost-Child” and Simon Bacon’s “Children for Ever! Monsters of Eternal Youth and the Reification of Childhood” are two of the most compelling pieces in Part II. Jen Baker’s chapter on the function and origin of the ghost child in literature is fascinating, but her piece might have profited from a closer investigation into the way ghosts were portrayed in children’s literature. Simon Bacon’s chapter looks at ghost, vampire, and zombie children appearing in a wide range of fiction. While his essay can at times feel a bit encyclopedic, his arguments about the function of these character types in fiction are strong and useful to scholars studying child monsters in popular culture. These pieces contribute greatly to research into monstrous children.

In Part III, Allison Moore’s “‘Not a child. Not old. Not a boy. Not a girl’: Representing Childhood in Let the Right One In” and Anna Kérchy’s “Perverted Postmodern Pinocchios: Cannibalistic Vegetal-Children as Ecoterrorist Agents of the Maternal Imagination” are the strongest chapters, providing compelling insights into fictional interpretations of monstrous children. Moore’s chapter on child vampires is fascinating and her reading of Eli from Let the Right One In is excellent, but her argument for how Eli represents an evolution in the child vampire from Anne Rice’s Claudia from Interview with a Vampire could use more clarity. Arguing persuasively that Eli has greater gender ambiguity compared to Claudia, she does not quite explain how this characterization marks a progression in our empathy for the child vampire. Gender differences aside, Claudia and Eli appear to be equally sympathetic characters that together demonstrate little change in the child-vampire architype. Kérchy’s piece on vegetable children offers groundbreaking insight into a little observed character type developing in popular fiction, but her chapter does not quite deliver on everything promised in her title. Strikingly, she neglects to analyze Carlo Collodi’s Pinocchio, which is a shame considering how Collodi’s wooden child grew from a mischievous plant into a tame model of childhood obedience. Collodi’s masterwork could have significantly aided her analysis of these “vegetal-children.”

Part IV, the final section, offers essays examining childhood monstrosity from a social science perspective, looking at psychological, anthropological, and sociological insights into monstrous children. These chapters also reflect the collection’s overly ambitious conceptualization of monstrous children. While the last section offers some interesting insights, it is difficult at times to see its connection to the discussion of monstrosity in the first three sections. Jacquelyn Bent and Theresa Porter’s “Doli Incapax: Examining the Social, Psychological, Biological and Legal Implications of Age-Related Assumptions of Criminal Responsibility” and Gerhard Mayer and Anita Brutler’s “Indigo Children: Unexpected Consequences of a Process of Pathologization” rarely seem focused on monstrosity. While Bent and Porter focus on the ambiguity behind assigning a definite age to the ending of childhood, especially in terms of assessing criminal culpability, their chapter is far more interested in understanding criminality and nuances of psychological and legal definitions of childhood than with child monstrosity. In Mayer and Brutler’s chapter, the connection to monstrosity is even more difficult to ascertain. While the New Age and Indigo movements might have some creepy aspects, they certainly do not seem very monstrous. Their piece provides little evidence of monstrosity or even the perception of monstrosity in these children. They seem about as monstrous as the hippies in ‘60s or the skaters in ‘90s—outsiders, yes, but monsters, no. The word “monster” in any form appears seldomly in these two chapters in comparison to the rest of the collection. While they are informative and compelling in their own way, they do not fit as well as some of the other chapters.

With these concerns and issues aside, The Cultural Construction of Monstrous Children offers valuable contributions to the study of childhood. It is well suited to graduate classes focusing on childhood or monstrosity. Scholars interested in studying these issues will not be disappointed with this collection.

-24 Dec. 2020