Thursday, September 10, 2015

Don't Blame Stephen King

RHYS BOWEN: Catriona McPherson is one of the most fun and funny people you're ever likely to meet. She has a brilliant and self-deprecating sense of humor (if you can understand her Scottish accent!) and the interesting thing to me is that she writes some dark and brilliant tales of suspense.
Today she's visiting Jungle Reds to celebrate the publication of her new book, The Child Garden. Welcome Catriona.


Long before Pennywise in It, all children everywhere found all clowns everywhere absolutely terrifying. (I thought about presenting that as no more than my opinion, but  . . . come on, it’s an objective fact.)
And it’s not just clowns. The list of things that are supposedly cute, hilarious and/or adorable but are actually blood-curdling is a long one.  The Singing Ringing Tree aside (Google it if you were lucky enough not to be a kid in Britain in the seventies. Lock your doors first.), there’s The Wizard of Oz – her feet roll up! There’s speaking dolls with eyes that move and lips that don’t! My sister Audrey had one of these dastardly objects, called Rosebud. Always a sinister name thanks that other movie, right? Rosebud said innocent-sounding things like “”Can I have a biscuit?” in an accent like Julie Andrews’, but she didn’t fool me. Add ventriloquist dummies and automata and I think you’ll agree that hell is empty and all the devils are here.

Or maybe, just maybe, I was an over-imaginative wee girl.  The case for the prosecution can be put in a nutshell if we consider Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.  

One Christmas when I was young and impressionable I got a splendid volume called The Illustrated Treasury of Children’s Literature (Collins) from my granny. It was chock full of delights, including two poems by RLS  -  ‘Bed in Summer’ and ‘A Thought’ - that were charming and adorable and proved that the treasury editors were miracle-workers. You know how they managed to get a two-minute trailer of Get Shorty with no effing and jeffing in it? Well, similarly, every other poem in A Child’s Garden apart from those two is as black as death and midnight.

Okay, slight exaggeration. Many of the other poems in it are disturbing to some degree and were too much for me, especially considering where I read them:  the shadowy reference reading room of a Victorian public library. There I sat, all alone, surrounded by carved wood the colour of graveyard dirt and velvet carpet the colour of old blood, drinking in such gems as these . . .

From ‘Windy Nights’: whenever the trees are crying aloud  (What?) … By on the highway, low and loud, by at the gallop goes he (He who? (He, the strange man you thought was the wind, who’s not the wind at all, who’s riding past your house.)) By at the gallop he goes and then by he comes back at the gallop again. (Oh, great.)

From ‘Shadow March’ (Shadow March???): All around the house is the jet-black night, it stares through the window-pane (Really? It doesn’t just gallop by? It stops and stares in the windows? Super. Anything else?) … All the wicked shadows coming tramp, tramp, tram- (You know what? I was fine with the window thing, actually.)

Or, from ‘Good and Bad Children’, the simple and straight-to-the-point threat of bodily harm: children you are very little and your bones are very brittle . . .

Yup, A Child’s Garden of Verses made a big impression on me. Then I grew up – Well, I grew tall – read Pet Sematary and Salem’s Lot and forgot about it. And because I’m not a very deliberate kind of writer, I was as surprised as anyone when it bubbled back up and found its way onto the pages of a story I was writing last year. I can clearly remember seeing my heroine Gloria Harkness open a copy to read to her son at night when he was tucked up in bed. Really?  I thought. Apparently so. So much so that the book, published this week,  is called The Child Garden.

I’m giving away a copy of The Child Garden at Jungle Reds today. It’s not uniformly cheerful, I have to say; but it’s not as dark as that sweet volume of charming poems for children.

Catriona McPherson writes the Agatha and Macavity winning Dandy Gilver detective series, set in her native Scotland in the 1920s. The latest, A DEADLY MEASURE OF BRIMSTONE, won a third consecutive Left Coast Crime award this year. In 2013 she started a strand of darker (that’s not difficult) standalones. The first, AS SHE LEFT IT, won an Anthony award and THE DAY SHE DIED was shortlisted for an Edgar. THE CHILD GARDEN is out on the 8th of September.

Catriona immigrated to America in 2010, and lives in northern California with a black cat and a scientist. She is proud to be the 2015 president of Sisters in Crime.



  1. I'm not at all certain why anyone, child or otherwise, likes those scary clowns.
    "A Child's Garden of Verses" doesn't sound any more child-friendly than those oh-so-gruesome Grimm's Fairy Tales.
    That said, congratulations on your newest book; I'm looking forward to reading "The Child Garden" . . . .

  2. Personally, I detest clowns (including Lucille Ball, very clown-like and not funny, just painful to watch; I find repeated stupidity quite scary), acrobats, and magicians. Toss in cruelty to animals and all circuses are a nightmare! But RLS? "The Swing" is wonderful! ("Treasure Island" not so much.)

    Disney clowns are sinister (remember "Dumbo"?), but then, so are a lot of Disney movies ("Bambi"? "Pinocchio"? "Sleeping Beauty"?) And Grimm's Fairy Tales (though beautifully brought to life, and nicely explained for adults, in the TV series "Grimm.")

  3. I love getting this glimpse into your childhood, Catriona. I also had a wicked active imagination as a child and had frequent nightmares because of it. Good thing I never got a copy of that book.

    I got The Child Garden on my Kindle yesterday and...didn't do a damn thing but read the rest of the day. This afternoon and evening are going to be a repeat until I'm finished. Loving it! Congratulations.

  4. Welcome Catriona! You do have the perfect imagination for a writer! I'll have to go back and look at the Child's Garden of Verses--I, like Joan, thought the Grimms' fairy tales was the worst it could be!

    And thank you for heading up Sisters in Crime--wonderful organization thanks to the fabulous sisters and the folks who give their time to make sure it continues to thrive!

  5. Welcome Catriona! I had the great pleasure of reading Child Garden and I absolutely loved it. As a huge fan of creepy, I loved it. As a huge fan of well crafted mysteries (such a great ending) I loved it.

    Dolls and clowns top my list of things people find adorable but which can be utterly creepy. And I've been trying to watch BABADOOK ... a movie with the proverbial monster in the closet... but I can only take it in 20 minute bits.

    What I find amazing is Catriona's range. Read CHILD GARDEN and then read one of her Dandy Gilver books.

  6. Catriona - what a joy you are. Your humor and wit are brilliantly spot on concerning all things creepy - especially dolls. I can't wait to read The Child Garden and huge congrats on all the great buzz it's collecting.

  7. Thank you for having me back in the jungle, dearest Reds. Clowns! I was right. No one - absolutely no one - thinks they're funny. What is going on?

    Thank you for the warm words about The Child Garden, Hallie and Edith.

  8. So lovely to see you here at Jungle Red today, Catriona. I miss you. But Raleigh will be here before we know it.

    I love the cover of The Child Garden. It sets the mood even before the first page is turned.

    As for THE BABADOOK, Hallie - it was one of the most creepy movies I have ever seen. I loved it, but I still have moments when I think about it (months after watching), so I can't recommend it except to the most die-hard of horror fans. It is a beautiful metaphor for GRIEF, however.

  9. I had a Child's Garden of Verses too! Perhaps this is why I write dark mysteries. Hmmmm.
    Thanks for mentioning ventriloquist dolls-empty vessels for demon souls, every single one of 'em.

  10. I love your comments on the poems!
    Well done!

  11. I have to say clowns don't bother me (the creep the heck out of my daughter). Nor do dolls - except for that awful "My Buddy" doll from the 80s. The one who looked like Chucky. No thanks.

    But Stephen King's imagery was always too much for me - not while I was reading, but later, when I went to sleep. And classic fairy tales? Yeah, not so warm and fuzzy.

    The Child Garden sounds intriguing. One more for the teetering TBR pile (so glad I keep mine on Goodreads - digital lists can't fall over and kill me - now there's a plot line).

  12. My mother loved the horror genre -- especially psychological horror -- and raised me on horror movies. It somehow never seemed to occur to her that The Birds or Whatever Happened to Baby Jane or Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte might be inappropriate viewing for an elementary-school-aged child. Needless to say, as an adult I have tended to steer clear of horror.

    That said, though, I have read several Stephen King books (though I won't see the movie versions) because -- well -- good writing is good writing, and should always be appreciated. It sounds like The Child Garden may have to be another exception to my general avoidance of horror. But if they ever make a movie from it, I trust you'll understand when I opt out of seeing it, no matter how good the reviews.

  13. That must explain my life long love of all things darks and sinister - children's poems and fairy tales. Someone who was never a child must think some of this stuff up. A jack-in-the-box? Turn the handle and a creepy clown pops out in your face? A ventriloquist's dummy? Stay away. My mother took us to Disney movies but kind of under protest. She said there was always not just a scary part, but one that was terrifying. When I became a mother and took my own kids to them I saw she was right.

    But I love it and always have. Watch the movie through my fingers or from behind the couch, read a page of a scary book, close the book, read another page, repeat.

    And can't wait to read The Child Garden. Congrats on the release.

  14. Ah, Catriona! Poking my head up from my engagement with horror in real life (literary writers organization) because a little bird told me I'd find you here with my JRW pals. Clowns, yes. And Child's Garden of Verse. I can't wait to get my hands on THE CHILD GARDEN. Wishing you wonderful luck with it.

  15. In support of clowns, did anyone get a chance to see Grandma the clown (the divine Barry Lubin) of the Big Apple Circus? He even had my husband's mother (who hates slapstick) in stitches. Grandma was the sweetest most delicious clown ever.

  16. Hi Catriona! I had The Child's Garden of Verses, too. Loved it. I might even still have my copy... But now I'm wondering if it made me slightly warped...

    I wasn't crazy about clowns but wasn't afraid of them, either, but my Scottish ex-husband was terrified of them and had a circus phobia. (Is there a word for that, I wonder?) Hmmm... Maybe Scottish circuses are scarier than American ones.

    Can't wait to read The Child Garden. Hoping to get a signed copy at B'con!

    Susan, my grandmother took me to see Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane at the drive in. Thank goodness NOT The Birds.

  17. Hi, Catriona! Wishing you HUGE success with The Child Garden because it's brilliant.

    My mom still remembers reading THE BAD SEED (or maybe watching the movie?)when she was pregnant with me and worrying that I'd be an evil, demonic child. Hmmm . . .

  18. I love creepy, scary stuff. My big brother and I used to go see all the monster movies when we were kids. But I second your aversion to clowns, dolls, and dummies. Too creepy. Although I remember seeing a ventriloquist's dummy on Buffy the Vampire Slayer who did all the things we're afraid of, but was hilarious.
    I am a huge fan of Catriona's Dandy Gilver series and her stand-alones. So folks, if you haven't read them yet, get with it! (Catriona, I know Hugh is reserved as all heck, but I still want to see a little romantic spark from him sometime. Please!)

  19. Welcome, Catriona! I am terrified of clowns, of Stephen King's IT, and now will probably have nightmare thanks to you. THANKS A LOT. P.S. Can't wait to The Child Garden....

  20. Catriona, I hope you know by now that you are my favorite Scottish treasure, and I can't wait to see you at Bouchercon. My wish for a panel is you reading anything so I can listen to that beautiful accent, but, alas, they don't do panels of one. I have already had my mitts on The Child Garden, but I won't be able to read it until this weekend. So great to have it to look forward to. And, I agree with Kristopher, as I always do, that the cover is spectacular.

    Your comments on A Child's Garden of Verses poems were hilarious. I have a very old copy of this book of poems, and I will have to take a good look at those poems, as I didn't realize how dark they were. I guess I was familiar with only the two innocuous ones, and since I do like creepy, I now want to read those others.

    I'm wondering, Catriona, if you've ever read Stephen King's The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. It's one of his shortest novels, but talk about a kid in a scary situation. One of my favorites. I even have a pop-up book of it.

    And, now, I know posting the following poem will make my comment extraordinarily long, but this is a poem that will rival any child's creepy poem. It is James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphant Annie," and my father-in-law used to recite it to my kids (what a good mother I was), and when my father-in-law was in the rest home before he died and unable to remember much, I took a copy of the poem and read to him, with him reciting the repeating parts with me.

    Little Orphant Annie
    . Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
    An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
    An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
    An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep;
    An' all us other childern, when the supper-things is done,
    We set around the kitchen fire an' has the mostest fun
    A-list'nin' to the witch-tales 'at Annie tells about,
    An' the Gobble-uns 'at gits you
    Ef you
    Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn't say his prayers, —
    An' when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
    His Mammy heerd him holler, an' his Daddy heerd him bawl,
    An' when they turn't the kivvers down, he wuzn't there at all!
    An' they seeked him in the rafter-room, an' cubby-hole, an' press,
    An' seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an' ever'-wheres, I guess;
    But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an' roundabout: —
    An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
    Ef you
    An' one time a little girl 'ud allus laugh an' grin,
    An' make fun of ever' one, an' all her blood-an'-kin;
    An' wunst, when they was "company," an' ole folks wuz there,
    She mocked 'em an' shocked 'em, an' said she didn't care!
    An' thist as she kicked her heels, an' turn't to run an' hide,
    They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin' by her side,
    An' they snatched her through the ceilin' 'fore she knowed what she's about!
    An' the Gobble-uns 'll git you
    Ef you
    An' little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
    An' the lamp-wick sputters, an' the wind goes woo-oo!
    An' you hear the crickets quit, an' the moon is gray,
    An' the lightnin'-bugs in dew is all squenched away, —
    You better mind yer parunts, an' yer teachurs fond an' dear,
    An' churish them 'at loves you, an' dry the orphant's tear,
    An' he'p the pore an' needy ones 'at clusters all about,
    Er the Gobble-uns 'll git you
    Ef you

  21. Running in, running in….

    I LOVED this book. Truly, it's amazing, and Catriona is a master class in voice.

    That said, my dear, HOW do you do Gloria--and then Dandy??

  22. Waving at Catriona! It's comforting to know your newest book is not as terrifying as A Child's Garden of Verse. I was worried about this, since I do try to support you by buying and reading all your books. And since the last one I read, Come to Harm, just about scared me out of my shoes. Thanks for the reassurance.

    I must be a very accepting person, because even though I was never into clowns, it never occurred to me to question why they existed, any more than those creepy things that passed for dolls in the olden days. Hmm. Food for thought here.

    "children you are very little and your bones are very brittle . . . " All I can say is "EEEK!!!"

  23. Catriona, what a fascinating imagination you have! I must add your books to my tbr list. I thought I had read all of RLS books, but I missed A Child's Garden of Verses,, sounds adorably creepy. Have to admit, in King's IT, the worst part for me was all the "throat clearing". All the rest I could handle. From one displaced Scot to another, I love your sense of humour.

  24. I'm another person who's always been terrified by clowns. I only have a vague memory of this, but apparently my parents took me to a circus when I was about 4 yrs old and the clowns set off fireworks and it scared me in to crying. I was so upset I threw up on my mom. I've always hated even friendly looking clowns, and I guess that shows our subconcious never forgets what terrifies us. I'm looking forward to reading your book as well!

  25. Smithsonian Magazine has a great article on why clowns are scary - For me there was only 1 fun clown at Ringling Bros - while he did pranks they were always fun and light hearted the others epitomized the bullies I dealt with in school. I was always happy when the clowns left the ring. I think that clowns mess up the usual visual clues that tell us someone is good, to be trusted, etc.

    Much of children's literature is dark - The Brothers Grimm is a perfect example of this. Even the "lighter" LL Baum books have serious dark sides. That said, tales are ways for children to learn and learning what to be scared of are important lessons.

    Caitriona, I wish you well on this book, and other as you develop your many writing voices. I look forward to reading the book, even though I prefer lighter fare (like Dandy :).

  26. Good grief, Kathy! That's a new one on me. And Pat - that is one of my favourite Buffy episodes - the sound of Sid the Dummy's little wooden feet scuttling about off camera? Brrrr.

  27. My mom had an aunt who would recite "Orphant Annie" to them. She never did that to us, and therefore it was quite unfair that, after seeing _The Bad Seed_ we'd croon to her, "I have the nicest mommy . . . " Grimms' tales weren't actually intended for little children, but there were plenty of dark cautionary tales intended to keep children in line. A friend just posted a photo of La Llorona Park, by a river and doesn't even close at sunset. Yikes!
    Stephen King is usually to scary for me, except the "Quitters, Inc." story, which a student brought to me, knowing I'd like it.
    I've been okay with clowns, so I must have successfully avoided the horrific incarnations.
    Write on!

  28. Wonderful. Childhood is a deliciously blood thirsty time. And I mean that in the nicest of ways. We're trained to it. Even early prayers, "If I should die before I wake..." Nice comfy thoughts there, and then there were all those rhymes we learned, "If the bough breaks the cradle will fall" and "London Bridges falling down." Lots of falling going on, think about Ring Around the Rosy where "We all fall down." Somewhere along the line I was told that one was about the Black Death. Ah yes, what a wonderfully rich heritage to draw from Catriona. How wonderful that you can let it all bubble up in such a marvelously creative way.

  29. I definitely can't blame Stephen King though I cut my teeth on "Night Shift" when visiting my grandma. I had read all the kids books she had and dived in. He stuck in my head after that.

    My real obsession with horror and thrillers began with the Twilight Zone. Ahhhhh yes. :)

  30. This was a wonderful piece. Thank you so much for sharing. And talk about a glorious book cover. Looking forward to reading The Child Garden, putting on my TBR list immediately, along with The Children's Garden of Verses.