Friday, October 6, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 9: Everworld, by K. A. Applegate

The Everworld series were books I certainly should not have, but did, read as child, when I between ten and twelve years old. I never read Animorphs, Applegate’s larger, better known series, but I have heard that it becomes quite heavy and dark by the end. Everworld started out dark and got rougher from there. I do not think these books belonged in the scholastic catalogue, from which I acquired all twelve as they became available.

Everworld is a story of four teenagers thrown into a magical realm by the schemes of their classmate/girlfriend/ex-girlfriend/sibling, Senna, who is a witch. Everworld, where they are sent, is the place where all the old gods and mythical heroes and monsters retreated, with a stock of mortals to serve and worship them, at the point they abandoned the ‘real’ world. Put another way, this is a world filled with sanity bending monsters that demand humans bow to them, and people with an unreconstructed dark-ages parody of a moral sense regarding violence, gender politics and slavery. The characters rubber-band between worlds as the series goes on, but the real action, in their and my minds, is in Everworld. The first book, which by publication dates I would have been 10 when I read, contains several scenes of graphic violence, including gory dismemberment and masochism, scenes of grim despair, torture, and heavily implied off-screen sexual violence. It also contained unexpected and intriguing world building, an interesting plot, and teen protagonists who I disliked with moderate intensity from the beginning.

I was not ready for these books. I will go farther and say I was unprepared (by life or by previous reading), shocked, and repulsed by them. The violence, fear, and suffering were more than enough to put me off the books, and I was made uncomfortable by a lot of what I read, but I was also uncomfortably fascinated, and it drew me back. Each time the next entry in the series appeared in the scholastic catalogue, I had to debate whether to acquire it. (When I was homeschooled, my father was registered as a teacher with scholastic. We got the catalogue each month, I circled what I wanted, the books appeared. I was given very little supervision in choosing the books.) I am not sure my parents were ever aware of the content of Everworld, or whether they would have done anything if they were. It was an internal debate, whether I wanted to continue the series each time, but each time I chose to order the books.

Reading Everworld never really stopped being frustrating, disturbing, or emotionally unpleasant, but it also continued to be fascinating and horizon-expanding. The content continued as disturbing as it began, and indeed escalated enough to keep the visceral unpleasantness fairly constant. It also continued to expose me to bits of mythology and legend that I had never seen before, and to aim at the things I was familiar with from odd angles that I had never considered. I was drawn to it the way one is drawn to peel off a scab, or to look at pornography when it is first discovered.

I was seriously unready for these books, and they were not written to ease the age-group they were marketed to into considering more adult issues. They were the literary equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of an icy pool in terms of teaching young readers how to think about the serious issues they presented. The books were full of sex: not graphic, but constant references, many of them tinged with violence. They dealt with depression, addiction, homophobia and white-supremacy, all through the lens of one character, who became depressed after a heroic sacrifice forced him to confront his own unthinking homophobia. He carried on a cross-universe bender that seems to be an acceleration of incipient alcoholism. In his real-world return segments, he discovers the copy shop he works at is run by neo-nazis, who invite him to their meetings. My hand was not held through any of this, and my articulation of what those parts of the books were about is very much hindsight. At the time, I found them uncomfortable. I did not enjoy reading them. I think this portion of Everworld is strongly implicated in an aversion to ‘real-world’ problems in fantasy that I carried for a long time, and am only now really examining and trying to discard.

The Everworld books were deeply difficult for me, and my reaction to them was complex, and is, perhaps, ongoing. I am not sure I would recommend them to anyone. I certainly would not recommend them to a precocious ten year old, but they did leave a real mark on me. The visceral imagery and emotion continues to shape how I think about horror in particular, and I remember them, much more than many books I simply enjoyed at the same time in my life. I was not looking for strange an disturbing fiction at that time in my life, but I have come to respect the value of it since, even if I am still unsure about Everworld.

1 comment:

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