Sunday, October 30, 2011

The 15 Most Disturbing Nursery Rhymes You've Never Heard

Nursery rhymes aren’t all pudding and pie. Look closely and you’ll start to notice the starving dogs, nose-severing blackbirds, women held captive in pumpkin shells, and tails lopped off with carving knives. Those horrific images are just the remnants, though. 

Mother Goose rhymes have been fairly sanitized over the years, and earlier versions were chock-full of atrocities. The farther back one looks, the more gruesome the rhymes become. Some even believe that the seemingly harmless “Eeny, meeny, miny, mo” counting rhymes derive from ancient methods of choosing human sacrifices (though the source material is sketchy.)

Domestic violence is one of the more common themes in old nursery rhymes, with wives and daughters bearing the brunt of the abuse, ranging from beating with a stick to flat-out murder. The early Victorians no doubt thought these rhymes were instructive to their daughters, who would learn to be obedient, dutiful wives.

Women weren’t the only ones to suffer in verse. Plenty of men are burnt, hacked or otherwise disposed of, as are children of any gender and a bevy of pets and wildlife.

Nursery rhyme reform was the rallying cause of a few upstanding gentlemen of the 1950s, including Geoffrey Handley-Taylor, who surveyed 200 popular rhymes and listed in detail what sorts of unsavoriness they contained (much as parents groups today decry animated films or video game content).

Handley-Taylor’s list of unsavory elements in the rhymes he read is a whole page long, and includes these bothersome incidents:

  • 8 allusions to murder (unclassified)
  • 2 cases of choking to death
  • 1 case of cutting a person in half
  • 1 case of death by devouring
  • 15 allusions to maimed human beings or animals
  • 23 cases of physical violence (unclassified)
Full list here

Here are 15 examples of nursery rhymes that don’t make the cut in childrens books today. Keep them handy if you have any children you need to keep awake.

There was a Man so Wise,
He jumpt into
A Bramble Bush,
And scratcht out both his Eyes.
And when he saw
His Eyes were out,
And reason to Complain,
He jumpt into a Quickset Hedge,
And scratcht them in again.

Originally from Tommy Thumb’s Pretty Song Book, 1744

Old father Long-Legs
Can’t say his prayers:
Take him by the left leg,
And throw him down the stairs.
And when he’s at the bottom,
Before he long has lain,
Take him by the right leg,
And throw him up again.

Originally from Nancy Cock’s Pretty Song Book for all little Misses and Masters, 1780

There was an old woman,
Her name it was Peg;
Her head was of wood and
She wore a cork leg.
The neighbours all pitch’d
Her into the water,
Her leg was drowned first,
And her head followed after.

From James Halliwell Phillips Nursery Rhymes, 1842 

THERE was a lady all skin and bone;
Sure such a lady was never known :
It happen'd upon a certain day,
This lady went to church to pray.

When she came to the church stile,
There she did rest a little while ;
When she came to the churchyard,
There the bells so loud she heard. 

When she came to the church door,
She stopt to rest a little more ;
When she came the church within,

The parson pray'd 'gainst pride and sin.

On looking up, on looking down,
She saw a dead man on the ground ;
And from his nose unto his chin,
The worms crawl'd out, the worms crawl'd in.

Then she unto the parson said,
Shall I be so when I am dead :
O yes ! O yes, the parson said,
You will be so when you are dead.

Here the lady screams.*

*The person reciting the rhyme is meant to scream bloody murder at the end of the verse.

Originally from Gammer Gurton’s Garland, 1784 (Full text online)


There was a man, he went mad,
He jumped into a paper bag;

The paper bag was too narrow,
He jumped into a wheelbarrow;

The wheelbarrow took on fire,
He jumped into a cow byre;

The cow byre was too nasty;
He jumped into an apple pasty;

The apple pasty was too sweet,
He jumped into Chester-le-Street;

Chester-le-Street was full of stones,
He fell down and broke his bones.

From an early Mother Goose


I charge my daughters every one
To keep good house while I am gone,
You and you and especially you,
Or else I'll beat you black and blue.

From an early Mother Goose


Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.

From an early Mother Goose

Die, pussy, die,
Shut your little eye:
When you wake,
Find a cake,
Die, pussy, die.

From an early Mother Goose (Actually less threatening than it sounds, this is a rhyme to be recited while stopping a swing.)


Baby, baby, naughty baby,
Hush, you squalling thing, I say.
Peace this moment, peace, or maybe
Bonaparte will pass this way.

Baby, baby, he's a giant,
Tall and black as Rouen steeple,
And he breakfasts, dines, rely on't,
Every day on naughty people.

Baby, baby, if he hears you
As he gallops past the house,
Limb from limb at once he'll tear you,
Just as pussy tears a mouse.

And he'll beat you, beat you, beat you,
And he'll beat you into pap,
And he'll eat you, eat you, eat you,
Every morsel snap, snap, snap.

From an early Mother Goose lullaby


Here come I,
  Little David Doubt;
If you don't give me money,
 I'll sweep you all out.

Money I want,
  And money I crave;
If you don't give me money,
  I'll sweep you all to the grave!

From an early Mother Goose’s Almanack


John Ball shot them all;
John Scott made the shot,
But John Ball shot them all.

From James Halliwell Phillips Nursery Rhymes, 1842 (Full text of the poem, which continues on in "The House That Jack Built" style)


Little General Monk
Sat upon a trunk
Eating a crust of bread;
There fell a hot coal
And burnt into his clothes a hole,
Now little General Monk is dead.
Keep always from the fire,
If it catch your attire
You too, like General Monk, will be dead.

From Rhymes for the Nursery, 1824


I married a wife on Sunday,
She began to scold on Monday,
Bad was she on Tuesday,
Middling was she on Wednesday,
Worse she was on Thursday,
Dead was she on Friday,
Glad was I on Saturday night,
To bury my wife on Sunday.

From Tom Tit’s Song Book, 1790


 A man of words and not of deeds
Is like a garden full of weeds

And when the weeds begin to grow
It's like a garden full of snow

And when the snow begins to fall
It's like a bird upon the wall

And when the bird away does fly
It's like an eagle in the sky

And when the sky begins to roar
It's like a lion at the door

And when the door begins to crack
It's like a stick across your back

And when your back begins to smart
It's like a penknife in your heart

And when your heart begins to bleed
You're dead, and dead, and dead indeed.

Originally from Gammer Gurton’s Garland, 1784


A  long tail’d pig, or a short tail’d  pig,
Or a pig without any tail,
A sow-pig, or a boar-pig,
Or a pig with a curling  tail.

Take hold of his tail,
And eat off his head,
And then you will be sure
The pig-hog is dead.

Originally the street cry of the pig-pie man, reproduced in several early nursery rhyme books.


What's the grimmest nursery rhyme or story you recall? Give me your creepiest verse in the comments section.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

6 Scary Books for Halloween Gift-Giving: A New Tradition Everyone Should Adopt

Last October, writer Neil Gaiman proposed a brilliant new way to celebrate Halloween. Noting on his blog that there ought to be more traditions that involve the giving of books, Gaiman suggested All Hallow’s Read: 
I propose that, on Hallowe'en or during the week of Hallowe'en, we give each other scary books. Give children scary books they'll like and can handle. Give adults scary books they'll enjoy.

And to that, I (and I imagine most bookish types) say Bravo.

Giving scary books to friends and family doesn’t have to mean giving gory slash-’em-up books. (If you and your friends like gory slash-’em-up books, though, have at it.) These are six books I personally give the Book Dirt seal of approval. They’re moody, broody, atmospheric --and best of all: scary.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

You probably know Jackson for her short story “The Lottery,” a favorite of the public school system and a masterful example of pre-Shyamalan twist endings. What you might not know is that Jackson was also a master of the American Gothic novel. More psychologically spooky than supernatural, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is domestic creepiness at its best and most beautiful, complete with poisoned sugarbowls, books nailed to trees and villagers of the torch and rake-bearing variety. You’ll be riveted as this story unspools.

The Bottoms by Joe R. Lansdale

Joe R. Lansdale is an odd bird. The author of tons and tons of books and stories, he penned the novella that the Bruce Campbell movie Bubba Ho-Tep was based on, as well as the Texas-based, street noir Hap and Leonard mysteries (with titles like Bad Chili). Lansdale turned literary with The Bottoms (Random House called it “a thriller with echoes of William Faulkner and Harper Lee"), a depression-era novel that’s alternately folksy and gruesome. It’s hard to say what’s scarier in The Bottoms: the murders or the Southern-style racism? All tie together in a disturbingly effective way.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
The key to reading this classic horror story is to forget everything you know about it. Forget that you saw the Looney Tunes spoof or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. In other words, forget that you know man and monster are one and the same. The concept is so ingrained in our culture that we use Jekyll & Hyde as an adjective (especially in front of “personality.”) The Victorians who first read Stevenson, though, did so without knowing the two were one. It was a shocker of an ending of Fight Club proportions. Read it with that in mind (or not in mind, really), and you’ll understand what thrilled your ancestors so much.

A Judgement in Stone by Ruth Rendell 

“Eunice Parchman killed the Coverdale family because she could not read or write.” That’s the first line of A Judgement in Stone, and it’s one of the best mystery openers I’ve ever encountered. Not only because it demands that you keep reading, but it lays out everything right from the get-go. The rest of the novel is a whydunnit, and knowing what’s in store for the Coverdales drives rather than hinders the telling. 

The House With a Clock In Its Walls by John Bellairs

Oh, to be ten again and read Bellairs for the first time! There aren’t nearly enough gothic horror novels for pre-teens (what there is gets squeezed off the shelf by sparkly vampires and gossipy girls), and the genre may have peaked in 1973 with Bellairs smart, spooky series. I remember being drawn in by the Edward Gorey line drawings and nifty proper names like Barnavelt and Zebedee. If you know a kid who really loves reading, make this a gift, or if you don’t mind reading young adult fiction yourself, prepare to be chillingly charmed.

Ghost Stories of M.R. James

You can’t have Halloween without some ghosts, and if anyone perfected the ghost story, it was M.R. James. Also known for his work as an antiquary (with Medieval documents, no less), James moved the ghost story out of the dusty Victorian era and into the modern world. James’ ghosts aren’t so much supernatural as they are a part of everyday existence, often summoned through an ancient tome or in a library, which may explain his appeal to bookworm types. Give ‘Oh, Whistle and I’ll Come to You, My Lad’ a try, and you’ll never see an unmade bed in the same way again.

Do you plan on giving books for Halloween? What's the scariest book you've ever read? Post your spookiest selections in the comments section.

Friday, October 14, 2011

From Nigeria to Nantucket: A Limerick Project of Epic Proportions

After my recent post about the legal kerfuffle between Chinua Achebe and rapper 50 Cent, a friend of mine reminded me that I once wrote a limerick about Achebe. I had to look it up to remember the words:

Achebe, Chinua

If reading has started to weary ya
And you'd like to read lit from Nigeria,
You'd do well to start
With Things Fall Apart.
Achebe should fit your criteria.

Chinua Achebe (ah-CHAY-bay, b. 1930) also wrote the novels No Longer at Ease and Arrow of God.

I’d love to be able to claim that I just sit around dashing off limericks about African novelists and stay up nights finding reasons to rhyme Nigeria and criteria (the second half is partly true), but I actually had a reason. The reason, though, might be even more unusual.

I created it as an entry into a dictionary made up completely of limericks. It’s not my project, but the brainchild of one Chris J. Strolin, the madman and genius behind the OEDILF, or the Omniscent English Dictionary in Limerick Form. (Originally the project was called the Oxford English Dictionary in Limerick Form, but the actual OED folks weren’t keen on it.)

Strolin’s goal is to ultimately define every word in the English language (and that includes the notable proper names often found in dictionaries, like Achebe above) with its own limerick. The project began in 2004, and is now up to the middle of the letter ‘E’ with around 75,000 limericks submitted.

The estimated completion date is 2037, though it’s acknowledged that with the changing language, the result will be merely a first edition of a work that will remain in progress.

The OEDILF only opens up small letter ranges of the dictionary at a time, mainly in order to keep writers from working ahead and claiming all the “good” words.

Anyone can contribute limericks to the OEDILF. Just browse through the list of open words (words not yet defined) and craft a limerick that in some way defines the word.

It’s that simple --sort of. Limericks don’t actually appear as part of the dictionary (though they are in the database and can be viewed) until they go through a workshopping process that is by turns exhilarating and maddening. The folks at the OEDILF know their stuff, and they’ll catch a forced meter, a wonky definition or an incorrect fact from miles away.

Even the best writers might have to revise a limerick a few times before it passes muster. It’s actually a fantastic way to hone writing and editing skills.

After you’ve had a certain number of limericks approved, you too can join in on the workshopping of others’ limericks.

The limericks in the OEDILF range from funny to downright sublime, and I highly recommend browsing even if you don’t want to contribute.

Some of my favorite entries from others:

ecru by Chris Doyle

To the Senate comes Brutus one day
In a toga that's yellowish-gray.
It's so out there that Caesar,
A notable teaser,
Can't help but say, "Ecru, Brute?"

disclaimer by Jeff Foster

A written disclaimer makes clear,
"We can't be responsible here."*
*The above definition,
By author's admission,
Was reached after 12 pints of beer.

 catarrhally by Janet McConnaughey
She gazed at me hotly, boudoirally,
Bosom heaving and eyes glowing starrily.
In spite of my virus
She made me desirous.
"Led's ged barried," I offered, catarrhally.

I spend time on the OEDILF in bursts, leaving off to pursue other projects, then becoming re-addicted. My first approved limerick was this one, for the word cheesesteak:

Said a passionate eater from Philly
Who believed haute cuisine was just silly,
"If your cheesesteak is twee
And it's made with French brie,
Though it's called one, it isn't one, really."

My favorite limericks to write were humorous ones that still gave enough context to define the word. I’m a sucker for a lame joke, and I went to town:

A yokel was heard to say "Aw!
I got somethin' stuck in my jaw!
But—wait now—by cracky!
It's just my tobacky.
I fergot I was chewin' my chaw!"


champagne flute

When at parties, I've seen the elite
Use the champagne-from-slipper conceit.
But when drinking my Brut
From a stemmed, tapered flute,
Then I'm certain it won't taste of feet.

Or even:

 chicken Kiev
For chicken Kiev that's divine,
Take a breast and then pound it 'til fine.
Roll with butter, then bake,
And that's how you make —
No, a chicken breast, moron, not mine!

Once I got the hang of the form, I ventured into more academic limericks, like the Achebe piece. One of my happiest achivements in life may have been the day a limerick I wrote to include the longest word in the works of Shakespeare was finally approved by the workshop editors. It took months of revisions (getting the meter right involved the tearing out of hair), but I finally wrested this feat of limerick-crafting from my keyboard, with help from one of the limerick luminaries.

Costard (with Chris Doyle)

As a clown, Costard often amuses,
But in Love's Labour's Lost when he uses
initatibus," will a dude,
Upon hearing it, think the fool boozes?


If you'd like to join the madness, register for the OEDILF. It's not for everyone, but you might be just the kind of brilliant oddball they need.

The OEDILF is browsable, so you can search the database for words beginning with A-El. If you find a fun word, post it here (not the whole limerick, unless you also cite the author). Do you dare join? If so, I'll see you around!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Jeffery Eugenides Looms Over Times Square; Sells Books to Women

Wall Street Journal

You don’t often see authors’ faces on billboards, so even Jeffrey Eugenides was surprised when Farrar, Straus and Giroux decided to hype his new book The Marriage Plot with a Times Square ad. It’s a refreshing sight, but it’s also a throwback to a time when we treated writers a little more like we ought to --like rock stars.

It's not like 1971 anymore, when Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal got into a literal fistfight on the Dick Cavett show.  How long has it been since two writers faced off on a talk show? When Jonathan Franzen appeared on the cover of Time last year, he was the first writer in ten years to do so. So, more of this, I say. Our writers ought to be our idols.

The Eugenides billboard brings up another point, though. Take a good look at how the billboard is designed, and at how the book appears to be marketing itself. From the wedding ring on the cover to the frilly font and the posing of Eugenides himself as a sex god, The Marriage Plot (note the title, too --sounds madcap) is clearly aimed at women.

Wedding ring covers: pretty much an indicator of marketing to women.

Just to make it extra-clear that the billboard is more yin than yang, I did a Google search to see what sorts of things are described as “swoon-worthy.” 

Swoon-worthy things, according to Google:

  • Zac Efron shirtless
  • the cast of Twilight
  • wine and sunsets
  • lace-trimmed outfits
  • cakes
  • wedding dresses
  • lavender sweatpants
  • a pistachio-colored handbag
  • boyfriends doing the cooking

Is it me, or do those seem a tad on the girls’ team?

I bring all this up because a few female authors of late have taken umbrage at the packaging of their books, complaining that the marketing strategy is too female, and that the publishers are selling the authors short. Most recently Polly Courtney dropped her publisher because of cover art she claimed made her novels seem like chick-lit.

The cover that was the last straw for Polly Courtney.

If anything makes Polly Courtney’s novels seem like chick-lit, it might actually be the novels themselves. While they may not have the fashion designer namedropping, they do have amnesiac women torn between two men or feisty women working in a man’s world. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these storylines (this isn’t a criticism of Coutney’s work or genre), but they do seem aimed at women. Chick-lit review sites concur that her book is par for the course with what they read and review.

Courtney isn’t a literary writer or a particularly ground-breaking one. Eugenides actually is (That’s his Pulitzer talking, not me.) It’s a distinction worth noting because it raises the question: Why isn’t Eugenides upset that his books are being marketed toward women? He certainly could argue that the publisher is narrowing his potential fan base.

The answer, though I can’t speak for Eugenides himself, is probably due to the fact that women make up a whopping 80% of the fiction market. With that in mind, why wouldn’t someone like Courtney --whose books are not going to close any gender gap in fiction reading by plot alone-- want to market to the people who are actually doing the buying and reading of books like hers?

Nicholas Sparks is another example of a man who seems pretty pleased to have his books marketed to women (his covers tend to have moody sunsets and couples-in-a-clinch). His estimated net worth is a cool $30 million. (His latest movie deal stars Zac Efron. Whether or not he’s shirtless will no doubt determine the swoon-worthiness.)

Nicholas Sparks: Marketing to the 80%.

Best of luck to Polly Courtney, but if she wants to succeed on a level like Sparks or Eugenides, she might do well to understand who her audience is and embrace them instead of looking down on them. She might also want to understand that book packaging has less to do with the gender of the author and everything to do with sales.

Do you think publishers are wrong to determine a book’s audience, or should the author have the final say? And which author would you like to see looming over you from a billboard? Better yet --if you were on the billboard yourself, which adjective would you want emblazoned across it?