Many things from television and film traumatized me as a child. The clown-in-the-hayloft episode on “Little House on the Prairie.” The trailer for the 1974 movie “It’s Alive,” which featured a mutant infant’s clawed hand draped over a bassinet. The eerie ABC Weekend Special “Red Room Riddle” (I can’t even bring myself to describe it). As well as several apparition scenes from “Fantasy Island,” the shooting of J.R. Ewing, and a VHS of my ninth grade play, “The Scheme of a Shiftless Drifter.” But none of these frights affected me as much as the literary ones I encountered. Maybe it’s because my imagination was always running away with itself and what I could come up with in my own head was more troubling than anything I saw on TV. Or maybe, just maybe, it’s because these four books are the most troubling books ever published.
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
Every little girl needs a sad work of fiction to get her through tough pubescent times. When I was a child, The Hundred Dresses was my go-to book when I needed a good, uncontrollable ugly-cry. It’s a book I still own, but can barely touch for fear I may have to join a bereavement support group.
In a nutshell, this story is about Wanda Petronski, a motherless little girl who lives in abject poverty and is teased daily for wearing the same blue dress—although she claims to have one hundred party dresses lined up in her closet at home.
Page after page of this book describes how Wanda stands alone in the schoolyard—in a dress she’s had to wash and iron herself BECAUSE HER MOTHER IS DEAD—while the other girls point and laugh. Eventually, we discover that the one hundred dresses in Wanda’s closet are just drawings. Never mind that the drawings end up winning the classroom art contest, because, at this point in this cruel, cruel fictional world, Wanda has moved away.
All the rich girls feel kind of bad about this, but then they feel lots better when Wanda sends them some pictures she has drawn of them. “Look! She drew you!” one of them says. “She must have really liked us anyway!”
That was when I usually just started dry-heaving. Because the book ends with Wanda still broke and motherless, but the rich girls end up having a hearty laugh and feeling very validated.
God help me. I’m getting ready to go read it again right now.
A Summer To Die, by Lois Lowry
Though beautifully wrought and arguably a timeless young adult masterpiece, this book isn’t complex. It’s simply about two sisters living in a country house one summer while their father writes a novel. What starts out as frequent nosebleeds for one sister, ultimately turns out to be fatal leukemia.
That’s it. Boom bam.
Here’s the horrific thing that happened to me the summer I read this book: I got frequent nosebleeds.
Flowers in the Attic, by V.C. Andrews
Oh, you knew this was going to make the list. Because it’s all about four kids who are locked in an attic, abandoned by their mother, and then slowly poisoned by their grandmother, who feeds them arsenic-laced powdered sugar doughnuts. I mean, there’s more. Like starving children gutting mice to eat, and tar poured into hair as a punishment, and, oh…INCEST.
Yep. Basically this book is a love story. About a brother and sister. It goes without saying that it’s extremely troubling, but it speaks to the crazy stuff you could get away with in young adult fiction back in 1979. You’d think this novel would have caused a social uproar. That everyone would have boycotted it and it would have been burned and that would have been the end of things.
Nope. A whole series based on this brother-sister love affair was written. It sold more than 40 million copies worldwide.
Yay. Yay for what that says about the human race.
Okay, fine. I read ALL OF THEM.
Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous
When I was a teen, I read this book in one sitting. When I emerged from my bedroom for dinner, I think I looked like Edvard Munch’s “The Scream,” only there was no scream coming out—just a faint, shallow breathing, the same kind you hear when Last Rites are requested.
To put it mildly, this diary-style book traumatized me. Go Ask Alice is about an innocent 15-year-old girl who accidentally partakes of an LSD-laced drink at a party. And the next thing you know, she’s hooked on sleeping pills, stealing tranquilizers, dealing pot, and having sex. Then Alice runs away from home. Then Alice gets all wrapped up in heroin, prostitution, and homeless shelters. Then Alice is drugged against her will and sent to an insane asylum. Eventually, a priest is brought in to fix things, but Alice is pretty much the human version of the Amityville house. In the end, Alice closes out her quadruple hat trick of horror by overdosing. Probably intentionally.
Go Ask Alice was intended to be a cautionary tale about drug use, but for me it served as a cautionary tale about drinking from a glass that didn’t come out of my own kitchen cabinet. I don’t want to say I developed an anxiety disorder because of this book, so I’ll just say I was very dehydrated for 36 months after reading it.
I’ve recently been informed that Go Ask Alice was made into a 1973 ABC Movie of the Week. Against my better judgment, I’m going to find it on YouTube.
Somebody do me a favor and get some IVs lined up.