I once went to visit Roald Dahl at his home in the English countryside. The author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and other macabre tales for children had just publicly denounced The Satanic Verses as an irresponsible piece of self-promotion. He didn’t exactly endorse the fatwa that had just been issued against Salman Rushdie, but he came close, and I used this as an excuse to go and talk to him. He wasn’t well—he was more or less confined to an upholstered chair and wasn’t long for this world—but he could not have been better company. I remember next to nothing of what he said about Rushdie. What I recall was lunch. Several Dahls gathered, and a plate of ham cold cuts arrived at the table. Dahl said something about how closely the cold cuts resembled human flesh, and how he once thought of writing a story about children who are served cold cuts from the corpse of a missing friend. I expected someone at the table to complain but instead his daughter giggled and told a story about how she had witnessed, first hand, a butcher slice off his palm while running a shank of ham over a meat slicer. She went on to describe, to the delight of the entire family, how the slice of butcher’s flesh fit perfectly on top of the stack of ham. Exactly like the ham we were about to eat! Sixty seconds into the meal the Dahls were vying to out-gross each other with tales of severed limbs and pulsing pink flesh, while happily munching ham sandwiches. With the possible exception of Mrs. Dahl, the entire family had preserved into adulthood a childlike delight in the grotesque.
Once you have a small child you can see the full appeal of the Dahlian imagination. To a small child the adult world is grotesque. For a start, it’s all ridiculously out of proportion: To a child every grown-up is a monster. Then there are all these events that occur in the grown-up world that a child, in trying to get her mind around them, distorts wildly. I went out of town on business last week. “Are you going on an airplane?” Tallulah asked, before I left. “Yes,” I said. “Are you going to an airport?” she asked. “Yes,” I said. “Are they going to put chickens on your luggage?” she asked. I had to think about that one. Then it struck me: check-in luggage/chickens on the luggage. How strange the adult world must seem when filtered through the child’s vocabulary. Even those aspects of the adult world designed explicitly to give innocent pleasure to a child are often, to a child, either weird or downright horrifying. Which brings me to Mickey Mouse.
I had taken Tallulah to a birthday party around the corner from our house in Berkeley. The highlight of the birthday party was to be the appearance of Mickey Mouse. Mickey was meant to be kept a secret. The children would gather and play for a bit and then Mickey Mouse would burst through the doors and surprise everyone. But it’s hard to keep a secret, especially a good one, from Tallulah, as it is so tempting to use any prospective treat as a bribe. To coax her into her car seat I had told her that if she ceased to struggle she would get to meet Mickey Mouse. In the flesh. She seemed pleased by the idea.
We arrived at the birthday party. Tallulah overcame the shyness she always experiences when she enters a crowded room and was soon playing with the other children. But there is no such thing as equilibrium in a room full of toddlers; something bad is always about to happen; and what happened was that the father of the birthday girl came over to say there was a problem with Mickey. The company that farmed out Mickey to children’s birthday parties had just phoned: Mickey was ill. The company had called around looking for a substitute. They had found one, but he lived six hours away. He was on his way, but he’d be late.
You had to admire the commitment. In six hours you can get from our house in Berkeley to Reno, Nev. Some poor guy who lived, in effect, in Reno had tossed his Mickey Mouse costume in the trunk of his car in the wee hours of that morning and was now hauling ass across the country to humor a room full of 3-year-olds. And he wasn’t even the real Mickey Mouse. He was an understudy.
An hour or so later Tallulah was off on one side of a large deck playing with a doll house. The other kids and adults mingled on the other side. I was munching a raw carrot and glancing across the deck every four seconds to ensure Tallulah hadn’t fallen off. Suddenly, onto the deck, between Tallulah and everyone else, burst Mickey Mouse. He wore all the official gear. But still there was something off about him. In the first place, he wasn’t alone. Trailing him was a ghoulish assistant, clutching balloons and sweating so profusely that one of the children turned to his mother and said, “Mommy, the man went swimming!” Together the two of them looked as if they had jogged, not driven, from Reno.
But the real problem was Mickey himself. He wasn’t the cute little Mickey you think of when you think of Mickey Mouse. He was a large man, stuffed into a small costume that didn’t quite fit. His giant mouse head tilted this way then that, as if partially severed. His white gloves failed to disguise the thick black hair on the backs of his hands. Even his black mouse slacks looked to be loaners; bending over hurriedly to greet the first child he saw, he flashed a rear vertical smile. The first child he saw was Tallulah.
I tried to imagine this scene from Tallulah’s point of view. The fact is that while she had pretended to be delighted that she was going to meet Mickey Mouse, she had never actually heard of the creature. God knows what she thought she was getting into, but it wasn’t a 6-foot rodent with a greaseball sidekick. Instantly—so quickly that Mickey didn’t have a chance to lay his hairy mitts on her—her face dissolved in terror and she began to scream. Not a playful scream, a Janet Leigh in the shower in Psycho scream. I raced across the deck, clutched her in my arms, and spent the next five minutes consoling her. When she’d calmed down she squirmed away from me and ran into the house.
“Where are you going?” I hollered after her.
“To find Mickey Mouse!” she said.
For the next hour or so she enjoyed Mickey Mouse in a way that was new to me and I assume also to Mickey. Mickey Mouse, to Tallulah, was not an endearing character. He was a serial killer. This was Disney with a twist of lime. She’d sneak right up to him and then, when he noticed her, dash away screaming bloody murder. It was strange to see. Her mother and father can’t bear scary movies, and I’ll bet money that when she grows up she won’t like them either. But in her current state of mind she likes nothing more than the toddler equivalent of a horror flick. If she weren’t so much like every other small child, she’d be considered insane.