Our dear friend Paul Semel recently interviewed Jason Marc Harris about his critically acclaimed novella, Master of Rods and Strings. Harris has a number of interesting things to say (he’s an interesting guy) but his take on why children’s toys are scary was particularly intriguing and, if you don’t know what a Künstleroman and künstmärchen are, you’ll want to read on.
Why do you think some things that are supposed to delight children — puppets…clowns… — are so easily turned into scary things for adults?
It all depends on context and tradition. A 2014 Telegraph article mentions how pictures of clowns at hospitals are to be discouraged due to scaring kids, yet in in 2020 Forbes presented a study from the British Medical Journal claiming that clowns in-person can make hospital stays more pleasant for kids. The makeup of clowns partly derives from Vice figures in medieval morality plays, so being scary was already built into that tradition there for hundreds of years.
For puppets, there’s also the concept of the uncanny valley: there’s a certain point at which we become more disconcerted by imitations of the human form the closer they come to resemble us if there’s any perceived deviation from expected human behavior or appearance. So, the uncanny refusal of a puppet to drop its smirk or staring eyes may cause fear. For adults, there’s also the added set of associations with popular culture like horror films, so by the time you’re an adult you’re more likely to have been exposed to scary puppets and clowns.
Master Of Rods And Strings sounds like it might be scary. But is it just a horror story?
The earliest draft work was during the MFA program for creative writing at Bowling Green State University (Ohio), and my creative thesis advisor Dr. Lawrence Coates remarked that the narrative was a Künstleroman, which is a story that focuses on the development of the artist, so the novella has that in common with works like William Wordsworth’s autobiographical epic The Prelude and James Joyce’s Portrait Of The Artist As A Young Man.
Master Of Rods And Strings is also an example of a literary fairy tale or künstmärchen.
In some regards, Elias like Faust is experiencing forbidden knowledge, but his fate is not bound to punitive dualistic metaphysics. He is able to explore and grow, though his growth is not narrowly good, moralistic, or heroic. This is a tale of weird horror, after all, but it is also a tale of expanding consciousness and meaning.
The full interview by Paul Semel can be found here and it is definitely worth reading.
If you’d like to hear Jason read aloud from his novella, Malvern Books was kind of enough to post his author launch reading to Youtube here as well.
Don’t forget to buy the book!