Monsters and the Gothic fiction that creates them are therefore
technologies, narrative technologies that produce the perfect
figure for negative identity. Monsters have to be everything the
human is not and, in producing the negative of the human, these
novels make way for the invention of human as white, male,
middle-class, and heterosexual.
(Halberstam, 1995, p.22).
Something unusual is happening in some of the most well-regarded, contemporary British children's fiction. David Almond and Neil Gaiman are investing their stories with a seemingly contemporary feminist agenda, but one that is profoundly troubled by psychoanalytic discourses that disrupt the narratives' overt excursions into a potentially positive gender re-acculturation of child audiences. Their books often show that girls can be strong and intelligent while boys can be sensitive, but the burgeoning sexual identities of the child protagonists appear to be incompatible with the new wave of gendered equity these stories ostensibly seek. In a recent collaborative essay with two of my colleagues teaching children's literature at Deakin University, Australia, we considered the postfeminism of 'other mothers' and their fraught relationships with daughters in Neil Gaiman's stories Coraline and The Mirror Mask (forthcoming). While Almond's Skellig (1998) and Clay (2006) ostensibly tell very different fantastic tales, the differences, on closer inspection, seem only to relate to the gender of the protagonists. Gaiman's girls and Almond's boys undertake an identical Oedipal quest for heteronormative success, and in doing so reverse the politically correct bids for gender equality made on their narrative surfaces. When read through a psychoanalytical lens, the narratives also undo all the potential transformations of gendered politics made possible through the authors' employment of magical realism that could offer manifold ways to disrupt binary oppositions. Indeed, that all four stories rely on the blurring of fantasy and reality might be more telling still about the ambivalence with which feminism is tolerated and/or advanced in a progressive nation like Britain. In such a culture the theoretical premise of equality is acceptable, but strange fantasies emerge in response, and gender difference is rearticulated.
In his most recent novel, Clay, Almond revisits the central trope in his 1988 novel Skellig in which a male, adult-sized, humanoid (but inhuman) figure functions at the center of a desirous relationship between two children. The fundamental difference between Skellig and Clay entails the gendering of the intimate pair who must care for their monsters until the final release/demise of these monsters allows the male child protagonist to pursue a patriarchally sanctioned, heteronormative relationship that functions in accordance with the Oedipal drama. Skellig follows the classic psychoanalytic progression without deviation in ways that this discussion will demonstrate. By comparison. Clay is compelling in queering this same logic so that it is two boys, Davie and Stephen, who create and care for their project, a clay golem called Clay.
Both monsters, Skellig and Clay, ultimately function to empower the male protagonists. Skellig empowers the protagonist, Michael, who feels helpless in the face of the threat that his baby sister might die. Davie also is initially helpless, but his paralysis stems from the bigger, stronger bully, Mouldy, who emasculates him through verbal threats and physical abuse. Clay's role in the text is to rid Davie of the threat to his masculinity that Mouldy poses. In both books, then, the elephant in the room is the large male fantasy figure whose centrality is writ large in the one-word titles of these respective stories. The two male-child protagonists appear to need their belief in a powerful adult-sized male as a codified security for their societal role in patriarchy. The positive closures of these two stories require both boys to internalise the fantasy (figure) of masculine control over situations in order that they can pursue a more dominant relationship with first girlfriends who, at early stages of the stories, are threatening in their agency. …