Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Dr. Seuss Panic Attack: Jibboo, Be Not Proud...

Once upon a time, when I was but an impressionable little child, I was innocently flipping through a Dr. Seuss book when I came face-to-face with death.

Don't believe me?

Remember this question?

"And what would you do if you met a JIBBOO?"

This enigmatic, vaguely racist-sounding query comes from the book Oh, the Thinks You Can Think! and it is accompanied by one of the most terrifying pictures it has ever been my misfortune to encounter in a children's book.

I won't post it here.  Yes, I still find it that unsettling.  Google it if you want to give yourself nightmares for a week.

No mere description will ever capture the utter creepiness of this image, but I'll try: Imagine a street running through an abandoned town.  This street is lined with the empty, decaying shells of ghostly white houses, and a pale sliver of moon glints weakly down from the night sky.  At the far end of the road stands the dark silhouette of a young boy, frozen with fear.

He is frozen with fear because of the thing that awaits him at the other end of the street.

The Jibboo--gaunt, stark-black, beaked like a vulture*--has him in its sights.  It advances on the boy, this boy who is the in-story avatar for the child-reader, with its long neck thrust eagerly forward.  It raises a long spidery arm in ghastly greeting.  There is nowhere for the boy to hide himself from its cold embrace; he is as naked and exposed in this blasted landscape as the single sickly dying plant that struggles out of the otherwise bare dirt road.

What makes this scene especially frightening is its radical shift in tone from the rest of the book. The "story" is actually a series of imagination-inspired vignettes, and all of the previous flights of fancy involved things like floating swimming pools and cute purple elephants.  The only other remotely scary things in these pages are the grumpy walruses glowering at Peter the Postman as he delivers mail to the igloo village, and even they look more like your curmudgeonly old neighbor than a genuine threat.

Then, with the flip of a page, you're staring directly into a gut-wrenching existential crisis.

And then, just to crank up the jarring factor to eleven, the narrative promptly returns to cotton-candy-sweet thoughts of pretty white horses galloping through candy cane forests.  I guess because Dr. Seuss understood that if you stare into the horror of your own mortality long enough, it stares into you.

*Incidentally, when I read The Last Battle--the final entry in the Narnia series--I realized how very much the evil god Tash looks like a de-Seussified version of the Jibboo and got traumatized all over again.  Screw you, C.S. Lewis.