The story behind The Child Eater by Rachel Pollack

The origin points of stories has always fascinated me.  When I teach writing I often ask my students to recall that spark that led to their thesis project.  I loved reading, years ago, M. Night Shyamalan’s inspiration for The Sixth Sense—not, as we might suspect, “what if a boy could see dead people,” or “what if someone was dead and didn’t know it,” but simply a sudden drop of temperature when he went to get a bottle of wine from the basement, and what if that heralded a ghost?  My novel Temporary Agency grew from a single sentence, originally intended for something else entirely.  “When I was fourteen, a cousin of mine angered a Malignant One.”  I wrote that, and re-read it, and suddenly an entire story unfolded in my mind.

            More recently, I have been writing a series of novellas about a shaman for hire in New York, named Jack Shade.  The idea came when I was listening to an audio of Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  The title refers to a 999 line poem by a certain John Shade, whose daughter had been fascinated by the paranormal, but then killed herself.  Somehow, I combined this with an old TV Western, Have Gun, Will Travel, and a world came to life.

            The Child Eater weaves together two previously published short stories, “Simon Wisdom” and “Master Matyas,” both of which appeared in a collection I wrote of adult fairy tales, The Tarot Of Perfection, published by Magic Realist Press.  The two stories were linked, and thus could be said to be part of a larger whole even before I expanded those links into a single novel.  But still, each had its own moment of creation.

            “Master Matyas” is the simpler, and perhaps more striking of the two.  I collect, and write with, fountain pens, both modern and vintage.  All my books are written by hand, in large journals, and then transcribed/edited onto computer.  The writing is done exclusively with fountain pens.  Most people who collect vintage (antique) pens prefer them without an inscription, but I enjoy seeing the name of the original owner.  One day I saw a listing for a 1920’s gold pen from the Wahl company, my favorite brand.  The seller said it bore a name, but not what that was. I bought it, and when it arrived saw, in art deco block letters, “M. Matyas.”

            I looked at this and immediately thought of the character and the title, “Master Matyas.”  He would be a great wizard, but what was his story?  Somehow I imagined him as reaching the highest levels of magic and then falling even further than he rose.

            To look further I turned to a Tarot deck.  This is an old practice of mine.  The great novelist Italo Calvino described the Tarot as “a machine for constructing stories.”  If we forget or ignore the supposed “meanings” of the cards—Tarot cards originated in the early 15th century, but there was no list of meanings, divinatory or otherwise, until the very late 18th—we can use the pictures to spark story ideas.  I might have done an actual reading for my mysterious Master, but I preferred the more direct method.

            I chose The Golden Tarots of the Renaissance, a modern deck built around a handful of cards that are all we have from the earliest known pack.  Because the fragment precedes all other Tarots the artist filling in the rest of the deck was not constrained to follow any official tradition, and thus could create a series of striking images.  I pulled several cards but the one that caught my eye—and this is the point, to let yourself be caught—was the Ten of Coins, a picture of a half-naked man holding a large key and floating in the night sky above a cow and a constellation of coins.  I thought of someone, a boy, living a miserable life, poor and abused, and then suddenly one night seeing something so strange that it would forever change his life.  A flying man.

            Simon’s story did not spring from something so concrete as a name on a pen.  Instead, its roots lay in Jewish folklore and magic.  I have been fascinated by Jewish myth for many years.  Unlike certain traditions, the Celtic, for example, Jewish magic has been largely unexplored in modern fantasy.

            The particular story that inspired Simon concerns an odd detail in the Book of Genesis.  When Jacob marries Rachel, and they leave her father’s household, Rachel makes off with some objects called teraphim.  This so disturbs Laban, the father, that he chases after them and accuses Jacob of stealing his precious—something.  The thing is, no one actually knows what that word means, just that they were small enough for Rachel to conceal them in her palanquin (and scare Daddy away from searching her by telling him it was her “time of the month”).  After this scene, the teraphim are never mentioned again.

            The most common guess for the term, the one found in most modern translations, is “household gods.”  In other words, idols.  But Rachel is the revered “mother of Israel.”  How could she have been an idol worshipper?

            Over the centuries a daring idea developed.  Suppose they were not idols, but something more practical?  Oracles.  Talking heads.  The image of a head that can predict the future, as if it might consist of pure mind, without the limitations of a body, appears in many traditions.  But how to make such a thing?  Here is where it gets truly strange.

            People came to believe that an evil magician might lure away a boy just before his bar mitzvah—when he would contain great spiritual energy—behead him, and then use magical spells so that the head would remain alive, but with oracular power.  Now, if you’re like me, you’re thinking “Seriously?  They consider this better than idol worship?”  But this is the quality of story, that it somehow takes off from its point of origin, and twists and turns and becomes something wholly of itself.  And this is what happened with “Simon Wisdom.”  I conceived of a modern child, disturbed in some way, and thus a target for an evil wizard posing as a doctor.

            Along the way, the wizard—my character, now—no longer sought simple knowledge, but something more basic.  Eternal life.  One way to understand child abuse is to see it as the attempt to steal the life energy of someone young and vital.  And yet, the theme of oracles remained, for when I imagined what crisis my child might be facing that would lead his father to be so desperate he would surrender his son to a mysterious “doctor,” what came to mind was unwanted psychic powers.  A boy who can read minds and desperately doesn’t want to.

            In the novel, this quality becomes enhanced.  Simon does not simply know what people are thinking.  He can hear, and sometimes see, something far more terrible, the agonized cries of all the children who have gone before him, the victims of the Child Eater.

            In the novel, as compared to the original short story, this theme became a greater part of Matyas’s tale.  Like Simon, whom he will never know of, let alone meet, Matyas dreams of a gray man with a stone knife.  But Matyas’s psychology is more complicated, for unlike Simon, whose father is ignorant but loving, Matyas comes from a history of violence.  This has led him to a sense of the world as his enemy, and the belief that he owes nothing to anyone.  When on his quest to discover the secret of flying he uncovers what is perhaps a much greater secret—the hidden name of the Child Eater—what will he do?

Rachel Pollack
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