Louisa May Alcott’s forgotten horror story
In the middle of October, days before Halloween and months into a plague slash political horror show straight out of a Stephen King novel, I was sitting in my car, minding my own business and eating takeout pastries, as one does In These Uncertain Times.
To amuse myself as I roosted in my vehicle shoving stale and frankly uninspired macrons from the local donut hut into my gob, I had two options: I could read the news, which was reliably appalling, or I could read “ The Candy Country” by Louisa May Alcott, author of the beloved and reassuring children’s classic, Little Women.
I chose “The Candy Country.”
I chose wrong.
That sweet little story is nightmarish. It will scar you for life.
Let me inflict it upon you now, to distract you from your real-world woes. Sentient gingerbread slaves, volcano ovens, regicide, and resurrection funerals for sugar-people without souls await you! Join me in my car, children, and I will tell you such a tale …
Our story opens with a brevity worthy of the hastiest of fan fiction, erotica, and other short attention span genres. In a single page, we are introduced to our protagonist, a little girl named Lily, who longs to leave her late nineteenth-century environs. She grabs an umbrella, gets whisked away from Those Uncertain Times by an errant wind, just like Dorothy would be fifteen years later, and comes to ground in a strange land with a sugar-based geography and inhabitants whose anatomies are wrought entirely of candy. The topography is remarkably similar to that of the classic Candy Land board game.
Charming! Delightful! Except …
Lily immediately lays waste to the land and EATS the innocent candy-folk. Yes, that’s right: she consumes the living, breathing, talking candy-people alive.
“The babies were made of plain sugar, but the grown people had different flavors. The young ladies were flavored with violet, rose, and orange; the gentlemen were apt to have cordials of some sort inside of them, as she found when she ate one now and then slyly, and got her tongue bitten by the hot, strong taste as a punishment. The old people tasted of peppermint, clove, and such comfortable things, good for pain; but the old maids had lemon, hoar-hound, flag-root, and all sorts of sour, bitter things in them, and did not get eaten much. Lily soon learned to know the characters of her new friends by a single taste, and some she never touched but once. The dear babies melted in her mouth, and the delicately flavored young ladies she was very fond of.”
This was the first inkling your reader, seated in her 2017 Subaru, her fingers sticky with the blood of what she had just learned was sentient sugar, had that this 1885 tale was not a good old-fashioned children’s story.
Turns out, the confections aren’t cool with being eaten. Not at all.
“The little people wished she would go away, for they were afraid of her. No wonder, when she would catch up a dear sugar baby and eat him, or break some respectable old grandmamma all into bits because she reproved her for naughty ways. Lily calmly sat down on the biggest church, crushing it flat, and even tried to poke the moon out of the sky in a pet one day. The king ordered her to go home; but she said, “I won’t!” and bit his head off, crown and all.”
This is neither charming nor delightful. This is grotesque. Even more so because, ordinarily, these little candy-creatures can’t die. They’re immortal.
“If any got broken, as sometimes happened with such brittle creatures, they just stuck the parts together and were all right again. The way they grew old was to get thinner and thinner till there was danger of their vanishing. Then the friends of the old person put him in a neat coffin, and carried him to the great golden urn which stood in their largest temple, always full of a certain fine syrup; and here he was dipped and dipped till he was stout and strong again, and went home to enjoy himself for a long time as good as new. This was very interesting to Lily, and she went to many funerals.”
Like an eldritch monster out of the tales of Lovecraft, Lily has introduced the concept of death to this innocent land. She is Killer of the Unkillable. It’s dark as hell. And I have no doubt Alcott knew it.
The story feels … assigned. Assigned to a resentful writer who didn’t want to complete the project, but needed the money. The author notoriously disliked writing what she called “ moral pap for the young.” She confessed in 1877 that she was already “tired of providing [it],” but had to do so if she wanted to work on more exciting projects like A Modern Mephistopheles, described as “a chilling tale of lust, deception and greed … a penetrating and powerful study of human evil and its appalling consequences. “
It seems as though Alcott resentfully and gleefully decided to undermine what was clearly supposed to be a light and whimsical Alice in Wonderland type story with the moral, “Don’t eat too much candy, children,” by presenting it within a framework of murder, nihilism, and a very weird messianic transubstantiation of gingerbread man to uncanny edible Christ-figure.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Lily’s homicidal (sacchricidal?) behavior in Candy Country answers the question nobody ever thought to ask before: “If the Oompa-Loompas in Willy Wonka’s factory were made of candy like everything else in the Chocolate Room, would the kids have eaten them?”
According to Alcott, yes. They would have eaten them. They would have eaten them first.
After the bonbon holocaust, Lily decides she’d better hightail it out of town, as the candy people are pissed about the razing of their church and the decapitation of their king, and she fears they will poison her. She scoots down the road, comes upon a new land, discovers an oven-fueling volcano, and hypocritically wonders “if there are sugar savages here, roasting and eating some poor traveler like me.”
Though that certainly would have been poetic justice, Lily encounters no killers. She is met on the outskirts of “Cake-land” by a gingerbread man whose crusty manner (heh) calls to mind Gary Busey’s hideous 2005 turn in The Gingerdead Man.
The gingerdead gingerbread man informs Lily that he’s trying to bake his way to a “prize” that muddles the everloving hell out of this already problematic story.
Have you read The Lottery in Babylon by Jorge Luis Borges? It’s almost as disturbing as the lottery Lily’s new gingerfriend is participating in. “The prize for best gingerbread is a cake of condensed yeast. That puts a soul into me, and I begin to rise till I am able to go over the hills yonder into the blessed land of bread,” the gingerbread man informs our anti-heroine. “I never know when I’ve done my task till I’m called by the chimes [and can] go to get my soul.”
The people of Cake-land labor without pay, day in and day out, for the chance to obtain a soul and transcend to “Bread-land.” At this point, your car-bound reader realized that Alcott’s story was following the general plot of Dante’s Inferno follow-up, the dreary Purgatorio.
Lily, no simple serial killer or mass murderess, was instead a stand-in for Signore Alighieri’s character, who trudged his way from hell to heaven, tediously, with a lengthy slog through Catholicism’s ever-controversial Purgatory. Candy Country, I guess, was hell. Cake-land was Purgatory, where one must go to be “purged” of sin and thence ascend to heaven.
A number of questions arose from this plot twist. That number was eleven:
- If yeast conveys a soul, and candy inherently lacks yeast, does that mean the candy-folk Lily killed had no souls?
- If the candy-people had no souls, but souls are a thing that demonstrably exists in this universe, are their dead lost to oblivion?
- What is the religion of Candy Country, if they had a standard church and a temple for resurrecting their almost-dead?
- What is the religion of Cake-land?
- Where do the yeast-souls come from?
- Does God create and dole out the souls?
- If there is a God, why doesn’t S/He bestow souls upon everyone equally?
- Why must you labor in dictionary-definition slavery to obtain a soul?
- Lily does not contain yeast: does that mean she has no soul?
- Do you and I have souls?
- Does booze have a soul?
The answer to the last question, at least, would seem to be yes. Booze has a soul because it contains yeast and the inhabitants of Bread-land, where the gingerbread man hopes to go, are known to “brew” as well as bake.
Also of note: the goodies that the Cake-land denizens bake are sent via peculiar hatches down to the real world — to the nineteenth-century equivalents of the Cheesecake Factory and Claim Jumper, in fact. “‘No one knows it. It’s one of the secrets of the trade. We cook for all the confectioners, and people think the good things come out of the cellars under their saloons. Good joke, isn’t it?’ And [the gingerbread man] laughed till a crack came in his neck and made him cough.”
That disturbed me more than it ought to. Yet more questions arose (like a yeast-soul) within me:
- If the cakes and cookies of Cake-land are alive, doesn’t that mean the cakes and cookies they produce are alive, too?
- Are they sacrificing their children to hungry Cheesecake Factory customers to barter for immortality?
- Is the volcano that powers the baking ovens the same one from Scientology?
- Is Cake-land a construct of L. Ron Hubbard?
- Is God, dispenser of yeasty souls, Galactic Overlord Xenu?
- Are souls actually thetans?
The answer to the last question would appear to be yes. Souls are thetans. They attach themselves to humans, unannounced and via ubiquitous bread, just as Hubbard prophesied. But again, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
Incidentally, and creepily relevant to this discourse, the subtitle of The Gingerdead Man 2 is “The Passion of the Crust.” Two things about that:
- I must see this film, based on the title alone.
- When we find out what happens to Alcott’s gingerbread man … oh my God …
The gingerbread man does not run, run, as fast as he can to escape from slavery, but embraces it. And whaddya know, eventually his number is up and the chime chimes for he. The cookie is extremely excited.
“‘Ha, ha! I’m free! I’m free!’ [he] cried, catching up the silver-covered square that seemed to fall from heaven; and running to a great white sea of flour, he went in head first, holding the yeast-cake clasped to his breast as if his life depended on it.”
Lily, being neither enslaved nor a baked good, follows him to Bread-land. There, she encounters two bread-children, and her murderous urges resurge within her. “One was a golden boy, with a beaming face; the other a little girl in a shiny brown cloak, who looked as if she would taste very nice.”
But Lily checks herself and does not eat any of the bread-citizens. Because they have souls? No, because instead she eats “bread.”
But … per the story, yeast=soul. So, if bread in Bread-land is baked with yeast, isn’t it alive and possessed of a soul, just like the bread-people who baked it? And how the heck are there bread children? If the various food-people we’ve encountered so far do not reproduce via baking, is Alcott proposing that they do so the, cough, standard way?
The bread-kids take Lily to see her old pal, the gingerbread man, now transformed into a muffin called “Muffin.” Correct me if I’m wrong, but muffins do not contain yeast. They are made from that other popular leavening agent, baking soda. Is baking soda a form of soul? If not, does that mean Irish soda bread, corn bread, buttermilk biscuits and the like aren’t real bread? Does that make them cake? Nobody wants to blow out the candles on their birthday corn bread. It’s too grim a proposition.
Troubling considerations all around. Also, the muffin named Muffin has a face. There’s something uncanny about a muffin with a face.
Unfortunately, Bread-land is not heaven, but yet another base camp on Mount Purgatory. Muffin’s still a slave, now laboring away in a bid to attain true grace. Guess what true grace is? It is to be “eaten by some wise, good human being, and become a part of him or her. That is immortality and heaven.”
Remember the thing I mentioned earlier about Scientology and thetans? The gingermuffinbreadman’s description of how yeast-souls work is eerily similar to Scientology’s concept of thetans. But in L. Ron’s particular mental model of the metaphysical world, errant souls of the alien dead are something you want to purge from your body. They’re like tapeworms — you absolutely don’t want to eat something infected with them.
I’ve eaten a lot of bread in my day … how many Alcottian-Hubbardian souls are rattling around inside me? Am I now more yeast-soul than human? Are the only pure souls among us members of the gluten-free crowd?
Let’s leave souls aside for a moment.
Can it be that Lily actually enabled the candy-folks to ascend to heaven when she ate them? Sure didn’t seem like it, the way Alcott framed the murderous devourings. The whole “be eaten and become part of another person” bit seems less like a weird take on the Eucharist and more like what Jeffrey Dahmer claimed he was trying to accomplish via cannibalism.
A much more disturbing alternative exists. As some have speculated about the similarly colorful yet shadowy land of Oz, maybe nobody really dies in Alcott’s sugary world. Maybe sentient creatures, though consumed, cannot perish and must live on, their consciousness existing forever in hideously diffuse fragments, ever more disjointed, ever more disembodied. They have no mouth, and they must scream.
Lily is untroubled by such musings. She hangs out in Bread-land “a long time,” perhaps months, perhaps years, perhaps 10,000 years, as in the original Groundhog Day script. Muffin transcends his muffiny form. But then …
Hey, here’s a fact about bread you may not know: it’s a teleportation device, like the transporter on “Star Trek” or the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. Lifehack protip: next time you’re stuck somewhere without a ride, just grab a loaf of bread, wish three times, and you’ll be instantly transported to the location of your choosing.
What do you mean, you don’t think that will work? Lemme ask you something: have you ever tried holding a loaf of bread in your hands and wishing three times to be whisked away from where you’re at? I guarantee you have not. So you don’t know it won’t work, do you?
Yeah, I thought so.
Anywho, Lily learns bread is a sort of driverless Uber, gets her hands on a loaf, and the final and ultimate horror of the story reveals itself. It turns out Muffin’s soul has “passed into” Lily’s ride-share bread. And that’s not all. She is informed, “He said he loved you and would be glad to help feed so good a little girl.”
In other words, Muffin-Uber-Bread wants Lily to eat him. She is not disgusted or upset by this idea in the slightest.
“How kind of him!” she exclaims. “I must be careful to grow wise and excellent, else he will be disappointed and have died in vain.”
Muffin the Messiah Loaf has died for Lily’s sins and wants to be consumed by her in a hideous parody of communion.
The whole thing is simply atrocious. He wasn’t some random sentient baked good with a creepy face. They spent “a long time” together. He taught her how to bake. She called him “her old dear friend.” He said he loved her. It smacks of eating the family dog after he dies.
Lily wishes thrice upon the corpse of her friend and is instantly back home. In a conclusion of just over 75 words, we learn that she only ate candy and cake thenceforth at Christmastime. Because of religion? Or because the realization that candy, cake and cookies are actually sentient creatures with complex personalities and full personhood made the prospect of devouring them alive positively revolting?
Alcott does not say. But in the end, the story accomplished what it set out to; namely, it drove home the stern moral, “Don’t eat too much candy, children.” After reading “The Candy Country,” I’m scared to eat candy. And bread. May Galactic Lord Xenu have mercy on my … uh … yeast.
Originally published at http://the-delve.com on October 26, 2020.