Advent Calendar ’16 Dec 22nd: NAILS by Paul Jennings

It’s back! The blog advent calendar. I enjoyed last year’s blog theme last year—re-reading twenty-four books of my youth—so much, so this year I’m applying the same approach to short stories, trawling through a myriad bunch of collections and anthologies I’ve read in the last few years.

December 22nd: Nails by Paul Jennings

1703_pic2Tell me about your first time: When I compiled my list of what I wanted to re-read for this blog, it started me thinking back to stories I read as a child. There were three I wanted to track down because there was something in each of them – a single moment, a vivid image – that I found incredibly potent, and above all: memorable. I couldn’t remember much else about the stories, but there was something specific that still jumped immediately to mind as an adult. The other two are coming in the next two posts, but today’s is the story Nails by Paul Jennings.

Here’s what I remembered: a boy on an island with his father, begins to grow nails all over his body, and eventually realises it is because he is becoming a merman. I believe there was something about his age that caused it (overtones of puberty-metaphor, I guess?) and I remember being totally taken aback by the reveal that what was actually happening to him. But chiefly what stuck with me was those nails: that image was burned into my memory. The story creeped me the hell out; judging by the cover and the age-group I’d say this story probably wasn’t/isn’t a horror story, but I read it like one.

Second reading: I’m a completist, so you have no idea how much this bugs me but… I didn’t manage to re-read this. I didn’t figure out what the story was until the eleventh hour, with not enough time to get hold of the book. But wait! It also turns out that the story was adapted into an episode of the Australian children’s TV show Round The Twist. And so I watched that instead.

Firstly: clearly the original story is folded into an ongoing format of the show that I know nothing about. I don’t know who any of the kids are, and I definitely have no idea who the random ghosts on the staircase are. It’s highly entertaining, though – and I’m tempted to watch the whole series – but it didn’t feel like the story I remember at all.

In the second half, the episode becomes properly about the boy with the fingernails, and there I can see the backbone of the story I recall. But there’s something different about the atmosphere; I remember the boy was isolated, scared, and the story was wild and unsettling; I can’t tell, from watching this show, whether I am simply misremembering the atmosphere of the story, but certainly glittery rainbow didn’t do anything to creep me out this time around. (That said, my old mucker over at A Pile Of Leaves described seeing that scene in the episode as ‘unnerving him from head to toe’ so perhaps what I am simply missing here is the sense of resonance from having experienced the television version as a child. It seems he remembers the episode with the same feelings that I remember the story.)

Consider me still intrigued; I’ve ordered the book, so I shall report back in the new year when I’ve re-read the original story I remember.

Where can I read it: In Paul Jennings’ Unbearable. The Round The Twist episode is on youtube here.

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