Everyone loves Peter Pan. It’s a perennial childhood favorite, in books, plays, musicals, songs, art, films, the list could go on. The recent film Finding Neverland in which J.M Barrie, Peter Pan’s creator, is played with the romantic charm of Johnny Depp, leaves the audience with a story of hope, imagination, and tenderness. Mr. Barrie must have been such a wonderful person, and George Davies, the boy who inspired Peter Pan, what a plum lucky kid he must have been.
Awhile back I was browsing in the a local book store and came across Neverland: J. M. Barrie, The Du Mauriers, and the Dark Side of Peter Pan by Piers Dungeon. After reading just the first few pages, I was gripped by a story I was not aware of. Not enough cash on me at the moment, I went to the library to pick up a copy. I hate to parrot a cliché, but I literarily could not put this book down, until . . . well I’ll get to that later. But here is the scope of the book,
From Michael Dirda at the Washington Post:
There might be scarier books this Halloween season, but it's unlikely that any will be as luridly creepy as "Neverland." Even if you already know a little about the sinister background of J.M. Barrie's classic play, "Peter Pan," you will be in for a shock. In these pages Piers Dudgeon presents a multi-generational history of psychological domination and submission, unnatural family relations, predatory abuse and suicide. He also connects three great works of the popular imagination: George du Maurier's late-19th-century bestseller "Trilby" -- the novel in which the evil Svengali, through hypnosis, transforms a beautiful tone-deaf girl into a singing sensation but in the process destroys her soul; J.M. Barrie's death-haunted "Peter Pan," once titled "The Boy Who Hated Mothers"; and Daphne du Maurier's Gothic romance about spiritual possession, "Rebecca."
This book delves into the family histories of several people, exploring the fateful moments, deliberate manipulations, and pernicious abuse that occurred over decades, in which these literary creations were born from. Even D.H. Lawrence once said after the passing of one Sylvia’s boys Michael, "J.M. Barrie has a fatal touch for those he loves. They die." And I thought Lewis Carroll was a little creepy – he apparently can’t hold a stick to J.M. Barrie.
And it is not an easy read. After reading for a couple days and getting to the midway point to the book, it had a dark disturbing effect on me. I didn’t sleep well. I would become slightly nauseous thinking about it during the day. I think I even had a nightmare. It was simply a grisly reading experience. So after about halfway through, I had to force myself to stop. I may one day go back and finish it, but at that moment I just couldn’t go on. It seemed like a tragedy without any possible catharsis. (The only other time I had to stop reading a book due to sleepless nights and disturbing dreams is Whitley Strieber's Communion, but that's another story for next Halloween.)
And while Dungeon’s exploration probably reveals more truth than not, it is a little on the sensationalist side. Since I am not an expert in the area of Edwardian children's literature and literary scene, I'm unsure which historical arguments are tenuous and which are more grounded. The book has been criticised for being too high on emotion and low on some particular details. But even if half of what is revealed in this book is accurate, it’s tragedy enough.
Regardless, I highly recommend this book. It reveals very interesting aspects of later Victorian and early Edwardian culture and customs. It gave me a deeper respect of Daphne duMaurier as a writer and turned me on to her short story collection, Don’t Look Now. But most importantly it reveals a story that needs to be told. Hopefully another writer in the future will expand on Dungeon’s good work, correcting his mishpas, while having a more academic approach. Even so, it couldn’t be no less disturbing a story than before, and is one helluva frightening read for Halloween. As one critic has summarized, "I defy you not to be captivated."