Welcome to Bleak Valley

It’s hard to know where your imagination will take you.

At the age of eleven, my favourite film was Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon. If you don’t know it, I suggest you check out the IMDB page. Cliff Notes: it’s a Martial Arts Motown Musical which sees our African American hero and master of Kung Fu, Bruce Leroy, take on a gloriously high camp bad guy Sho’nuff, the Shogun of Harlem.

All the cool kids my age worshipped at the altar of Star Wars, but me? I wanted to be this guy:

What can I say? It caught me. Truth be told, I love it still, without a hint of irony.

Dove was caught, by her own admission, by the Sweet Valley Twins series at a wholly appropriate age. She started with The Haunted House, a book which I recently had the pleasure to recap, and after that she leapt feet-first into the bowl of twee soup, the bowl in which the Wakefield twins float like Aryan croutons. She bought book after book after book, and devoured them with joy.

Wing and I came to this series with jaded, adult eyes. We’re enjoying the process, and the books too (I think), but they are definitely Not Meant For Us. Dove knows what’s coming, while we’re going in blind. Eyes wide, daggers drawn, probing for blood and giggles.

Dove, some years older and much more sarcastic, is rereading her youthful passions with a critical (and humorous) mindset. She too is enjoying the text, but she’s likely more amped by our reactions to the shenanigans undertaken by Jessica and her Unigibbon cohorts than by the shenanigans themselves.

In truth, while you can revisit your childhood haunts, they’ll never be as memorable as they once were. It’s hard to rekindle the fire that warms you the first night you camp in the dark with the characters you love.

In one aspect, Wing and I are lucky. This is our first viewing of the shitshow. We’re slouched in our matinee seats, the popcorn prose slick with a banal butter but still kind on the tongue. For Dove, the snacks have grown stale, and the performances are rote and weary. Sweet Valley isn’t quite as sweet as it once promised.

So it was nice when something came along to grab Dove’s imagination.

It was a throwaway comment, at first. I made it for a laugh, the way I make most comments. Dove snickered. Job done. She then referenced it in the podcast, so I reinforced it. Nothing sinister in intent, no matter how sinister the actual idea.

The idea?

Jessica Wakefield doesn’t exist. She’s merely a construct in the mind of Elizabeth Wakefield, an abused Only Child whose imagination spawned the whole of Sweet Valley in order to escape her lonely, imprisoned, apocalyptic clusterfuck life.

This simple concept, conceived in jest with no real consideration, has burrowed deep into Dove’s mind, crab-clawing a home amongst the horror tropes and My Little Pony trivia. When she talks about it – and she talks about it – her eyes light up with a gleeful abandon. Those of us that know her, we know that glow well.

Dove has set upon the books, voracious once more. The hackneyed stories, once ingrained as static tableaus, unmoving and complete, now squirm and writhe afresh. Elizabeth’s actions and motivations are examined through a jeweller’s loupe, their patina and hue stress-tested for authenticity.

Does the theory stand up to scrutiny? Can the storylines in the Sweet Valley Twins series really be explained away as the fevered ramblings of an abandoned and abused pre-teen mired in a hellish and loveless quagmire?

The characters we see are jagged jigsaw-fits of a shattered personality.

Jessica. Elizabeth’s “twin”. A beloved sociopath that gets her own way no matter what the cost. Manipulative, rational, deliberate, serene. A version of Elizabeth with the power to set her own agenda, the stillborn heart at the core of the real Elizabeth’s existence.

The Unicorns. A pre-teen Jekyll and Hyde, both popular and vapid, beautiful and ugly. An ideal image of what Elizabeth would hope to be, yet dry-brushed with a tainted aspect so she can live with the truth of her awful situation.

The Sweet Valley Sixers. Elizabeth’s paper. Her passion, her voice, a bulletin that both frees her mind and locks her cage. She longs to be heard, to be rescued, to be real, but all she can do is report on the lives of the imagined players in her absurd theatre of repression.

Her parents, the Elder Wakefields. Awesome, beautiful, nondescript, one-dimensional. A textbook mother and father, seen through the eyes of a neglected child with no real frame of reference.

Elizabeth herself. Popular, hard-working, responsible, perfect. Everything that the real Elizabeth longs to be. But at her core, the imagined Elizabeth is ineffectual, quick to capitulate, unable to assert any influence on her own surroundings. She’s drowning, and smiling as she sinks.

By exploring the many stations visited by this offbeat train of thought, Dove is having fun. Having devoured the majority of the books, she has framed this theory with characters and plot points that Wing and I have yet to discover. We often receive bouncy texts and emails, outlining how the plot of Book X supports the theory, or how Characters Y and Z interlock to form some unexplored shard of the real Elizabeth’s true character.

We have a name for this conceit, this desolate nightmare. Elizabeth’s altered reality, the purple underbelly of her cracked psyche, the Dark World of her mind and soul.

Bleak Valley.

Dove is back to loving the books, for all new and slightly disturbing reasons. And her enthusiasm is delightful. Wing and I have vowed to indulge Dove’s newfound vigour for all things Bleak Valley, and we hope to incorporate our discussions and ideas into future podcasts and recaps. Not as something that eclipses the thrust of our recapping, naturally; more something that accentuates the main course, a few sprigs of Bleak Valley parsley on the steak of Sweet Valley Twins.

So, look out for an irregular post every now and then, entitled Bleak Valley, in which Wing, Dove and myself discuss our latest recaps and examine how they might fit into the Bizarro World of Lonely Elizabeth’s Grief Cupboard. There’ll be brief chats and laughs about this in the podcasts too, demarked and skippable in case the darkness is Not Your Bag.

Bleak Valley. Where the town of Sweet Valley is nothing but a spark of hope in the mind of a lonely and frightened girl. Where an abused and abandoned child clings to a chipped reality through frenzied desire and force of will. Where a neglected Elizabeth dreams of a better life.

Yeah, it’s hard to know where your imagination will take you.