Parental guidance leaves the building for The House, on Netflix

Before the cloaking devices of digital modernity enabled children to hide what they're reading or watching in sullen isolation, there was no option but for a young person to wear their interests on their sleeves.

Book sleeves, that is.

Books came - and, apparently, still do - with titles and illustrations on their covers which shouted loudly to any passer-by as to what this young person was up to, and in to.

Save for the foolproof practice of slipping a seditious MAD magazine inside an Encyclopedia Britannica, there really was no escape.

We were open books.

I fell foul of this reality as a 14-year-old during a stay at my aunty's house one summer in the northern NSW town in which I was born before our family moved away when I was an infant.

Amid the soupy heat and humidity emulsified by waves of industrial-scale chook poo in the air, I sat up on a spare bed one evening reading, somewhat precociously, I suppose, John Jakes' Civil War bestseller North and South. The (American) ABC miniseries based on the book had aired recently on TV in Australia and as the yin and yang of the Hazard and Main families unravelled on our screen, I sprawled on the lounge room floor, held hostage to the simmering charisma of inchoate superstar Patrick Swayze and the alien severity of Kirstie Alley's startling blue eyes (all that muskets and sabres stuff was good, too).

It was while taking up several of those itchy carpet squares that I happened to glance over at our bookshelf, and there - between Richard Adams' The Plague Dogs (that cover with the Jack Russell's exposed brain still creeps me out) and a couple of mum's nursing manuals - was Jakes' epic.

I snaffled the big hardcover and was reading it a few weeks later when my nosy aunty decided to intervene. Whip-smart, well-read and a bit haughty, she thought such a book "inappropriate" for her nephew. I'm not sure whether she regarded it so because of the quality of the prose or because it contained, as they say, "adult themes", yet she sidled up that sultry night clutching a copy of S.E Hinton's 1979 novel Tex, suggesting I might give it a go, instead?

This was, of course, preposterous. Not only had I never heard of S.E. Hinton, the cover, and therefore, the story within, was laughable; a young man wearing a cowboy hat, sheepskin jacket and spurs peering earnestly into the middle distance while sitting on a stationary motorbike. Behind him, a saddle was slung over the timber gate of a horse corral (years later, I would experience flashbacks of the illustration when I watched Wes Anderson's The Royal Tenenbaums and was assailed by the violently homoerotic Miguel Calderon paintings in Eli Cash's apartment).

With grace and, I believed, undetectable arrogance, I vouchsafed my intention to read the book and went on with my far superior literary pursuit, never giving Tex or Hinton another thought, until, that was, about three years later, when I watched Francis Ford Coppola's 1983 film Rumble Fish.

The film - packed with Brat Packers including Matt Dillon, who also starred in director Tim Hunter's film version of Tex - was a revelation, prompting a rethink of S.E. Hinton and a greedy campaign to consume her catalogue, including, of course, The Outsiders (its Coppola film version also featuring Dillon and one Patrick Swayze).


Turns out, as is often the case when a non-parent tries to be a mentor, my aunty was right.

But she was wrong, too.

Yes, had I listened to her, I would've been introduced to S.E. Hinton's bildungsromantic Oklahoma much earlier, yet the idea that Jakes' North and South was somehow "inappropriate" was off the mark.

Regardless of my age, I took just as much from that decidedly "A" author as I did his pioneering "YA" counterpart, and, I must admit, that encounter with my aunty would inform a certain permissive parenting style on my behalf when it came to policing pop culture.

First up, I'm simply overjoyed if one of our kids is reading anything - anything at all - that doesn't require some kind of swiping or offer language-killing emoji options. Other than Mein Kampf, or yet another one of those bloody Treehouse books, if it's got pages and words, it's a green light from me.

Similarly, I tend to let the kids watch whatever they want.

Obviously, there are minor caveats around sex and violence, horror etc, but, for the most part, parental controls are left in the hangar and viewer advice is, with all due respect, ignored.

Sometimes this leads to problems, as was the outcome this week after we all - nine-year-old included - watched Netflix's stop-motion animation tryptic The House.

Jarvis Cocker and Helena Bonham Carter voice characters in the creepy stop-motion trilogy. Picture: Netflix

Jarvis Cocker and Helena Bonham Carter voice characters in the creepy stop-motion trilogy. Picture: Netflix

The film comprises three separate stories, set in the past, present and future, all linked by the same piece of real estate. Ostensibly a trio of morality tales conceived by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, each story comments on issues including materialism and greed, social isolation and apocalyptic climate change.

Featuring humanoids made of felt with beady little eyes, anthropomorphised rodents and felines and Kafkaesque insects, The House is surreal and unsettling (a fabric urination stream is so very wrong) and the ambiguity of each tale's ending prompts a chorus of "what does that mean?".

While certainly flawed (the final instalment with the cat people is flaccid and fails to provide its intended impact), the beauty of The House is, in our house, at least, the way it opens up conversation.

The House tells three gorgeously grotesque fables. Picture: Netflix

The House tells three gorgeously grotesque fables. Picture: Netflix

Our 12-year-old middle child said the film, particularly its first act, reminded her of Hayao Miyazaki's breathtaking 2001 anime film Spirited Away. She was especially taken by the parallel of a little girl forced to fend for herself after being let down by her venal parents who sacrifice their children's happiness to climb the property ladder.

Weird she brought this up, considering she has absolutely no real-world touchstone for such a scenario.

Her 14-year-old sister had heard about The House via TikTok and managed to sneak-watch it on her phone before the official family screening, but was happy for a repeat viewing later that evening, spouting spoilers and pretending she knew what was going on.

The girls' younger brother was uncharacteristically reserved but became animated and full of questions when the cash-strapped, house-flipping mouse of the second instalment discovered the film's titular manor was infested with bugs.

Our boy was even more animated a few hours later when he entered our bedroom in tears after waking from a vivid nightmare.

So, it's back to Bluey, then. Far more appropriate.

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This story The House, a creepy fable not for the kids first appeared on The Canberra Times.