So, when is a “cigar” really NOT a cigar?
Ever since Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code swept the publishing world, readers seem more receptive to uncovering hidden code in seemingly ordinary stories. Embedding veiled messages in works of fiction and art is nothing new. A lot of times it’s just another way for a writer to enjoy their own little “wink-wink” toward their more perceptive readers. That’s why I’ve been doing it for years in my writing. From character’s names to odd-sounding towns, I have peppered a lot of my work with obscure coded references that only a few readers have been able to break.
My first foray into this subterfuge started in college when I was putting together the playbill for a one-act play I directed. I’d had nothing but trouble dealing with the theatre department head as my play was not the featured production of their season and she didn’t see any point in giving my actors or myself any special treatment. Thus, I had to do everything on a bare bones shoestring.
And that included writing and printing the one page playbill to give to the audience.
By the time I sat down to write the playbill, I was fairly irritated. I was not only the director, but the set designer, costume designer, makeup artist, hair stylist…you get the picture. My playbill was going to look pretty weak, I thought, with only my name and the five actors on the page. Thus, I came up with my own little coded retribution for being hung out to dry: I created names for the non-existent crew. The set designer was Haven Agud Tyme (Having a good time), costumes were courtesy of Sowen Lasnite (Sewn Last Night), makeup was by May Belline (I think that one’s obvious) and hair was done simply by Coiff.
But you know what? Nobody got it. It went over their heads like an obscure reference to Plato at a cattle auction. That’s the problem with embedding code in your work. But that hasn’t stopped a lot of writers from giving it the ol’ college try.
The famed author E.M. Forster gave it a shot way back at the turn of the 20th century. Forster’s books were rediscovered by Hollywood in the 1980’s and enjoyed a major renaissance when Room With A View, Maurice, Howard’s End, Where Angels Fear to Tread and Passage to India were brought to the screen.
One of Forster’s lesser-known works, a short story titled “The Celestial Omnibus,” has always held a soft spot in my heart. Published in 1914, the story is a quietly subversive tale of Forster’s dislike of intellectuals who have lost touch with their heart and soul. This was big stuff in 1914 and a story that had to be told with some code thrown in for good measure. Forster wanted to make his point without alienating readers. Thus, he couched the story in fantasy: a children’s fantasy.
“The Celestial Omnibus” tells the story of a sensitive young boy growing up in a middle class English family. Like much of Forster’s work, the characters in Omnibus suffer from what the author beautifully labeled “an underdeveloped heart.” The boy in the story, however, is pure and has eyes to see and a heart that listens. His father and mother are obsessed with appearing intellectual. To this end, they encourage the company of an elitist named Mr. Bons, hoping that by association with this seeming erudite blowhard, their status will rise in the community. Mr. Bons is the quintessential dinner guest who demands center stage as he spouts off about poetry, art, music and literature all the time while resting his teacup precariously on his overdeveloped belly. In the end, “The Celestial Omnibus” was Forster’s slap in the face to intellectuals. He wanted to secretly reveal his disgust against blowhards like Mr. Bons without necessarily being ostracized by the public. That’s why he named the guy, Mr. Bons. Backward, Bons spells “SNOB.”
Author Lewis Carroll took embedding code to new heights in his Alice in Wonderland series. Most students of Carroll agree that he masterfully created what seemed to be a children’s story but was really a tart assault on the British government. The Queen of Hearts was really Queen Victoria, for example. The Cheshire Cat and White Rabbit were caricatures of political buffoons. It was Carroll’s “wink-wink” to society. But to most people, the Alice series was just another fantasy-based children’s book.
There are more modern examples out there, from Disney’s Fantasia to Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone. You see a pattern here? Through what looks like “fantasy” or science fiction on the surface, may hide explosive messages that the writer possibly didn’t feel he or she could deliver without incurring the wrath of the public.
Or, it can be just for fun. In one of my short story collections, I named a character Mr. Mepps. He was a man who liked to lure people into his nefarious net. He also liked to fish. Mepps? It’s the brand name for the #1 fishing lure.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Nobody got it...
Find more special features for each book on the individual book pages!