Yesterday, I began a three-part series on the principle characters in my new novella, Beauty & the Beast: A Modern Fairy Tale, by looking at Rory Bellin, the story’s Beauty. Today, I’ll examine her Beast, Caleb Johnson.
In the original story and most of its adaptations, the Beast is a formerly handsome prince, who was cursed to become a monster, because he offended a witch. Believing beauty only to be skin deep, the prince refuses shelter to an ugly hag, so she curses him to be monstrous until he can learn to love more than beauty.
Like the original fairy tale, I wanted to play with the question of “Who is Beauty, and who is the Beast?” But for my modern take, I chose to reverse the transformation. Rather than having my Beast start shallow and gain depth, I had Caleb lose it.
When we first meet Caleb Johnson, he is pathetic. He’s the third-string running back on the Lawrence High football team. He never plays. He can’t get a girl, because he’s really unfortunate looking. His problems are summed up succinctly in an early scene set in the football team’s locker room after practice:
“I don’t know, Evan,” Caleb said with a sigh. “Mike’s a jerk, but it’s hard to argue with the evidence. GQ hasn’t called to shoot this mug, and I’ve been unattached pretty much since we got to LHS. The girls aren’t interested.”
“You just haven’t found the right girl yet,” Evan countered.
“Cuz he’s looking here instead of the zoo!” Mike shouted from around the corner of the lockers.
A couple of people laughed. Mike howled like a wolf.
Caleb is the hideous beast, locked away in a tower (in this case a social one), whom no one could think to love.
However, his appearance does not match his personality. He’s clever, he’s amiable, and he’s fun to be around. He’s the very picture of the nice guy. Later in that same scene, Caleb and Evan discuss the possibility of finding Caleb a girlfriend.
“As much as I appreciate this,” Caleb said, “there would have to be someone available I wouldn’t scare away.”
Evan frowned. He always crinkled his forehead when he was thinking.
“What about that girl who edits the paper?” he said. “Nobody’s datin’ her.”
“Who? Rory Bellin?” Caleb said.
“Yeah! That’s her! That girl is hot!”
“She’s also really smart,” Caleb said, expressing doubt. “I wouldn’t even know what to say to her.”
“What?” Evan said, looking floored. “Dude, you always know what to say. You are the funniest guy I know.”
“Funny-looking,” Caleb countered.
“Dude, stop talkin’ like Mike,” Evan scolded. “If you run yourself down, ain’t nobody gonna want you. And you’ve got a lot goin’ for you.”
Caleb is glib. He always has a quick comeback or a funny turn of phrase. Evan recognizes it and tries to build his confidence, but Caleb, too unsuccessful at dating and too often picked on for his looks has trouble believing in himself. At the start of the book, he may be beastly in appearance, but he’s also an Everyman we’re rooting for — a departure from the traditional story.
Transformation through Obsession
As the novella progresses, though, Caleb changes. He becomes obsessed with dating Rory, so he makes a deal with the sinister Mr. Nickleby (more on him tomorrow) to help him say the right things to seduce her.
He doesn’t realize it at first, but this is the start of a slippery slope of behavior for him. Caleb knows there is something wrong when Mr. Nickleby offers to help him. He knows a teacher shouldn’t be helping a student woo a girl. He also can sense a predatory instinct in Mr. Nickleby.
Caleb looked at him for the first time. He wore his usual outfit – a black dress shirt and slacks with a red tie. Caleb thought it was cool he wore school colors, but it was strange he wore the same thing every day, and the tie looked weird against the shirt. Longish, black hair fell on either side of his head, framing his face in a strange sort of darkness. His brown eyes were penetrating. They seemed to be looking into the depths of Caleb’s soul. It made him nervous.
But despite his misgivings, Caleb goes forward. He accepts Mr. Nickleby’s help even though he knows it comes with a high price. He’s decided he wants Rory badly enough he’ll do anything to win her.
At this point, Caleb begins his transformation into a true beast. He allows his obsession to drive him.
As the novella moves towards its climax, Caleb and Rory exchange their respective roles in the fairy tale. Rory begins as the Beauty, but her obsession makes her unapproachable. Caleb is a Beast on the outside but a Beauty within.
But Rory becomes more victim than antagonist, and Caleb ceases to be sympathetic to the reader. In a twist of horrific irony, it is Rory who pushes him over the edge into a pit of beastliness. Using a magical ring, she wishes for Caleb to win a football game and become the new starter. Her spell is far from altruistic — she is hoping to punish Mike and his girlfriend Holly. But she was trying to do something nice for Caleb in the process.
Unfortunately for Rory, it completely backfires. Mike and Holly suffer no consequences, and Caleb becomes everything Rory despises. He is unmasked as a true beast later that night when he attempts to force her to have sex with him. She thwarts his unwelcome advances, but, from that point forward, their two roles in the story have completely reversed. Caleb becomes hugely popular, and his nice personality is subsumed under his obsessive quest to be the new hero of Lawrence High. Rory becomes an outcast. She loses her boyfriend, she loses her best friend, and she loses her dignity. Her beauty — both inner and outer — is locked away. No one can see it past the glow of Caleb’s popularity.
Rory sat sullenly in the girls’ locker room. She’d managed to sneak away from her class, so she wouldn’t have to sit with the cheering, screaming mob of football fanatics at the school, but she was every bit as lonely in here by herself as she would have been in that crowd of strangers. Worse, while sneaking into the locker room had gotten her away from everyone, she could still hear the pep rally. For all practical purposes, she was attending, even though she was cutting.
She missed Cameron. The two hadn’t spoken since Friday night. Rory had barely even seen her. For someone who was allegedly her best friend, Cameron had managed to make herself pretty invisible this week.
So now it is Rory who is locked away in the tower of isolation and Caleb who is out free, able to impact the world of Lawrence High School. Beauty becomes the Beast and vice versa.
Tomorrow I’ll look at the man who makes all this happen, Mr. Nickleby. The strange and sinister English teacher, who brings magic to Lawrence High and ruin to its students.