01 August 2010

Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror

I've been obsessively perusing the Kidlitosphere--so, so many blogs and neat sites out there for children's book junkies like me.  What a delight to come across Crow Toes Quarterly, "a playfully dark arts and literature e-zine and limited-edition print magazine for children ages nine and up."  Yum.  

In the review section of their site I found this little gem: Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror by Chris Priestley.  Complete with Edward Gorey-inspired illustrations, these stories set in Victorian England are loaded with classic gothic goodies including demons, ghosts, evil objects, and the wages of sin, but they are presented in a freshly imagined way.  

The book is framed by the device of a central story involving a boy named Edgar (Poe homage, certainly) sitting in the artifact-crammed study of his Uncle's resplendently creepy mansion and listening to the stories behind various objects in the room.  Each chapter breaks from its tale and returns to this firelit space to transition to the next story.  A sense of mystery about the uncle and his connection with the tales he tells grows as the book progresses and propels reader interest until the final chapter discloses all.  

I wonder how easily average middle-readers might become engrossed in this book.  The setting and so much of the richly detailed texture & vocabulary might be too foreign to pull them in.  But I tell you, I'd love to be friends with any child who prefers this aesthetic to the more accessible Goosebumps series.  And honestly, I'd rather write for this sort of child as well.   

Yes, the stories are scary: more creep-factor than hakem/slashem gore, simple blood versus viscera.  As this author understands, it is the anticipation of harm which piques fear rather than the gruesome end.  No! Don't open the door to the basement--don't do it!  is much more chilling than the inevitable splatter that follows.

An interesting question is whether or not the victims in these tales deserved their fate on some level.  There was no explicit moral imperative connecting the tales, no didactic be a good little boy or girl or you might just get hacked to pieces.  In some cases simple curiosity tempted mischief which led to a world of hurt; one protagonist was a petty thief and seemingly deserving, while another was merely a social outcast who was haunted by the ghost of an innocent murder victim.  One theme which particularly struck me was the presence of disconnected or even removed parents, begging the question of just who is to be punished, if anyone.  The boy seduced by the spectral presence in "Jinn" is completely clueless about ethics and social norms, and his much preoccupied father blames himself for the child's death.  Perhaps if he'd been a more attentive and connected father the boy might have had enough sense to avoid trouble.  Our protagonist Edgar is similarly neglected and is kept from a grisly end only by the grace of his Uncle's protection.  Perhaps the nitty gritty of the horror, the horror within the gothic is the evident lack of moral absolutes in our world.  The wicked are sometimes punished, but so are innocent bystanders.  In this world none of us can remain cozy with the delusion that being good equals being safe from harm.

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