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Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Twisted Fairy Tales Make For A Creepy Read

(Image from Amazon)

For all those mothers who refuse to read fairy tales to their children because the stories are just too violent and scary, I offer you vindication in the form of John Connolly's The Book of Lost Things. It gave me nightmares for two straight nights.

The story begins in London, where 12-year-old David keeps watch over his mother, who is slowly dying. He reads her stories and performs elaborate rituals, but nothing can save her. When she dies, David's world shatters. Before he's even had time to begin grieving, his father hits him with a double whammy: not only does he have a girlfriend, but she is pregnant. The year is 1939, and German bombs crash all over London, but David barely notices - his world is being torn apart by his very own father. Soon, the three of them move into Rose's country home. It is more peaceful than London, but David's heart continues to yearn for his old life. Things only get worse when his stepbrother makes his way into the world. The colicky baby wails non-stop, making the whole family tense and cranky. To make matters worse, David's father works constantly with the war effort, leaving him home with Rose and the squalling infant. His only escape is his bedroom, which is thankfully stocked with shelves of storybooks.

David loves books, but lately they have been making him a little uncomfortable. He can hear them whispering. The old tales, the ones that his mother loved, "seemed to recognize something in him, or so he came to believe, something curious and fertile. He heard them talking: softly at first, then louder and more compellingly" (10). As David examines the storybooks, he finds that many of the fairy tales have been cruelly re-written. Many of them bear the name "Jonathan Tulvey." According to Rose, Jonathan was her great-uncle, who disappeared along with his stepsister when they were children. With tales of werewolves, hobgoblins and witches swirling around in his head, David begins to have frightening visions of a creature skulking about in his room. The figure was "slightly hunched, as though it had become so used to sneaking about that its body had contorted, the spine curving, the arms like twisted branches, the fingers clutching, ready to snatch at whatever it saw" (50-51). Terrified, David tells his father, who dismisses it as his imagination. But the gnarled monster, which David dubs The Crooked Man won't go away. It haunts his bedroom, his dreams, and worse, his brother's nursery. In the midst of these waking nightmares, he hears his mother's voice, begging him to rescue her from the monster's clutches. David follows her voice to a sunken garden, through a tunnel and into a strange, new world.

David knows his mother is trapped somewhere in this alternate reality; he must rescue her. He trudges through a world that seems familiar somehow. He meets a woodsman, who speaks of a girl in a red cloak meeting a wolf in the forest while taking a basket of food to her ailing grandmother. He encounters seven dwarves who toil in a mine and share their cottage with a woman. He discovers a castle encased in thorns, wherein lies a slumbering princess. In short, he has found a land of fairy tales. But these tales have been twisted. Very twisted. Little Red Riding Hood seduces the wolf, producing wolfmen who prowl the forest for anything to tear apart. Snow White makes the dwarves' lives a living hell, and the sleeping beauty resembles Elvira more than a Disney Princess.

The fairy tale world horrifies David with its violence and bloodshed. Enemies taunt him at every turn, and The Crooked Man watches hungrily from the fringes. Still, David presses on, searching for his mother. With danger lurking in every direction, he journeys to see the King of the storybook land, who possesses The Book of Lost Things, which David hopes will help him return home. But, the castle produces the most gruesome sights yet. Can he rescue his mother in time? Or will David be trapped inside the book land forever?

One commenter compared The Book of Lost Things to Cornelia Funke's Inkspell, so I was prepared to be as charmed with the former as I was with the latter. A couple chapters into it, I realized John Connolly's novel was not that kind of book. Instead of charming, The Book of Lost Things is creepy, gory and just downright disturbing. Yet, I could not put it down. Why? In the words of a reviewer with the Houston Chronicle, "Connolly writes like a poet about terrible horrors." It's true. The book's writing is masterful. An observation David makes in the story describes this book perfectly: "David could not equate the beauty of the craftmanship with the sinister place that now held them" (243). The Book of Lost Things is dark, sinister and strangely beautiful. I appreciated Connolly's originality, his mastery of language, and his subtle symbolism, but I can't say I liked the story. It was just so ... disturbing. I kept wondering why Connolly made the book so dark. I finally found this explanation in an interview printed in the back of the book. The author stated:

"In general, though, I was reluctant throughout the book to "sanitize" the old tales in any way, and they remain 'red in tooth and claw' ... to remove the violence and threat from the stories is to take away much of their potency, as well as to undermine the messages they communicate about the sometimes troubling and terrifying nature of the world children inhabit" (417).

If you like the idea of a storybook/fairy tale plot, but don't want all the gore, stick with Inkspell. If you're made of tougher stuff, you may enjoy this book. Just remember when you scream yourself awake at night to chant this mantra: It's just a story. It's just a story. And, if you start hearing your books talk, and seeing visions of The Crooked Man, you may want to set John Connolly's creepy masterpiece aside.

Grade: B
I really liked this quote about reading, which also appears in the interview at the back of The Book of Lost Things:

"I think the act of reading imbues the reader with a sensitivity toward the outside world that people who don't read can sometimes lack. I know it seems like a contradiction in terms; after all, reading is such a solitary, internalizing act that it appears to represent a disengagement from day-to-day life. But reading, and particularly the readinf of fiction, encourages us to view the world in new and challenging ways. I have always believed that fiction acts as a prism, taking the reality of our existence and breaking it down into its constituent parts, allowing us to see it in a completely differnet form. It allows us to inhabit the consciousness of another, which is a precursor to empathy, and empathy is, for me, one of the marks of a decent human being."


  1. What an excellent review of a fascinating book. I have to admit that I didn't find it quite as scary as you but I'm now reading Connolly's anthology, Nocturnes, and it is *frightening*. I'm only able to read a few stories at a time because they're so disturbing. He is quite an original author. I love his quote about reading too, and agree wholeheartedly.

  2. Your review is excellent. Now it makes me want to read this book even more than I already did! Thanks!

  3. Great review, Susan! I absolutely loved this book. I usually think of myself as somewhat of a lightweight when it comes to horror, but I didn't feel that way about this book. For me, I think it's because I went into it knowing that it was a 'fairy tale' and not based in this world. I have a much harder time with fiction that deals with crimes like child abduction because it hits too close to home.

  4. This is on my list for reading this year and I am really looking forward to it. Gore doesn't bother me and I like stories that use the older fairy tales rather than the Disney versions (but of course I do love Disney!). Thanks for the great review.

  5. wow! Wonderful review! I think I've become interested in reading the middle of the afternoon and/or with all the lights on!

  6. I guess I'm made of tougher stuff :p I absolutely adored this book! It was one of my favorites of last year. Loved your review...You brought across your experience with it perfectly. I thought he told an amazing story here. I want to read it again now!

  7. This book has been on my TBR list for awhile now, but I haven't known much about it, so this was a particularly interesting review. Thanks!

  8. Call me crazy, but after reading your review yesterday afternoon, I made the trek to the bookstore immediately after doggie school to pick this up! Don't know when I'll get to it, but I hear it calling me. . . :-)


  9. I skipped over most of the review simply because it looks like you wrote a great one and this is a book I plan to read. A few really close friends really liked it and I suspect I will as well.

  10. Holy cow. Great review. I can't decide if I'm tough enough for it :) I really liked Inkspell but even that got a bit dark for me. Maybe it depends on the mood I'm in - I think my 2 year old was a one month old when I tried Inkspell and I was rather sleep deprived anyway :) I really like your blog. I think I may stop by again :)

  11. Well, this book is completely different than what I expected when I bought it. I think I will save it for the R.I.P challenge this fall. I hope I'm sturdy enough.


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