Tales of the Peculiar
Illustrated by Andrew Davidson
Penguin 2017 (2016)
I really wanted to like this: a handsome book to look at and a pleasure to hold and handle, with extremely classy wood engravings by Andrew Davidson and a series of short stories of ‘peculiar’ people told purportedly in fairytale fashion. I do love convincing fakery in a novel, the kind that allows one to fully suspend one’s disbelief and immerse oneself in an alternative world where unnatural things happen and peculiar people exist.
However, with this instalment of Ransom Riggs’ popular series I found that the things which irritated me about Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children were still present, but amplified, and that unfortunately led to me feeling let down and profoundly disappointed as I waded through the eleven pieces and a foreword.
But first, the Prologue, in which I enumerate the many facets which predisposed me to find this tome attractive.
The framing narrative sets us off in the right direction. Purportedly edited and annotated by Millard Nullings, described as the “ward of Miss Peregrine and scholar of all things peculiar”, dedicated to Miss Peregrine herself, published by Syndigast Publications and ‘vigilantly proofread by the two heads and five eyes of Patricia Panopticot‘, I was very prepared to buy into the Peculiar universe. With story titles as inventive as anything Joan Aiken could dream up (‘The Boy Who Could Hold Back the Sea’, ‘The Fork-Tongued Princess’ and ‘The Man Who Bottled the Sun’ for example) I was prepared to invest in the lives of peculiars from history and legend. And with Davidson’s full page engravings and emblems I very much wanted to fall in love with the accompanying texts.
Until I began to read. And then the jarring began: anachronisms, faltering phraseology, drifting narratives. The object was, I guess, to capture the essence of the Grimms’ retellings, tinged with medievalism, humour, Chinese legend and more recent literary fairytales, but from my viewpoint the tales lacked three ingredients: integrity, consistency, and authenticity.
How so? Take one example, ‘The Woman Who Befriended Ghosts’. Here’s the heartwarming tale of Hildy:
She had a high laughing voice and dark brown skin, and she could see ghosts. She wasn’t frightened by them at all. Her twin sister drowned when they were children, and when Hildy was growing up, her sister’s ghost was her closest friend.
In due course Hildy’s sister’s ghost leaves, on their joint 18th birthday, and Hildy tries desperately to make friends with other ghosts, even buying houses reputed to be haunted. Her fruitless search for friendship and happiness — ghosts either ignore or shun her — leads her to a house in Portugal where finally she finds a live human she can love, marry and have children with, without the need for the companionship of departed strangers. A touching story, inviting our sympathy: we’ve experienced pathos through all Hildy’s tribulations. But then
one fine midnight there was a knock at the front door, and who should Hildy find floating there on the porch but the ghosts of her sister and her parents.
From pathos we move to bathos: there’s an awkward moment where the children can’t see the ghosts Hildy and João are talking to, then Hildy hugs
her husband with one arm and her sister with the other, and then, her heart so full she thought it might burst, she introduced her dead family to her living family.
And they lived happily ever after.
I’m sorry, but any spell that Riggs has built up has dissipated for me in this finale. It’s almost as if the author has suddenly realised he’s in danger of being sentimental and so sticks in a bit of offhand humour. The tale has lost its integrity through this inconsistent approach, and a cursory “they all lived happily ever after” tagged on at the end — not the only tale to feature this, by the way — doesn’t to my mind convey authenticity; rather it’s like a child hastily adding “THE END” to a story when they’d run out of things to say.
There is much to enjoy in this collection, however. The opening piece, ‘The Splendid Cannibals’, is a thoughtful morality tale, as is the final ‘The Man Who Bottled the Sun’; and ‘The Girl Who Could Tame Nightmares’ even has an explicit moral: “It warns peculiar children that there are some talents that are simply too complex and dangerous to use, and are better left alone.” On the other hand ‘The First Ymbryne’ is an origin story which throws light on Miss Peregrine’s predecessors and the nature of ymbryne avian shape-shifting.
But not all the tales have such obvious significances. ‘The Tale of Cuthbert’ and ‘The Pigeons of St Paul’s’ are slight contributions with no obvious point except to either inveigh against hunting or to suggest that Sir Christopher Wren could, on account of his name, communicate with birds. ‘Cocobolo’, ‘The Locust’ and ‘The Boy Who Could Hold Back the Sea’ — despite ranging around the world for their settings and borrowing from history for names and events — ramble on without apparent purpose till they reach their anticlimactic end.
I did so want this to be good: I loved the concept, the titles, the fairytale motifs, the illustrations, the production values; but what I felt it lacked was a confident literacy, evident in the often banale phraseology, the bathetic conclusions, the abrupt changes of tone. It’s like a renowned composer who’s not a pianist giving a faltering rendition of an exquisite and complex piece they’ve written: the execution distracts from the beauty of the vision.
Ransom Riggs’ stories, bursting with wonderful plots, really needed honest and ruthless editing: it’s a shame they didn’t, really, as they show that people with differences — in this case magical talents, gifts or even curses — are still subject to the same temptations, suspicions and emotions as more ordinary humans.
A book read for Wyrd & Wonder‘s celebration of the fantastic throughout the month if May