From pathos to bathos

Oakleaf window, Tyntesfield, Bristol

Ransom Riggs:
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.

Illustration by Andrew Davidson for ‘Tales of the Peculiar’

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

20 thoughts on “From pathos to bathos

  1. I’m sorry this was such a letdown, Chris! As you say, it made a wonderful first impression, but wasn’t able to live up to what it promised. On the other hand, this oakleaf window is absolutely gorgeous!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Every cloud, as they say, Ola … 😁

      Riggs has legions of fans out there, charmed by his inventiveness, entranced by the plethora of vintage US trompe-l’oeil photos he’s dug up to illustrate his books, enraptured by his canny mixture of fantasy, history and Lovecraftian horror. I would be among that host too if it wasn’t for his godawful writing…

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Every cloud exactly, Chris, and you’re very diligent in finding it anywhere you can – so when I read words like “godawful writing” in your reviews, I know to steer clear! 😁

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I tried to be fair about this book, say what was good about it, but I somehow could only keep coming back to how disappointed I was that this was a promising premise which Riggs was unable to do proper justice to. I’d dearly have loved to have been his copy editor, forcing him to interrogate what his underlying purpose was and to correct his slovenly prose.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I haven’t read this one but I remember enjoying Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, particularly the mystery of what was going on. The later ones, with the central mystery already revealed were less memorable. I guess I find that at his best his ideas are interesting enough to make me forgive the rest, but where they are not it all falls a bit flat…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You spotted my disappointment then, Johanna? I wasn’t very subtle about it, was I!

      All I can think of, in mitigation of Riggs’ fiction, is that he may be being post-ironic — that is, he’s deliberately writing in a part flippant, part serious way because that’s his style, half-smiling, and raising one eyebrow at his readership while the other stays steadfastedly in place.

      A little like this icon: 🤨

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I wonder if some of the more creative writers may not become a bit lazy. If their plot and/or setting is unique and intriguing enough they can distract many of their readers from the lazy writing. It is too long since I read Riggs for me to judge if that is the case there but I recently read another novel with a fun premise but very little else going for it where that seemed to be the problem.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I need to read a couple of sequels to the first volume to see if Riggs’s writing got lazy, though from the end of Book 1 I got the impression that he had an overall plan for the sequence. This particular collection, at the very least, felt like a missed opportunity for some fizz.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. Yes, he definitely had a plan for it, and I didn’t find them bad, just unremarkable. The first book was intriguing, and also had a fun gimmick with the photos, the later ones felt like more of the same. I would probably have really liked them as a teenager but now they don’t hold my interest.

            Liked by 1 person

            1. No, not when the main draw of the first book was the mystery and that it managed to feel different from other, objectively rather similar books in the genre. A second book in the same style no longer feels new…

              Liked by 1 person

  3. I work at the college where Riggs was an undergraduate (he graduated soon after I came and I didn’t know him) and from what I’ve heard and read, you’re quite right about what you call the “post-ironic” tone, that “he’s deliberately writing in a part flippant, part serious way because that’s his style, half-smiling, and raising one eyebrow at his readership while the other stays steadfastedly in place.” It’s a popular style with the undergraduate creative writers at the college, particularly in the late 1990’s, when he was there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s really fascinating to know, Jeanne, and I suppose a vindication of my unease about his style. It feels arch, as if (and maybe in reality) he’s laughing at a fan base that buys into his wild imaginings. It just feels dishonest to me, a betrayal of the writer’s responsibility to their trusting readers.

      Liked by 1 person

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