Interlace and the gimp

Kathy Hoopman: Lisa and the Lacemaker
An Asperger Adventure
Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2002

Lisa lives largely in a world of her own, tolerating a select few friends and family members but otherwise extremely sensitive to sensory over-stimulation. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a strong imagination or a rich mental landscapes; and it doesn’t mean she is unable to focus on things that matter to her, or to say things as she sees them. For Lisa, as is immediately made clear, has Asperger’s Syndrome.

One day, in the backyard of her only friend Ben—who also has Asperger’s—she unexpectedly comes across a door obscured by undergrowth. This turns out to be the lost and forgotten servants’ quarters of the Victorian house in which Ben’s family now live. In exploring it she starts to uncover its secrets, leading to family histories involving long lost loves, the ancient art of lacemaking, and the ghost of one of the dwelling’s former residents.

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Whistling in the dark

sunset
Sunset in the west

Geoffrey Ashe in association with Debrett’s Peerage:
The Discovery of King Arthur
Debrett’s Peerage 1985

Humans make history, and histories about individual humans are particularly fascinating if not always fashionable among scholars. Occasionally popular and scholarly tastes overlap, as we have seen in the case of the discovery of Richard III’s body under a car park in Leicester. But if anybody’s hoping in similar fashion to discover the body of King Arthur they might just be whistling in the dark.

Why? Well, frankly the historical documentation for Arthur is, to put it mildly, very sparse, some might say non-existent.

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Fantasy beasts

Circus scene, 1930s

Charles G Finney: The Circus of Dr Lao
Introduction by Michael Dirda
Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks 2016 (1935)

How to categorise this extraordinary fantasy? Its style is hard to pin down precisely, its subject matter diffuse, its denouement unclear, its cast of characters largely unlikeable.

That acknowledged, it nevertheless is said to have inspired Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962) and was loosely adapted as a film entitled 7 Faces of Dr Lao. Its faint influence may even, I fancy, be detected in J K Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts films.

Perhaps the best way to approach the structure of this dark fantasy with comic and satiric elements is through the very nature of its subject matter: as a series of sideshows followed by a final circus spectacle.

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A noir memoir

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean:
The Comical Tragedy
or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch:
a Romance
Bloomsbury 2006 (1994)

Childhood is a dim, misty country. Facts and faces, people and places all flit in and out of the streetlight of memory, all mediated by the prism of emotion. Neil Gaiman’s Mr Punch captures that feeling exactly, through the eyes of a small boy — Neil himself — and it feels authentic because it is essentially autobiographical, and because it also has a sense of place without being being too specific.

Dave McKean’s atmospheric artwork matches young Neil’s perspective in the 70s, ferried to and around Southsea in Portsmouth to stay with grandparents and where he encounters other strange relatives and their associates. Self and space, adults and events are presented in a kaleidoscopic fashion that mirrors those confusing years when adults have control, violence may be around the corner and nothing truly makes sense, however much you try to fathom it out.

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Voyage and return

Sugarloaf mountain near Abergavenny: an inspiration for The Lonely Mountain?

J R R Tolkien: The Hobbit,
or There and Back Again
Illustrated by David Wenzel
Adapted by Charles Dixon with Sean Denning
Harper 2006

I scarcely need to introduce the story of Bilbo Baggins, a halfling who is persuaded by a wizard and thirteen dwarfs to go on a long and dangerous journey to an isolated mountain, where treasure is guarded by a wicked dragon, and who finally returns home (as the subtitle proclaims).

First published in 1937, revised in 1951 and adapted for radio, animated and live action films, and for the stage, The Hobbit has been around in in its many guises for over 80 years now. As a graphic novel illustrated by David Wenzel it first began to be issued three decades ago, in 1989, and was reissued with revisions and thirty pages of new artwork in 2006.

Each medium has its advantages and drawbacks and so the question to ask when confronted by David Wenzel’s most famous work is, what does it add to the experience of Tolkien’s original saga?

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Incomparable parable

Bluebell Wood, Coed Cefn, Crickhowell

Dr Seuss: The Lorax
Random House 1971

Among the handful of books one of our granddaughters habitually chooses for me to read to her is this, reportedly the author’s favourite. Whether it’s the pictures, the words, the message or a mixture of some or all of these I haven’t asked, but it obviously appeals strongly to her. For the moment I’m happy that it clearly holds some magic for her, even at the age of six, and that now may not be the time to analyse how or why, only to recognise that it does.

The Lorax is an uncomfortable parable about the despoilation of our planet. It’s depressing that, half a century on, the moral of the tale has no more been learnt than it was by the Once-lers of our world back when it was first published:

UNLESS someone like you
cares a whole awful lot,
nothing is going to get better.
It’s not.

As with the tale of Pandora’s box, there is a soupçon of hope at the end, an indication that youngsters, if they’ve learnt from the mistakes made by their pig-headed elders, may be able to begin repairing at least some of the damage done.

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A score of stories

Rye, Landgate

Joan Aiken:
The Monkey’s Wedding, and Other Stories
Introduction by Lizza Aiken
Small Beer Press 2011

In the introduction to this posthumous collection of short stories Joan Aiken describes the three ingredients that have gone into the making of these tales: fantasy elements (“witches, dragons, castles…”), realistic elements culled from everyday life (“mending punctures, winning raffles…”) and, finally, dreams (“an old lady hunting for lost things…”). Unlike her longer novels, the tales aren’t planned but spring from a chance combination of two or more of these ingredients; in The Monkey’s Wedding you can marvel at how these elements appear and re-appear in limitless permutations, always surprising, always entertaining, and always haunting.

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