Questionable children's booksNeil GaimanH.P. Lovecraft
Questionable children's books #1
Including: Where's My Shoggoth?, Where the Deep Ones Are, Cliffourd the Big Red God, Skeleton Hiccups, Cthulhu 4 Kids: Old Ones at the Beach, Cthulhu 4 Kids: Raising R'lyeh, The Gashlycrumb Tinies, The Dangerous Alphabet
Medium: book
Year: 2015
Keywords: Questionable children's books, horror
Writer: Ian Thomas, Kenneth Hite, Margery Cuyler, Luke J Morris, Maurice Sendak, Norman Bridwell, Edward Gorey, Neil Gaiman, H.P. Lovecraft
Artist: Adam Bolton, Andy Hopp, S. D. Schindler, Mo Simpson, Edward Gorey, Gris Grimly
Website category: Horror modern
Review date: 14 March 2015
We've been buying children's books for Natsuki. We have some normal ones, so for instance he loves Sleepy Me and (more surprisingly) 1000 Animals. The latter is exactly what the title suggests, i.e. 1000 illustrations of animals. Natsuki would happily spend all day pointing at his favourite animals, expecting to be told their names and shown some Google image searches of them.
To provide some context, Natsuki is twenty months old and is on the cusp of saying comprehensible words (both English and Japanese), but he loves making adults tell him words, letters and numbers. Yesterday it took nearly an hour to walk down our street, because Natsuki wanted me to read him every car's number plate. He's thus oblivious to narrative and has very little patience for long chunks of text, but he likes turning pages, being able to point at things he recognises and the whole experience of having books read to him.
There are plenty of Lovecraftian children's books I haven't bought, by the way. Others include Littlest Lovecraft: Call of the Cthulhu (not really a children's book, apparently), Carl Cthulhu Needs Hugs Too (a message book about bullying), Mother Hydra's Mythos Rhymes and Baby's First Mythos.
I'm going to try to give an estimated target audience, but please don't rely on my guesses. I expect to be wildly wrong in either direction.
wheres my shoggoth
Where's My Shoggoth?
Author: Ian Thomas
Artist: Adam Bolton
Target audience: anything up to 6-ish?
Absolutely fantastic. It's a fun children's story, while also being steeped to the gills in Lovecraft horror. It's glorious to read aloud and the illustrations are beautiful too.
Firstly, the plot. The narrator is a little boy who's lost his pet shoggoth. "I know that he'll be scared and he'll be lonely without me. Poor shoggoth, I must find him. Oh, this thing it should not be!" Almost every page ends in "where's my shoggoth?"
Similarly, the pages generally begin with "What's this? Is this my shoggoth?" Usually it's not. Our hero works through the Lovecraftian canon, starting with Deep Ones and gradually escalating in scale through the abominations (including one that's Ramsay Campbell's, the insects from Shaggai). Furthermore, the pages alternate. Half are minimalist black-and-white images with no text except for sound effects, which are of course great fun to read aloud. "SCHLUP SCHLOP" for Deep Ones, "SPLASH SPLOSH" as we row a boat towards Cthulhu, etc. Between them are painted colour plates of eldritch unspeakables, accompanied by jolly rhyming couplets about what they'll do to their victims. The insects from Shaggai look impressively gruesome, while what's interesting about Ian Thomas's take on Azathoth and Cthulhu is that he's working so hard to convey the scale that you can't actually see what they are. This is particularly remarkable in Cthulhu's case, since after all he's the only Lovecraftian entity that even ordinary people can recognise.
Our hero is reunited with his shoggoth in the end, of course. What's interesting about this is that this innocent-looking little boy lives in a gothic mansion, has a pet shoggoth and talks of "crushing the denizens of Earth", but the text's bouncy voice is practically begging to sound like Bertie Wooster. Oh, and the story's last line is funny, but I always add a final happy "there's my shoggoth!" after it, on the following (text-free) page. It feels mandatory to me, after all that repetition of "where's my shoggoth?"
It's cool to look at, doing right by Lovecraft and wrapping it in a fun story. However I'd like to discuss its language. This kind of rhyme and repetition is wonderful. It's childishly simple poetry, obviously, but satisfying to read aloud. It's like singing without music. What's more, it would be wrong not to relish the alliteration and internal rhymes. The Deep One has "great googly eyes" and is "heaving heavy sighs", while the Mi-Go likes "prodding patients who have pains". The Byakhee is a "spiky-anty-moley-crowy-batty sort of thing", which is practically a syllable orgasm, but I get nearly as much pleasure from "it's leathery, and feathery". Note also the effect of breaking the rhythm on Azathoth's page with "it's big as fifty suns!"
There's a love of language here that you'll only find in poetry, children's books and arguably (but bastardised) in punning tabloid headlines. It's delicious to read, with the contrasting vocal colours of Bouncy Idiot Children's Book and horror. (You can have a ridiculous amount of fun layering the latter under the former.) The shoggoth's name is Blinky, for instance.
It's also an original story rather than a parody, unlike the next two books:
where the deep ones are
Where the Deep Ones Are
Author: Kenneth Hite
Illustrator: Andy Hopp
Target audience: Where the Wild Things Are
I have two Lovecraftian children's books by Hite and Hopp. They're both fun, but I prefer this one. Maurice Sendak's story is juicier and pitched a little older than Norman Bridwell's, having an actual plot. Curiously, both originals were released in 1963 and the two authors' birth and death dates are similar: 1928-2012 for Sendak vs. 1928-2014 for Bridwell.
Anyway, this book is both The Shadow Over Innsmouth and Where the Wild Things Are. This works better than you'd think. Unlike Cliffourd and Where's My Shoggoth?, the narration is third-person and so one doesn't find oneself getting sucked into a sort of sinister P.G. Wodehouse voice. (I enjoy Evil Bertie Wooster, but it's nice to use other vocal colours too.) Just be careful when reading aloud the old man who cries "No! That's where the DEEP ONES are!" since it's possible to deliver his lines in a way that's scary for Natsuki. The text is pretty dark, but fortunately the book feels happy and jolly anyway, thanks to Andy Hopp's goofy illustrations. Those are not Deep Ones. They're more like soft toys having a pastel-coloured acid trip.
It's pretty cool. The Lovecraft-Sendak combination kicks arse.
cliffourd big red god
Cliffourd the Big Red God
Author: Kenneth Hite
Illustrator: Andy Hopp
Target audience: Clifford the Big Red Dog
Even dafter than you're imagining. This one's The Dunwich Horror, but drawn in a demented kiddified style and narrated to us by a Happy Days version of Wilbur Whateley. No plot whatsoever, but the tonal clash is good for a few laughs and the story's punchline is funny.
There's a difference between the silly bouncy voices of this and Where's My Shoggoth?, by the way. Cliffourd's narrator works well with a bit of camp. If you're in the right mood, you can easily ramp that up to a lot. He's also much more childish, for instance with his swaggering about having the biggest, reddest god in Dunwich.
skeleton hiccups
Skeleton Hiccups
Author: Margery Cuyler
Illustrator: S. D. Schindler
Target audience: pre-school
This one's not Lovecraft and indeed not at all questionable. It's mainstream. I can't imagine even the most nervous parent objecting. A skeleton has the hiccups and doesn't know what to do about it! Hold his breath? Drink some water? Try to scare himself?
Both Natsuki and I like this one. Most of the humour is in the illustrations, when we get a look at our skeleton's daily routine and attempted hiccup cures. (Even something as simple as brushing your teeth isn't straightforward when you're a skeleton.) The art's also quite nice to look at, with the skeleton being at once amiably cartoonish and anatomically correct. The resolution is also quite funny.
(Caveat: our copy is in Japanese, but it's translated from an English-language original. Margery Cuyler is American and she's been writing children's picture books since 1984, as well as regular novels and non-fiction.)
cthulhu 4 kids
Cthulhu 4 Kids: Old Ones at the Beach: 18 Jan 2014
Cthulhu 4 Kids: Raising R'lyeh: 22 Dec 2014
Writer: Luke J Morris
Artist: Mo Simpson
Target audience: perhaps 6-8
Disappointing. I bought these online, but I haven't even bothered trying to read them to Natsuki. They're aimed at older children, with quite a lot of text and only a few (very bad) illustrations. They wouldn't hold his attention, although I'll give them a go in a few years' time.
Book one's a bit shite. Cthulhu climbs out of the sea and builds sandcastles with a small boy called Milo. Uh-huh. The horror content is negligible, so Cthulhu might as well be a big teddy bear or something. Those pages are largely dull. However it gets mildly amusing towards the end, with Mum and Dad's bland acceptance of Milo going off to help Cthulhu raise R'lyeh. Lovecraftian prose starts showing up too. "Mom froze. She looked into Dread Cthulhu's black eyes and saw the horror of the Old Ones re-awakening, the powerless of human existence, the imminent end of space and time and the dawn of eternal insanity."
Book two's better, being set underwater in R'lyeh and full of monsters. Mind you, Milo can translate for Cthulhu even though they've only just met and appears to have a telepathic link with him that the writer's trying to sneak under our radar. It's still not great, but I think I could make it work aloud. The words have some momentum in a way that they didn't in the first book. Milo's casual attitude to Cthulhu is funny, at least. "Fine. But you owe me an ice cream cone."
Book three hasn't been released yet, but it gets a trailer at the end of book two. "See the conclusion of Milo's adventures with the Old Ones in Cthulhu 4 Kids: The End of the World."
gashlycrumb tinies
The Gashlycrumb Tinies
by Edward Gorey
Target audience: dark
I'm under orders from Tomoko not to read this to Natsuki, even though she's happy with all the other books on this list. I bought it blind, because I'd never read any Gorey and he's clearly one of the classics. Curiously, this too is from 1963.
Anyway, this is a plain-looking little book with scratchy pen-and-ink illustrations of children's deaths. There's a fatality for each letter of the alphabet. I'll admit that Gorey matching the letters with just the children's names feels a bit to me like cheating, while I'll note in passing that "fanny" was also a rude word in 1963. "F is for FANNY sucked dry by a leech." (Mind you, it's ruder in Britain, while Gorey was American.)
I sort of like it, but it's disconcerting because it's not funny. I can't see Natsuki at his current age even being interested, to be honest. To be kept in reserve for a child who's a bit warped and is old enough to know exactly what they're reading.
dangerous alphabet
The Dangerous Alphabet
Author: Neil Gaiman
Illustrator: Gris Grimly
Target audience: buggered if I know
It's an alphabet book, but one where the pages add up to a story. It looks gorgeous and Natsuki adores it, even if he's oblivious to everything but the letters and the pretty pictures.
It's eccentric, though. I like the horror of the narrative, but it's not trivial to follow. The text only touches lightly on the plot and can be largely ignored, except as whimsically gruesome commentary. Following the storyline means looking at the pictures, although in fairness this is a happy task since they're so characterful, with a spidery line and oodles of invention. Note also all the extra letter-specific things that the artist has squeezed into each picture, so for instance the "C" page will also be showing us corpses, candles, cats, clocks, cauldrons, etc.
I like Gaiman. I love his sensibility and I'm delighted that he's using his name value to put out things as offbeat as this. It's completely and utterly a children's book, but that's a good thing.