The Book of Lost Things
Recommended for: readers interested in dark fairy tale retellings
Macabre (adj,noun). From the French Danse Macabre.
1. Characterized by or suggestive of the gruesomeness of the danse macabre; grim, horrific, repulsive, bizarre, grotesque.
2. The Book of Lost Things.
The Book of Lost Things is what you might get if you locked Neil Gaiman and Guillermo del Toro into a dank, windowless room, forced them to read through the complete output of Andrew Lang, Charles Perrault, and the Brothers Grimm, and then told them to rewrite The Chronicles of Narnia.
David, a young boy resentful of his father's remarriage and his new baby brother, slips through a doorway into another world where he discovers a kingdom full of talking animals and fantastical creatures and ruled by humans from his world. When the doorway back into his world snaps shut behind him, David is forced onto a quest to find the king of the land so that, by consulting the king's Book of Lost Things, David can find his way home. But this world is not Narnia: the talking animals prefer ripping out throats to tea-making, and there is no golden lion ready to come to David's rescue.
The prose itself is in a style I tend to think of as "overwritten," where not a single moral or thought is left to reader inference. Instead, we're told what the character is thinking--usually twice, just in case you missed it the first time. Then one character tells another, so everyone knows exactly what's going on inside everyone else's head. Then the conversation and thought process is summarized just in case you hadn't bothered to read the dialogue or preceding paragraphs. Just in case you can't decide moral issues for yourself, physical appearance encodes it: deformity, obesity, and female sexual beauty imply wickedness; simplicity and masculine beauty indicate morality. I'm not particularly fond of this style itself, but I actually think it may be an entirely intentional and extremely successful attempt to capture the rather overwrought, simplified style of nineteenth century childrens' stories. It certainly captures an almost Dickensonian ambiance--except for the actual events of the story, of course.
My library puts this book in the children's section. I don't agree. Of course, to quote (I think) Agatha Christie, children are "bloodthirsty little beasts," but the sheer variety and excess of Nightmare Fuel exhibited here would probably send an imaginative child into terminal insomnia. Some of the horror of the book stems from adult knowledge--for instance, when it is intimated that one of the characters is a pedophile--but the graphic violence is clearly and simply stated and easily pictured by a young child. A few choice examples include children who are cut apart and stitched onto animals, men impaled upon thorns that suck out their life essences, a museum of hideously contorted dead bodies, a man forced to drink molten gold until his internal organs essentially melted, children with their souls kept in jars, and women who are raped by wolves. I don't know about you, but I'd characterize that as "not quite appropriate" for young children.
Other than the sheer imaginativeness of the creatures and world, the power of the story stems from its gruesome and sometimes comedic twists on archetypical fantasy plots. The strange mixture of childish tone and adult content reminded me strongly of the Sonheim musical, "Into the Woods." Like the musical, The Book of Lost Things invokes the childish fears, especially the fear of the unknown, manifested in the hidden depths of the dark, hushed, twisting paths of the woods. Like "Into the Woods," the forest is populated with creatures from fractured fairy tales: a selfish, grasping Snow White who practically enslaves the (socialist and oppressed) dwarves, a Daphne-like huntress who creates the beasts she hunts by fusing animals and children, the gallant knight who is suspected of unspeakable perversions, the ancient and venerable king whose wisdom is merely a front, and an absoutely nightmarish recreation of Rumplestiltskin. Each figure that David meets in the woods is a story archetype: the wise father figure of the huntsman, the trickster antagonist, the wolves who seek to become men, even the quest into the unknown of the woods.
The twisted retelling of fairy tales is certainly not an original conception, but The Book of Lost Things stands out for the way it weaves standard fairy tale motifs together with a fantastic and grotesque imagination to create an entirely unique story.