Monday, September 03, 2007

Tales From The Discount Bin #2: Judging a Book by it's Cover

In the mid 1960s, the spectre of World War II still loomed large. The event was a recent(comparatively) memory for many people, and many were still reeling from the horrors that had been brought to light at the end of that war. In 1961 old wounds were revisited with the high profile trial of Adolf Eichmann for war crimes, and lesser trials that continued throughout the early 60s. As the kids were waking up and moving to freedom, peace and love, many were stuck looking back at a time that seemed to have none of those things. Culturally it's a fascinating time, and the source of many great, incisive works that try to cut to the heart of the global emotions of the time. It is in this atmosphere that the book I review today was born, and it is just this goal that it attempts to realize. An admirable goal, anyone would agree. Still, in the quest for serious literary recognition, this was probably not the best idea:

First off, I have to express some slight disappointment with the Little People; it's actually, against all logic, a decent book. I was, I admit, half prepared for this, though not due to the dubious claim of "carefully laid on horror" from no other than the New York Times. John Christopher(one of the seven- Seven!- pseudonyms of British sci-fi author Samuel Youd) is the author the Tripod Trilogy, a series I enjoyed immensely when I was in Jr. High, and it was while I was looking for The Pool Of Fire in that series when I happened upon this book. And so, with that beloved series in mind, I had some inkling that The Little People might actually be halfway decent. But still... that cover... how could it be?

The book begins promisingly enough, with endless page after endless page of descriptions of place, and furniture. Loads of furniture description and long-winded British dialogue. Apparently "The calorific loss of the average male during sleep has been scientifically established as only a quarter of the loss when he is sitting in an armchair and reading a nice but unexciting book" is what passes for sweet, post-coitus pillow talk in England. Roughly translated, that sentence should read as 'good sex, me hungry!'

The dry British language and syntax in this book make for a daunting read in the beginning, and I found my eyes losing focus every time I picked up this book. I've slogged through some awful reads in my day, but this is the first and only time a book has literally put me to sleep. It took me three days to get past the first 30 pages. This of course led me to believe that my instincts were correct, and this book would be suitably horrible. And then, on the 4th day, I finished the book. You get used to the writing style, around page 30, and Christopher turns out to be a witty and intelligent author, with astute observations and characterizations. At least more so than a book with this title and cover would imply.

The basic story revolves around Bridget, an Englishwoman who inherits a decrepit Irish castle from her cousin Seamus. She decides to open it up as a Bed and Breakfast, mainly as a way to ensure she gets a higher value when she eventually sells it. During it's inaugural days of being open, strange things begin to happen to and around the characters. Based on that cover, I can imagine some fairly upset customers feeling cheated. Instead of homicidal garden gnomes with whips, we get a book more concerned with the inner lives of it's main characters. For the first three quarters of this book, Christopher sets up these characters' lives in a series of introspective moments. As the houseguests wander around the castle they think back over their lives in a distinct tone of melancholy. All the while, there are a few odd goings on in the background; some items go missing from the kitchen, one of the guests sees a small shape outside the castle one night that appears "feminine", and a mysterious diary, entirely in German, is found. Everything escalates when a tiny footprint is found by a hole in the castle wall, and the inhabitants of the castle begin a whimsical and only half serious search for the Little People of Irish legend. They search the castle tower(finding intricate and well furnished doll houses), and the basement. Setting a watch one night, to see if any little people will come out for food, they capture a woman no more than a foot tall, and begin a slow, strange dialogue with her, eventually coaxing out her cohorts.

The little people are revealed just over halfway through the novel, and with the diary translated by Stefan, a German ex-soldier, we're given the story of where they came from. It involves Nazi scientists experimenting on the pituitary gland in an effort to increase the human life span, and creating seven(and yes, that's noticed by the characters) miniature humans. After the war ended, the little people remained in the castle, locked in the tower as a secret known only to Bridget's cousin Seamus, who used them as, quite literally, his own playthings. Seamus was God to the Little People, a role he seemed to enjoy a bit too much, spending his hours locked with them in the tower, giving them meaningless orders and forcing them to punish each other with whips for his amusement. It's probably this aspect that the cover artist was referencing when he put whips in all of the Little People's hands, for they never actually carry whips in the book.

If it weren't for the explicit cover, I may have been unsure of the destination this book was heading in. It could, for most of it, be leading into a more idyllic adult fantasy realm. As the characters' search for the Little People continues, first starting as an amusement, and then turning into something more serious, the book has a mild sense of wonder. This wonder works on the characters as well, and they seem to be taking the first, tentative steps toward self-recovery as their quest continues. Mat, the drunken Irishman, finds temporary relief from the Whiskey bottle, the argumentative American couple appear to be rediscovering their respect for one another, Stefan seems to be making some personal headway with his guilt and subtle resentment towards his Jewish wife, and Bridget finds she quite enjoys running a bed and breakfast. But, as the cover so blatantly lets us know, this isn't going to last.

In the end, the book is somewhat of a shaggy dog story, with the Little People serving as a catalyst for a more personal journey for the various characters in this story. But, though the Little People aren't as homicidal as the cover suggests, they are indeed malevolent. I wont spoil exactly how they begin to turn on their hosts, in the off-chance that anyone will actually pick this up, but it's not as violent as the cover implies. Still no less horrific. In this one night, one chapter, of horror, the various hopes, fears and concerns of the characters are warped, twisted and perverted as the sadism of the Little People finally becomes clear. After the night is over, it would be untrue to call this a happy ending for any of the survivors, as the small glimpses of brightness in their future seem to have been extinguished by this one event. Mat and Cherry(daughter of the American couple) become engaged, but this happiness seems to belong to another book. Bridget's final reflections, suddenly without a fiance and unwilling to continue on in her cousin's home, paint the tone of this novel better than I probably can:

The abandonment of cousin Seamus' legacy was no hardship, and what else had she lost? Nothing material. Merely the feeling that one could trust oneself to another human being, at any time, under any circumstances. That was not important, surely. One could get along much better without it.

So, again, that cover. It's horribly misleading, and disguises an actually enjoyable read. On the other hand, I wouldn't have read this book without it. I don't suppose it'll change much about the way I pick books, because it fulfilled my reasons for starting this project. The idea that out there, hidden in the exploitative covers and silly titles, are great works of art that have been forgotten, or buried beneath unskilled writing. So I think I'll continue buying books for their covers. Here's hoping the next one isn't quite this good.

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