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  • Writer's pictureRowan Fortune

Learning Loss

This is part of a #FridayFlashback series of re-edited and rereleased essays. The review of the children's Lovecraft book, The Old One and the Sea, was first published January 3 2020.

In his introduction to Lex H Jones’s Lovecraftian children’s book (subtitled ‘For The Grown-Ups’), Jim Mcleod asks: ‘When do we introduce Horror to children?’ This question soon steps sideways into a related one, ‘How far do you dilute the horror and fluffy up a demon?’ Jones comes to the view that it is crucial to introduce children to the more palpable aspects of the genre, offering them a portal to ‘the themes, tropes and primary characters that form [its] foundations’. That is, the goal is to inculcate a love of these stories, and that this can be accomplished without overstepping. He singles out Ray Bradbury’s The Halloween Tree as an exemplary success. In Jones’s following introduction to The Old One and the Sea (subtitled ‘For The Kids’), he asks a different type of question, one at the heart of the act of storytelling. Jones asks ‘What if?’ His book then offers one of the infinite answers to this counterfactual injunction.

Set in the inter-war period, its protagonist is Howard Philips. Not only is the name an apt allusion to the author this book celebrates, but like Lovecraft our Howard is a young boy without a father. Only in this instance he has lost his father to World War One. So much of the horror of this book is implied: the horror of being nestled precariously between historical calamities, but more chiefly the horror of grief, of how Howard experiences his profound loss, ‘his chest heavy, his eyes wet and [the] the entire world [turned] to grey.’ But also this is a book about the horror of living in a depressed community and of our human capacity, both redemptive and difficult, for ‘sharing each other’s sadness.’ What the book offers in compensation for such everyday horrors is the equal possibility of connection and awe. It is worthwhile remembering here that Lovecraft was himself no stranger to the aesthetics and consolations of wonder — his Dream Cycle was full of fanciful fairytales.

When we meet our hero, Howard’s natural monster phobia has already gone; he is not scared of what’s under the bed, having encountered the deeper terror of ‘his mother sitting him down and telling him that his father wasn’t coming home.’ Although heavy hitting, this book is not merely age-appropriate, but more significantly age-astute. Jones is telling a story about how to be in the world, about the dangers of fear and how to relate to losing those one loves. In the same vain, it is also a part of the charm of The Old One and the Sea that it renders Lovecraft’s sometimes archaic, purple prose in a style that is at once apt to a contemporary and young audience, but retains the original flair and gravitas. Often, this rests on an astute simile that gives some sense of the sublime that the subject matter ought to conjure:

The eyes of the massive thing were black and endless, like starring at the reflection of the night sky on the waters of a still ocean.

Place is absolutely central to the novella, as it is to Lovecraft’s works. We receive, indirectly, an impression of a town in ruin and decay, a forgotten community: ‘Howard had noticed a lot of the local shops and seafront businesses closing down.’; ‘The Crooked Anchor was the only pub in Innsmouth that remained open.’ This works so well because it is never foregrounded; rare is a work of children’s literature that puts as much trust in its young readership to interpret a setting and its meaning. The real evil, throughout the book, is the evil of this human world; its inequities, its deprivations, its need to scapegoat problems that ultimately find their cause in human society. This is not handled didactically, but in such a way that invites children to assess for themselves. Indeed, if there is a single demand made by the author, it is to think: ‘Accepting things as they are, without ever asking why, never leads to anything good.’

I would be remiss to do a review of such a book and not comment on the illustrations. Liam ‘Pais’ Hill’s artwork perfectly complements Jones’s prose. It is cartoonish without being frivolous, its colour palette is simple and rightly muted, its designs are endearing but conjure something of that cosmic profundity at the heart of Lovecraft’s fiction. This rendition of Cthulhu, or Oolu as Howard nicknames him, is neither too cute nor too monstrous. Our Oolu has a vulnerability and a wisdom to him; oddly, he reminds me (both structurally in the role he serves for the story and as a character) of the titular from Raymond Briggs’s children’s book (and Dianne Jackson’s film adaptation) The Snowman: Oolu is tragic and gentle, a father for the fatherless, a friend for the friendless.


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