Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 19 Dec 2017

The Haunted Tea-Cosy by Edward Gorey

Given my distinctly Scrooge-like attitude towards Christmas, this is probably not the site to come to for Yuletide bonhomie and I’m very doubtful whether there will be too many Christmas book reviews to be found here. But there’s always an exception to the rule and this year it comes in the shape of Edward Gorey’s dark and twisted take on the world – The Haunted Tea-Cosy which is invitingly sub-titled A Dispirited and Distasteful Diversion For Christmas.

This is Gorey’s radical and distinctly surrealist reimagining of the Dicken’s classic Christmas Carol and there’s not really a glimpse of Christmas goodwill on offer. What we get instead is the tale of Edmund Gravel, the Recluse of Lower Spigot who prepares to take tea alone on Christmas Eve with a decade-old fruitcake he’s making last.

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Using the same teabag he’s used all week, Gravel sits down to write letters of complaint to the newspapers when suddenly and unexpectedly a giant, human-sized bug leaps out from under his teapot cosy – it’s the Bahhum Bug who declares;

I am here to diffuse the interests of didacticism.

No, don’t ask – I’ve no idea either……

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At this point a series of spectres begin to appear – the Spectre of Christmas That Never Was and the Spectre of Christmas That Isn’t – who both offer to show Gravel and his Bug distressing or affecting scenes. These are all puzzling to various degrees:

Across the road from the churchyard Alberta Stipple returned home to find the wallpaper in the drawing room gone.

Or

In the high street of the village Reverend Flannel lost his tuning fork

Or

Albina Fennel reclined on a chaise longue and waited for a letter from her brother in far-off Hokkaido, Japan.

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Finally we get the Spectre of Christmas That Never Will Be who comes to show them ‘heart-rending scenes’ of domestic tragedy:

To the house opposite Fido was returned from the taxidermist and set down by the fire.

Beyond, at the ancestral home Lady Snaggle was informed her husband’s were the brains behind an international gang of wallpaper thieves.

Returned once more to his living room Gravel declares that he will throw a party for everyone in Lower Spigot where:

Giggling, dancing and shrieking prevailed and, as the evening wore on, were carried to the very edge of the unseemly.

The end.

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All the time I was reading through this Gothic Christmas offering I was struggling to try and bring to mind just what it reminded me of – there was something about the written cadence of the vignettes that seemed familiar. Then when I read one out aloud to myself I suddenly realised what it was – these could easily have been the product of the late, great and much lamented absurdist, Ivor Cutler. From that moment of realisation onwards the whole book took on a wheezing musical accompaniment of Ivor’s harmonium droning away in the background.

Gorey isn’t just an adult delight – there are many children both young and old who seem to tune into his disturbing universe. I think a trip to the (safe) darkside is always popular as the success of the new Gothic masters, Lemony Snickett or Ransom Riggs, attests to. Both of these writers, of course, owe a huge debt of gratitude to Gorey.

Anyway, if you’re looking for an antidote to all of the over-sweetened, insubstantial Christmas gunk that’s going to be served-up, this might be the one for you.

 

Terry Potter

December 2017