Fuse #8

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Review of the Day: The Charles Addams Mother Goose by Charles Addams

The Charles Addams Mother Goose
By Charles Addams
Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
ISBN: 0689848749
Currently out of print.
Ages 7 and up.

With the recent publication of Random House’s, Charles Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life, by Linda H. Davis, rival publishers appear to be looking to their own overstocked warehouses to take advantage of this newest Addams literary craze. At least, that’s how I’m interpreting the sudden reappearance of books like Simon and Schuster’s, The Charles Addams Mother Goose, which originally made its republished debut back in 2002, onto our bookstore shelves. Not that I mind, of course. Any republication of the Addams repertoire is fine with me, and had S&S not started sending out this book once again I never would have known what a fine complement C.S.A. made to some of the darker nursery rhymes out there. Mother Goose books come and go, but if you want to go for the memorable, the dark, and the amusing then there really is only one title you should even begin to consider. And it sports a Stephen King by-line on the cover.

Told in about 28 different nursery rhymes, The Charles Addams Mother Goose is everything you might expect from that most infamous of New Yorker cartoonists. Here you can find all your favorites word-for-word, accompanied by the most peculiar of pictures. The mouse from “Hickory Dickory Dock” takes on enormous proportions. Jack Sprat and his wife seem to have eating habits outside of what we might consider the norm. Even the three blind mice are included, though the carving knife is now of the electric variety. The familiar Addams family characters do indeed make an appearance in some of these poems, and always in a fashion that seems tailor made for them. Plus it takes a kind of genius to be the illustrator who decides that the reason all the kings horses and all the kings men couldn’t put Humpty Dumpty together again was because out of Humpty hatched a baby dragon/dinosaur/scaly creature. Certainly the unique Addams brand is clear and present in every pic.

Kids who read this book, and there will be quite a few, may find themselves in later years wholly unable to separate Addams’ vision from certain peculiar rhymes. Take, for example, that old chestnut “Solomon Grundy”. Entirely apart from the fact that his name is now synonymous with a Batman villain, his story here is told in seven/eight panels. “Solomon Grundy, Born on Monday, Christened on Tuesday, Married on Wednesday, Took ill on Thursday, Worse on Friday, Died on Saturday, Buried on Sunday. This is the end of Solomon Grundy.” Addams really takes the poem even further, though. His Grundy resembles a slightly undersized and grumpy Uncle Fester. And once he’s, “Died on Saturday”, his body resembles nothing so much as a cloud of dirty air. Then, wonderfully inexplicably, that same dirty air is put into a corked bottle and thrown into the sea with the line, “Buried on Sunday.” It’s this kind of random twist on old stand-bys that gives this collection just the right burst of original peculiarity. I’m not even gonna go into the eyedropper of holy water on the second panel or the mysterious mushrooms that grow out of Solomon’s head on Thursday.

So which poem wins the Most Likely To Disturb Already Wary Adults Award? It’s a toss-up, to my mind, between “Mistress Mary, quite contrary” and “Wee Willie Winkie”. On the outset, neither poem seems particularly dark. In “Mistress Mary” however, an unhealthy waif of a woman with dark-lidded eyes and a lifeless expression waters mushrooms in a darkened basement. Lit only by a single bare lightbulb, the mushrooms have begun to sprout feminine heads, each with the creepy cheer of a babydoll's face. The picture looks almost institutional, what with the pale blond’s stare into nothingness and the mushrooms’ eerie plastered smiles. Compare that, however, to “Wee Willie Winkie”. In that picture a boy and girl stare aghast at a window where a ghoul in a nightcap stares unblinkingly at them, his right hand ah-rapping at the pane. The whole picture is tinted a sickly green and blue and you’ve the feeling that the little boy who is not in bed could be in for some trouble soon.

When you get right down to it, however, maybe the most disturbing part of this book is the Foreword written in 2001 by “Mrs. Charles Addams”. In this section, the woman gives a bit of context to the original publication. It came out in the midst of Vietnam. It could be credited to two equally possible sources. But Mrs. Addams goes even further and finds in Charles’s work an odd source of, of all things, comfort. “How wonderful to find a dinosaur inside Humpty Dumpty, rather than worrying that he had fallen and couldn’t be repaired. Or being reassured that the old woman who lived under the hill had all the comforts of a real home and was better for it.” You’ll note that she makes no mention of the vampiric Doctor Fell who’s poem reads, “I do not like thee, Doctor Fell” or the leather-clad specter of death that shakes hands with a little girl by a graveyard. Countering such an Intro, however, is the remarkable “Mother Goose Scrapbook” compiled at the end of the book. In it we see a poem that “for reasons unknown” was pulled from the original book moments before publication. In it, a worried shepherd holds open the doors of a fallout shelter as his lambs pelt past him into the darkness. A mushroom cloud erupts in the distance. Says the poem, “A red sky at night is a shepherd’s delight. A red sky in the morning is a shepherd’s warning.” Since we’ve already determined that the book came out in 1967, I doubt the reason for the deletion is all that mysterious at all. Other choice details include New Yorker covers, photographs, book jackets, and even a drawing Charles made at the age of four.

Charles Addams has a following not too dissimilar to the Edward Gorey fans out there. This collection, however, demands to be owned by people outside of the regular obsessives. You can’t say that Addams’ visions of these nursery rhymes are anything but logical extrapolations. What’s more, after repeated viewings they insinuate themselves into your unconscious. I’ll never hear “This is the house that Jack built” without visions of knives, bulldogs, and dirty rats again. And I’m okay with that. A must-have purchase for anyone with a penchant for the peculiar.

No longer in print.

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