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The Dangerous Alphabet

One of my favorite writers, Neil Gaiman, wrote The Dangerous Alphabet as a Christmas card, which along with his “Nicholas Was” flash piece, is an example of my favorite way to celebrate Christmas: write a creepy story. HarperCollins decided at some point The Dangerous Alphabet would make a better book than card, so they asked Gris Grimly to illustrate it. Good choice.

A word on the art: it’s fantastic. The pen and watercolor is full of texture and character: rust and clammy skin crusted with sewer grime and thin, tickling hairs abound. Everyone’s hands, even the children’s, are arthritic; their fingers are long and bent, with swollen, red knuckles. Chilling. The beasts in the water and on the slips of land and platform are all unique but they share the an underlying malignancy which somehow manages to seem also playful. Nothing is quite serious, but then again, these things lurking under the water have shifty eyes and long arms… It gives off the feeling one can be scared and enjoy it.

The Dangerous Alphabet had less story in the words than I was expecting. I don’t know why I expected that, since Neil Gaiman said as much in his blog. There’s certainly no “and then Jack did this, then that, and finally killed a giant.” The words push the story along, but they don’t dominate. As Neil Gaiman says, the story happens mostly in the reader’s head.

A good example of the art taking over for the text: the page for ‘I’ reads, “I am the author who scratches these rhymes,”¬†and shows an illustration of an ancient man in robes, wearing a far-reaching, almost sentient beard. He’s chained to the wall, ceiling, and an iron ball, and he’s writing with a quill. That phrase, “I am the author…” is fairly uninspiring without the image, but with it conveys quite a bit about the nature of story creation. The rest of the illustrations are like that, to one degree or another.

Browse the first few pages of the book at the HarperCollins site to see what I mean. I think you’ll say along with me, “Are those hairy eyes in the water?”

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