In addition to four adult novels, Richard Hughes was a children’s writer. In The Spider’s Palace and other stories, he gives us a series of dreamlike vignettes, mostly involving children, animals, toys, or some combination thereof. They are fairy tales—things come to life, people turn into dolls, there are castles in the sky. But they are not, quite; they are a little too absurd.
An example might be best. In the first story, “Living in W’ales,” “Once there was a man who said he didn’t like the sort of houses people lived in, so he built a model village. It was not really like a model village at all, because the houses were all big enough for real people to live in, and he went about telling people to come and Live in W’ales.” This man becomes a pied piper, leading everyone away to W’ales, including a little girl and a dog who get lost along the way and, seeing a whale, ask to be allowed to live in it.
Inside the whale, though, there is no food for little girls or dogs. The dog begins digging holes inside the whale, which upsets his tummy (understandably so). “So he went up to the top of the water and shouted to the captain of a ship to give him a pill.” What kind of pill does a ship’s captain give a whale? A cold dressed leg of mutton. With such food, the dog stops his digging. Next we must get food for the girl, and a place for her to sleep. After all amenities have been provided, with the help of a parrot and a Harrod’s sales clerk, they girl and dog “said: ‘The man was right; it really is much more fun living in W’ales than living in houses.’ So they stayed on.”
That is a happy ending. Not all of them are, but they do lean bright and uplifting with just a touch of cynicism about human nature. The greatest pleasure in reading them came, for me, in their unpredictability. Just as everything and nothing is a non sequitur in a dream, so here. And there is a level of absurdity that seemed almost too old for a children’s book—but maybe I don’t remember how strange some children’s books are. “The China Spaniel” opens:
There was once a school that was rather cross and dull, and it was run by one old woman.
Now it so happened that one of the children at this school was a china spaniel, the kind that has a gold chain round its neck, and doesn’t look as if it had much sense. As a matter of fact, this one had practically no sense at all: he was easily the stupidest pupil in the whole school, and could never learn his lessons properly.
I’m sure you know just the kind of china spaniel.
I really like the one about W’ales. “The Gardener and the White Elephants” was also up there: a gardener stays up all night to see who’s eating his crops, follows a rabbit down his hole, and finds dozens of white elephants living in the burrow, terrified by the rabbit and unable to disobey him and leave. The gardener leads them out, fights the vicious rabbit to the death, and says, “Now will you be my white elephants?”
Not all of the illustrations are so cute, but I thought these ones were good. And they fit the tone so well. (Forgive the poor images; I could not have done much better without tearing the book apart.)
You can really see that the man who wrote A High Wind in Jamaica wrote these, and that the Bas-Thornton children should have read them. It’s kind of a funny double-sided picture. A Spider’s Palace, originally published in 1932, is now out of print (though readily available, it would seem). I’m sure they won’t, but how lovely it would be if NYRB reprinted it the way they have his adult works.