Dickensian Austin: The Strangeness of Edward Carey

Article by ben

by Benjamin Rybeck

The best stories for children and young adults are scary as hell—and why not? Being young is frightening; you have no autonomy, and the world is made of blurry shapes that you bump into from time to time, not knowing what will hurt you and what won’t. Think of the terror of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales, the twisted world of Roald Dahl, or even the great early books in the Goosebumps series. Adults may understand that fictional worlds are ultimately safe, but if a book doesn’t give a child a damn good sense of dread, where’s the fun?

Edward Carey’s Iremonger Trilogy taps into deep fears by recalling the London of Charles Dickens, filled with danger, squalor, and grotesquerie—the milieu of a pre-Factory Acts Britain, with children forced into filthy labor. Last year’s HEAP HOUSE introduced readers to the Iremonger family, living on a pile of trash. Young Clod Iremonger, Carey’s central character, seems gifted—or cursed—with supernatural abilities, hearing the whispering of inanimate objects. In FOULSHAM, the second book in the Iremonger Trilogy, things get even grittier and scarier, as Clod gets turned into a coin, passed from Londoner to Londoner, narrating from this helpless position. See what I mean about fear?

“The terror has to be real,” Carey tells me on the phone. “In industrialized England, it was terrifying. The poor were smashed without any thought.” (He adds, “And God knows they still are around the world.”) In writing these books, Carey wanted to capture “the feeling that life could be wiped out any second. Then the strangeness can sit on top of that.”

And FOULSHAM contains a great deal of strangeness, much of it embodied by Carey’s own black and white illustrations, which look drawn on pieces of paper that were dragged in the dirt—which is to say, they exquisitely evoke the charming ugliness of his world, possessed with otherworldly nastiness. In his portraits of his characters, heads are misshapen and eyes are disproportional; oftentimes his people look dead. “It’s all a matter of taste,” Carey says. “As long as the grotesqueries have a heart, have soul, you can believe them, no matter how odd they are. And part of it is daring yourself to be stranger, to be more grotesque. Dickens had so many strange, absolutely nutty people that never could’ve existed in real life, yet they felt like living, breathing people.”

FOULSHAM evokes not only Dickens but a whole range of eighteenth-century British literature, right down to its voice and its chapter headings, the sort that read, “Beginning the narrative of Clod Iremonger, formerly of Forlichingham Park, London, moved to Bayleaf House, Forlichingham, stolen from that place.” It’s all old-fashioned, so much so that I wonder whether young readers understand and appreciate Carey’s allusive efforts. But he seems unworried. “I don’t think [young readers] need to bring outside knowledge with them,” he says, “though afterward, I hope they will go look at some Dickens, or some Robert Louis Stevenson, or people like that.”

So who is this grotesquerie-obsessed man who wants to be the gateway drug for kids to read some seriously strange books? Is he brooding and forlorn, prone to fits of maniacal cackling? On the contrary, Carey—on the phone, at least—is a polite man with a proper-sounding English accent and an enthusiastic laugh. Does he live in a squalid place where it always rains? Not quite—he lives in Austin. However, he does work in a realm as grotesque and frightening as anything in Dickens: academia. His signature course? One in fairy tales, which he has taught at the University of Iowa and the Michener Center for Writers.

“I think I’m getting more English!” he tells me when I ask him about his adjustment to Texas. In fact, part of the impetus behind the Iremonger Trilogy was to return to his native England, which he’d been missing. But because London had changed a lot since the last time he was there, he aimed for Dickensian London instead—perhaps capturing the feeling of London more than its actual truth.

Most people wouldn’t solve homesickness by conjuring images of a city’s unfortunate past, but the oddities of Dickensian London seem to energize Carey. He tells me about Henry Mayhew and his book LONDON LABOUR AND THE LONDON POOR, published in 1851. “He interviewed all sorts of people in London in the 1700s, and they seem as strange as anything in Dickens. There’s one person whose job was selling long songs—by which I mean, songs that have many verses—on one sheet of paper. That’s what he sold—how he made his livelihood.”

The Iremonger Trilogy feels like something equally offbeat, and in writing these books, maybe Carey becomes a modern-day version of one of Mayhew’s people, earning his livelihood by peddling the odd.

FOULSHAM, Book Two of the Iremonger Trilogy, goes on sale July 23

Heap House: Book One By Edward Carey Cover Image
ISBN: 9781468309539
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Amulet Books - October 15th, 2014

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