The Strange Tales of the Alphabet Children was inspired both by Edward Gorey’s ‘Gashlycrumb Tinies’ and Hilaire Belloc’s ‘Cautionary Tales for Children’, both of which have been firm favourites of mine for many years. Belloc’s Cautionary Tales are well known, living on mainly through the enduring success of his most famous character, ‘Matilda’. Gorey on the other hand, despite a prolific output across multiple fields, is generally less well known.
For those unfamiliar with his life and work, Edward Gorey (1925-2000) was an American artist, illustrator, author, playwright and poet. Amongst other things, he wrote and illustrated some wonderfully bizarre picture books in the 1950s and 1960s, of which the Gashlycrumb Tinies is perhaps his best-known. The Gashlycrumb Tinies is a slim ‘ABC’ book, but it is not the sort of educational ABC you will find in a school or nursery. This is because each letter of the alphabet documents the gruesome demise of twenty six children, starting with Amy who fell down the stairs, and ending with Zilla, who drank too much gin. Each letter is accompanied by a macabre pen-and-ink drawing showing the unfortunate child’s final moments.
I had just finished reciting the Gashleycrumb Tinies to a friend’s wide-eyed seven year old one day in early 2017, (I committed it to memory many years ago), when the idea popped into my head to write my own backstory for each of the twenty-six children, at the same time creating a series of modern-day cautionary tales written in Belloc’s rhyming couplet style. I started writing almost immediately, and before I knew it, The Strange Tales of the Alphabet Children was born!
As anyone who knows the Gashlycrumb Tinies will note, not all of my tales match the original modus operandi of each child’s downfall. Although I wanted to write a pastiche that was largely faithful to the original, I also wanted to introduce situations and themes that would be relevant and recognisable for a 21st century audience.
It will quickly be apparent that this is not a children’s book in the traditional sense. Stories involving suffocation, poisoning, mauling and road traffic accidents do not happily fall within the fluffy rabbit / affable giant genre. However, I believe that a darker, more adult type of children’s fiction will appeal not only to the world-wise older child, but also to their long-suffering and slightly cynical parents for whom parenthood is not an endless source of joy and fulfilment.
I hope you agree.
Matthew Rumbelow, June 2020