A visit to Eerie-on-Sea in Malamander by Thomas Taylor
I somehow missed the map of (Ch)Eerie-on-Sea on my first read of Malamander. I only noticed it afterwards and I’m glad I did because it really confirmed just what a brilliant pocket world Taylor has created and literally mapped out. Malamander was written by an illustrator and it shows. The book goes out of its way from the start to conjure up a vivid visual impression of the place, and it cements its peculiarities by turning expectations of a seaside town on their head.
The seaside town is a wonderfully peculiar English institution that’s often rather overlooked in favour of the city but can offer many avenues for creativity. They have the contrast of opulence in their grand hotels on the promenade with the grinding poverty of the run-down backstreets, they have the eccentricities of strange shops tucked away in narrow crooked streets that slope sharply down to the seafront, or of the wonderfully dodgy piers and the amusement arcades. A curious mixture of timeless fun and seediness, the traditional and the time capsule buried in the sand. Immortalised in cheap picture postcards, we’re immediately at home with the idea of the people who inhabit these places to be somewhat strange or extraordinary.
The genre of magical realism, used incorrectly, can result in the reader feeling as though they’ve had the rug pulled out from under them when the normal rules of the real world start breaking down. Sometimes this can be intentional but more often than not it can feel jarring and out of place. Eerie-on-Sea, within the opening passages of the book, is set up as a place where we should not only fully expect this rug to be pulled from under us, but that it will most likely be followed up by a slap in the face by a large wet fish and a dunking in the ocean.
For a start, we have to visit Eerie-on-Sea in the grip of a bitter winter, so immediately all of our preconceptions of the seaside are thrown out of the window into the cold and we’re forced to scrub away our mental image of sunshine and ice cream. The seaside town in winter is a ready-made ghost town, complete with rolling banks of mist, locked and shuttered shops and houses, and only a few choice eccentrics at large. We’re immediately unsettled and out of our comfort zone. Taylor seems to build his town out the driftwood and odds and ends and lost stories that have been washed up on the beach – this is a place where things end up – and populates it with the only people who could really belong there and gives them names to match. In fact, these characters are just as much a part of their town as the mists and the seaweed and the pier – as though they’ve grown up out of the place and couldn’t really exist anywhere else. They’re imbued with the magic of their home and, rather like Neil Gaiman’s naming of characters in ‘Neverwhere’ after locations in London or people associated with the city (Hammersmith, Old Bailey, and (Richard) Mayhew ).
First we have Herbet Lemon and Violet Parma. (s)Herbet might as well have been in Eerie-on-Sea since the Victorian era when the town first became a popular tourist destination and his namesake was being sold from jars in seafront sweet shops. Violet Parma is another antique sweet, but also a rather exotic plant, giving her somewhat more mystery than plain old lemon.
I thought at first that Jenny Hanniver (working in the book repository) was just a nod to Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines books, but then I discovered that a Jenny Hanniver is (and I quote) “the carcass of a ray or a skate that has been modified by hand then dried, resulting in a mummified specimen intended to resemble a fanciful fictional creature, such as a demon or dragon.”
Well. That certainly adds to the atmosphere, doesn’t it.
And then of course we have the (slippery) Sebastian Eels, and The Boathook Man, and Captain Kraken and a whole host of others. Like everything else in the book, Malamander wears these exaggerations proudly. The reader is kept on their toes knowing that real things can happen to imaginary people, but at the same time has a lot of fun recognising jokes and deeper references in something as simple as a name – it’s a very playful writing technique that is much more fun (and less pretentious) when used in children’s fiction. Just like Gaiman’s work, Malamander is a contemporary urban myth that hovers between realism and fantasy, and so it is quite within its rights to take all sorts of liberties with characters and setting that wouldn’t be allowed elsewhere and I found this far more engaging than other books in the genre precisely because it was prepared to not take itself too seriously. And so when bizarre and impossible things begin to happen, they seem far more believable. These are people and goings on that we’ve heard about second hand from someone none too reliable, but they’re so strange it must be real.
I’ve visualised Malamander as being perfect for a stop-motion animation, but perhaps this is just because I once worked on an animation project involving a seaside (literal) tourist-trap populated by cannibals. It’s one of those worlds which is at once enticing and unpleasant, familiar and otherworldly – rather like the reflection in a half-forgotten hall of mirrors tucked away on a rickety pier.
Anyway – feel free to leave a comment and tell people what you think helps to build a good fictional world that you’d want (or not) to visit.