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Every Christmas, for four years, I received a different book by Gerald Brom. The first was The Plucker, which is – as I like to put it – “Brom’s Toy Story on crack with demons.” Brom gives us Jack, literally and figuratively, in the box, in the Underbed. He’s been discarded. Thomas (his owner) doesn’t want him anymore. Unlike a lot of fantasy novels I was reading at the time, Brom starts The Plucker with his protagonist not only in a state of confusion, not only lost but deeply emotional. It feels rich, intriguing, deliciously melancholy that Brom would have us behind Jack throughout.
Jack is no Woody or Buzz. He’s not even a Mr. Slinky. Jack is in denial. He wasn’t expecting to be discarded so soon. He’s with the Nutcracker (or the Baron) and Humpty Dumpty and Teddy Bear. ‘“Beneath the bed is bad,” the Nutcracker says, “but it’s nothing compared to the attic, where you fade away into darkness…the rats gnaw on your fingers and no-one cares.”’
There’s something deeply morbid and tragic about the Nutcracker’s statement but one that sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Jack is working on fear and anger and a complete denial that he is one of these toys. All toys are in denial about the Underbed, all toys in denial of their allotted time in the bedroom.
The Plucker is based in Charleston, South Carolina, Summer 1942. Thomas’ father is fighting in the war and returns quickly to give his son a voodoo doll which breaks, causing The Plucker and his Foulthings to fester in the further parts of the Underbed. Jack is killed in the first attack of the Foulthings. He’s stitched and reborn by Mabelle, Thomas’ nanny. She informs Jack that The Plucker is already working its magic – Thomas has not left his bed in days. It’s Jack’s job to kill The Plucker. If I were to leave it there you’d think it was a quest novel and, in a way, it is but what The Plucker stood out to be, when re-reading, was Jack’s journey of morality. He likes killing the Foulthings – ‘give me more’, he thinks. The question is: what could be left of him?
When I was thirteen I embraced the fairy tale qualities to Brom’s macabre story. Dare I even call it a fairy tale? When I sat down to re-read, for this column, I saw the morality conflicts within Jack’s mind much clearer. He’s going further into black, unsure of his head.
I’ve been doing a lot of re-reading lately – partly for this column but also for other projects that keep me quiet and busy – in doing so I have started thinking about the concept of re-reading or rather the art of it. What, upon re-reading, do we find we missed before? What do we feel? What memories do we have? When looking at a book you’ve read before, opening its cover, feeling the pages, reading the words, creates a memory and you are transported to that moment. Brom is within those moments. Moments of Christmas, of books, of reading.
I remember spending the entire Christmas Day reading The Devil’s Rose. I finished it on Boxing Day and started work on my own version – a reincarnation, you could say, of Brom’s novel. It was bad writing but an experiment I have never shared with anyone else. As a reader, I feel very protective of Brom. As a writer, he, himself, is protective and distant and mysterious. He gives hardly any interviews. The only identification of him is his black and white photo in the back of his books and the mention that he is “kept in a dank cellar somewhere in the drizzly Northwest.”
When I opened The Devil’s Rose again and read the story of Cole, riding through the plains of living and dead, hunting Hell’s fugitives, I found myself seeing Brom as Cole. The lonely rider, surrounded by demons and weirdness and horror. His world, their world. The Devil’s Rose starts with a snake:
‘Beneath a start-speckled sky a blast of scorched wind whipped across the desert scrubland just north of the Rio Grande. The gust kicked up twin devil dusters and sent a low howl echoing off rugged canyon walls. A rattlesnake, which only moments before had been on smell of sulfur, and unfamiliar vibrations. The vibrations built to a rumble, but the rumble was directionless – remote, yet somehow near. Troubled, the snake did what snakes of its breed are bound to do: it curled up and shoot its tail like a mad maraca player.’
I read it for the first time in front of the TV with my family scattered on the sofas and the book, reading. It felt like a trophy, a mark of looking into something other, something twisted yet beautiful, horrific yet inquisitive. I needed that. When I sat in my attic not long ago and read Brom’s words again, I was not only transported to the memories of that day – of the lamp, of the chocolate, of the Christmas tree ablaze – I was reaffirming my admiration for this writer.
I told all of my friends to read The Child Thief, Brom’s re-imagining of Peter Pan. Pan is in Brooklyn, saving Nick from a gang of drug-dealers. He takes him into the mist, into the Neverland, only its nothing like the Neverland we’ve read and loved. This is a world of demons and Peter’s confused past, this is death and murder, fairies and pirates. One of the many themes in Brom’s work is religion and that of murderous villains driven by religion. With The Child Thief we have The Reverend, The Devil’s Rose we have Rath, sacrificing teenagers, cannibal mania.
When I go back to the beginning, I am at The Plucker. I read certain pages – a random order of chapters and character. The minor parts of re-reading, spending a minute or two to remember the feel of a novel, are comforting. A few nights ago I sat down to start re-reading The Child Thief. It was odd and illuminating to see how much of Brom’s novel influenced my own scribbles and stories I submitted for workshops. Illuminating most of all were the palpable memories of ham, crackers and candles, the fireplace, the tinsel and the presents.
What I did before and what I do again is stare for a long time at Brom’s drawings. The Plucker and The Devil’s Rose are illustrated novels – dark splays of paint and madness. Cole riding his dead horse. Jack slaying the Foulthings. I always remember the clown holding a sharp pin. Ziggy was his name. I was always interested in clowns and Brom’s strokes of yellow and red, the Elizabethan neck material, the white on red polka dot bag, the Aladdin slippers was a new demented kind. Brom’s clown, terrifying and victorious, fighting alongside Jack.
Brom’s novels are an easier threshold to fall into when it comes to memory. I look at the jacket cover, I open the book, I see his blacks and reds, I see his world right there. I feel it when I read the words, I remember Christmas and demons and fairies. Re-reading, I latch to the characters again – more so – grappling together Brom’s fantastical ideas. It feels like some sort of hallmark to come to Brom again at Christmas. I’m not a huge fan of over-spending on presents, drinking an excessive amount or arguing with relatives at Christmas. I’m a fan of sitting with my family, reading Brom’s work. Coming back and now reading The Child Thief time seems to have gone quick and it feels cliché but obvious. Time is quick, time keeps moving, time is – as Brom put it – “a breath of coal dust”.
Thomas Stewart's fiction, essays and poems have been featured in The Cadaverine, Ink, Sweat and Tears, The Stockholm Review, Agenda Broadsheet, Flight Journal, The Fat Damsel, Lies, Dreaming, Anomaly, among others. His debut poetry pamphlet, 'Creation' is forthcoming by Red Squirrel Press. He has an MA in Writing from Warwick and a BA in English from South Wales. He enjoys folk music and is afraid of the dark. He can be found on Twitter at ThomasStewart08.