Sunday, May 3, 2009

Ugly-Wuglies - comic relief or scary beyond all reason?

This is almost shameful to admit, but I just read E. Nesbit's The Enchanted Castle for the first time! As an obsessive fantasy reader from childhood on, I just assumed I must have read it early on (I did read The Five Children and It and The Phoenix and the Carpet).

The Enchanted Castle was published in 1907, more than 100 years ago, and yet it feels as fresh as any recent novel. The children bicker and then make up; they lose their tempers and then regret it; they are occasionally unkind but mostly want to do the right thing. Gerald is a particularly vivid character. It would have been easy for him, as the oldest boy, to simply be bossy, officious, and upright - and he can be bossy, but only a bit. He has a way with adults, particularly the ladies (man, will he be a charmer one day), and has the annoying (to his siblings) yet entertaining (to us) habit of refering to himself in the first person, as if reading aloud from a book of heroic adventures. "Our hero, who nothing could dismay, raised the faltering hopes of his abject minions by saying that he ws jolly well going on, and they could do as they liked about it." It's endearing because it prevents him from being the stuff mini-English Gentleman that he could very easily have been.

I was most fascinated by the Ugly-Wuglies, those creatures created out of coats and hangers and pillows and blankets and broom handles and hockey sticks and gloves to fill out the seats for the children's home theatrical performance. They come alive accidentally due to an unwise wish, and scare the dickens out of everyone when they start applauding at the end.

It's horrible when these scarecrow-like figures get up and stump down the hall on their odd and unwield legs but worse yet when one of them tries to talk. A long string of vowels comes out of its painted-mouth, vivid against its white pillow-case face, and it says the same thing over and over - Aa oo re o me me oo a oo ho el?" until finally Gerald understands. And what horror did this Ugly-Wugly utter?

"Can you recommend me to a good hotel?"

The absurdity of this banal question, coming as it does from an unnatural animated assemblage of household objects, is wonderfully funny. And yet, it's rather awful, too. Mostly funny, though, especially as all the Ugly-Wuglies seem to have come to life as rather respectable, staid, middle-class townspeople who have just seen a theatrical performance and now want to know why the carriages they had called for haven't come. As all the Ugly-Wuglies become rather restless and start demanding a hotel, Gerald outdoes himself in placating and reasoning with them, finally leading them all the way to the enchanted castle and locking them into a tunnel on the grounds.

What is horrible about the Ugly-Wuglies is their unnaturalness. They do seem like respectable people in a somewhat confusing situation (look at it from their point of view - they've suddenly come to life, having just existed as a bunch of inanimate objects before now, and the only thing they're certain of is that something isn't quite right), but they surely might be capable of anything. Gerald, wearing the magic ring that keeps him from being absolutely terrified, tries to reassure the other kids. "It is such fun! They're just like real people, quite kind and jolly. It's the most ripping lark."

The others aren't convinced, and yet the brave Mabel accompanies Gerald and the Ugly-Wuglies down the dark streets and all the way to the castle, with the Ugly-Wuglies making horrible clanking and chunking noises with their odd feetless limbs on the pavement and their shadows looking absolutely grisly. It's a long, impossible nightmare for Mabel, and it only gets worse when the Ugly-Wuglies realize something is fishy at the last moment and prevent Gerald and Mabel from closing the door on them.

"Through the chink of [the door] they could be seen, a writhing black crowd against the light of the bicycle lamp; a padded hand reached round the door; stick-boned arms stretched out angrily towards the world that that door, if it closed, would shut them off from forever. And the tone of their consonantless speech was no longer conciliator and ordinary; it was threatening, full of the menace of unbearable horrors."

Stephen King couldn't write that scene better, and it's made all the worse by the fact that minutes earlier, the rose-wreathed lady Ugly-Wugly had taken Mabel by the arm and said "'You dear, clever little thing! Do walk with me!' in a gushing, girlish way, and in speech almost wholly lacking in consonants." The banality of evil indeed, or perhaps in this case it's more like the horror of banality.

The Ugly-Wuglies do turn violent later on, or at least one of them does, and another becomes (or has always been, in that strange way of magic) a very respected stock broker, even as the others turn back into heaps of clothing, bedding, and sports equipment. The whole thing is scary and unnerving, but also very funny in its sheer oddness. We may be laughing nervously, but we're laughing nevertheless.

I haven't found quite that level of horror in any other lighthearted fantasy novel, although of course high fantasy or good-vs-evil, light-vs-dark fantasy has its terrifying moments (barrow wights in particular always reduced me to a quivering ball of fear). Nesbit has managed to create a long and riveting scene which so meshes elements of comedy and terror that it is impossible to separate the two - a damned good trick. Wish I'd read The Enchanted Castle when I was a child, but better late than never where masterpieces are concerned.


  1. I know exactly what you mean about the Ugly-Wuglies!

    And of course this one also has the terrifying statuary...

    It is one of my favorite Nesbits.

  2. I am laughing nervously already. It sounds like I would start looking at inanimate objects suspiciously if I were to read this book. Eeeps. Hahaha.

  3. I swear my broom has been giving me the hairy eyeball lately...

  4. Ugly-Wuglies—a parody of Victorian propriety.

  5. Even reading your review made my neck prickle. Wonderful writing!

  6. This book was adapted for British children's television back in 1979, when I was five years old. I'm afraid the ugly wuglies quite traumatised me as a child, and I fear I had to skip over your description of shutting them in the tunnel the first time I tried to read it, as it would appear I still find them scary now - aged 38!

  7. I'm with Charlotte. I read the book as a child and found them a bit scary then, but then my brother and I saw the TV adaptation and they terrified us. We still just have to say 'Ugly-Wuglies' and both are scared silly for the rest of the day. I'm now 40...!

    A truly superb piece of writing!

  8. I remember the ugly wugglies from when I was a very young child... Oh, happy days!

  9. I just watched an episode of the BBC TV adaptation online, and the children's acting was pretty wooden. However, it reminded me of the three reasons I loved it as a boy - the story (charming but unnerving), the theme tune... and Georgia Slowe (who plays Mabel).