What is it?
The Book of Lost Things is a novel written by John Conolly in 2006. It is a coming of age, isekai, fractured fairy tale soup of batshit horror where huntresses decapitate children and magically bind their heads onto animals to make interesting sport, creepy old men convince children to sell him their siblings' souls, werewolves come from wolf-on-lady not-always-consensual action, and also sometimes your stepmom can be rude.
You know, for kids!
What's it About?
David is a young boy living in England during World War Two. Despite this, the matters of the war don't seem to directly affect his life, save for the fact that his father does "something with codes" for the government. Instead, David's more pressing concern is for his mother, who suffers and eventually succumbs to her terminal illness despite David's routines to try and keep her alive.
Matters only worsen when David's father courts, and then marries, Rose, the head of the hospice where David's mother had been, bringing into the world shortly after David's new half-brother Georgie. David soon starts experiencing seizures when under stress, and he begins to hear his mother's books-- the things both he and she loved dearly-- speaking to him from their shelves. When David and his father move into Rose's family estate, he learns of the mysterious disappearance of Rose's uncle, a child at the time, and a little girl the family had taken in.
Unfortunately, David resents Georgie and Rose for taking his fathers attention and for trying to replace his mother. As time passes and the books, as well as David's resentment, grow louder, a monster from the next world over, The Crooked Man hears him. David is taken into a fairy-tale land filled with nightmares and monsters-- beings unnatural even to the people who live there. His only hope is to find the mysterious King of the land, waning in power, but who is said to have a powerful book, a Book of Lost Things that can help David return home. Pursuing him are ambitious wolfmen intent on overthrowing the king, evil hunters, cursed monsters, and the malevolent Crooked Man.
I love this book in a bittersweet, nostalgic way.
I first read it in high school and while over the years I forgot nearly everything that had happened, there were some moments that stuck with me.
I remembered David's routines. This is the first book that I can remember reading what is very clearly OCD-- down to the element that pop culture often neglects: the fear that if you don't do these routines, something bad will happen. When I would later learn was OCD was and what it was called, and how it actually worked, I would remember David and his routines and think, "Oh yeah, like that."
I remembered the story of the Crooked Man feeding some greedy lord his weight in molten gold, specifically the part where it briefly mentions the Crooked Man kept him alive longer than natural by use of magic and skill, but then kept on filling him with gold, even after he had died. Upon my reread, I was surprised to find that detail was only a throwaway sentence; I remembered it being so much more gruesome in my head.
It's weird reading back and noticing all the references to sex and rape, even through the euphemisms. I don't remember noticing them, so I have to assume 16 year old Zeph was just oblivious to that sort of thing.
I like the way the book uses David's knowledge of stories, but also turns it on its head.
David is fairly genre savvy, having read so many fantasy stories with his mother, and so he knows generally the shape of the world he's in, but because this place is so batshit bonkers and terrible, he also can't avoid danger.
For instance, when he and one of his protectors are fleeing a pack of wolf-monsters, they come across two troll bridges with the old "one guard tells the truth, one tells lies" riddle. David figures it out quickly-- he'd seen it before-- but on the way, they're attacked by harpies. The Woodsman and trolls alike are unprepared for this; they have no idea what the harpies are, as they are yet another new monstrosity to the world. David recognizes them from his mother's Greek Mythology books and thinks to himself that they're not supposed to be in this kind of story.
In fact, upon rereading it, the appearance of the harpies is actually a piece of foreshadowing about the nature of the world and how it changes based on the nightmares and imaginations of the people who enter it (something not really revealed until the later half of the book).
This story plays very hard into the fractured fairy tale genre.
And sometimes the author clearly wanted to tell more than one version and so incorporated them both into the story. For instance, we hear two equally awful versions of the Little Red Riding Hood story in this; the first is in a book given to David by Rose (a book left behind by the mysterious Jonathon Tulvey, Rose's uncle who vanished as a child). In that story, the Huntsmen kills the wolf, but then kidnaps Red to be his wife, and their sons are sent out to slaughter men they meet in the forest and bring back women for their father to have. In the fairy tale world, David encounters Leroi and the Loups, wolfmen creatures who were born when Red Riding Hood went out, stalked a wolf, and mated with it. When her resultant offspring wanted mates for themselves, she went out and tricked other women into coming into the woods, where they were abducted and forced to bear children (most of them), by whom which they were later devoured because there's also a famine going around in Fairy-Tale land.
Reading the story now, it's interesting to see all the allusions and references I didn't get as a kid.
On the comedic relief side of things, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs are here, but Snow White is a selfish monster the Dwarfs have to care for, and the Dwarfs themselves are obsessed with communism and overthrowing the bourgeois-- despite the fact that the only person oppressing them is Snow White.
In the beginning of the book, David reads an unnamed poem about a knight, called a "childe" who goes to a tower, and how the poem doesn't seem to end properly. Later, he meets a knight (who insists on being called a soldier) named Roland, who is heading to the tower of an enchantress in order to find his lover, who had himself gone to the tower to fight the evil within. This is all clearly an homage to the ballad Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came (probably best known today for inspiring Stephen King's Dark Tower series).
There are plenty of moments like that; things that completely flew over my head as a kid and took for granted that turned out to be related to some other work I hadn't heard of yet. These moments made the reread particularly refreshing, as well as made me wonder what, exactly, 16 year old Zeph thought of it all.
This book reminds me of media I've consumed since then and loved.
It's strange to say out loud, but even though I didn't remember much of the specifics of this book, I can see the seed of love in the story that grew into me liking other media like it. This reminds me a lot of Over the Garden Wall-- kids in a strange land with a monster trying to get one to betray the other so that it may feed of the sacrificed child's life. It reminds me of Labyrinth. Hell, it even reminds me of The Dark Tower, despite that one being very different. Maybe it's because they both give me the same feelings.