The Wooden Heads
written by C.L.Hales
Illustrated by E.S.Farmer
from CHATTERBOX 1924
London: Wells Gardner, Darton and Co, 1926
the first book edition
"Father, the streets are empty!"
There was much pulp literature around 1920 that used the threat or promise of the Fourth Dimension as a context for excitement and adventure. Many years ago I hacked this story out of an otherwise moribund volume of Chatterbox.
The Wooden Heads themselves were appealing with their slow, bumbling threats to mankind, a sort of bloodless jolly version of the Zombie but with as much liveliness as a skittle but closest to Dolls in contemporary eyes . Hales's dull leaden prose and clunking plot lines were much to my taste, and felt like an English equivalent of the Magritte still lives of the period. Farmer's illustrations are capable and cautious, and use clear stereotypes rather than visualising things afresh. Farmer's style is the more appropriate for the depiction of the end of Civilisation as we know it, not with a panache but with a lifeless hatching that subdues the eye.
I have assembled some of the illustrations in a small gallery if you need persuading. The children struggling with the disembodied tail of the dog caught between dimensions is a small miracle of drawing.
Much of the tension comes from the narrative device of having the children advance forth regularly on a deserted and mysterious world as if to sustain their regular way of life and indeed their school grades. One boy reminds the other that their father was paying for a good private education. Their mother, seemingly imprisoned within her four walls, alternates between baking and frowning, under the sway of an imperturbable and unimaginative husband. The pacing of the narrative is impressive, a slow acceleration of threat and menace. London is surrounded by an impenetrable fog outside which the Country Folk can only wring their hands at the fate of the Metropolitans. The season is late autumn, between September and October and the story extends for months into the next year. With the dispoatch of the Wooden Heads, the citizenry returns, oblivious to the months they spent in limbo. The Wooden Heads remain a mystery to the end. There is no attempt to locate their origins or purpose.They have bright small but shifty eyes and die an unpleasant death.
The author goes to great lengths to demonstrate how this respectable family maintains its lawful conduct in a City where all restraints are removed. Nothing is taken. Everything is paid for, with coins left on shelves or piled beside the till. In the early stages, the family is even polite but firm towards the Wooden Heads. When the Father is finally roused to the danger the aliens present to his family, his language is that of a strict but fair middle class male trying to put his foot down.
The extended coda to the story with reflections on the nature of media and the demands of fame is overwritten but perhaps necessary to complete the contractual length of the story.