Monday, April 11, 2016

Count Karlstein

Count Karlstein
by Philip Pullman
Recommended Ages: 11+

In one of his earliest novels for children, the acclaimed author of the "His Dark Materials" series, the Sally Lockhart quartet, and (my personal favorite) The Scarecrow and His Servant marshals the testimony of several different narrators to tell a darkly humorous tale of gothic horror, set a long time ago in a Swiss village. Orphaned sisters Lucy and Charlotte have been handed over to the custody of their nearest relative, a fidgety, unpleasant fellow named Count Karlstein, lord of the castle overlooking the village. A serving girl named Hildi stumbles on the knowledge that the count intends to sacrifice the girls to Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman, when next he rides by his lordship's hunting lodge.

The rest of the book recounts the girls' attempt to escape, the count's attempt to get them back, and the confusion that surrounds a shooting contest, a jailbreak, simultaneous visits by a notorious swindler and a tough-minded girls' schoolmistress, and a romantic reunion between their personal servants. It features incompetent policemen, a put-upon landlady, a sniveling stooge, and a cheerfully lifelike wig-stand that comes to be called Herr Woodenkopf. It ends with the discovery of a lost heir, a hilarious scene in which a heroic rogue wins his freedom, and a disturbingly gruesome but well-deserved end for the title character.

I admire almost everything Pullman has written, insofar as I have read it, though not all of it has given me pleasure. He is a writer who pulls no punches. His Sally Lockhart series, for example, plunges so deeply into its heroine's sufferings that I decided to take a break from reading the third novel - and that was about three years ago. One of these days, when I feel ready to take the punishment, I will return to it. He makes you feel for his characters that deeply, even in his lighter works. That's why I like The Scarecrow and His Servant so much; I think it hits the perfect balance between pathos and levity, light and dark. This story comes close to that ideal. Yet even if, for just a moment, it seems just a little too frivolous, that won't stop the count's fate from giving you shivers for a long time after you close the book.

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