I: Once Upon a Time…

When I was about eight, my mother was hospitalized a couple times for kidney trouble. My dad would take me and my sister (who was about six) to visit Mom in the hospital. She had tubes coming out of her that I didn’t understand, and the doctors had given her a scratchy blue robe and slippers to wear. I know there was at least one surgery involved, and I suspect there must have been a second. I remember one day in the waiting room with my aunt, watching her work on her cross-stitching while I pawed through her plastic box of embroidery floss, rearranging the skeins according to some instinctual color scheme.

I remember another day when Dad, my sister and I were the only ones in the waiting room, so we were able to spread out. I took my calligraphy kit across the room to where a chair gleamed in a shaft of sunlight. I sat down on the floor and used the seat of the bright-lit chair as a table, where I read through the pamphlet in my calligraphy kit and learned the difference between italic and Gothic writing styles. I liked the Gothic-style alphabet better; it was more mysterious, full of extra strokes that made towers, chess pieces, and inscrutable knots out of the letters I’d been so friendly with for years.

I also learned fractions during that period. They were coming up in school anyway, and I was nervous about learning them, so I asked Dad to teach me. He explained what they represented and how to understand them, and then showed me how to add and subtract them. (He saved multiplying for my mom to explain from her hospital bed.)

The strongest memory I have of that time, though, is of a library book Mom read to my sister and me when we would visit her in the evenings: Dean Koontz’s Oddkins. I’m pretty sure my sister and I picked it because of the beautiful illustrations. The cover calls it “a fable for all ages,” but that’s really not true—I just found it again at the library, and rereading it, I have to say it has some wicked flaws that would never get by an astute adult reader.

II: …A Terrible Book Was Written…

The book opens with a kindly old magic toy-maker, who makes stuffed animals that magically live (called Oddkins) and magically find themselves delivered to children who desperately need special friends. As the children escape their awful circumstances, the life fades out of the toys. The kindly old magic toy-maker is very ill, and before he’s able to get his whole household in order, he drops dead. It’s up to a small group of Oddkins to trek across town and find the kindly new magic toy-maker. Unfortunately for them, the death of the kindly old magic toy-maker has released from their decades-long coma a group of evil toys made by his predecessor and crated up in the secret subcellar (against the day they might return to their tasks of pinching and burning and stabbing children, it seems, although that’s never very clear; probably a mercy, come to think of it). A lingering aura of goodness from the kindly old magic toy-maker prevents the evil toys from conquering the workshop, so they strike out after the Oddkins to kill them before they reach the kindly new magic toy-maker. If their candidate for evil magic toy-maker (a man just released from prison) gets to the workshop first, he’ll get to take over, and it will again be an evil magic toy shop as it apparently was up until the Nazis were defeated. (I wish I were kidding.) Then there’s a climactic battle in a department store after hours, the evil toys are destroyed, the candidate for evil magic toy-maker goes back to prison on rather general grounds (“We’ve had some unsolved crimes around here. You’ll do!”), and the kindly new magic toy-maker assumes her responsibilities and explains to the Oddkins what happens to them when their useful lives are over.

III: …Containing Some Terrible Religious Ideas…

I’ll get to that explanation, because it’s part of what’s badly wrong with this book: the theology. It’s seriously confused, y’all. The kindly old magic toy-maker has drummed into the Oddkins’ heads a bunch of teachings that are supposed to pass for normal Christianity. The Oddkins have a strong idea of Heaven as a place of reward, for example, and in fact, when a runaway dog threatens their expeditionary party, the toy dog in the story admonishes him that he might not be good enough for Heaven:

“Ashamed? I should think so. If you have any hope of redeeming yourself and one day bringing credit to your loving mother, I’d advise you to put your tail between your legs right now, slink home, lick the hand of your master, and do what you’re told from now on. In time there might even be a place in the pastures of Heaven for you, though right now I think you’re destined to spend eternity running on sore and bleeding feet through a much hotter place than Heaven.”

Nevermind the incongruity of rewarding a domesticated dog with an eternity of life in a pasture—she’s telling him he’ll go to Hell and be given wounds that will never heal because he’s run away from home and snapped at a little troop of living stuffed animals. His only other option is abject self-mortification and total obedience. Clearly this is a children’s story.

There’s a weird, lopsided focus on Hell and the Devil in this book, too. The head evil toy (a marionette with a sword-cane and no strings) and the candidate for evil magic toy-maker are guided by catoptric visitations and telepathic instructions from the Devil himself; when the head evil toy fails, a tide of sewer rats comes to carry him to the Devil’s side, where he will sit forever with strings and without the power of independent movement, as a sign of the eternal punishments in store for failed Satanic minions.

Mentions of God, though, are scarce. One comes when the Oddkins pass through a zoo on their way through the center of town. The stuffed elephant sees a real elephant, then there’s some “inspirational” chatter among the Oddkins about why people need magic like living stuffed animals when they have the inherent magic of God’s creation around them every day. Or something. I might have been napping.

The weirdest bit of theology in the book is the kindly new magic toy-maker’s explanation of what happens to an Oddkin when it dies: It’s reborn as a flesh-and-blood animal of the same kind. (The oldest Oddkin, who is a stuffed version of some indistinct, extinct beast, gets to choose his reincarnated body from among all the species on earth. So that’s some consolation for the loss of species diversity, at least: free choice in reincarnation.) When the live body dies, the Oddkin’s spirit is taken to Heaven, where it will stay by the side of God—because God loves toys. I swear that’s in the book.

It’s so strange: The main goal of the book is evidently to be a religious fable, which is fine. But the instructional elements grow fuzzier when the chosen plot requires some theological invention. As general character-building inspiration—the way children’s entertainment often strives to inculcate relatively uncontroversial values, such as kindness, curiosity, reading, etc.—it’s not all that bad, but the religious trappings are deeply odd, because there’s no branch of Christianity I know of that has room in its beliefs for living stuffed animals.

IV: …Compounded by Terrible Construction.

I think I’ve pinpointed the source of the troubling theology, and what’s interesting is that it seems to be a result of some questionable artistic choices—that is, Koontz’s (primarily structural) missteps lead him into a world where he can’t stick to any recognizable version of Christianity, but he doesn’t appear to recognize that fact. On the face of it, it should be a great allegory: The maker creates beings out of everyday stuff and animates them to lead lives of goodness and service to others, and they face difficulties in their pursuit of spiritual fulfillment. I can imagine something at least somewhat interesting being made out of that setup.

But a “properly” Christian story can’t have two Creators, so the toy-maker has to be a mere human (with powers that are never explained, probably because they can’t be). Suddenly the allegorical element is drained from the story, and it tries instead to be straightforwardlier didactic about living in proper reverence of God. It turns into a kind of religious realist story that is direly at odds with the fabulism inherent in a tale about walking, talking stuffed animals.

And there’s the problem. The cover calls Oddkins a fable, which explains the living toys, who can easily stand in for human beings in a non-literal story. But when that story also contains actual human beings, the toys can’t be metaphors anymore. What’s an author to do with them, then? Well, a clear-sighted author would choose to write either a religious fable about stuffed animals or a more literal book in which human characters explain to other characters how they should relate to God. But when an author can’t (or doesn’t) decide between the two, the result is a book that invents whole subfields of theology dealing with the relationship between God and animated toys, and tries to pass that off as standard doctrine, and then nobody wins. Especially not the reader.

V: The End

Further to That

Because here in the Empiricum we like facts and information, and I left all of that out this morning: Take it away, Gray Lady.