The creepy kids of Ransom Riggs
The author repurposes vintage photos for his young adult series
IN the dark suburban forests of young adult novels — peopled by jockish werewolves, vampire vixens, and scores of lumbering zombies — it takes something unusual to stand out. Enter Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Quirk Books). The 2011 debut young-adult novel by Ransom Riggs ditched the supernatural for the late Victorian, spinning a gothic yarn out of actual vintage 19th-century photographs of children, reproduced in the book in all their exquisite, stone-faced surrealism. Among the four dozen vintage images included in the book (and featured as part of the plot) are a boy covered in bees, ghostly kids parading around in ribbons and white pancake makeup, and a child crouched upon a bomb. It’s a collection of beautiful grotesques whose aesthetic is pitched somewhere between Diane Arbus and Tim Burton, who has been tapped to make the film version of the book, scheduled to be released next year.
“I happen to collect the weird stuff — photos that make the hair on the back of your neck stand up a little. The uncanny,” wrote the author in a 2011 column for The Huffington Post. “I don’t mean circus freaks and kids in Halloween costumes, either. I mean photos that seem wrong in a way that’s hard to put your finger on, so unusual they make you look at them a second and then a third time, then reward you with uneasy dreams. The kind of photos that seem to stare at you from across a room.”
Riggs said when he was a kid growing up in smalltown Florida, he first started crate-digging through old snapshots while tagging along with his grandmother at swap meets. It was a habit he resumed while a film grad student at the University of Southern California in the late 2000s, finding affordable art in these haunting discarded images. Riggs has told reporters the novel began as a Halloween children’s picture book, to be built around rhyming couplets and the strangely entrancing curio of vintage snapshots the writer had amassed over the years. His publisher at Quirk Books told him the photos were far too enticing, and perhaps a tad too morbid, for such a project. Instead, he urged him to think on a grander scale and craft a novel-length narrative. The resulting debut spent most of 2012 on the New York Times bestseller list for children’s chapter books.
Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children follows teenage Jacob as he journeys from his home in coastal Florida to a small island in Wales after his grandfather is murdered by what appears to be some sort of tentacle-mouthed monster. Jacob is devastated. Since he was a young child, he’s been fascinated by his grandfather’s tales and macabre photos from his upbringing on a remote Welsh island, where his grandfather claimed that “peculiar children” lived — boys and girls who could fly, levitate, and make themselves invisible. Sometimes their abilities were less supernatural than downright strange. One photo that appears early in the book, of a boy who has a detailed clown face painted on the back of his shaved head, is captioned, “Oliver Wattle had two ways to snack/one on the front and one in the back.”
On his trip to Wales, Jacob discovers the ramshackle orphanage where his grandfather was raised. He meets Emma, a pretty young girl who has the gift of controlling fire. She takes Jacob on a time-traveling trip to meet Miss Peregrine, who oversees this strange orphanage from her residence in a “time loop.” But some of the children are being targeted for murder by invisible beings, “hollowgasts,” the same monsters that killed Jacob’s grandfather. In the sort of plot turn the reader comes to expect from such tales, Jacob learns he can see these otherwise-invisible creatures, which brands him a “peculiar” as well.
After Jacob uses his talents to kill one of the hollowgasts, Miss Peregrine is kidnapped in retaliation. To survive, she transforms into a bird, a state from which she cannot turn back. As a result, the time loop in which these peculiar children dwell collapses, forcing them to scatter and find a new home in a less understanding world. It’s the sort of conclusion that sets up Jacob and his author-creator for a spate of sequels.