Am I the only one who loves to read books that inspired authors I admire? Because every time I hear one of my favorite authors gush about a book, I immediately need to have/read it. Case in point: I went to an event with David Mitchell where he claimed that Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse contained the best bit of imagery he’d ever read. I’m pretty sure I ordered To the Lighthouse the very next day. And the fact that Red Rising by Pierce Brown began with him contemplating Antigone made me immediately dig through my old high school books to find and reread Sophocles’s play. Naturally, when Neil Gaiman touts a book as “the best book in the world,” that is literally all I need to know before reading it. Such is the case with James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks.
As Gaiman puts it, “The 13 Clocks isn’t really a fairy tale, just as it isn’t really a ghost story. But it feels like a fairy tale, and it takes place in a fairy tale world.” It really does feel like a fairy tale, so I’m going to go ahead and call it one. And, since I really like the fact that the synopsis on the back of the book is really just the beginning (and I don’t want to give anything away in such a short book), that’s what I’m going to give you:
Once upon a time, in a gloomy castle on a lonely hill, where there were thirteen clocks that wouldn’t go, there lived a cold, aggressive Duke, and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. She was warm in every wind and weather, but he was always cold. His hands were cold as his smile and almost as cold as his heart. He wore gloves when he was asleep, and he wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.
I have actually read James Thurber before – my favorite English teacher in high school assigned Thurber’s autobiography, My Life and Hard Times – and I really enjoy his writing (he also wrote The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, in case you were wondering where you’d heard his name). So I was definitely curious to read some of his fiction, particularly his children’s fiction. The 13 Clocks was completely original and fun, but still managed to somehow remind me of some of my childhood favorites, like The Phantom Tollbooth (which I was actually published eleven years later, so perhaps Juster was influenced by Thurber). I kind of wish I’d read this as a child, because it definitely would have been one of my favorites. Although I definitely still appreciated it as an adult.
The castle and the Duke grew colder, and Saralinda, as a princess will, even in a place where time lies frozen, became a little older, but only a little older.
One of my favorite parts of reading this book is seeing how significantly it influenced Gaiman’s own writing. His books are some of my favorites, and, within pages of The 13 Clocks, I realized that Gaiman’s style – which I greatly admire – was heavily influenced by this book. In his introduction, Gaiman says that he read The 13 Clocks when he was about eight, and, after reading it, I didn’t need to be told that it was one of his favorite books. It was incredibly interesting to be able to actually see how elements of Thurber’s book got filtered through Gaiman’s mind and into books like Stardust and Neverwhere. If I’m being completely honest, that’s one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much.
The 13 Clocks is definitely a classic – albeit lesser-known – children’s book. I really enjoyed it, and would definitely suggest it for fans of The Phantom Tollbooth, or more obscure fairy tales like The Twelve Dancing Princesses (my personal favorite). It was definitely a fun, modern(ish) fairy tale, and a book I think should get much more attention.
If you’ve read any of Thurber’s books, I would love to hear your thoughts!