Tim Burton has always kept himself enough in the shadows of public scrutiny, avoiding the limelight like a bashful vampire, to remain a genuinely enigmatic figure in the world of entertainment. As the director and/or creator of some of the most unusually stylized films of the last decade or so -- "Edward Scissorhands," "Beetlejuice," and the original "Batman," to name a few -- he is the quintessential cult auteur. Now he's produced his first work of fiction. "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy & Other Stories", a collection of delectably macabre little tales in verse with accompanying drawings, is funny, sad, and as you would expect, more than a little bit twisted.
For the protagonists of these stories, Burton has spawned an array of fantastically misbegotten, partly human children, each one tragic and sweet, gruesome and heroic in his own way. Like Edward Scissorhands, who so gracefully and eerily embodied the tragedy of misunderstood youth, these poor little misfits appeal to the awkward, anxiety-ridden outsider in all of us. Take Voodoo Girl, for instance, whose plight is a sad one:
Her skin is white cloth, and she's all sewn apart and she has many colored pins sticking out of her heart. She has a beautiful set of hypno-disk eyes the ones that she uses to hypnotize guys.
The accompanying illustration is of a "Nightmare Before Christmas"-esque voodoo doll impaled all over by pins, with blazing eyes and red lipstick. It's both revolting and comical. And though as the story goes on, Voodoo Girl can woo all the boys she wants, the end has anunhappy and metaphor-laden twist:
But she knows she has a curse on her, a curse she cannot win. For if someone gets too close to her, the pins stick farther in.
There's also Roy, the Toxic Boy, mortally allergic to fresh air (his favorite toy is a can of aerosol spray); Mummy Boy (with his mummy dog), mistaken at a birthday party for a piñata; and a host of others. They could easily be Edward's mutant little brothers and sisters, and though they're horrible, they're also silly and sympathetic.
One of the great things about watching Burton's films is that they are so visually striking and atmospherically unusual that they give you the distinct sense that you're seeing things through the eyes of someone with a thoroughly unique perspective. He has a knack for re-creating the world as something that reflects whatever story he's telling. "The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy" has a similar effect. It's a sparse, smallish black hardcover that looks disquietingly like someone's diary. This is somehow appropriate, because the delicate drawings and poems inside seem extremely personal. To open the book is to step into a strange fantasy land. It's very much the same experience as watching one of Burton's movies.
Like all of Burton's creations, these stories are wildly original; they're also pretty grotesque -- several of them enough so as to be truly unsettling (the climax of the title story is one of the most outrageous and hideous things ever to happen in a cartoon). It might take a rarefied (some would say warped) sense of humor to appreciate it, but this is brilliantly dark storytelling in a simple, uncluttered form. If you liked any of Tim Burton's movies, you'll like this book. It's guaranteed to make you smirk and cringe.--Olli Chanoff