Are you the “cool” aunt/uncle/friend who wants to bless the wee ones in your life with a high quality but “edgy” holiday gift, one that may cause nightmares (that you don’t have to deal with, ha!), but that’s just sincere enough their parents can’t openly resent you? Then I heartily recommend The Gobblings, a haunting book “for children” about a lonely boy who lives on a space station and the metal-munching monsters he must defeat.
The Gobblings brings fans of off-kilter kid lit another alluringly macabre collaboration between hip Hasidic writer/slam poet/video game designer Matthue Roth and Rohan Daniel Eason, a British master of arrestingly creepy illustrations purportedly meant for children. The pair delighted cool aunts everywhere (i.e., me) with My First Kafka, which comes with Blossom’s hearty seal of approval, and about which one Amazon reviewer hilariously complained, “I had to hide it under the couch after the Christmas festivities.” (Coincidentally, that’s where Gregor Samsa would stash himself so as not to traumatize his family with his gruesome appearance.)
As they did with My First Kafka, Roth and Eason work together to create something that should be too morbid for children, but somehow remains just gentle enough to be appropriate. The intricate black-and-white art in Eason’s Kafka adaptation managed to make Gregor Samsa appear both snazzy and delicate in his gruesomely transformed condition. With The Gobblings Eason works in full color, but in a deep, dark palette of blues and purples that evokes both the endlessness and austerity of outer space—a winking, muted, Nietzschean abyss.
Our protagonist Herbie, left to stare at the “same boring expanse of stars,” space-home-schools himself by building his own robot friends. And he has enough time on his hands to gaze into that abyss—noticing pretty quickly that it’s gazing back, with the eyes of innumerable serpentine monsters. These are the Gobblings, “space pests,” like “ants or mosquitoes” who have a taste for machinery. “Their favorite thing to eat,” Roth writes, “as tasty and joyous as a birthday dinner, was a space station.” Uh-oh. And sure enough, true to the trope of young people’s fiction, Herbie is left to his own devices to save the day (or, technically, the endless expanse of night).
What makes this book even more delightful for adults is Roth’s prose, which sustains a sparse, children’s-book style that is simultaneously austere and cheeky. This is what made him such a fantastic adaptor of Franz Kafka’s work. This time he’s on his own with an original story, and the monster-battling arc of that story—as well as its focus on the hunger for gadgets—allows him to draw on his day job as a video game designer (and also to apply gentle self-criticism). The spectacularly talented Eason, meanwhile, again uses his trademark technique of geometric pattern repetition to make the monsters look elaborate and graceful—haunting, but not scary (or, at any rate, a far cry from Babadook-scary).
Will your child-having friends love you for giving them a stunningly illustrated book that is more intellectually nuanced than the usual bunny-patting and caterpillar-feeding? Or will they resent you for giving their progeny bad dreams? Who knows. But I say go for it! The worst-case scenario is that you steal the book back from under the couch and keep it for yourself.