I’m pushed for time this week so here is a quick recommendation for a short book – `The 13 Clocks’ by James Thurber. Thurber is best remembered for his brilliant cartoons and for short humorous pieces like `The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’  but he also wrote several fairy tales. `The 13 Clocks’  first came out in 1951. There is a good 2009 edition with an introduction by Neil Gaiman and illustrations by Marc Simont or, since this is a book that cries out to be read aloud, you could try the audio version performed by the late Edward Woodward.

This is one of the funniest stories I know but it has poignant  and chilling moments too.  On a lonely hill lives a cold  one-eyed Duke who has frozen  all the clocks in Coffin Castle so `It is always Then. It is never Now.’  The only thing that the cruel Duke fears is the Todal  which `makes a sound like rabbits screaming, and smells of old, unopened rooms’. The Duke has abducted a beautiful princess called Saralinda  `who turns November into June’. Many princes come to woo her. Some are killed by the Duke `for using names that start with X, or dropping spoons, or wearing rings, or speaking disrespectfully of sin’. Others are given impossible tasks or sent on hopeless quests. They all fail. Then  Prince Zorn arrives, disguised as a wandering minstrel, and falls in love with Saralinda.  Zorn is offered help by the Golux (the only Golux in the world). The Golux is not the most reliable of advisors as he’s never sure whether he is remembering things or making them up. The Duke sets Zorn the task of fetching him a thousand jewels within ninety-nine hours Then the prince must make the 13 castle clocks strike again. It seems hopeless but the Golux remembers (or makes up) a woman called  Hagga who has the  magical gift of weeping jewels. The trouble is that Hagga has heard every sad story there is and nothing makes her cry anymore…

I’ve been tempting you to read `The 13 Clocks’ by putting in little quotations because Thurber’s  language is the main attraction of this story. The characters are described with precision and panache – the eyes of the Golux `were wide and astonished as if everything was happening for the first time’  and Saralinda `wore serenity brightly like a rainbow’.  The dialogue is full of memorable asides – `I leave at once for other lands, since I have mentioned mittens’ or `and when she turned her rivals into fish, all she ever got was mermaids’.  Thurber coins some marvellous words – the Duke threatens to slit Zorn from `his guggle to his zatch’ and what would a Todal do but gleep? His story-telling is so exuberant that he often breaks into verse. Yet the tone of the story is darker than you might expect. The Golux admits `I’ve saved a score of princes in my time. I cannot save them all’ and the Duke is haunted by the toys of dead children. For my money, the limping Duke of Coffin Castle who tears the wings of nightingales and feeds princes to his geese is the ultimate fantasy villain. Meet him if you dare. I’m about to go to Prague, so until two weeks time…..