"Zod Wallop," by William Browning Spencer. St. Martin's Press. 288 pages. $21.95 You don't have to be twisted to write for children, but it helps. By all reports Lewis Carroll had more than a soft spot for little girls. A. A. Milne appears to have been a weird father, Roald Dahl, a monster.
Harry Gainsborough, the hero of "Zod Wallop," is squarely in the tradition - a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who writes books for kids and suffers a delusionary sense of his own power. The guilt stems from the death of his beloved daughter by drowning, which causes him to lose his heart, his mind, his ability to write and his wife. So severe is his despair, he commits himself to a psychiatric institute, where he falls in with a bunch of whimsical wackos, chief among them Raymond Story, a slavish fan of Harry's own most successful children's book, the eponymous fantasy "Zod Wallop" itself.
If you are allergic to fantasy in its modern degeneration - the abominable dungeons and dragons genre - do not despair, as I almost did when I picked up this novel. Yes, there are mythical beasts here, and occasional hokey diction. But William Browning Spencer is more Ken Keysey than Marian Zimmer Bradley. His plot is planted in the real world, where Harry's ex-wife, his gemutlich New York literary agent and other believable characters stand by to save the recovering author.
The frame story about Harry's grief, guilt and writer's block is a sturdy enough narrative to shore up the wilder goings-on in the alternate world of the psychiatric institute. There, Harry, in a frantic effort to restore little Amy to life, attempts to write. But the book keeps turning into a gruesome mirror of his mind, with unhappy endings for everyone, including all his new friends, who, under the influence of a powerful hallucinogen, actually enter the world of the book.
Indeed, if there's a flaw in the novel, it's that Mr. Spencer occasionally fails to make clear exactly where imagination leaves off and reality begins. A crew of evil scientists and a mind-bending drug seem dei ex machina that creak a bit every time they're lowered on stage. But Mr. Spencer's a strong story teller, with the wit and the skill to bring us back to reality just in time to keep caring about his characters.
At one point in the novel, Harry recalls one of his early artistic failures is a children's book that had been singularly unsuccessful, perhaps because he had tackled a big theme, the nature of evil, and discovered that neither he nor his art had anything happy and certain to say. Happiness and certainty were essential qualities in a successful children's book, he concludes.
Just so, "Zod Wallop" tackles the subject of the loss of a child, an evil perhaps beyond the compass of art. But William Browning Spencer does succeed in making us feel Harry's suffering. In fact, what makes the wacko fantasy work is that we are convinced it is the logical outcome of extreme grief.
Of course Harry's real madness is the delusion that he has caused Amy's death and that his despair can keep her alive. As he comes to acknowledge that his guilt is a form of insanity, he attains some measure of certainty and even happiness. A turn worthy of the most twisted of children's fantasists.
Rebecca Pepper Sinkler, editor of the New York Times Book Review from 1984 to 1995 and before that an editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, is writing a family memoir set in the 1930s.