Imagine The Simpsons crossed with The Addams Family. Now translate that into the Scottish Highlands. That will give you some idea of the atmosphere of the Strega-Borgia Pure Dead books. The writing combines lightweight humour in a faintly magical context and real relationships and human feelings. The vocabulary and style are easy without being trivial.
Such magic as there is is whimsical, such as Nanny Maclachlan’s magic computer or Pandora’s (age 10) misbehaving Disposawand. This is combined with the modern “magic” of computers, to give high-speed travel by email, and virus infestation by rats. The mythical pets – a gryphon, a dragon and a yeti – are all treated matter-of-factly.
There is an amount of fairly earthy humour, including a dragon with an upset stomach, a hitman dressed in a bunny suit who can’t make it to the toilet in time, and numerous references to Baby Damp’s nappies. Pure Dead Wicked has various miniature creatures who go about with no clothes on or wearing kilts with nothing underneath. It’s all the kind of thing which children like to giggle about without anything which is really offensive.
There is a certain amount of cartoon-style violence, including manifest baddies getting killed: various baddies are eaten by one or other of the beasts, and an unscrupulous builder and his girlfriend fall to their deaths having been startled by the sight of the pet gryphon. Then you have Strega-Nonna, the children’s cryogenically preserved ancestor, who lives in the deep freeze and occasionally emerges to see if a cure has been found for old age. In the second book, Titus (age 12) creates some clones, who only live for a week. As they start to die, he begs Pandora to help him put them in the deep freeze.
In Pure Dead Wicked Titus’ mini-clones go unclothed until Titus and Pandora make clothes for them out of socks and handkerchiefs. When they discover some miniature soldiers dressed in kilts, Pan peers underneath to see if they’re wearing anything. In the same story the Strega-Borgias are staying in the local hotel whose owner’s wife tries to chat up Mr. Strega-Borgia, a fact which the whole family resents. She is also carrying on an affair with an estate agent. In the same book, an unscrupulous builder has a girlfriend who is at his house during the evening. None of this is shown in a good light.
In one sense, all the events and scrapes the characters get into and all the magic and technology employed to produce far-fetched plotlines, are no more than the background to the relationships between family members. In Pure Dead Magic, Mr. Strega-Borgia has walked out after a row, and hasn’t come back. His family is desolate and unaware that he’s been kidnapped by the mafia. When he returns, courtesy of Damp & Titus unwittingly conspiring to send the family rats to him by email, there’s no question of any lasting rift. In the same vein, Titus and Pandora are constantly squabbling: she doesn’t like the amount of time he spends on the computer, and he’s teasing her about one thing or another. But when it comes to it, he’s ready to dive into their crocodile-infested moat to save her (although she ends up saving him) and she does everything she can to return him to his senses when he’s obsessed by the thought of a fortune he’ll inherit. Damp just loves the rest of her family.
Tim Golden is a computer programmer living in London. He is also the editor of the Good-to-Read website.