The Wooden Heads

From a series of newsgroup posts dated July 14, 2008:

My mother’s parents were British. They wound up on this side of the Atlantic by accident when a series of flukes stranded my grandfather in Halifax, and they wound up in the U.S. when Halifax Harbor blew up and the closest place Grandpa could find work in his field (he was, at that point, a naval architect) was Baltimore. They did not come to America seeking a new life. They had no objection to anything in Britain. They only got here more or less by mistake, and would happily have gone back if circumstances had made it practical.

My mother therefore had a rather Anglophilic upbringing. Part of this — well, when she was a little girl in Chester, my grandmother loved a British children’s magazine called Chatterbox. Chatterbox was a monthly, and ran serialized stories, as well as a lot of other stuff, and always concluded every serial in the December issue. They would then take the original printing plates for all twelve issues and print a collected Chatterbox Annual, which was simply the twelve issues put together in hardcover. The Annuals made great Christmas presents for British kids.1925 Chatterbox Annual

And when they had finished printing the British annuals, the publisher shipped the printing plates to Boston, where an American publisher printed a U.S. edition of the Chatterbox Annual. I think it appeared one year after the British edition, rather than simultaneously.

When my grandmother discovered that the American edition existed, it became inflexibly ordained that my mother would receive the Chatterbox Annual every Christmas, starting at age two and continuing as long as they could be found.

Mother liked Chatterbox a lot, despite it being thoroughly British and a bit stodgy, and saved all those Annuals, and when she had her own kids we all got to read them. I liked them a lot. In particular, I liked some of the serials from the early 1920s — “Bushranger’s Gold,” “The Dim Red Dawn,” “Dragons At Home,” etc.

I sometimes wonder whether more people read these stories than is generally known. To me, Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear looks a lot like “The Dim Red Dawn” with added sex and a lot more verbiage. Some of the ads for the movie “Night At the Museum” look like scenes from the last part of “Dragons At Home.”

“Bushranger’s Gold” (to name the example I best remember; there were others) starts out as a boarding-school story before sending the protagonist brothers off to adventure in the Australian Outback, so the school scenes in Harry Potter felt very familiar to me.

Nothing, however, looks like “The Wooden Heads,” my favorite Chatterbox story of all.

People sometimes ask me what the major influences on my writing are, and I usually cite several stories, but the fact is, the single work with the greatest influence was “The Wooden Heads.” It warped me for life.

The author’s name was C.L. Hales; as far as I’ve been able to determine, he only ever published two works under that name, “The Wooden Heads” circa 1924, and more than a decade later something I’ve never seen called, if I remember correctly, “Bats in the Belfry.” (Note, 2017: I have since acquired and read a copy of Bats in the Belfry; it was severely disappointing, as it’s a badly-dated attempt at socio-political humor.) There was apparently a book edition of The Wooden Heads, but I’ve never seen a copy and it appears to be quite rare. (I’d love a copy.)

So what’s it about?

The story opens with the Sidhill family awakening one morning in their home in London and discovering that the world is strangely quiet. Their own household — mother, father, five kids [well, six, it turns out — I forgot preschooler Beatrice], housekeeper, dog — is completely intact, but everyone else in London has vanished.

They try to go on with normal life on the assumption that everything will right itself in time, but that gradually becomes less and less possible. What’s more, they find they’re being watched by mysterious creatures they dub “the wooden heads,” who are apparently responsible for the disappearances, and who are now trying to pick off the Sidhills, as well.Mr. Sidhill vs. the Wooden Heads

For the most part the story focuses on the two oldest Sidhill children, Rolfe and Chad, though their two sisters and their father get some attention. (The mother and baby are left utterly undeveloped, unfortunately, and the housekeeper’s few appearances are mostly comic relief; I think Tim, the dog, gets more attention.)

The Sidhills respond with English pluck, first figuring out how to defend themselves, and then going on the offensive, eventually defeating the Wooden Heads and bringing the rest of London back from limbo — but the story doesn’t end there; it follows through the aftermath, as the Sidhills try to convince the world what actually happened.

I loved that. I had never seen any other story where defeating the big menace wasn’t the end of the adventure. (I didn’t read “The Lord of the Rings” until a few years later.)

Another thing I loved was the changes in mood; “The Wooden Heads” is genuinely creepy in some scenes, funny in others, touching in others. The heroes are brave and clever but never superhuman; when I was eight I wanted to grow up to be Chad Sidhill. (Rolfe was a bit too cocky for me; Chad was the clever one.)

The thing is, no one outside my immediate family seemed to have ever heard of the story.

All my life, I’ve found that frustrating. I wanted to talk about the story with other readers! I wanted to share this treasure.

So many years ago, I began trying to track down its history, to find out whether there was some way to make it more widely known.

Before the net, getting information was almost impossible unless I wanted to devote far more time and money than it was worth. I made inquiries with used-book dealers. When I was in England in 1993 I did try to find out more, and couldn’t uncover much. I even tried to track down Hale’s heirs, completely without success. As the web has developed, I’ve periodically researched Hales and “The Wooden Heads,” with very little result.

Recently, though, I discovered that someone has transferred all the U.S. Copyright Office renewal records to electronic form — the Copyright Office itself never did this because they were never given the budget for it, but academic researchers tackled the job, and earlier this year the data finally came online.

I downloaded the entire database in late June, but at 380 megabytes of XML, I didn’t have the capacity to actually use it on Chloe.

Today, though, I’ve discovered that there are university webservers that can run a 380-meg database just fine, and they’re available to the public, so I’ve searched on “Chatterbox” and “Hales” and “Wooden Heads,” and have concluded that the copyright was never renewed.

“The Wooden Heads” is in the public domain in the U.S.

(Best evidence is that it’s still got about five years left in Britain, though.)

So — it’s public domain. I can do whatever I want with it. I have a copy of that Chatterbox Annual.

And the question, the reason I’m posting this, is: What should I do with it?

26 thoughts on “The Wooden Heads

  1. If your research was correct, it’s PD globally by now.

    So you could republish it, rewrite it, sequelize it, whatever you might want.

  2. I don’t know that I’d want to attempt a sequel, but yes, a Misenchanted Press edition is on my list of things I want to get to someday.

    (Proto-steampunk? No, it’s occult adventure, if it’s anything.)

  3. You use the pronoun “he” to refer to the author. Do you have any particular reason to believe the author was male?

    1. Well, nothing definite. But all the major characters in both The Wooden Heads and Bats in the Belfry are male, convincingly so. The female characters tend to be pretty generic, without much personality. Still, Hales might have been female, you’re right.

      Chatterbox certainly did publish work by female authors, but I got it into my head somewhere around age eight that Hales was male, and never reconsidered until just now.

      I know in American SF initials often indicate a female author (though there are exceptions, such as M.A. Foster), but I haven’t noticed that to be the case among British writers, and especially not as far back as 1924, so I don’t think that’s significant.

    1. Thank you! I had not seen that entry. I don’t think it existed when last I went digging.

      I see they don’t have a death date, though; I’d like to know when he died, as that would determine the end of the British copyright.

      He served in the RFC? I did not know that. Wow.

  4. As a kid, my grade 6 teacher read this book aloud to the class (this was way back in the early 70s). I remember being mesmerized, and the story has stayed in my memory all these years. A few years ago, I found a copy online from a rare book shop in London. I promptly made the purchase, and have since read it not only to my own children, but to my own grade 5 classroom, as well.
    Hopefully it will be as influential to them, as it was for me.
    To all of you out there who have not had the opportunity to read this entrancing novel, it’s online! Please give it a go…

  5. You are not alone! My late Mother brought me up on the story of the Wooden Heads (she was given the Chatterbox annual but sadly it did not survive the War – now I know what it looks like -thanks – I have found it on Amazon.co.uk) but it was not until 3 years before she died I actually found the book 2nd hand, to her delight. I keep re-reading it – there is nothing like it, but best not read on a dark night when you are on your own! It would be great if it was re-published, it is definitely vintage but that is part of its charm (some things like the giant-stride would need footnotes now I think). In the meantime I will download the Kindle version of The Nightmare People….

    1. Hmm. Footnotes. That might be a good idea. I managed without them, but not everyone is willing to make the effort.

      I’ve started to assemble a Misenchanted Press edition, but it’s a low priority, so it’ll probably be another year or more before it’s published.

      1. Hi There, my name is Lloyd Hales, I used to visit Uncle Laurie as a child at his house in Hayes, he was in fact my Grandfather’s brother. I have a copy of Bats In The Belfry and The Wooden Heads

  6. I have just picked up on your comments whilst doing a little research on my family.
    My name is Lloyd Hales and Uncle Laurie was my Grandads brother, I often went to see him at his home in Hayes.
    I have a copy of The Wooden Heads and Bats In The Belfry.

  7. I LOVE this thread about The Wooden Heads! I was just describing a bit of it to a friend because the empty coronovirus impacted streets in my suburban town north of Boston have been reminding me of this story; presently we could almost wander into a storekeeper-less store and leave our ten-and-six on the counter as the children did!

    Like Lawrence Watt-Evans, I have an English connection. My grandmother and most of her 5 siblings were born in England, near Manchester, where her parents were located while he was a buyer from the Manchester mills for a then well-known NYC company. When they moved to the U.S. and my grandmother and grandfather had 5 children. My grandmother, as a huge Anglophile, bought them annually the CHATTERBOX bound volumes which my aunt (born in 1895) my uncles and finally my mother (born 1909) all loved. Eventually my mother – who had become a children’s librarian before she married – kept all the CHATTERBOXES they were given, and I (born 1950) read ALL of the serial stories in them. In the 1960’s we even bought a few more to add to the group – all of which I still have.

    As a result I also had favorites like The Wooden Heads and Bushrangers Gold as well as Sanibel Sands, several of the boarding school tales, and especially one I think was entitled The Lost City (with an airplane in the sky on the cover) where a young girl and someone (her Ahmah?) survive the crash into a lake by her uncle’s airplane and the two survivors live in a palace in the Lost City until a Persian cat leads them to the young Indian princess who lives in hiding there. My details are fairly fuzzy but I adored the story and the beautiful line drawings.

    Eventually, as a child, I knew by the covers which years had stories I especially adored and which were just so-so, there were also shorter pieces and small biographical or historical ones: that is how I first learned about the remarkable Cosimo de Medici family so crucial to the Italian art I studied some ten years later.

    Another writer we all adored was E. Nesbit who wrote the imaginative book Five Children and It – most of her work was sold in serial form initially so often chapters stand alone quite well. Our favorites if hers are The Emerald Castle – four children stuck during school break with the school’s French governess and their escapades with unexpected magic at the nearby castle and The Amulet a rather brilliant early sci-fi novel with children who go looking for the missing half of an Egyptian amulet to try to bring their parents home from the Far East and their adventures in fairly historically accurate times.

    E. Nesbit was a huge influence on modern Edward Eager who wrote a delightful series of children’s books beginning with my daughters’ favorite, Half-Magic – a phenomenal read-aloud to the 6-8 yo kids or a read-to-self for the 7-10 yo ones. And for totally silly: the Pickwick Papers is a delightful bedtime read-aloud to the 5-7 yo set. Enjoy!

    1. Hi. Sorry I left these comments hanging in moderation for so long; I didn’t check in here for a couple of months. We were moving — bought the house March 9, moved in on March 25, and I’ve only now gotten caught up on some things.

    2. I’ve heard of E. Nesbit pretty much all my life, never read any. Edward Eager, on the other hand, was a childhood favorite.

      1. I happen to love Eager, and because of him I did read some Nesbit, but it read as period pieces to me, like an adult reading Dickens. I don’t think child-me even realized there was humor in there.

  8. Hi
    I read this as a kid and LOVED it. The Wooden Heads.
    Im now 68 and still battling to find a copy I can download from somewhere. Does anyone have a link?

  9. I found The Wooden Heads on Fulltable and downloaded the pages in pdf form. However, it would be great if I could get the WHOLE story as one pdf, instead of separate pages, which I now have to put together into book form.
    Anyone have an idea where I can download the full story? Alternately, where can I download the 1924 Chatterbox annual in pdf form?

  10. Hi. Sorry I left these comments hanging in moderation for so long; I didn’t check in here for a couple of months. We were moving — bought the house March 9, moved in on March 25, and I’ve only now gotten caught up on some things.

  11. Hello
    I remember The Wooden Heads as a comic strip serial in a Chatterbox Annual in my Grandma’s house in Derby, England when I was a kid in the 1950s. It scared me stiff and I never remembered what happened or if I ever read the whole story! We thought it might have been inspired by the General Strike, which coincidentally, began on this very day in 1926, but if the other sources are correct, then this was wrong and happened later. However, I remember the Wooden Heads as being male soldiers in WW1 or Black and Tan type uniforms. I must re-check the above material. I’d love to find out more.

  12. I just had another look at the illustrations someone has entered and maybe my memory was at fault, as I seem to recall the figures being more like soldiers or military police and definitely male. Or maybe I was just too scared to look properly! Here, they look weirdly female, more like cartoon suffragettes. Could there have been more than one edition? Also, I thought the story was in comic strip format. But there again, it was a long time ago and I haven’t seen the original annual again. The material shown here is even older than I expected – yet strangely relevant to the time we have at the moment with all the staying at home and social distancing due to the coronavirus. It’s certainly very quiet here. This story certainly influenced me in several ways and I started a dystopian work several years ago called The Puppet Shop in which the leading character finds her way always blocked by a shop which sells wooden mannequins… I’ll finish it some day!

  13. I am a known artist and I think this would do for a good subject todaya world——— the wooden heads were like soldiers and they staired in your windows does anyone remember those illustrations? Janice barnes boyd

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