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?

13 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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *