The astonishingly prolific Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953) lived to see the humor in being remembered for a book of light verse he published in 1907, Cautionary Tales for Children. The cautionary tale, with its ghoulish mission to prevent juvenile misbehavior, can, for some children, be the stuff of nightmares. Overkill is its mad method, as the transgression is always imagined in a worst case scenario so that the dire punishment hardly ever fits the crime.
Mr. Belloc’s tongue-in-cheek self-defense of the exaggeration for satiric effect isn’t going to convince anyone without a black sense of humor themselves: ” And is it True? It is not true. / And if it were it wouldn’t do, / For people such as me and you / Who pretty nearly all day long / Are doing something rather wrong. / Because if things were really so, / You would have perished long ago / And I would not have lived to write / The noble lines that meet your sight, / Nor [Edward G.] survived to draw / The nicest things you ever saw.” Maybe Calvin Trillin is right in saying parents find Belloc hillarious; children have to grow up and deal with their own offspring before they can titter at his brand of beastliness.
The late Edward Gorey (can it be that he has been gone for 20 years) was the ideal illustrator for Belloc, as can be seen in the illuminating self-portrait and his cover design for the poems., which shows shows the black forefinger of Fate pointing to the children gambolling across the grass, little thinking they are doomed.