Thomas Bloor is the author of Worm in the Blood, the tale of a 14-year-old boy living in London who undergoes a fearful transformation. It won the Calderdale Children’s Book Award, and was shortlist for the Bolton Award and the Highland Children’s Book Award. Bloor continues the story in Beast Beneath the Skin and brings it to a conclusion in his latest novel, Heart of the Serpent, published this month by Faber. Here are his favourite tales of change.
1. Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
An obvious place to start. A man wakes up one morning to find he’s changed into a giant beetle. The transformation has already taken place when the story opens and Kafka offers no explanation as to why or how this has occurred. Instead he focuses on the trials of family life when you’ve become an enormous insect overnight. Needless to say, it ends in tragedy.
2. The Greek Myths, Volumes 1 and 2, translated by Robert Graves
Plenty of transformations here, as the gods change themselves – and numerous unfortunate mortals – into flora and fauna of every kind. The motivation behind this behaviour is usually either desire (Zeus changes himself into all sorts – including, most curiously perhaps, a beam of sunlight – as he chases after anyone who takes his fancy) or rage (generally the province of goddesses, who tend to look askance at any blundering mortal who happens to witness them taking a bath in a mountain stream). Graves’ retellings are steeped in learning, but are still full of deadpan humour.
3. The Time of the Ghost by Diana Wynne Jones
The main character finds she has become a disembodied and invisible presence, floating down a country lane. And she has no idea why. As in Kafka, the metamorphosis has already occurred when the story begins, but here the truth is gradually revealed in a tense drama, as much a story of finely observed family relationships as it is a piece of superlative fantasy.
4. The Dragon’s Pearl (Chinese folk tale)
A boy swallows a magical pearl and an irreversible transformation is set in motion. This folk tale takes in the horrors of prolonged drought in rural China, the bond between a boy and his mother, and the legends of rain-bringing Chinese dragons.
5. The Owl Service by Alan Garner
Mysterious and unsettling, Garner’s classic novel is based on the old Welsh myths found in The Mabinogion. The threat of enforced metamorphosis hangs in the air throughout. Set in an unspoilt Welsh valley, the story suggests an unbroken curse, an ancient conflict that has been allowed to seep into the land itself and will not fade away. A triangular relationship lies at the heart of the tale. The end is uncertain. Will the transformation be into owls or flowers?
6. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis
Specifically, the chapter in which Eustace finds a dragon’s treasure horde in a cave and, tempted by greed and “dragonish thoughts”, shoves a bracelet onto his arm and falls asleep. When he wakes he is transformed, but doesn’t realise what has happened for a while. The first clue is the bracelet, which is now biting painfully into his scaly dragon’s flesh.
7. The Selkie (Scottish folk tale)
Selkies are the seal people of Orkney and Shetland. They can take human shape on land but will always long to return to the sea. Perhaps the most well known story concerns a fisherman who spies a Selkie on the beach. She appears to be human but the fisherman finds her seal-skin under a rock and steals it. He hides the skin and takes the seal/woman for his wife. She bears his children and lives with him in his hut, until one day, she discovers the hidden skin …
8. The Witches by Roald Dahl
In which the main character, a boy who narrates the story, is turned into a mouse. This happens towards the end of the book, and provokes the mouse and his redoubtable grandmother to take spectacular revenge on the witches responsible for the transformation. Against all the usual expectations, it turns out the boy cannot ever be changed back into a human again. The book ends with our hero stoically looking forward to living out an extended nine-year life-span as a mouse.
9. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
Not a supernatural event, more a Nietzschien transformation. Buck is changed from flabby house dog into the feared leader of a pack of wolves in the Alaskan wilderness. And the metamorphosis doesn’t quite end; the closing paragraphs hinting at a further transformation as the living, breathing animal becomes the subject of a local legend and thus acquires a form of immortality.
10. Pinocchio (original story by Carlo Collodi)
Often retold, usually with illustrations, this story closes when a longed-for transformation finally takes place. However, the reaction of young children on reaching the last page and seeing the wooden creature with whom they’ve come to identify suddenly turned into a rosy-cheeked, red-lipped “real boy”, is generally one of horror and dismay. The Disney animated version is notable for its terrifying boy-to-donkey transformation scene, earlier in the story.