Some of the marketing of Mr. Toppit, a darkly comic first novel by an English author, led me to expect an element of fantasy in this story of Luke Hayman, a boy coming of age in the public eye as the alter-ego of Luke Hayseed, the intrepid young hero of his father’s children’s books who takes on the shadowy evil figure who rules the vast Darkwood looming behind Luke’s house. But this story is creepy in a non-supernatural way, with just about every dysfunctional human behavior — from celebrity worship and obsession with fantasy worlds to the more common substance abuse and forms of self-injury — making an appearance. Mr. Toppit will appeal more to readers of The Magicians by Lew Grossman, than to the readers of Harry Potter it seems to be marketed to. (For the creepiness of a ghost story, try The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters.)
Luke’s father, Arthur Hayman, dies suddenly before finishing The Hayseed Chronicles. The Hayseed Chronicles is a series of relatively unknown children’s novels published by a struggling company in England run by an old family friend when word of mouth, helped by the American publicity machine, turn the books into a literary phenomenon and merchandising juggernaut much like J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. At the end of Book 5, Mr. Toppit has emerged from the Darkwood for the first time, leaving readers speculating, writing academic papers, and obsessing over about the true nature of Mr. Toppit and the true meaning of why he comes. (The last sentence of Book 5 and the first sentence of Mr. Toppit: “And out of the Darkwood Mr. Toppit comes, and he comes not for you, or for me, but for all of us.”)
Like The Hayseed Chronicles, Mr. Toppit ends abruptly and leaves much for readers to speculate about. We learn little about Arthur Hayman, for example, and what he would have thought about the psychological damage he (unintentionally?) committed by using Luke as a character in his books and by leaving his daughter Rachel out completely. The father/author is as shadowy a figure as Mr. Toppit himself.
Read the November 19, 2010 New York Times review of Mr. Toppit here.