It is difficult to know what to make of Rhys Hughes’ absurd collection of short stories or flash fictions as he calls them. Stories collected in The Lunar Tickle are very short, often lasting only a couple of pages. They vary significantly in quality, with some being quite memorable and others not at all. Although each story is an individual piece in itself, there are some with characters that we have previously encountered who seem to be continuing with their earlier adventures. Throughout all of these stories Thornton Excelsior is one character who flows fluidly in and out many of the collection’s narratives, alternating variously as character or narrator.
To begin with, the tales seem simply to be nonsensical tales which while fairly entertaining do not have much depth. As you delve deeper into the collection, there seems to be a vague indication of more thoughtful ideas behind what appear initially to be silly stories, but these ideas often fail to develop fully. However, there are one or two pieces which grab attention: stories such as “The Esplanade” and “Note to Oneself” offer something more substantial. “Note” in particular is memorable, with Thornton Excelsior as a about a young boy who has been turned into a musical note. As his worried mother consults a doctor about the possibility of a cure, the doctor states that in order to do so the note must be put into context, as the note as a singular entity has little or no meaning. The tale seems to suggest that a single person on their own is nothing without context. At points like these, Hughes’ writing becomes something more than merely absurdly surreal stories, striving for more metaphysical or philosophical truths. If only there was more of it.
The tagline which comes with this book, “tales to make full moons giggle”, doesn’t actually indicate what’s in the tin. A large part of the comedy in The Lunar Tickle relies on wordplay or the pure absurdity of what is happening in a story. This type of comedy is also irksomely repetitive, detracting from its effectiveness, falling to something little better than stereotypically “poor dad”-jokes. Far from making the reader giggle, let alone a full moon, it’s almost as if Hughes is elbowing you, saying “See what I did there?” By far the more interesting aspects of Hughes’ writing in The Lunar Tickle appear when he plays with the role of the reader and the writer, and with intertextuality. In several stories, Hughes shows how a writer has complete control over the fictional world that he creates. This is done by suddenly and cleverly adding characters which had not been mentioned previously or including a characters from other works of fiction by other writers. The role of the reader is used in quite a different way in some of the stories. By making the reader a character of one of the stories and exclusively addressing them, readers are forced to imagine themselves in the story much more vividly than is usual.
Overall, The Lunar Tickle is mildly entertaining, with some interesting features which are unfortunately not explored enough. The comedic technique and wordplay soon become a little tiresome and repetitive. However when presenting more philosophical ideas, Hughes’ writing becomes much more enjoyable and pleasant.