Jabberwocky: the novelisation - Who is
exclusively written for Dreams by John Ashbrook
And so, The Dark Ages have ground to a halt and Jabberwocky, Terry
Gilliam's long-forgotten first-born film, is finally given the treatment it so
patently deserves. Inspired by this Renaissance in good sense, I decided to
lever open the pages of my aged, crumbling copy of the 'Jabberwocky'
novelisation and found it to be that rarest and most precious of commodities -
a novelisation which is far more than a pale imitation of the film.
The author, Ralph Hoover, has a vicious streak of dark, sarcastic humour in
his prose which, I suspect, pleased Gilliam immensely. Also, in keeping with
Gilliam's general approach to his own subjects, Hoover is delightfully
disrespectful of the film's text, wandering off at tangents, adding things,
changing things and generally making stuff up as he saw fit.
It turns out, he even made up his name. Inspired by the book, I decided to
follow Wat Dabney's lead and put my best foot forward. With a modicum of leg
work, I discovered that Ralph Hoover is, in fact, a pseudonym - of one Paul
Paul was good enough to respond to a few unsolicited e-mails, and here are
his recollections, dredged up through a quarter of a century of silt, and
presented for your edification.
So, Paul, here's what little I think I know about you so far: You're an
American born in 1947. You wrote the following comic novels as Paul Spike: Bad
News (New York, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1971) Photographs of my Father
(New York, Knopf, 1973) The Night Letter (New York, Putnam, 1979; London,
Granada, 1979) Last Rites (New York, New American Library, 1981; London,
Granada, 1982). You appear to have lived in England and worked for Vogue and The
Independent (who forwarded my letter to you, which was very nice of them).
You have my correct birthdate and books. As for the latter, only my
first - Bad News - was comic. It was a collection of short stories, much of it
what was called at the time 'experimental fiction' and which I had written and
published in various little magazines while an undergraduate at Columbia in
NYC. One of the stories won the Paris Review Humour Prize back in 1969. The
book had a generous dust jacket quote from William Burroughs: "I have
read Bad News and consider it at once a beautiful and disquieting book, in
which seemingly commonplace happenings suddenly open into other planetary
I haven't published a book or any fiction for some years now, although I am
currently working on several long-term projects. What I have been doing is
mostly journalism. I wrote extensively for GQ and Vogue magazines in the late
'80s and '90s, and was a Contributing Editor of both (I still am on the Vogue
masthead). I've also written for most of the major newspapers in the UK.
I was also Vogue's restaurant critic for 8 years. I spent six months as
Editor of Punch back in '97, when I re-re-launched it for al Fayed, after his
first disastrous re-launch. After Punch, I spent a year as Diary Editor of the
Independent, where I launched the Pandora column.
How far would you say that Jabberwocky fits in with your other works?
Since you make the Middle Ages quite so grim, filthy, and cruel (far more-so
than the film) I wonder if you're 'legit' books are as dark. After all, anyone
who can 'disquiet' William Burroughs with a comic novel ...
I think Jabberwocky's 'dark side' would not shock anyone who had read
my other books: a collection of fairly nihilistic short stories; a memoir
about growing up in the 60s and the murder of my father, who was a civil
rights leader; and two thrillers.
Let's fill in some of the background: How did you come to write
I first heard about Jabberwocky from my agent back in 1976, not too
long after I first moved to London following some years living in Deia,
Amsterdam, Paris and Istanbul. I needed some cash and he had been offered this
project to turn the screenplay into a 'novelisation' and was looking for a
writer. They sent me the screenplay - it was about to be shot - and I met with
producer Sandy Lieberson and Terry Gilliam. Terry said I was free to do
whatever I wanted with it, just so long as it followed the basic plot line and
characters. I wrote it over a period of a few weeks and took a number of
outrageous liberties, as a novel requires a lot more words than a screenplay
Why the pseudonym?
I chose to use a pseudonym because back in the Seventies, 'novelisations'
were still a slightly suspect genre with publishers and I wasn't sure that it
was wise to put my real name on one.
Why did you chose that particular pseudonym, does it have any great
It was a name I had used occasionally prior to 1976, usually for
minor bits of journalism.
In the book, you have taken a lot of wonderfully off-the-wall liberties
with the film we now have; I'm wondering how much of a free hand you were
At one point, near the end of my writing, Terry asked me down to the
set at Shepperton (I think that's where it was being shot) and I hung around
for a few hours with Terry, Michael Palin and Terry Jones. We got on well and
Terry confessed that he was feeling a bit anxious as, during the shooting and
watching the rushes, they were becoming aware that the film was going to have
a younger audience than they had originally foreseen. "It looks like this
may be a kids movie!" Terry confessed.
After I finished the draft, my agent sent it to Terry and Sandy and they
approved it without any substantial revisions. Some months later there was a
big screening, held early in the morning in Leicester Square, to which I was
invited along with any children I might have. I didn't yet have kids at the
time, so brought a friend's son. I enjoyed the film - as did most of the other
kids in the audience.
Not too long after that, the book came out in a Pan paperback edition. I
got a call one day saying there was a signing party for the book at the Pan
Bookshop on Fulham Road later that afternoon and I could attend if I wanted,
so I went along. The Python crew were already there, signing the book when I
turned up and I recall they were very gracious, insisting that people get me
to sign it as well, since I was 'Ralph Hoover'.
So, are there copies out there with Paul Spike's autograph on them, or
Oh, I definitely recall signing a few copies as Ralph!
Given your cosmopolitan life in the early-mid seventies, were you even
aware of Monty Python's Flying Circus and, therefore, Terry Gilliam? I don't
know about Europe, but I gather it didn't start showing in the States until
I don't think I had seen any Python shows until I moved to London in
January 1976, where we didn't know that many people and did watch a lot of
telly. I thought it was great, but I am not sure how much influence seeing
Python had on my writing of the novelisation, except in the sense that I felt
comfortable to 'let it fly' in whatever style felt right and funny.
And now the most unfair question I've yet asked: What do you actually
think of the film, and how well do you think your novel compares?
As for the film, I saw it again recently on television and enjoyed
it. It's silly and childish, sure, less surreal than most Python sketches or
later Gilliam films, but it's still fresh and funny - at least for me - and
has no doubt influenced a lot of the more sophisticated films that have been
made since. The book is darker, yes, and was written 'in the dark' as it were,
alone and away from the set most of the time, using the script to spark off my
own rather cynical Dark Age fantasies.
I was living in Belsize Park in those days and used to have the same bank
as Palin on England's Lane. I ran into him there one day and he told me - as
generous as he was satirical - that he thought my book might have been better
than the actual film. Time has certainly proved, to me at least, how untrue
that remark was.
In any case, it was a laugh and it brought me some cash at a time when I
certainly needed it. I occasionally run into Terry at parties or in the
Groucho Club. I suppose if I ever write another novelisation I will keep the
'Ralph Hoover' tag, as I think it would be pleasing to see Ralph's literary
renaissance in the 21st century.
So, if you wander into your local branch of 'Aged Tomes R Us', lift aside
that dusty old Guttenberg Bible, or something equally inconsequential, and
spot a copy of the 'Jabberwocky' novelisation hidden beneath, snap that sucker
up. It's the funniest thing since the Great Fire of London.
(John Ashbrook's PocketEssential book on Terry Gilliam is available in all
Search for the book at abebooks
home] [Dreams home]