Posted by: Sally Ingraham | October 4, 2010

R.I.P. V: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead

by Barbara Comyns

I have been following the blog of an artist named Yelena Bryksenkova for awhile, after discovering her through a post on book by its cover. Not too long ago she posted about a book, the cover of which she had illustrated. Intrigued by both the illustration and the premise of the book and the publishing project which had made it available, I ordered myself a copy. When it arrived, in true book lust style I adored its cute, nearly square dimensions, and found Yelena’s illustration even better in person.

I got around to actually reading the book last weekend, during a camping trip that found me lounging beside the roaring Penobscot River.
What a twisted, tragic, but nearly laugh-out-loud funny tale! Originally published in England in 1954 (and immediately banned in Ireland, so a suitable Banned Book Week (Sept.24-Oct.2) read on top of a R.I.P. V one!) this book is set in a charming English village on the banks of a pretty river, and it is about the Willoweed family – wealthy, squawking, tyrannical Grandmother Willoweed, her slacker son Ebin, and his three children. The book opens with a flood, and we find ducks paddling through the drawing room, poor dead kittens and piglets floating in the garden, and the children caught between sorrow for the destruction and excitement over the fact that the adults will be too distracted to make them do their lessons. After the flood waters drain away, the village seems to return to normal until a mysterious madness begins infecting people. The miller drowns himself, the butcher slits his throat, children scream in the night…

Comyns maintains a remarkable balance in this book between wonder and horror. Half the time I felt like I was reading a fairly typical story of the relationships and yearnings of a quirky family in a familiarly idyllic English countryside – the world of The Railway Children or something similar. Then with the same straightforwardness, she describes some rather awful things in such away that you’re shocked or disgusted but you don’t lose the feeling of lightness. In Comyns hands, the ‘bloated body of a drowned sheep, the wool withering about in the water‘ deserves as much clear-eyed interest as anything else. Her story is one of human pettiness and the destructive power of nature, and yet I never felt weighted by it. She told it matter-of-factly, somehow infusing it with a sense of the marvelous. Thinking about it now, my mind rebels against the concept – such a weird balance shouldn’t be possible! Comyns pulls it off somehow, I can only guess through her peculiar style and skill with the language, and I am left astonished.

peril the firstQuite an interesting little book. Do check out Dorothy, the publishing project that brought this edition about. And if you have the inclination, try Hex Ourtoberfest from Magic Hat Brewing Company (South Berlington, VT), since at the very least the labeling is fantastic, and beer isn’t too bad either! This is my second book for the Peril the First branch of the R.I.P. V Challenge. 🙂


  1. Comyns had such an astonishing direct and disarming voice and this book is my personal favourite of her work. I am so thrilled that the Dorothy project has adopted it and what a wonderful cover that it. If you like Who was changed, I think that you would also like “The Juniper Tree” by the same author.

    Wonderful post thanks for sharing


    • Thanks for the recommendation. I definitely want to check out more of Comyns’ work. “Disarming” is an excellent description of her tone. You’re willing to go cheerfully along with her, wherever she may take you!

  2. Love, love, love that photo. Was so taken by this image that captures you so well that I almost forgot to go on and read about the book. Which also looks interesting. Just not as interesting as that great photo. 🙂

    • Haha, thanks Frances. I think it is my favorite self-portrait to date. It definitely encompasses my top three favorite pursuits. 🙂

  3. I wonder why this book was banned? Sounds like a standard horror novel to me.

    I too love that photo. Is that hard cider? Yum.

    • Pumpkin Ale actually. Equally yummy. And I’m not sure about the baning – I guess they saw only the death and disgusting aspects of the story… Classic banning, really.

  4. The photo is stunning and I must read this book. Where were you on the Penobscot?

    • I was near Baxter State Park, at a tiny campground off the Golden Road, right near Abol Bridge. Are you familiar with the area?

      • I’m from York Harbor originally. Have been up route 95 to New Brunswick and spent time in Camden, Rockland and Bar Harbor, though I’ve never spent time on the river itself. It just looks so beautiful.

        I’ve decided I have to order “Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead” from Dorothy. Thanks for the review.

  5. Sounds good! I enjoy stories about how people come around to reading books, too, so glad you added that part!

    • I do too – how I came to read a book is easily half of what makes reading fun for me, and makes it more of a pursuit and less of a pastime.

  6. I’ve added that to my list. It sent me off on a little trip to the publisher project as well, which looks swell.

    • I’m eager to see what other books they come out with, and I have yet to read the other book they have published, which I ordered as well.

  7. Comyns is a new name to me, Sarah – thanks for bringing her to my attention. There was actually a period 7 or 8 months ago when I had such a strong craving for what sounds like exactly this book: a creepy take on the old idyllic Merrie England trope. Next time it strikes I’ll have to keep this one in mind!

    • Definitely do. It’s a weird, weird book and half the fun is the fact that it’s so familiar and yet so warped.

  8. I am a huge admirer of Comyns and always happy to hear someone has discovered her. I think this is may be her weirdest book but she is a real original — do read some more!

    • What would you suggest as a next Comyns read? I am very happy to have discovered her. 🙂

  9. […] – Books: The Haunting of Hill House Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby Salem […]

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