The Incredible Umbrella is what I can only describe as ‘a romp through literature’.
J. Adrian Fillmore, a mediocre academician, purchases an umbrella in a second hand shop which can transport him into any world which he imagines; being an English professor, it whisks him through various worlds: Gilbert and Sullivan’s operettas in rapid succession, Dracula, Frankenstein, an unfinished fragment of a Sherlock Holmes world in which the central characters are one Sherrinford and Ormsby, the Arabian nights and Flatland. Unfortunately, this magical umbrella did NOT come with instructions…in particular, directions on how to escape the worlds to which it brings him. It is triggered by pressing the ‘open’ latch while thinking of a destination; Fillmore opens it as a rainstorm approaches, while wishing he could be somewhere a bit more cheerful and picturesque than his current location and is promptly whisked away to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance. Every effort to escape predicaments only lands him in yet another G&S plot, and worse into stories less familiar and far less pleasant, until finally he manages to find the umbrella’s manufacturer, one J. Wellington Wells with offices in ‘Simmery Axe’, London. Apparently, the umbrella adapts itself to each owner, and Fillmore, as a man of letters, feels that he must complete each sequence. Hence, the umbrella will not become operational again until Fillmore feels that the sequence is, in fact, finished.
This is on the juvenile end of novels intended for adults–the Arabian Nights sequence features a “roc and troll” concert–but it’s an amusing fast light read nevertheless. Kaye doesn’t really develop the full ramifications of what having an umbrella of this sort might really mean and do, and Fillmore’s encounters with various literary situations read almost like fanfic vignettes than fully developed Literary Sequences. There is a sequel, The Amorous Umbrella, in which Fillmore decides to search for a Lady Love through Shakespeare (and of course, more Gilbert and Sullivan). I can’t recommend this with quite the same enthusiasm. As with many sequels, I don’t like The Amorous Umbrella quite as much as its predecessor; once the reveal has been made, the sequel had better come up with yet another more dramatic/convoluted/amusing one if it’s to match what came before. Nevertheless, they’re both fun introductions to various English literary venues.
What to read next? Oddly the one which first sprang to mind is not a science fiction/fantasy work, but one of K.K. Beck’s early mysteries, The Body in the Volvo, for no other reason than it involves a professor who has just lost his chance at tenure and is forced to make other arrangements. A closer match might be The Complete/Compleat Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, about a professor of psychology who develops a mathematical theorem which allows him to travel to the worlds of mythology and literature…but who has only little more control over where he goes and how he escapes the world in which he lands. Other books involving travel into worlds in which literary characters are real include Silverlock, by John Myers Myers and the Thursday Next series, by Jasper Fforde. (about which more later)