Russell Hoban, who has died aged 86, was a maverick writer of extraordinary imaginative gifts and highly original turn of phrase; although he was sometimes compared to Tolkien and to CS Lewis, he conformed to no obvious literary tradition and was neglected by academics.
His was a unique vein of magical fantasy, taking themes (the nuclear holocaust, the massacre of Antioch) that seem too devastating for contemplation, and turning them into allegories in which humour was combined with intense imagery and narrative momentum.
Each novel was a singular creation, often with a plot so surreal it defied synopsis. In The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), set in a time when lions are extinct, a boy conjures up the ghost of a lion to pursue the father who abandoned him. In Turtle Diary (1975) two lonely, embittered souls meet at the zoo where they watch green sea turtles swimming peacefully in a tank, and hatch a scheme to return them to the ocean.
There were certain recurring themes and images: the Orpheus myth; Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring; the London underground system; the pump attendant from Edward Hopper’s painting Gas; the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke; the legend of St Eustace; the lion; clockwork toys.
He found greatest commercial success with his stories for children, but his masterpiece was Riddley Walker (1980). Set in Kent 2000 years after a nuclear holocaust, the novel conjures up a primitive “Iron Age” society surrounded by evidence of its more developed origins, a world in which the half-remembered institutions of the 20th century — the “Ardship of Cambry”, “Wes Mincer”, the Medicine men who go around “clinnicking and national healfing,” have become a muddle of magical allegory and myth.
The book’s eponymous narrator is a sort of shaman priest, a “connexion man” who “walks his riddles” and gives prophetic interpretations of the travelling puppet shows (derived from a Punch and Judy show that somehow survived the holocaust) that serve as a combined religious ceremony, government propaganda tool and public entertainment. Walker uses a bowdlerised, mutated English reminiscent of Finnegan’s Wake: “I cud feal it in the guts and barrils of me. You try to make your self 1 with some thing or some body but try as you wil the 2ness of every thing is working agenst you all the way. ”
Some critics lost patience with the language, but the book won many ecstatic reviews. Though it never did well commercially, the critic Harold Bloom included Riddley Walker in his survey of literature, The Western Canon; Anthony Burgess, meanwhile, claimed that “this is what literature is meant to be”.
The only son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, Russell Conwell Hoban was born at Lansdale, near Philadelphia, on February 4 1925. His father had risen from newsboy to managing editor of the Jewish Daily Forward. A staunch socialist, he raised his son on an improving diet of children’s literature from the Soviet Union.
Russell showed promise as an artist and at Lansdale High School he won prizes for his stories and poems. Aged 16 he won a scholarship to Temple University but, feeling a child among adults, he left after five weeks to enrol at Philadelphia Museum School of Industrial Art.
In 1943, on his 18th birthday, he volunteered for the US Army. He began as a radio operator and was later posted to Italy, where he was awarded a Bronze Star for delivering orders and supplies to a forward position while under enemy fire.
Hoban was invalided out after contracting hepatitis in 1945. He went to live in New York, where he tried, but failed, to make it as a painter, though he succeeded as a commercial illustrator. At 30 he became a freelance illustrator and was soon working for the magazines Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Time, where he designed covers and began to do some writing.
Hoban’s first children’s book emerged because of his facility for drawing construction machinery: What Does it Do and How Does it Work? was published in 1959. His first story book, Bedtime for Frances, a short story about a badger family, came out the next year. Altogether he wrote six books in the Frances the Badger series, as well as numerous other children’s books.
Hoban had married Lillian Aberman in 1944, and many of his stories were based on the adventures of their four children. In 1963 he embarked on a more ambitious project, a novel about a pair of clockwork mice — father and son — and their quest for home and happiness after they have been discarded in a rubbish bin. The Mouse and His Child was a surprisingly moving and thought-provoking story, encompassing powerful themes of redemption and transformation. Published in 1968 as a children’s book, it attracted an admiring adult readership.
The success of this book precipitated a crisis in Hoban’s life. He was beginning to feel stifled in America and abruptly decided it would be a good idea to spend a few years in London, a move partly prompted by his love of British ghost story writers such as MR James, Sheridan Lefanu and Walter de la Mare. But the move proved too much for his wife, who soon returned to America with their children.
The relocation, though, proved fruitful for Hoban’s career, and he decided to concentrate on adult fiction, though he continued to write children’s stories, winning the 1974 Whitbread prize for How Tom Beat Captain Najork and his Hired Sportsmen.
His first novel written in London, The Lion of Boaz-Jachin and Jachin-Boaz (1973), was a study of a father-son relationship set in an unspecified Middle Eastern location. In his next book, Kleinzeit (1974), he drew on his own experiences in hospital to conjure a world in which inanimate objects speak – a mirror, the underground and some A4 yellow pages (on Hoban’s birthday, devotees would deposit, in various public places, neatly folded sheets of yellow A4 paper carrying quotations from his novels). Turtle Diary (1975) was adapted into a screenplay by Harold Pinter for a film starring Glenda Jackson and Ben Kingsley.
Riddley Walker, Hoban’s next novel, took him five years and 14 drafts to complete. Such was its complexity that Hoban resorted to visiting a psychoanalyst every week to read aloud each phase of the novel on the grounds that his brain, being the tool of his trade, needed to be regularly serviced.
Hoban returned to his Jewish roots in Pilgermann (1983). In the early 1990s he wrote the libretto to Harrison Birtwistle’s opera, The Second Mrs Kong, which was premiered at Glyndebourne in 1994.
His next book, Angelica’s Grotto (1999), concerned an elderly man’s journey into the world of cyberporn and ended with its anti-hero crushed under the wheels of a number 14 bus. This was followed in 2001 by Amaryllis — “Describing the book”, wrote one reviewer, “is as pointless as describing a good meal to a hungry diner” — and then The Bat Tattoo (2002). His last book, published in 2010, was Angelica Lost and Found.
Russell Hoban married secondly, in 1975, Gundula Ahl, who survives him with their three sons, and a son and three daughters from his first marriage.
Hoban once ruefully observed that death would be a good career move: “People will say, 'yes, Hoban, he seems an interesting writer, let’s look at him again’.”
Russell Hoban, born February 4 1925, died December 13 2011