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By (November 1, 2008) One Comment

The Graveyard Book

By Neil Gaiman, with illustrations by Dave McKean
HarperCollins, 2008

On September 30th, Neil Gaiman began a countrywide tour to promote his new young adult novel, The Graveyard Book. Columbia University’s Teacher’s College sponsored the first stop on the tour, and I ventured uptown to take in the reading. I’ve attended a book reading or two in my life, and I’ve come to expect modest gatherings of literary aficionados asking mildly clever questions and sipping wine. Before reaching Columbia’s campus, I knew that Neil Gaiman’s fan base was too large (and young) to permit these simple pleasures, so I braced myself for a night without sherry. I did not expect, however, a t-shirt seller at the door.

“Can I buy the book here?”

“Oh no, that is the line for the books (nearly 75 Goth-ish people long), but you have a choice of two T-shirts.”

“Oh, all right. Um, how much?”

“$25 each.”

This is first point in the evening when I began laughing. Perhaps chortling in the face of a salesgirl is rude, but I could not imagine buying a t-shirt emblazoned with a cartoon version of Gaiman. It still makes me giggle, in fact – I keep picturing t-shirt renditions of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, and Zadie Smith. “Come on! Buy your own Philip Roth!”

And the hoopla was only beginning. Gaiman walked out to wild cheers and calmly outlined the schedule for the rest of the evening. He would read the first chapter, stop for an intermission during which everyone could buy more books, show a clip from the movie adaptation of his book Coraline, and then answer pre-selected questions from members of the audience. Neil Gaiman no longer signs books for individuals attending his readings—apparently, fans tend to lose their composure when they reach Gaiman at the signing table after waiting in line for hours. Gaiman explained that rather than asking sensible and thoughtful questions, his readers tend to have a Beatlemania-type reaction and say things like, “I like your hair.” So really, selling pre-signed books and answering pre-vetted questions is better. Well, okay then, McCartney.

Neil Gaiman’s popularity began in 1989 when The Sandman comics found a huge audience of tortured teenagers and twenty-somethings. The same people who were listening to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine picked up Gaiman’s stories about The Endless, Death, and Dream. Since Gaiman’s characterization of Death as a cute goth-punk chick hit the comic book stands nearly twenty years ago in the influential story The Sound of Her Wings in Sandman #8, Gaiman has enjoyed a fervent fan base. Branching from his successes in comics, he has experimented with different kinds of literature: adult novels, screenplays, and young adult novels. (I keep imagining all those young twenty-somethings from the early nineties nearing middle age, investing in mortgages, and buying Gaiman’s mildly macabre children stories for their kids in a fit of nostalgia.)

In every format, his writing offers a quirky mixture of myth, traces of Goth counterculture, and humor – his recent trick of rendering Grendel’s mother as a role suitable for Angelina Jolie in the 2007 film of Beowulf epitomizes his tendency to mishmash traditional literature and contemporary cool. And as in the original Sandman stories, his self-consciously literary characters often wear black, love good music, and encounter death (and sometimes Death herself). For some reason, intense Goths have remained a fixture in American high schools since the late eighties, so Gaiman’s readings continue to be populated by an array of Sandman-loving teenagers wearing black lace (as well as forty-somethings with kids trailing along). Gaiman has written several entertaining books in addition to Sandman (notably Good Omens, which he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett, and Coraline), but his audiences are still crowded with Death’s devotees.

As Gaiman began reading from chapter one, I recalled descriptions of Charles Dickens’ famous public reading tours. Dickens would grow so passionate in his performances of Nancy’s death scene in Oliver Twist that members of the audience would faint. Neither Gaiman’s performance nor prose will make anyone faint, but Gaiman shares Dickens’ flair for audience pleasing, public speaking, and publicity. He gamely changed accents, pantomimed, and paused for comic effect. In truth, I enjoyed hearing him read the book more than I enjoyed reading the book myself – he brought out textual nuances and played up comedic moments (that are quite tepid in print) for full effect. Gaiman clearly excels at writing prose that improves upon performance. I’m not surprised that he has developed such a flamboyant reading style because the audience goes away thinking that the story is hilarious and insightful when it is, in truth, only a moderately amusing trifle.

The Graveyard Book relates the story of a boy named Nobody Owens (whose nickname is Bod). In the first chapter, baby Bod’s parents and sister are knifed to death by a shadowy figure named “the man Jack.” This evil Jack also seeks to slaughter little Bod who toddles off to the neighboring graveyard where he is adopted by several friendly ghosts before the murderer can catch up with him. This scenario sounds horrifying, doesn’t it? Not at all the sort of thing you’d want to read your eight year-old—but to Gaiman the triple homicide is peripheral to the main plot. Rather than lingering over the presumably bleeding and mutilated bodies of the family, Gaiman details Bod’s adorable descent down the staircase before he wanders into the graveyard:

Stairs that went up were tricky things, and he had not yet entirely mastered them. Stairs that went down however, he had discovered, were fairly simple. He did them sitting down, bumping from step to step on his well-padded bottom.

He sucked on his nummer, the rubber pacifier his mother had just begun to tell him that he was getting too old for.

His diaper had worked itself loose on his journey on his bottom down the stairs, and when he reached the last step, when he reached the little hall and stood up, the diaper fell off.

I’m not sure how a young reader would react to this cutesy scene, but I kept wondering about the gruesome murders in the other room.

The essential plot struck me as quite sad despite Gaiman’s insistently light tone. Although lonely orphans are dime-a-dozen in coming of age narratives, the parents of Oliver Twist, Harry Potter, Violet Baudelaire, and others usually die sometime before the events of the novel. And while Bambi and Babar’s parents do perish as part of the plot, the literary technique of anthropomorphizing animals (such as deer and elephants) still distances children from the image of their human parents being murdered. (Nevertheless, I must admit to being traumatized when the hunters shot Bambi’s mother in the Disney movie.) By focusing on the child’s movements just when the parents are slaughtered downstairs, Gaiman makes the killing an afterthought even as it’s happening. The parents’ tormented specters conveniently fade away after placing Bod into the care of Mister and Mistress Owens, two affable and homely ghosts. Later in the book, when Bod (as a teenager) swears revenge on the man Jack, I felt some relief that someone in the book was finally taking the crime seriously, but this vengeance merely serves as another hurdle in Bod’s ongoing development.

Why does Gaiman bother giving the parents a grisly death when their absence is only a plot device? Why mention “the pattern of the knife wounds”? I assume to build up the man Jack as a terrible villain, but this baddie pretty much disappears until the end of the novel – it’s almost as if Gaiman realized at a late stage in the drafting process that a knife-wielding mass murderer might be too intense for a funny children’s book. Like the boogey man, the man Jack pops up unexpectedly to terrify and intimidate in the penultimate chapter, but it’s difficult to be frightened by a book that strains for laughs. I imagine that Gaiman is aiming for the arch and thrilling pitch of the Lemony Snicket books, but the dissonance between tone and content begins The Graveyard Book on a jarring note – a disturbing murder is merely a pretext to introduce a bunch of droll, kooky spirits from previous centuries.

A few years ago, Gaiman wrote a genuinely creepy young adult book, Coraline—the spooky image of smothering, doppelgänger parents with button eyes still bothers me from time to time—but in this novel he’s more interested in mapping out the afterlife than ratcheting up suspense. Nobody Owens gets into mischief in the odd, but comfortable world of the dead, and Gaiman defuses potentially alarming incidents by arming his boy protagonist with innate bravery as well as ghostly powers such as the ability to fade from human eyes, walk through walls, and speak to supernatural creatures. Gaiman says that Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book provided inspiration for this novel, and Bod explores the graveyard and otherworld much as Mowgli discovered the jungle. As soon as The Graveyard Book shifts from mock-horror to a serial adventure, the tonal imbalance ceases to be a major problem.

Gaiman has always excelled at writing serialized short stories, and the Sandman graphic novels still represent his best work. The format of monthly comic books perfectly suits a writer like Gaiman who hardly ever prolongs a narrative with complex characterization or sustained plotlines; instead he sticks together a number of short narratives, quick incidences, and colorful characters. A theme may recur from time to time, but he excels at collage. This serial style also functions well in the adventure genre – in an earlier novel, Neverwhere, he follows a young male protagonist who, in this case, navigates a strange world beneath the streets of London – like Bod, Richard Mayhew comes to know himself as he endures various trials and harrowing encounters in an alien world. (Moreover, the man Jack seems like the blood brother of Neverwhere’s nasties, Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Croup.) Guiding the reader through an alternative landscape enables Gaiman to collect short adventures and a number of bizarre interlopers, but the plot, a straightforward bildungsroman, keeps the novel hanging together.

When Bod comes to live in the graveyard (because it is the only place he is safe from the man Jack), a mysterious gentleman offers to be his guardian; much like the panther Bagheera in The Jungle Book, shadowy Silas advises Bod as he grapples with the strange world around him. Silas is the perfect mentor because he walks among the living and dead – he’s undead…and mirrors don’t show this reflection…and he doesn’t eat human food…and he sleeps during the day. Gaiman coyly alludes to Silas’s nature without ever saying “he’s a vampire!” It was my favorite running joke. When the undead nightwalker first arrived on the scene, I feared that the man Jack was the least of the boy’s troubles. But just as Bagheera never clawed Mowgli, Silas never bites Bod. For a vampire, he’s rather toothless. Instead Silas provides comfort, sustenance, and wry commentary throughout Bod’s life: “It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. ‘It will,’ said Silas, ‘take a graveyard.’”

Neil Gaiman

As the plot unfolds, Bod has several daring exploits, but the most intriguing chapter relates his run-in with some unpleasant ghouls who attempt to abduct him. Ghouls are former public officials who have shrunk to the size of apes, and Ghoul Gates shuttle them between Earth and their nightmarish city, Ghûlheim:

Down the street and up the hill came the Duke of Westminster, the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh, and the Bishop of Bath and Wells, slipping and bounding from shadow to shadow, lean and leathery, all sinews and cartilage, wearing raggedy clothes all a-tatter, and they bounded and loped and skulked, leapfrogging over dustbins, keeping to the dark sides of hedges.

They were small, like full-size people who had shrunk in the sun; they spoke to each other in undertones, saying things like, “If Your Grace has any more blooming idea of where we is than us do, I’d be grateful if he’d say so. Otherwise, he should keep his big offal-hole shut.”

When Bod runs into the wiry ghoulies, he foolishly decides to accompany them through the Ghoul Gate because he’s miffed at Silas (who has gone on a secret trip). Once on the other side of the gate, Bod enters a desert landscape:

The sky was red, but not the warm red of a sunset. This was an angry, glowering red, the color of an infected wound. …The air was cold and they were descending a wall. Tombstones and statues jutted out the side of the wall, as if a huge graveyard had been upended, and, like three wizened chimpanzees in tattered black suits that did up in the back, the Duke of Westminster, the Bisop of Bath and Well, and the Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh were swinging from stone to stone, dangling Bod between them as they went, tossing him from one to another, never missing him, always catching him with ease, without even looking.

The evocation of Kipling’s Bandar-log monkeys from “Kaa’s Hunting” demark these former rulers as the purveyors of anarchy and mayhem in the afterlife, and the ghoulies (like The Jungle Book’s monkeys) believe in their own supreme worthiness: “They all started to tell stories, then, of how fine and wonderful a thing it was to be a ghoul, of all the things they had crunched up and swallowed down with their powerful teeth.” Gaiman’s innovation of portraying former nobles, clergymen, presidents, emperors, and even Victor Hugo as carrion-eating, megalomaniacal monkeys gives this section a satirical edge, but I’m still not quite sure why Gaiman chose certain political figures like Harry Truman as targets. Pondering the section’s allegorical significance, I immediately realized that I was probably over-thinking the matter – would Gaiman insert serious political sentiment into a children’s book? Perhaps including the 33rd president of the United States was just a funny touch…unless the crimson desert summons up a post-atomic bomb landscape. I wonder whether Gaiman inserts these dark details into his young adult novels for the benefit of his original fan base, or if maybe Gaiman himself can’t help adding a dash of adult horror and countercultural rebellion to his whimsical childhood fright-tale. Sandman offered an alternative mythology as well as a literary outlet for discontented outsiders in the eighties and nineties, and Gaiman continues to critique the powers-that-be using stylish imagery. But how could young readers have the background information or the interpretive skill to understand this critique?

As the ghouls rush Bod off through the red desert, the young boy realizes his horrible misstep when he finally witnesses Ghûlheim:

Bod could see that all of the angles were wrong—that the walls sloped crazily, that it was every nightmare he had ever endured made into a place, like a huge mouth of jutting teeth. It was a city that had been built just to be abandoned, in which all the fears and madnesses and revulsions of the creatures who built it were made into stone.

This monument of fear with its honeycombed walls recalls Lucifer’s hell in the Sandman series’ Season of Mists. I love Gaiman’s tendency to insert images from his past works into his latest projects—in this case, he rewards his dedicated adult readers with the knowledge that the ghouls are dragging Bod straight to Hell. But this intersection between The Graveyard Book, which is supposedly intended for children and pre-teens, and Sandman’s very adult rendering of Lucifer’s domain makes me wonder again about Gaiman’s intended audience.

While the best children’s books appeal to adults as well, Gaiman, with his morbid imagery and allusions to even more grotesque scenarios, straddles the line between adult horror and a children’s thriller. Of course, there is a long history of grisly children’s literature spanning from the Grimm’s Fairy Tales to E.C. Comics to R.L. Stine, but Gaiman seems to be holding himself back from writing disturbing adult horror to placate his younger audience. I kept feeling like Gaiman wanted to venture all the way to Hell, but instead Bod escapes at the gates.

I realize that young adult books are selling like hotcakes nowadays, but it seems like a shame that Gaiman would choose to remove the bite from his own books. Much like Silas the Vampire who gives tender advice and then slips away from the reader’s view to pursue more exciting and bloody adventures, Gaiman seems locked into a parental (or perhaps pedantic) role. In The Graveyard Book, he briefly alludes to the Convocation of Jacks, a battle in San Francisco, and the fatal journey of a vampire, a “hound of god,” and an ifrit. I kept yearning for that novel rather than the comparatively meek children’s story I found myself reading. At the end of the novel, Bod leaves the graveyard to pursue his life as an adult:

There was a passport in his bag, money in his pocket. There was a smile dancing on his lips, although it was a wary smile, for the world is a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill; and there would be dangers in it and mysteries, new friends to make, old friends to rediscover, mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before he would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion.

And I wanted to keep reading. Without the childhood protections of the graveyard (or the young adult genre), Bod’s life as a mortal with specialized knowledge of the dead has great potential. I hope that Gaiman will take some of the ideas that he developed in this uneven book and write a no-holds-barred sequel intended for mature readers. While Gaiman and his publishers doubtlessly profit from quirky, declawed teen horror tales during the current young adult literature boom, Gaiman shouldn’t underestimate the dedication of his adult fans or ignore his own tendency to invent mature content. Is a sequel likely? Who knows? But since Gaiman recycles characters and alternates between writing comics, adult novels, young adult novels, and screenplays with some regularity, perhaps he will oblige. His Death-obsessed legions of Gothy (and former Gothy) fans would adore it.

Sharon Fulton is a PhD candidate in English literature at Columbia University. She is working on a dissertation about the role of animals in the literary dream-visions of the late fourteenth-century.

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