The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman


What I’ve read of Gaiman’s work–I haven’t gotten around to The Sandman–is pretty dark; a man is sucked into the nightmare world of London Below, a little girl must rescue her real parents from the ghoulish button-eyed Other Mother, and The Graveyard Book is no exception. It begins with the brutal murder of four of the five members of a family, and the narrow escape of the youngest, a toddler boy.

The toddler wanders into a graveyard now converted into a nature preserve near his home, where he is taken in by a middle-aged childless couple, the Owens…who are ghosts. (This is a graveyard, after all.) The permanent inhabitants of the graveyard confer, advised by Silas on events outside the cemetery, and the “Lady In Grey” suggests they keep him until the world outside their boundaries is safe once again for him. As he doesn’t know his own name, he’s called Nobody Owens, Bod for short. The Owens provide what under the circumstances might be called a stable loving home environment, a vampire Silas supplies Bod’s physical needs, the many ghost children–people died young in past centuries–provide friendship, and the inhabitants of the graveyard something approximating a village. How is a child Bod’s age to know that there’s anything untoward about this? The world itself is strange to young children, and “imaginary” creatures quite as real as daylight things; how is a three-year-old to know he ought to be afraid of ghosts, when they’re proffering comfort? So he isn’t.

Bod has a few forays into the outside world and contact with the living. He befriends a little girl, Scarlett, who is eventually convinced by her mother that Bod is only her imaginary friend and the adventures with him inside the graveyard only nightmares. Bod attempts attending school, but is bullied into revealing himself. He tries to purchase a headstone from a pawnbroker for a woman buried as a witch (because she was, though not the kind the people feared). Overall, though, it’s more or less a description of growing up in a graveyard, and what one might need to learn there: Fading, Dream Walking and Haunting. At least until the Man Jack who killed his parents discovered that the youngest and last member of that family whose members he was assigned to kill all is yet alive, and comes for him. Bod releases the Sleer, something approximating the archetypal Boogeyman Under the Barrow, which offs Jack.

The book ends as Bod goes out into the world of the living, having outgrown the world within the graveyard as children usually do outgrow their ability to see monsters in the closet, under the bed or hiding in culverts.

As with many fantasies, if you stop to think about it, the plot unravels a bit. Ghosts are uncorporeal: how could they do the necessary physical things for a child, such as put on sticking plasters or teach him to tie his shoes? If Bod cannot leave the graveyard at all (and Silas only at night), how does Bod manage routine medical attention, such as vaccinations administered or cavities filled? How does he bathe? Here I will digress somewhat into Jasper Fforde’s third Thursday Next book, The Well of Lost Plots, in which Our Protagonist, a woman from what we would consider ‘reality’ seeks refuge in the world of fiction: the people within that world are mystified by her ability to smell and to distinguish between speakers in dialogue without identifiers, and she equally by the lack of breakfasts or needing to change vacuum cleaner bags and absence of illnesses between the minor, such as colds, and the swiftly fatal.

If you stop to think too hard about most fiction, you start to spot holes like this everywhere. Mundane stuff doesn’t come up in fiction unless it furthers the plot–remember Chekhov’s gun?–but we’ll just have to take it as given that people in novels DO dull routine tasks, such as fill their car’s gas tank, wait to get prescriptions filled, clean house and so on. That said, I can understand if people don’t like Gaiman’s work; that’s fine. I can also understand if you like some books by Gaiman, or any given author, but not others; that’s true of many authors! Maybe you like the Underground stations in Neverwhere, or the noir air of American Gods, or the illustrations in The Sandman.

Gaiman hints at many of the details in The Graveyard Book; he never specifies that Silas is a vampire or Miss Lupescu is a werewolf–there’s no sucking blood or transforming under the full moon. He never goes into much detail about the Jacks’ social/business networking techniques (for lack of a better fantasy term), and overall the book’s more than slightly episodic, a collection of short stories rather than a unified novel; there’s no overarching plot or theme other than Bod’s life in the cemetery, and eventual departure. Fans of Gaiman’s work will like it, as will (I think) children who prefer stories about things that go bump under the coffin than sweetly cotton-candyish books.

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