Title: The Graveyard Book Writer: Neil GaimanPublisher: Bloomsbury (RRP £14.99; Hardback)
Once upon a time, there was a novel called The Graveyard Book which started with a triple murder and a baby adopted by ghosts who went to live in a graveyard. As he grew up, he was tutored by spirits, witches and werewolves, learning how to fade and to ‘dreamwalk’. But then the bad man Jack found him and wanted to finish off what he had started before the boy became a man. The magical wordsmith Neil Gaiman, cast his spell of special enchantment which captured kids and adults alike. It brought the dead alive and filled the living with imagination. It was indeed a great book that could be read again and again so that all lived happily ever after.
Once again Gaiman confirms his reputation as a master of the modern fairytale. He opens the gates of our imagination to folklore and fables, dreams and nightmares which inhabit a world only a blink away from our own. Beyond his acclaimed Sandman series, his modern mythologies have been presented in novels such as American Gods, Stardust, and Coraline. By its very title, The Graveyard Book suggests a story that’s dipped in the dark inks of the macabre, which indeed it is, but it also serves as the setting for all the otherworldy adventures of his young hero and in many ways, it’s the supernatural companion to Kipling’s The Jungle Book.
It’s a disturbing beginning. A mysterious knifeman called Jack has killed a family and is hunting down the last member, a baby boy who has clambered out of his cot and somehow made his weary to an old graveyard. There he encounters ghostly Mr. and Mrs. Owen, who adopt him as their own son, as well as finding himself with a darkly garbed guardian called Silas. With the sinister Jack still hunting him down, he remains protected as long as he stays within the confines of the graveyard. Since no-one knows his real name, he gets christened Nobody, or Bod for short, and he grows up under the tutelage of spirit world teachers including the lupine Miss Lupescu. Amongst his other ghostly family are such characters as the Roman Caius Pompeius, Mother Slaughter, Josiah Worthington and the poet Nehemiah Trot.
Each chapter moves us along a few years in Bod’s life, finding new lessons he learns from encounters with the leathery child-stealing Ghoul, the winger Night-gaunt and the snake-like Sleer who guard the remains of The Indigo Man buried in the oldest tomb. In other tales he meets the playful witch, Liza Hempstock, the mysterious Lady On The Grey as well as proper people who live in the outside world, avaricious shopkeepers and schoolboy bullies.
More significantly, Bod also meets a young girl, Scarlett Amber Perkins, who befriends him as a boy and then reappears at the crucial time when Jack, along with the remaining Jacks of All Trade, is closing in on his long sought-after prey. Indeed, once they Jacks are defeated, Bod’s education is complete. As a sixteen-year old, he’s all ready to enter the real world before finally returning to the graveyard. As we’re reminded in the closing words, “But between now and then, there was Life: and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open”.
If anyone doubts that the magic of storytelling has been devoured by the ogres of mass market forces, then The Graveyard Book is a tale that’s sure to raise your spirits and have you joining in the Danse Macabre too. Not only is Gaiman’s writing style hypnotically engaging, woven with rhymes and poems that recall those old traditional folksongs of childhood, but there’s the complementary shadowy illustrations by Dave McKean (for the adult-inclined audience) and more ethereal images from Chris Riddell in the children’s edition. There’s no doubt that Nobody Owens is sure to be somebody who will be loved by readers for generations to come.
The Graveyard Book is available now.