The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Review

The latest novel from Neil Gaiman may feature ghosts and other outer-dimensional creepies, but it's much more than that.

It’s been seven long years since Neil Gaiman has written an “adult” novel. And by “adult” I mean, a work aimed at mature audiences…not “adult” in the sense of anything remotely porny or anything like that. The last time Neil Gaiman worked outside of the official “children’s literature” genre was 2005’s Anansi Boys, but seriously…any grown-up with a pulse who didn’t get the best kind of chills when they read The Graveyard Book in 2009 probably doesn’t care for Mr. Gaiman much in the first place. And like the very best of his work, his latest novel blurs the line between adult and juvenile concerns as deftly as he mixes fantasy with reality. The Ocean at the End of the Lane may market itself as an adult horror story, but it’s just as much about the mysteries of childhood, and it can (and should) be enjoyed by anyone who can handle a good scare.So, what’s it all about, then? The Ocean at the End of the Lane is the story of a man in his early fifties who returns to his childhood home, only to find long dormant memories awakened. These memories include his friendship with a mysterious young girl named Lettie Hempstock, not to mention her nebulous mother/grandmother/other manifestations of older generations of Hempstock women, all of whom wield profound, reality-warping powers. In the course of the young Lettie Hempstock’s attempt to banish an entity that’s making a (sometimes deadly) nuisance of itself, something far worse is let out into the world.As usual, Neil Gaiman does what he does best: he creates intricate magical worlds that become real to the reader, not simply because he says so, but because he makes you believe that he believes in them. Like Sandman and American Gods, there’s a rich mythology that’s implied here, although virtually none of it is actually explored. The Hempstock women aren’t “witches” in any traditional sense, and their shifting, weird nature would feel right at home in the world of the Endless. There are rules that must be followed, and laws which govern their magical world, although few are actually explained to us. They don’t need to be, they simply exist. That’s not an easy thing to do.Much of the novel seems to deal with themes of boundaries and the blurring of lines. The narrator (who, along with his family, remains nameless for the entirety of the book) comes back to his childhood home as he’s passing the barrier of middle age, while his younger self is still firmly in the grip of childhood (he’s about seven years old), without the stirring of puberty to color his outlook. Since childhood is a time when reality and fantasy can bleed into each other far too easily there’s always the hint of a question as to whether what he is relating is as it appears. As a result, the supernatural forces at work in The Ocean at the End of the Lane also have a nebulous quality. Are the Hempstocks three generations of women, or three manifestations of one being? Are these magical events really happening, or are they result of a bookish little boy’s overactive imagination? Is this truly magic at work, or a kind of ancient science that we can’t possibly comprehend?Told in the first person, Gaiman’s nameless narrator (who, it should be noted, sounds an awful lot like what we imagine young Mr. Gaiman himself would have been like) never lets the cynicism of his older self to creep into the wide-eyed wonder of his younger counterpart. He recounts the events and thoughts of childhood with a detached clarity of purpose, and several times in the course of the book (like when he confesses “feeling like I was letting childhood down” by popping his friend’s seemingly imaginary “ocean” that appears to be just a backyard pond) he articulates abstract child-thought as clearly as any writer could ever hope to.In fact, so enthralling is Gaiman’s childhood inner monologue that much of The Ocean at the End of the Lane could work just as well if you pulled the supernatural elements out of it entirely. Were this simply the story of a seven year old boy with an active imagination, his friendship with an equally odd eleven year old girl down the road, and his responses and observations to the sometimes difficult adult world, it would still manage to be a page turner. However, the genuine scares (and there are a few of them) that you’ll get out of this one would certainly be missed.The Ocean at the End of the Lane fits perfectly alongside the magical worlds Mr. Gaiman has created in his other works. Gaiman devotees will find familiar elements (like the matter-of-fact “this is simply the way things are” treatment of the supernatural) downright comforting, even as some of the creepier undertones make with the scares. I suppose there’s a chance that some readers might be put off by the neat and tidy (in that rather precious “Wes Anderson” way) that the characters fit into their roles in the world, but those probably aren’t people who need to be reading this anyway. As a way to while away a few hazy summer nights as we await the crispness of autumn and the craving for more traditional horror that it brings, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is indispensable. Now, Mr. Gaiman, please don’t make us wait so long for the next one.Den of Geek Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for all news updates related to the world of geek. And Google+, if that’s your thing!