The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Master story teller of dark tales Neil Gaiman produced another brilliant book for young adults back in 2008 and my Bloomsbury edition is beautifully illustrated by Chris Riddell. Gaiman is probably best known for his books Coraline and Stardust both of which were turned into wonderfully strange films, along with the comic novel masterpiece that is Sandman and his collaboration with Terry Pratchett in writing Good Omens. The American edition, also released in 2008 was illustrated by Dave McKean who also did all the covers for the Sandman graphic novels and this version contains far more illustrations than the UK edition but I really like the sparseness of the Riddell pictures, see the two examples below. The darkness of the novel starts right from page one where before we get to the bottom of the page our hero’s entire family, mother, father and elder sister have been murdered by the man Jack and he is going up the stairs to kill him who is just eighteen months old. First is the picture by Chris Riddell and then comes part of the image of the same scene by Dave McKean.

Fortunately for the, as yet unnamed, toddler he had heard something and climbed out of his cot using his teddy bear as a stepladder and had worked his way down the stairs whilst the man Jack had been killing his family. Finding the front door open he had gone outside as stairs going up were far more difficult than bouncing down on your bottom so the choices were limited and tottered up the road outside until he reached what looked like a park. The man Jack followed him by scent, for there is a lot more to the man Jack than just a common assassin as we will find out as the book progresses, but as for the toddler he is now at an old graveyard, one that is no longer used for burials and is now, at least during the daytime, a nature park, but it is currently nighttime and the gates are locked but the child could squeeze through the railings. Eventually the man Jack tracks down the child and gets into the graveyard only to be confronted with the ghosts who ‘live’ there along with Silas (more of him later) and after a brief appearance of the ghosts of his family the inhabitants of the graveyard decide to look after the child as best they can.

Silas convinces the man Jack to leave using one of his powers which is to be extremely convincing even to such as Jack and is appointed the child’s guardian by the rest of the ghosts because Silas can leave the graveyard and exist in the world of the living as he is neither dead nor alive. It is never made clear in the book who, or indeed what, Silas is but he is clearly from the realm of the undead. All of this takes place in the first five pages of what is a 289 page book so as you can see Gaiman packs a lot of story into this work which was written piecemeal as he came up with ideas.

My son Michael inspired this book. He was only two years old, riding his little tricycle between gravestones in the summer, and I had a book in my head. Then it just took me twenty-something years to write it.

When I started writing the book (I started with Chapter Four) only my daughter Maddy’s request to know what happened next kept me writing beyond the first couple of pages

From the Acknowledgements at the rear of the book

Chapter four was originally published as a short story entitled ‘The Witch’s Headstone’ in a couple of anthologies and each of the chapters from two to seven make up complete short stories set a couple of years apart as Bod, as he becomes known, grows up in the graveyard with Silas able to bring food and clothes from the town of the living to keep him alive and the ghosts teaching him what they can. Bod, short for Nobody, makes a friend for a short while and Scarlett features in a couple of the chapters, Bod even manages to go to school for a while but that doesn’t end well and the man Jack reappears to try to finish what he started all those years ago but this time Bod is a teenager and on his own territory and knows just how to deal with the man Jack and his four accomplices. The book has funny parts as well as sections of considerable menace and appeals to adults both young and old. I loved it. There was even talk of making a film but despite a few abortive attempts nothing has yet come of that. But for me the most fun way to enjoy the book is with Neil Gaiman himself reading it which can be found here. This is the American edition so some of the words have been changed, a nappy becomes a diaper for example but even so enjoy…

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

I’ve been a fan of Neil Gaiman’s writings for many years but I really don’t understand the reason for comics for adults so have stayed away from the creation that really launched Gaiman as a fantasy superstar writer, The Sandman series. Don’t get me wrong, I loved comics as a kid and have really enjoyed the nostalgia of the recent Folio Society triple set of Marvel reprints for what is known as the Gold, Silver and Bronze ages of comic books and reviewed the Silver Age edition almost a year ago here but I’ve never read a graphic novel or indeed been that interested in trying. I might have known that Gaiman would eventually draw me to a genre I have ignored for so long. Preludes and Nocturnes collates the first eight comics from The Sandman series which eventually ran to seventy five issues from January 1989 to March 1996.

The first comic deals with the capture of The Sandman, aka Morpheus, aka Dream in 1916 through a magical incantation that goes wrong. Roderick Burgess and his acolytes were actually trying to summon and capture Death and got instead the ruler of dreams. Frustrated by their prisoner clearly not being the right target and his refusal to say anything so they don’t know which powerful entity they have actually trapped they leave him in the magic circle hoping he will talk and be of use, but he simply sits there , biding his time, for seventy years, until he is accidentally released. After swiftly taking his revenge on the only mortal still alive who was involved in his capture he finds that his realm has gone to wrack and ruin in his absence and his three essential tools, his bag of sand, his helmet and his ruby talisman have gone missing and without them his powers are dramatically reduced.

The next six comics deal with his recovery of the missing artefacts, some of these stories work rather better than the others. The main failure is Passengers which tries too hard to make The Sandman part of the DC Comics universe by jamming other characters from that stable of superheroes and villains into the story line. Yes The Sandman is a DC character, initially created by Joe Simon and Mark Fleisher in 1974 in the traditional hero suit of close fitting top and tights but the Gaiman re-invention of the character fifteen years later doesn’t sit well amongst the costumed heroes and it just feels wrong, even Gaiman describes the attempt as “perhaps misguided”. These all come under the horror fantasy genre, especially 24 Hours which would definitely get an adults only certificate if it was filmed. The dark artwork if perfectly fitted to the story although the original artist left after just five comics and the design subtly changed at that point but not as much as it was going to do.

The page below is from the final comic in this volume, The Sandman now has his power restored and so his initial quest is complete. The resolution has come as an anticlimax and what he doesn’t know now is what to do next so is reduced to just sitting, feeding the pigeons in a park until his sister arrives to try to shake him out of his deep reverie. As you can see the artwork is very different in this comic which is effectively a codicil to the first seven, I actually enjoyed this episode more than those before it and this is the first slight hint of the existence of The Endless a group of seven siblings who are like gods (although there is no specific reference to the family this early on in The Sandman series). In the final panel of this comic, and the book, you see that The Sandman is back.

Did I enjoy reading this? Yes. Will I therefore purchase and read the rest? Probably not. It was fun to experience such a complex story in the comic format but I don’t feel the need to read more in this style. I am intrigued by the recent audio version being produced as a series of dramas by Dirk Maggs whose work in the field of adapting fantasy novels to audio dramas I greatly admire, so ironically I may well continue my experience of reading a graphic novel but in a format with no pictures.

Gaslight and Ghosts – Stephen Jones & Jo Fletcher (Editors)

This book was published in conjunction with the 1988 World Fantasy Convention held in October in London and contains works by what is presumably all the featured guests. That horror writer James Herbert was the guest of honour naturally led to a book of horror and supernatural tales interspersed with some articles on the subject, for example Neil Gaiman, with his journalists hat on, wrote an appreciation of the James Herbert’s works and literary merit. Some writers provided extracts from new or future novels such as Clive Barker’s Cabal or Terry Pratchett’s Pyramids, others supplied short stories from existing collections but there are also numerous new works represented in the twenty two stories and articles in the book, including the piece by James Herbert. Even the editors wrote a short horror teaser together as the opening story rather than a more predictable introduction.

On the 31st October, Halloween, I was between books for this blog and fancied something totally different from what I had been reading and preferably something I could read in small chunks as I didn’t want a full blown novel, maybe a collection of short stories would fit the bill? Perusing the shelves led to Gaslight and Ghosts and it just felt natural that this should be the book to start then. It is decades since I last read a horror or even a simple ghost story, Susan Hill in the book I reviewed last week even wondered if you grow out of them, well the answer is no you don’t.

From the articles included, Neil Gaiman’s review of the literary career of James Herbert is a s well written as you would expect from a writer of his talents. Hugh Lamb contributed a fascinating insight into Victorian horror stories and the joys and difficulties tracking them down and bringing them to modern readers. Mike Ashley produced an interesting summary of the relationship between the American magazine Weird Tales in the 1920’s and 30’s and the dozen books edited by Christine Campbell Thomson in the UK known as the ‘Not the Night’ series which largely seem to be a way of getting round the differing copyright laws on either side of the Atlantic. However Kim Newman supplied a frankly tedious twenty nine page listing of films featuring Jack the Ripper however tenuously he was in them.

But it is the stories that you come to a compendium like this for and there are some really great tales. I particularly liked ‘Beyond Any Measure’ by Karl Edward Wagner which is also by far the longest story in the collection and ‘Immortal Blood’ by Barbara Hambly. Both of these are vampire tales, which I definitely thought I had grown out of, but they are so well written the genre didn’t interfere with a cracking good tale. The oldest story included is ‘The Writer in the Garret’ by Brian Lumley which dates back to 1971 and was genuinely creepy even though you have a horrible feeling that you know how it is going to end; whilst the second oldest, ‘Cat and Mouse’ by Ramsey Campbell, from 1972 is truly terrifying. I could go on James Herbert’s ‘Halloween’s Child’ was written especially for the book and is as un-nerving as you would expect from this master of horror and to relieve the tension both Brian Aldiss and Diana Wynne Jones both provided humorous stories. This volume, as with any anthology associated with a specific event, is tricky but not impossible to track down and is definitely worth the effort.

I bought the book second hand and my copy is multiple signed, clearly the original owner had been round the convention getting as many people as possible to sign it on the opening page of their story or in one case an illustration. The signatories are a spread of the great and the good from 1980’s horror and fantasy writing: Stephen Jones and Jo Fletcher, James Herbert, Neil Gaiman, Clive Barker, Brian Lumley, Dave Carson (illustrator), Ronald Chetwynd-Hayes, Robert Holdstock, Ramsey Campbell, Karl Edward Wagner, Terry Pratchett, Adrian Cole, Kim Newman and Charles L Grant. Sadly a lot of these are no longer with us and the most notable omission from the signed stories is the one by Brian Aldiss who has also unfortunately died in the intervening thirty two years since publication.

A really good book, I’m glad I was wondering what to read on Halloween.