Saturday, October 8, 2011

Shelter from the Storm

The Graveyard Book, written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Dave McKean (2008): After a run of stinky book and comic-book projects, Gaiman returned to form with this riff on Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book that won several major awards, including children's novel honours the Carnegie Medal and the Newbery. Rather than being raised by a forest of animals like Mowgli, young Nobody Owens is raised by the mostly dead inhabitants of an English graveyard.

He doesn't start off as Nobody Owens. Instead, an 18-month-old toddler fortuitously wanders into a no-longer-active graveyard on the same night his parents and sister are killed by a mysterious, knife-wielding man called only Jack. The ghosts of the graveyard and the mysterious Guardian we know only as Silas -- supernatural but not a ghost -- band together to protect and raise the baby they christen Nobody Owens (or 'Bod' for short) over the next 13 years or so. The killer continues to look for Bod, so the child remains for the most part inside the graveyard at all times.

Thankfully, being granted The Freedom of the Graveyard by its inhabitants also grants Bod a number of supernatural powers, though he does have to practice to perfect them. Eventually, he can walk through walls while in the graveyard, fade from sight almost anywhere, and induce a certain measure of fear in others if he concentrates.

Needless to say, all these powers will be needed by the end of the book. Jack's still out there, and he has friends. In a subtextual narrative reminiscent of Clive Barker's Nightbreed (though much, much more child-friendly), The Graveyard Book pits the mysterious supernatural "monsters" of horror fiction's long history against the knife-wielding maniacs of horror's more recent past.

The ghosts of the graveyard are a lively bunch from throughout history -- the graveyard has been active in one form or another for several thousand years. A mysterious but strangely pitiful magical being that calls itself a Sleer guards a treasure cache and a grave hidden within a mound; one of the tombstones is a "Ghoul Gate" (every cemetery has one) through which carrion-eating ghouls come and go from their strange, red-skied land; adjacent to one part of the graveyard is an unhallowed, unmarked grave area in which witches and others were interred. Bod's Guardian Silas has physical form outside the graveyard, and so he can fetch food, clothing and books when necessary.

Gaiman portrays Bod's journey to being a teenager with a lot of zing, sentiment, and cleverness. Homages and references to other works of the supernatural abound, either obliquely in the persons of Silas and the stern but helpful Miss Lupescu, or slightly more noticeably with the episode that involves the ghouls and pays homage to H.P. Lovecraft's odd, dream-like narrative The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath. All in all, this is a jolly, engaging book from the writer of The Sandman and Stardust and Coraline, suitable for anyone above the age of 8 or thereabouts. Highly recommended.

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