It’s safe to say that we’re used to thinking of the living and the dead as pretty different creatures. Leave it to Neil Gaiman – winner of winner of 3 Hugos, 2 Nebulas, 1 World Fantasy Award, 4 Bram Stoker Awards, 6 Locus Awards, 2 British SF Awards, 1 British Fantasy Award, 3 Geffens, 1 International Horror Guild Award and 1 Mythopoeic – to bring members of the two camps together in his newie, The Graveyard Book, which has wonderful illustrations, just this side of spooky, by Chris Riddell.
Nobody Owens is just a baby when the man Jack enters his home and kills his family. Nobody – Bod – escapes the same fate, having wandered out of his cot, and his room, out into the night and into a graveyard. A plump and shimmering woman, Mrs Owens, is surprised to see him there. She is, after all, a ghost, and babies fleshy with life don’t often stumble into graveyards at night. Her bafflement doesn’t last long, however, and Mrs Owens persuades her husband, Mr Owens, that they should take care of the baby. They ensure that his childhood is safe and loving, and the Freedom of the Graveyard enables him to see in the dark and walk some ways that living usually cannot.
But it is Bod the man Jack was after, and even in the graveyard, he is not safe, for Jack is still searching him out. To make sure Bod is prepared for the Outside, his guardian, Silas, seeks out an education for him that covers everything from his letters to Fading and Sliding and Dreamwalking. These lessons prove useful, whether to escape the company of Ghûlheim’s ghouls, Victor Hugo and the Thirty-Third President of the United States (they take their names from the last meal they had), or the mysterious fright of the Sleer, which slumbers in a tomb beneath the graveyard. Of course, it’s not only the lessons he received that helps Bod to emerge from these otherworldly encounters unscathed; often, his survival depends on his thoughtful nature and his quick wits.
In The Graveyard Book, like many of Gaiman’s other works, we see what might happen if our ‘normal’ world was revealed to have fantastic elements operating throughout it. Gaiman is adept at adopting various mythical characters – witches, werewolves, ghouls, ghosts – and creating circumstances for them to collide with regular people. He also throws in a couple of his own creations, and other novelty in his storytelling comes from playful cross-history tension – when quizzed about his education to date, Bod says: ‘Letitia Borrows teaches me writing and words, and Mr Pennyworth teaches me his Compleat Educational System for Younger Gentlemen with Additional Material for those Post Mortem.’ It’s always a pleasure to see how Gaiman tumbles wondrous creatures free from their historical binds, and The Graveyard Book‘s recombinant mythmaking continues his track record of creating delightful otherworldly entertainment.