Sunday, 19 October 2008

Sunday Salon - It's all about Neil Gaiman

The Sunday

Fragile Things, Coraline, The Graveyard Book.

I've decided to do a post about one of my favourite authors, in honour of RIP3 challenge, AND that these three books fit this time of year, spooky and ghost-filled. I know that for many of you, my Gentle Readers, you also love Neil Gaiman. I thought I would try to show some of what I admire and love in his books, and his writing. Most of all, it's as if he pierces my heart, but instead of ripping it into shreds, he gently puts it back together with love and hope and faith.

Fragile Things

I read Fragile Things earlier this year. I didn't post on it because I got caught up in other things, but it never left the side of my computer where I pile the books I really want to review. I am in awe of this writer. Fairy tales, fantasy, gothic, and horror, all with a touch of melancholy about them. Even the poem about Bluebeard, The HIdden Chamber, isn't straightforward, instead mixed with doom - unlike the fluttering butterfly he (the writer) sets free, this is what will happen to his new love:
If you are wise you'll run into the night,
fluttering away into the cold
wearing perhaps the laciest of shifts.
The lane's hard flints
will cut your feet all bloody as you run,
so, if I wished, I could just follow you,
tasting the blood and oceans of your
tears. I'll wait instead,
here in my private place, and soon I'll put
a candle
in the window, love, to light your way back home.
The world flutters like insects. I think this
is how I shall remember you,
my head between the white swell of your breasts,
listening to the chambers of your heart.

The horror, the real horror, is that even if she escapes, she will come back again. He - the writer, Bluebeard - understands the secret to a woman's heart, that even if she senses danger, she has to know all the secrets: "You'll see/the heartbreak linger in my eyes, and dream/of making me forget what came before you walked/into the hallway of this house."
And he is right! It's a play on Harlequin novels, gothics, that sense that the right woman will heal a man. Wise, and heart-breaking, the collection of stories and poems in this book are all like this. Some succeed more than others - in past posts, here and here, and here , I've referred to my favourites: October in the Chair, A Study in Emerald, The Problem of Susan , and my favourite poems of all: Instructions and Locks.

If you are looking for short stories to read before Hallowe'en, I highly recommend this book. It is magical and fantastical, creepy, unsettling, spooky, funny, everything that is good in fantasy and horror writing today. It should be in every serious reader's library.


I read Coraline over the past three days, mostly because I kept getting interrupted. I finally finished it late last night. It has to be one of the scariest books for children I've read, and I really wish it had been around when I was a kid. I would have loved it! I would have read it over and over! My children are just a little bit too young for it - I think the 'other family' would confuse them, and the horrible button eyes and the other mother creating the world, is for children about 7-8 years old. I can hardly wait to read it to them, though! Coraline is the spunkiest, bravest heroine ever. I mean it, I'm not sure I could have survived the other world. I was possibly holding my breath during the last 50 pages of the book. It was awful, in the awe-inspiring sense that real terror can take. And beautiful, because she makes it right in the end, and the sense of relief was palpable to me, at least! I was able to get to sleep last night. I think if Coraline hadn't gotten out and back into her world, I would have nightmares about her being trapped, for a very long time. That is how real Neil makes his characters, and how real the story is. Especially as I live in a semi-detached house, though thankfully there are no doors between our houses, in the wall!!

I think one reason Neil Gaiman is so popular a horror/fantasy writer is because the underpinnings of his writing is love, and faith, and hope. This is what saves his characters. It is a real treat in today's world of endless bad SAW movies (I haven't seen one and never will) and stupid slash and gash horror movies where fatalism means no one escapes, that there are writers who deal with the mysteries, the ghostly and ghastly, with the emotions and characteristics that make us our best as humans. No matter the danger, or the eeriness, it all comes down to the heart. Whether Bluebeard's uncanny understanding, or Coraline's bravery, most of Neil's characters are on human journeys of finding love, recapturing love (several of his short stories deal with both these topics), or surviving love. He explores the dangerous pathways of the world, in myths (American Gods), folktales, children's stories, the underground literally in Neverwhere, horror in Coraline, and in my next book to review, The Graveyard Book, and in all of them, he never loses sight of what makes people human, good or bad, and he lets his heroes and heroines be brave. And if any of you have had to face real nightmares in the world, as I have, you know that bravery and courage are needed as much today as ever. He's writing to you, to me, to his children, to the world, telling us the stories we need to hear to survive. To me, Coraline is one of the best heroines for girls to ever be written. It's a truly good horror story for kids that deserves every award it received. And the illustrations are truly creepy and delightful and my kids will pore over them. They are the stuff of nightmares. Most excellent!

The Graveyard Book

I read this today. I couldn't put it down!! I love this story! I thought it could be good, the premise is certainly interesting - little boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts - and this story is everything I hoped for, and more. It is enchanting. How I can say that about a book that involves murder, ghouls, vampires, werewolves, witches and ghosts, is almost a mystery, but it's not - it's Neil, so it's heart-breaking even as it's beautiful and haunting and funny. It's a ghost story for families. In case you are one of the 10 readers left on the planet who haven't read the book yet, I am not going to give the plot away here - I'm just going to give you how I felt reading this book, and why I think everyone can read it. First of all, it's not scary, even the opening, even my most faint-hearted, sensitive Gentle Reader can be assured that no matter how it starts out, you will not have nightmares. Yes, it's scary in places. Have you ever spent a night in a cemetary? Me either. Nor do I want to. Why? Because the dead walk at night. I don't care what anyone says, they do. I love the melancholy beauty of graveyards, I think about the people gone before and try to imagine their lives as I read the headstone inscriptions, but I would not spend a night in a graveyard. Well, The Graveyard Book is about a boy who lives in one. And how he does, and how the ghosts help him, and what wonders befall him - make this book truly worth reading. It is a magical tour through the world of a graveyard. Not necessarily the land of the dead, mind, just the world here of the dead. And yes, I cried at the ending. I hate change, even though I know it's necessary, I hate loss of people, change in relationships, and the loss here in this book is inevitable, and piercing.

Of all the amazing characters that people this book, the one I love is the Lady on the Gray Horse. Much is made of Neil's remarks at the back of the book to Rudyard Kipling and The Jungle Book, how there is inspiration from that book in this one. I've never read The Jungle Book, but I have read John Keat's poem The Belle Dame Sans Merci, and seen the Pre-Rahaelite painting of the same name, and that is who the Lady on the Gray Horse reminds me of. When Bod Owens (the main character) first meets the Lady, this is his impression and what they end their conversation with:
"There was a woman riding on the horse's bare back, wearing a long grey dress that hung and gleamed beneath December Moon like cobwebs in the dew.
....."Can I ride him?" asked Bod.
"One day," she told him, and her cobweb skirts shimmered. "One day. Everybody does."
"I promise."

Every time I read those lines, I get a lump in my throat. She is Lady Death, and isn't she a better figure to come carry us away, than the Grim Reaper Spectre with th scythe that we are more familiar with?

For a book about death and ghosts, it is filled with whimsical moments and ideas like this. So it's not a scary book. It's filled with love and humour, and ghosts and graveyards, and I think it is perfectly wonderful. As soon as my kids are old enough - I think sometime in the next year Holly-Anne at least will be able to listen to the story being read (albeit with 5,000 questions in between!) - I will be reading this to them. And the illustrations, of course - line drawings that leave the mind to fill in the gaps, setting the tone, and I've forgotten until I read Coraline and The Graveyard Book how much I enjoy drawings with my stories!

Recapturing childhood wonder, somehow that seems to be the essence I get from reading these two books. So I recommend them highly, as marvelous work that must be read. Come, take Neil's hand, and let him show you how to survive the night, and face the dawn, and live to tell the marvelous frightening tale.......

*sighs happily, contentedly*

I hope your ghostly reading is taking you to fantastic places today, too!

Other reviews:
Bart's Bookshelf
Stuff as Dreams are Made On

Stainless Steel Droppings (Carl)
Eva (A Striped Armchair)


chrisa511 said...

Well I'm just in love with this post! :) You put into words perfectly why I love Neil's work so much. He just has a touch that no other writer out there has. And I'm in love with The Graveyard Book. He says that it's the best book he's ever written and despite my love for American Gods, I may have to agree with that. It hasn't left me at all since I finished it and I still get choked up thinking about it sometimes. It's one of the few books that I've wanted to start again from the beginning so soon after reading it. Wonderful post!

Susan said...

thanks so much, Chris! :-) wow. I liked your post too about the book - you know I love your posts!. I have to cross-reference, I just finished the post a short while ago, so I'll do the cross-referencing tomorrow.... I know I'm going to reread it for myself again, as well as read it to the kids. Isn't it wonderful that we're alive and able to read Neil's books as he writes them? To see the making of a writer whose books will surely become like Poe's and Hawthorne's in American Lit (one day anyway)? And less Puritanical. thankfully I still have to read Neverwhere, so I'm not not out of new Gaiman books to read yet! lol I do wonder what the Subterranean copy will be did you find the 24 hour Reading Challenge?

Anonymous said...

Oh Susan, we have so much in common, but Gaiman's work for children is something I simply can't come to terms with. I enjoyed 'American Gods' but 'Coraline' left me cold. I will try 'The Graveyard Book', I promise, but don't hope for much.

Unknown said...

Lovely set of reviews, I've just finished both Coraline and The Graveyard Book myself, and while I'd read Coraline before knew what I was getting, The Graveyard Book, just blew me away :D (and I really wish I'd thought to use the word whimsical in my review, sums up much of the feeling perfectly!) Bart.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad you enjoyed the Graveyard Book! I think it is actually one of the greatest children's/YA books around (a very close second to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I think)!

Susan said...

table talk: I really hope you like The Graveyard Book. But, if you don't, we have so many other things in common, we will have to agree to disagree! It's interesting though, to see what people like of his books, if they don't like everything.

darren (aka Bart) - thanks! I just found you through Nymeth, I hope you are enjoying being a blogger! I'll come look at your review shortly. And often what I say in a review is either spontaneous, or it's something I've thought about for a period of time and then it suddenly comes together for me. I would not normally use whimsical in regards to Neil's work! but as soon as I wrote it, it fit. I hope you give Fragile Things a try.

buttons: do you have a blog? I went to look at your profile so I could return the favor and leave a comment, but I can't see one linked there. Thanks for coming by and leaving your comments! time will tell if it is that good (as good as Alice in Wonderland), but it certainly is in a class all by itself. It's a day later, and I find I keep returning to it in my mind, turning over images, admiring them, and the story. *sighs happily again*

Anonymous said...

I used to have a blogspot blog, but I switched over to wordpress. You don't allow anonymous comments so I used my old account.

I'm usually at:


jspeyton said...

Very nice post! I read "Fragile Things" last year and after I read the first story, "A Study in Emerald" I knew it was love at first sight. I really do love that book. Unfortunately, I've just finished reading "Coraline" and I didn't like it as much. It was cute but, like Table Talk, it left me kind of cold. I still want to read "Graveyard Book" though!

Emily Barton said...

The only thing I've read so far by Gaiman is Coraline, but I just bought American Gods, and I've also got Stardust on my shelves. I LOVED Coraline, and like you, wished it had been around when I was a kid.

Ana S. said...

"...that there are writers who deal with the mysteries, the ghostly and ghastly, with the emotions and characteristics that make us our best as humans"

Oh Susan, so well said! Actually, I could quote several passages of your lovely reviews and say the same :P You really nailed it.

And I loved the Lady on the Grey Horse. She of course reminded me a little of that other female Death I so love.

Kim L said...

What a great post! I just finished The Graveyard Book and haven't reviewed it because I don't even know how to! It is a simple, beautiful book, which I loved immensely. I have come to really enjoy Neil Gaiman and I've read a ton of his books this year. What an imagination the man has!! Amazing. Glad you liked these ones too!

Unknown said...

Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers. Thanks for spotlighting him. I hope to get my hands on The Graveyard Book soon. So many books to read!

Lucky said...

Great topic for your post! Mention Neil Gaiman, and everyone on the blogosphere comes running. Its easy to see why he is such a popular author... he writes interesting, imaginative novels.

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