Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Despite being one of his shortest novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is in some ways the quintessential Neil Gaiman novel. An unnamed narrator in England returns to his childhood neighborhood following a funeral, visits the house of a girl he knew, and recalls the events of four decades earlier, the adventures the two of them shared over the course of a few days when he was a boy of seven and she a girl of eleven. The girl, Lettie Hempstead, and her mother and grandmother (Mrs. Hempstead and Old Mrs. Hempstead) have a pond in the back yard of their farm, which is at the end of the lane where the narrator lived. Lettie calls it her ocean, and says that the three of them travelled across it when she was much younger. The narrator is a bookish, lonely lad who has had several degrees of tragedy visited upon him shortly before he meets her, but after a man dies near the Hempstead farm, he learns that the Hempsteads have connections to exotic, impossible lands. A moment’s lapse in judgment (or perhaps bravery) causes our narrator to become the focus for a dark entity which bedevils his neighborhood and which he and the Hempsteads have to get rid of.

There’s no doubt that the narrative is powerful: The pitfalls and tragedies which befall our hero in the first few chapters are keenly felt – so much so that the book is at times a hard read, because it’s really not pleasant. The book after that is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. Gaiman’s storytelling is always arresting, and this short book is crisply paced and pulls you along. It’s the first book in a while that I’ve read in a single day.

Still, Ocean also has many elements which frustrate me about Gaiman’s work, and they largely come down to the vagueness of the setting and communication of the ideas. The narrator is nameless, his background murky. He’s not a total cipher, but it’s very difficult to connect to him; rather, he’s a vessel for event around him, rarely acting, and if anything his actions are often bad decisions which sometimes work out and sometimes go wrong.

Likewise, the Hempsteads and their larger world are left vague, with hints dropped about who they are (I infer they’re an incarnation of the Moirai, whom Gaiman has used in The Sandman), but with connections to other lands, their own apparently no longer existing. But what it all means, and what they can do, is only hinted at. Gaiman’s stories are often trying to evoke myth, legend and folklore, and while I don’t expect every last thing to be explained, Ocean leaves too much to the imagination for my satisfaction.

The story is a fun read, but the ending feels empty. The narrator doesn’t seem to have substantially changed – because the story isn’t about him. It’s not about anyone, really; it’s about moods, and settings, and a series of events, but the emotional impact of the resolution doesn’t come close to matching that of the set-up.

Gaiman is a consistently enjoyable novelist, but American Gods remains his only novel I’d call “great”. I have no doubt that books like Ocean are exactly the books he wants to write, but I always feel like they need more development to feel really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the short length of Ocean drives that home particularly well. To be sure I enjoyed reading it, but after finishing it I was surprised at how slight it felt in hindsight.

Neil Gaiman: The Graveyard Book

I temper my expectations for a Neil Gaiman novel: I view him as being a style-over-substance writer, whose emphasis is on crafting a setting and evoking a mood – usually with a heavy overlay of clever and witty use of language – rather than being strong in plotting, characterization, or giving his stories meaning. Indeed, Gaiman is someone to avoid if you mainly want character development, as his main characters tend to be either everyman sorts (Neverwhere, Stardust, Anansi Boys) or empty shells (American Gods, and the hero in this book). I actually do enjoy most of his books, because of his strengths, but because I tend to prefer books which are based around his weaknesses, I never expect or hope that one of his books will become a favorite.

So it was with The Graveyard Book, an homage to Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. I’ve never read The Jungle Book (shock, horror from the audience), nor even seen the Disney film (even more shock and horror), but a friend of mine summed up both books like so: “In The Jungle Book, a boy is adopted by animals and learns the things that animals know. In The Graveyard Book, a boy is adopted by dead people and learns the things that dead people know.” A fine summary, as the book opens with man with a knife named Jack kills a family in a nameless town in England, save for the youngest child, a toddler who happens to toddle away to a graveyard during the massacre, where he’s saved by the spirits in the graveyard, adopted by a couple there, and given the name Nobody Owens. “Bod” grows up in the graveyard, rarely leaving it because his guardian, Silas (who is hinted as being a vampire), says that Jack and the cabal behind him are still looking for Bod, and only in the graveyard is he safe. So his parents and friends in the graveyard teach him the knowledge and skills of dead people, even though he’s still alive. But they also prepare him for his eventual rejoining of the living world.

The book is told in episodic form, as Bod learns about the skills that dead people have (fading from view, walking in dreams, instilling fear), and also learning about some of the less-visited nooks and crannies of the graveyard. He does, of course, venture out of his home, which eventually leads to a showdown between Bod and the cabal. But for the most part you’ll either accept the premise and enjoy the individual stories – which are only loosely linked, although several points are recapitulated in the climax – or not.

For myself, I did enjoy the stories Bod follows a fairly traditional “hero’s-coming-of-age” journey, questioning his elders and the rules he lives by, then coming to learn when he should follow them and when he should break them. I particularly like “Nobody Owens’ School Days”, when he ventures out to attend a regular school and has a variety of adventures, partly because his motivation to do the right thing by other kids gets him in trouble with the bullies, and events spiral out of control from there.

His confrontation with the cabal signals the coming of his adulthood, leading to a bittersweet ending, but I was disappointing in the climax since we never really learn why the cabal are so set on killing Bod – the reasons are hinted at, but so vaguely that they’re hardly sufficient to explain the events which set the story in motion. Gaiman sometimes gets too caught up in being mysterious and leaving holes for the reader to fill in, and that’s the problem here, as more specificity was sorely needed.

As a book aimed at the “young adult” market (which I always instinctively think means 18-22 year olds, but which really means 10-14 year olds, I think), for an older audience The Graveyard Book is an easy read and could be summed up as “enjoyable but light”, sliding in as better than Stardust and about on par with Coraline. (This is a good point – as he illustrated both books – to make my obligatory statement that I cannot stand Dave McKean’s artwork. His work is better here than in Coraline, but it still fails to be either illustrative and evocative, and frankly I just find it ugly. Your mileage may vary.) As someone once said, if you like this sort of thing, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like. While it’s full of wonderful imagery, I don’t think it’s a story that will stay with me for very long.

The Sandman’s High Barrier to Entry

Interesting blog post at (of all places) on the high barrier to entry for new readers of Nail Gaiman’s series The Sandman.

And they’re right: The Sandman does have a high barrier to entry. I bought the series from the beginning, and while I loved the first issue, the issues following were simplistic and sometimes disgusting horror fare, and I dropped the series after about 6 issues. (Yes, I missed the original issue in which Death was introduced.) I only started picking it up a year or so later when “The Dream of a Thousand Cats” kicked off the first of several cycles of short stories in the series.

Honestly it’s difficult to introduce new readers to Sandman. Those early issues (collected in the first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes) are often not a lot of fun, Gaiman’s writing is very shaky as he hadn’t really gotten comfortable with his voice yet, and the art is erratic at best: Sam Keith’s cartoony style didn’t suit the series, and Mike Dringenberg’s muddy pencils and often-perplexing layouts were no better. The second volume, The Doll’s House, lacks focus, seeming like little more than a collection of amusing characters and gags, and has a thoroughly disappointing climax. The third volume, Dream Country, is a quartet of short stories, which are good, but not a good introduction to the series. As the NPR article says, it’s not until the fourth volume, Season of Mists, that the series really finds itself. Yet, there are many details in the first three volumes which are important to understanding the arc of the series as a whole.

I push comics at many people by lending them collections, but even though it’s great stuff, I can’t recall ever turning a new reader onto Sandman. And especially for people who aren’t comics readers, it’s not a series I’d choose to try to turn them on to comics.


This afternoon we went to see Coraline. I was lukewarm towards the book by Neil Gaiman (especially since I don’t care for Dave McKean’s artwork), but I’m happy to say that the film is terrific.

Briefly, Coraline Jones (voice of Dakota Fanning) and her parents move into an old, pink house with three apartments. Her parents (Teri Hatcher and John Hodgman) are too busy working on their gardening catalog to spend time with her, and she’s not too impressed with the overeager neighbor boy Wybie (Robert Bailey Jr.), especially when he gives her a doll he found which looks just like her.

Coraline discovers a passage to another world – a world that looks exactly like hers, except that it’s bright and colorful, and has parallels of all the people she knows. Her Other Mother and Other Father shower her with affection and she becomes disaffected with her real world, even though everyone in the other world have buttons instead of eyes. But of course the other world has a sinister secret and Coraline has to be both smart and quick to keep herself and her loved ones from being trapped in it.

Where to start with this film? The stop-motion animation (in 3D!) is terrific, even if it was aided by computer smoothing (I don’t know that it was, but who cares?). Bruno Coulais’ music is atmospheric and memorable, and the film would be rather different without it. The designs are wonderful, full of color and detail and creativity.

I remember the book as being inventive but drab and dreary. The film is anything but: Coraline is a vibrant character frustrated with her parents and with Wybie (but for different reasons), but enthusiastic and inventive when the opportunity (or necessity) presents itself. While her parents are perhaps a little too over-the-top in their inattentiveness, Wybie – a new character not from the book – is funny and quirky enough to fit into the world perfectly, while also being a bit of an anchor to the world outside the house. Other Mother and Other Father are both presented quite effectively, as is The Cat (Keith David), a sort of guide who pops up from time to time.

While the film still has a bit of the feeling that it was a trial just for the sake of a story, the addition of Wybie and his grandmother and their history with the house does give the story a sense of closure that I recall seemed to be missing from the book.

Coraline is the second film of a Neil Gaiman book that I liked better than the book (Stardust was the first). It makes me wonder what someone might be able to do with a film of one of the Gaiman books I really liked – like American Gods.

In any event, I highly recommend Coraline the film. It’s stylish, funny, suspenseful, and great to look at. Go see it.


Review of the film Stardust.

I remember when Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess‘ book Stardust was published in the 1990s: It first came out as a series of 4 squarebound comic books, and I looked forward to it eagerly, having greatly enjoyed the couple of issues of The Sandman they’d done together. But I was bitterly disappointed in the series.

First, rather than being a graphic novel, it was instead a prose novel with illustrations by Vess. Moreover, it felt like a step backwards for both creators in its quality. Thumbing through it today, Vess’ illustrations often are of very simple design and execution, and don’t illustrate the moments that I’d most have liked to see illustrated. Gaiman’s text seems extremely weak: The characters have none of the strength or humor he employed in Sandman as a counterpoint to the (intentionally) dreary title figure, and the narrative style is plodding. Gaiman seems to have a tendency to start by writing a “travelogue”, taking the reader on a tour of the ideas in his head, but without much actually happening. Stardust has this problem in spades, and with a decidedly anticlimactic ending. It’s my least favorite of Gaiman’s novels.

So I wasn’t enthusiastic about a film adaptation of the book – until I saw the previews for it. A good cast, and the scenes looked more dramatic than I’d recalled from the book. So I decided I was interested in going to see it, and I’m glad I did, because Stardust the film is much better than the book.

The story takes place in the 19th century: Tristan Thorn (Charlie Cox) is in love with Victoria (Sienna Miller), but she doesn’t love him. One night, they spy a falling star, and Tristan promises to find that star and bring it back to her. But it falls beyond the wall for which is town is named, and the guard won’t let him through. Tristan learns from his father that he was born beyond the wall, and a gift from his mother allows him to head beyond the wall to the magical world of Stormhold on his quest.

The star turns out to be a young woman, Yvaine (Claire Danes), who had been pulled to earth as part of a test by the dying King of Stormhold to choose his successor. Yvaine carries a jewel which will allow the successor to ascend the throne, and the jewel is pursued by the King’s sons Primus (Jason Flemyng) and Septimus (Mark Strong). Yvaine herself is sought for nefarious purposes by a trio of aged witches, in particular the evil Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer). Tristan finds her first, and they set off on paths to adventures as they make their way back to Wall, complicated by Yvaine’s dislike of Tristan as well as their pursuers.

Director Matthew Vaughn (who, like Charlie Cox, is entirely unknown to me) has assembled a terrific cast in support of a fine script which tightens up the novel and jettisons a lot of the boring stuff, while punching up the dialogue. Cox has an amiable-yet-bewildered nature which reminds me a bit of Matthew Broderick. Pfeiffer – as usual – is a thoroughly loathesome villain; a few more years of this and she’ll join Glenn Close among actresses I think are perfectly fine actresses, but they play so many roles of hateful characters that it’s hard to get behind her in any other role. Danes does a good job being by turns grumpy, resentful, insightful, lovestruck, and crushed, and she and Cox not only seem to have a good rapport, but they appear to build that rapport as their characters get to know each other.

Stealing the show is Robert De Niro as Captain Shakespeare, tyrannical commander of a lightning airship who isn’t all that he seems. He looks like he’s having the most fun he’s had in years, chewing scenery and acting like – well, you’ve gotta see it, it’s worth the price of admission all by itself.

I’ve never warmed to traditional views of Faerie; I find them depressing and capricious – maybe depressing because they’re capricious. So I was pleased that the film takes all of those elements out of Gaiman’s Faerie, as well as making several other changes, such as adding a climactic confrontation among the interested parties, something which was sorely lacking in the book. All the plot elements get neatly tied up in a much more satisfying manner than the book, especially in the epilogue.

The movie isn’t perfect: It still drags in places, especially in the first half. Yvaine’s behavior when they reach Wall lacks motivation (Debbi pointed this one out to me), and seems intended simply for cheap drama, which is too bad since plenty of expensive drama occurs immediately afterwards. But it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong, and all-in-all it’s a fun, exciting, and romantic film which is very well executed. I’m glad I saw it.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 28 February 2007.

  • 52 #43 of 52 (DC)
  • Jack of Fables #8 (DC/Vertigo)
  • Justice #10 (DC)
  • Welcome to Tranquility #1-3 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Eternals #7 of 7 (Marvel)
  • The Secret History #1 of 7 (ASP)

Despite a cover featuring Animal Man, 52 #43 mainly focuses on the Black Adam Family, which is my least-favorite storyline in the series. Bummer.

I’m starting to think that Jack of Fables just isn’t going to get very good. Jack is a one-note character, and not at all a likeable one, and the series has yet to cohere around an interesting plot or supporting cast. I wonder how it’s doing in sales?

Welcome to Tranquility has gotten some good word-of-mouth, so I gave it a try. It’s written by Gail Simone, who’s ended up in my consciousness as one of those “decent wordsmith, nothing in particular to attract me to her books” writers, similar to Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka (and ahead of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar), but not as distinctive as Grant Morrison. That said, I’ve never actually read anything by her, so it’s just purely word-of-mouth.

Tranquility is a town which serves as a retirement home for old superheroes, but which also houses their children and grandchildren. The Sheriff, Thomasina, tries to hold things together, while a documentary filmmaker, Collette, shows up just in time to see things start to fall apart, as an old-time detective-hero, Mr. Articulate, is murdered. The town is also on edge because it houses the children and grandchildren of the old heroes, and the generations don’t see things the same way.

The book feels in some ways like Alan Moore’s take on Supreme with its nostalgia for these alternate heroes, while they’re still very much among us. But there’s more of a feeling of “days gone by and they’re not coming back” than in that book (which is more about successfully restoring the glories of yesteryear), and a lot of that feel that the characters are stuck in Tranquility and they’re not going to get out. The three issues so far are mainly setup, with some investigation into the basic mystery. There are some nifty characters, especially Maximum Man (a Captain Marvel type character who’s forgotten his magic word and spends all his time trying to remember it) and the Emoticon, who wears a mask which displays smileys.

Neil Googe’s art at its best is reminiscent of Chris Sprouse, but his figures occasionally go all cartoony, which wrecks the book’s atmosphere. It’s right on the edge of being a style I can really enjoy, but I wish he’d nudge it into a more realistic direction.

Overall, it’s not a bad start.

Eternals wraps up Neil Gaiman’s second series for Marvel. 1602 was a lot better. I’m not a big fan of John Romita’s artwork (and his depictions of San Francisco are atrocious), and the painted covers are also pretty bad. It ends up being one of those “character discovers he’s really a superhero and loses all of his personality” stories, so I’m not sure what the point was.

Archaia Studios Press continues to crank out good books, this time The Secret History, written by Jean-Pierre Pécau and drawn by Igor Kordley. It’s the story of four immortal siblings who each possess a runestone which gives them great powers and who basically don’t like each other. It’s not a real novel premise, but if it successfully reveals the characters over its seven issues, it ought to be pretty entertaining. The first issue focuses on the events surrounding Moses and the Jews’ departure from Egypt, and is lively with some thoughtful moments, mainly surrounding Erlin, who possesses the rune of the Shield, and who seems like a responsible and philosophical person who regards the mortal Moses as a trusted friend. I’ve seen Kordley’s art a couple of times before, but he really does a great job depicting large battles and realistic landscapes. It’s too soon to call this an unqualified winner, but I enjoyed it and I’m looking forward to more.

As a final note, I decided this week to stop buying the Jack Staff monthly comic, and switch to reading it in the collections. Paul Grist’s storytelling style isn’t well-suited to a periodical, and I’m finding that the overall stories take a long time to get anywhere (and sometimes I’m not sure where they’ve actually ended up). Basically, Grist’s writing just isn’t tight enough for my tastes

This Week’s Haul

Fables presents a scenario where the humans would totally conquer the homelands – if only they knew about them, which they would, if the Emperor decided to invade Earth. Pretty neat point-counterpoint stuff.

Eternals is Neil Gaiman’s latest project for Marvel, illustrated by John Romita Jr. It’s a pretty straightforward riff on some obscure Jack Kirby characters: Immortal godlike beings who were left on Earth by even more powerful beings to safeguard it for their return. The Dreaming Celestial is about to awaken, and that might mean Bad Things for Earth.

Rex Mundi takes place in an alternate France in 1933 where the Inquisition holds sway, Islamic nations control the Middle East and North Africa, and magic-using secret societies are real. Julien Sauniére is a doctor in Paris who gets mixed up in a conspiracy when a priest friend of his is killed. The story is on the slow side and the art is a little stiff (if nicely-rendered), but it’s not bad. Good enough for me to try the next volume.

The new volume of Luba continues the stories of Gilbert ‘Beto’ Hernandez’ heroine and her sisters and daughters. Beto’s work peaked in the middle of the first run of Love and Rockets, and has meandered too far into magical realism for my tastes. I do wish he’d tighten up his storytelling and focus on the characters more, in particular not wandering off into the earlier lives of the sisters. The series was more fun when it was more grounded in present-day concerns, with a more linear narrative.

(For those familiar with the series, no, I’m not really a fan of Jaime Hernandez’ work.)

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Review of the novel Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman.

I made a big push to read Anansi Boys hoping to finish it before seeing Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s last week. I didn’t quite make it, but I finished it the next night and enjoyed it plenty well.

Anansi Boys sort of spins out of his previous fantasy novel, American Gods, as it’s based the trickster-storyteller-spider god Anansi, who is a supporting character in that earlier book. Fat Charlie – our hero – is the son of Anansi, but he feels that his father has worked to humiliate him his whole life, and so he emigrates to England where he’s engaged to be married to Rosie. When he finds out his father’s died, he also learns that he has a brother, Spider, and that Spider inherited the magical talent in the family. Unfortunately, their reunion results in Spider stealing Fat Charlie’s fiancee, and putting Charlie in hot water with his extremely unscrupulous boss. Fat Charlie’s efforts to get rid of Spider and get his life back sends all of them on a strange odyssey across the world.

I don’t think I’ve ever felt so much like Gaiman was channeling Douglas Adams – or heck, Dave Barry – as in Anansi Boys Despite its serious subject matter, it’s really a light and whimsical book about trouble with one’s family and being careful what you wish for.

What makes the book work is the interplay among Fat Charlie, Rosie, and Spider. Fat Charlie and Rosie seem to really love each other, but there’s an undercurrent that Rosie’s really with Charlie to spite her grumpy, controlling mother. Spider falls for Rosie hard – even though he used trickery to (somehat unintentionally) ensnare her – and being a godling she falls for him in return. The sibling rivalry between Spider and Charlie is palpable, because for Charlie the stakes are so high, and because Spider’s advantage is so large it forces Charlie to unusual (but not truly unethical) extremes. Charlie’s agony as Spider seduces Rosie is powerfully drawn, really the most emotionally powerful part of the book, and it turns the middle of the book into a real page-turner.

The plot converges into a neat and whimsical little bit of coincidence (though when gods are involved one wonders whether there can ever be true coincidence). While Gaiman plays with conventions of myth and quests, his heroes and their approaches to their problems are unconventional and that’s what makes them feel real rather than like figures in some larger story. Everything ties up neatly – incorporating some elements I haven’t even mentioned here – and with the satisfying feel to it.

Quirky, funny and inventive, I wouldn’t rate Anansi Boys above American Gods, but that’s hardly a slam. I’m glad I read it.

Neil Gaiman at Kepler’s

Tonight Neil Gaiman came to Kepler’s. The moderator emeritus of our speculative fiction book group was able to score members of the group some great seats at the front of the room – a really nice gesture, as Gaiman is one of the bigger draws among touring authors, I think.

I’ve seen Gaiman twice before, once in 1998 at a small convention in Madison, and once in 2004 at Worldcon in Boston. He’s a terrific speaker, intelligent, funny and charming, and I certainly urge you to go see him if you have a chance.

Gaiman was up late last night at Cody’s Books in San Francisco, and he said tonight it’s because he read an astoundingly long story, and consequently he was apparently pretty worn down. He’s certainly a gamer, though, as you could hardly tell. He read a short story and a poem from his new collection, Fragile Things, took questions, and then (as he accidentally said) “hand[ed] until his sign [fell] off”.

I got him to sign my new copy of Fragile Things and my hardcover copy of the Sandman volume Dream Country. I now have four volumes of the series signed, so at this rate I should be done by about 2020!

A good time was had by all, including the various friends I saw there, not all of them from the book discussion group. I told you Gaiman was a big draw…