It is difficult to figure out what to say about a Neil Gaiman novel. After reading one of his books, one is left with the sensation of having passed through a gripping and extraordinary experience without much idea of what actually happened. Much like many of his own characters, I would imagine.
Neil Gaiman is an acclaimed British writer of mainly fantasy, mainly for young adults. He has collaborated with Terry Pratchett, written screenplays for “Doctor Who,” had a star-studded radio drama made of one of his books (“Neverwhere”), and had several of his books made into movies, such as “Coraline” and “Stardust.” I can envision a very chilling movie being made from “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” his newest book. In opening it, as with many of his books, you feel as if you’ve stepped into a dream, half fantastical, half child’s play, and wholly nightmarish.
Yet this isn’t the nightmare of a horror story, where everyone is destined to die gruesomely. It’s the nightmare of a fantasy story, where horrible creatures threaten, and even win for a while, but are ultimately pushed back to where they belong. It’s the nightmare of a Hitchcock movie, if Hitchcock had made fantasy instead of thrillers. In fact, if their time periods had been more congruent, I fancy Gaiman and Hitchcock might have made a few rather extraordinary movies together.
The storyline of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” sounds fairly simple, at its essence. A little boy’s fairly ordinary life is ripped open by elements from another world, and he is dragged in his innocence and ignorance into the quest to send them back. The price of failure is not only the destruction of the whole universe but, more importantly, the destruction of his tiny patch of stability in his family. But though it’s not a very long book, it’s really anything but simple. It’s no happily-ever-after storybook family the boy comes from, but a very normal British family with their struggles with poverty, annoying little sister, and childcare. The little boy is no intrepid adventurer, but an endearingly introverted and bookish child who is always getting lost in the books in his mind and isn’t surprised when no one comes to his birthday party. And the perfectly ordinary pond at the end of the lane is an ocean, and the perfectly ordinary grandmother, mother, and daughter who live on the farm at the end of the lane are ancient and benevolent beings who fled across the ocean to the little boy’s world when their own exploded. They serve as a kind of ad hoc police force, making sure things stay in their proper places.
The “things” that ought to stay in their own worlds and, of course, never do, are where Gaiman’s writing takes its turn from normal story to nightmare. Surely his fantasy creatures couldn’t come from anywhere but that peculiar world of dream where real things get all mixed up into insanity. They’re not the typical creatures of fantasy and fairy tales, not witches and werewolves and dwarves. They’re ragged, grey and pink canvas masks the size of a church hanging in the sky that can create a doorway into your world by hiding like a worm in a hole in your foot, then turn into your nanny and hypnotize your father into trying to kill you. They’re black scavenger-bird-like creatures who try to eat you and the whole universe. The nanny is by far the more frightening of the two.
Though Gaiman pulls chillingly weird creatures out of his peculiar brain, he also uses fantasy and fairy tale archetypes, such as the Maiden, Mother, and Crone triad of witches/goddesses and the efficacy of fairy rings in grass and ordinary objects against evil. In addition, the stakes in his stories are ancient and modern at the same time. The evil creature hiding in the beautiful body and seducing the usually devoted husband is nothing new, but at the same time it feels as if Gaiman had tapped into a purely modern phenomenon of unfaithfulness and a child’s fear of divorce to make his fairy tale contemporary.
Though he often writes about children, I’m not sure that Gaiman’s books are appropriate for children. Teenagers, maybe, though I don’t think I would have liked them as a teenager. They are very easy to read, and they tend to end well, but they can be very, very creepy and often deal with adult subjects. In “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” the main character witnesses the seduction of his father without knowing what’s going on, but the reader definitely knows what’s going on. Even as a teenager, I probably would have been deeply horror-struck by the scene where a brainwashed father tries to drown his seven-year-old son. In addition, there’s nothing particularly spiritually uplifting about the book. What it is, is just simply a good read.
Whenever I set out to read a Neil Gaiman book or watch a movie made from one of his books, I’m never quite sure whether I like his stories or not. But with “The Ocean at the End of the Lane particularly,” I was drawn into his writing, less reading the story and more living what was happening. His style is simple, straightforward, and entrancing. I read part of it while waiting for a sandwich in a restaurant, and when my sandwich came and I found myself standing on a sidewalk in my Montana town, I wasn’t quite sure what had happened and how I had come to be in such a place. My world was momentarily unfamiliar, and Gaiman’s was the one I had been living in.
Image copyright William Morrow.
Christy McDougall is a Web developer, writer, and aspiring missionary with bachelor's and master's degrees in Christian theology.