Dancing with the Dead: Ghosts in “The Graveyard Book”

29 10 2010

[written by author, Louise Morgan]

That Neil Gaiman has written a book for children called The Graveyard Book should come as no surprise. His previous offerings for young readers have included a story which sees a young girl visit a parallel world where people have buttons for eyes (Coraline) and a book in which a family are driven from their home by rambunctious wolves (The Wolves In The Walls), so it’s fair to say that Gaiman is becoming a master of the mini-macabre.

The Graveyard Book opens at night, with a sleeping family–and their brutal murder at the hands of an all-too-real assailant. One of the family, however, escapes: the young son, barely even a toddler, who finds his way out of the house and through the dark to the nearby graveyard. And who should he find waiting for him but a cast of ghostly characters who will become his new family; who will protect, guide and teach him about the world–and more importantly, about life. After all, who knows more about living than someone who has already done all of theirs?

Gaiman was greatly influenced by The Jungle Book in writing this (even the title alludes to it) and, like the world Kipling created for Mowgli, little Bod (full name: Nobody Owens) is furnished with a wealth of friends and neighbours in his new home in the graveyard–from the homely and well-meaning ghosts of Mr and Mrs Owens who never had a child of their own and become his surrogate parents, to the tricky Liza Hempstock who only wants a gravestone of her own.

The mastery of The Graveyard Book is not in its plot, which follows Bod’s adventures at key points in his journey from infant to adult, nor in the sheer Gothic joy of the graveyard–but in the ghosts themselves. Gaiman knows full well that no two ghosts are the same, just as the people they once were differed. He infuses them with (ironically) life, and energy; wisdom and stubbornness, pity and pathos. Even from the comfort of the graveyard, the echoes of the world outside, the world of the living, seep inside the gates: on the night of Bod’s arrival, the sedate and settled ghosts of the cemetery contrast with the sudden appearance of the shocked ghost of Bod’s newly-dead mother as she appeals to the others to protect her son–a violent death begetting a violent-seeming apparition.

Bod is a boy between the two worlds, between the living and the dead, able to see (rather like Gaiman himself, perhaps) the things that others miss. And it is when the two worlds converge that The Graveyard Book really soars: with the “Macabray”, for instance, the Danse Macabre between the living and the dead–and at the centre of it all, the Lady on the Grey, sinister and smiling at once; one part Gaiman’s own Death of the Endless to one part Terry Pratchett’s mounted Grim Reaper mixed with something strange and new.

Not that being between the two worlds is easy, of course. Bod outgrows his first playmates, all of whom are stranded as children forever. Nor can it be straightforward trying to make friends in a world that you don’t perhaps fully understand–like school, as Bod discovers. While this could be true of a hundred, a thousand, other books about childhood, by invoking ghosts and spectres with which to people his narrative, Gaiman exaggerates the challenges of childhood and makes the real world, the adult world, the living world which must be negotiated even more alien to our hero.

There is, of course, much more to The Graveyard Book than just its ghosts. There are the humans who tumble in and out of Bod’s life; the deliciously awful ghouls who seek to carry him off; the creepy, whispering menace that lurks in the shadows and waits for its master; and Silas–the lonely figure who protects Bod from the corporeal dangers of the world.

With its graveyard that is all things to Bod: shelter, school, playground and battlefield, the message of the book is clear. Ghosts are not the enemy: the living have little to fear from the dead. The dead are dead, and as Silas tells Bod: “they are, for the most part, done with the world”. It is the living who pose the greatest threat to Bod as he grows: the man who killed his family, the school bullies, policemen, unscrupulous antiques dealers… the list goes on.

The Graveyard Book is, in so many ways, a love song to graveyards and their ghosts, separated from the living but not so different from them after all. Midway through the book, Bod is told: “You’re alive Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything.” and it is not the living who help him realise this, but the dead.

Through the graveyard–the Egyptian Walk and the unhallowed ground, the Owenses, the Lady on the Grey, the formidable Mother Slaughter and even Silas–through the dead, the ghosts, Gaiman asks us to consider what it really means to be alive… and then, simply, quietly, to go out and live.

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