It took a while for the rest of the world to catch up to Neil Gaiman. It’s OK, I was a little late to the party, too. I knew a guy in college who kept going on about this “Sandman” comic, and how brilliant it was, so brilliant he had to broadcast his obsession by wearing T-shirts of this wild-haired, dark-eyed Sandman schlub (who looked like some theatre major mooning about the misery of it all). All I could think of was how I had left comics behind to Be More Adult, and how I felt bad for the kid who still liked funnybooks.
Forgive me, Neil.
When I was through reading the entire “Sandman” run (some 8 years out of college), I realized I had just been schooled in storytelling. I mean, this guy. This guy! He could layer a sense of wonderment over his pages as easy as buttering bread. Plus, there’s a point late in the series where I realized a twist in the story had had its groundwork laid so many books ago, it made my head spin. I practically stood up and cheered. That’s how you tell a story. Yeah!
“Sandman” and Alan Moore’s “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” taught me it was more than OK to like comics. They weren’t kiddie stuff, or didn’t have to be. Comic books were a legitimate medium. But Gaiman didn’t let the ride stop there, moving into adult novels, screenplays, and children’s books. At last, in 2009, he’s been rewarded on a fairly global scale, far beyond the little corner where the scifi, fantasy, comics and pop culture crowd has been lauding him. Not only is his Coraline movie adaptation close to pulling down $80 million domestically (as of this writing), he’s enjoying the glow of a Newberry Medal for The Graveyard Book.
Now Neil Gaiman doesn’t need anybody to spread his good word anymore, least of all me. But I just finished Graveyard, and I can’t shut up about it. If you’re familiar already with Gaiman, you know the kind of dreamy yarn-spinner he is, the kind of vision he creates by gauze-wrapping reality, like some kind of aboriginal storyteller on an ancient Australian plain, passing down stories of Dreamtime through myths and fables and impossible fairy tales. (There’s a reason why “Sandman” is about the Dream King — dreams are Gaiman’s medium, not words.) The Graveyard Book lives very well in this Gaiman tradition. There’s even a compelling mystery to propel the ghostly passages toward a satisfying conclusion.
In page after page of whispering to myself (“Damn that’s good.” “Damn, wish I’d though of that. “Damn you, Neil Gaiman!”), there’s one small gem of brilliance that I brought back with me as proof that the whole cavern was filled with jewels. In the chapter “Danse Macabre,” the ghosts of the graveyard observe a once-in-a-century tradition, where they descend from their hilltop at midnight to dance a mystical kind of promenade with the ensorcelled, living citizens of the town. It’s a beautiful poem of a chapter, reminiscent of that great scene in The Fisher King, where Robin Williams’ Parry follows Lydia, his secret crush, into Grand Central Station and, in his romantic vision, the entire station of commuters falls into a smoothly coordinated waltz. One of my favorite scenes in any film.
In the midst of this dreamy chapter (there goes that word again), the Lady on the Grey appears. (All Gaiman-approved books must have a noble personification of Death.) The Lady explains to our hero, Bod, that everyone rides with her on her massive stallion, once and only once, at their death. She tells Bod about her horse:
“He is gentle enough to bear the mightiest of you away on his broad back, and strong enough for the smallest of you as well.”
OK, this seems like a standard trick. We’re in a magical place, with magical people, so it’s a fitting time to turn things on their head with storyteller’s irony. Swapping two simple words from their expected placement — “gentle” and “strong” — at first seems like an easy-enough way to show how kooky and different one world is from another: See? I must be mystical, because I say things that don’t quite make sense. Aren’t I spooky?
But what makes Gaiman Gaiman, and me a guy who blogs about Gaiman, is where and how he chose to pull this trick. What an image! That the mighty among us would need to have their ghosts carted away gently, as if in the afterlife they’d be nothing but tatters that would come apart if handled roughly. And that a baby would weigh down Death’s stallion with the unbearable burden of a life unlived.
That’s one Newberry seal that landed on the right book.