The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book is Neil Gaiman's latest foray into the world of children's novels. Or rather as Neil himself would put it this is his second "for all ages" book. As the sharper readers may have guessed, The Graveyard Book is a riff on Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books and tells the tale of Bod, a boy who lives in a cemetery and has been raised by the ghosts who inhabit it. Also it has been released in two editions, one with illustrations by Chris Riddell and one with long-time Gaiman collaborater Dave McKean on artistic duties.

His first venture into this field, Coraline was a marvellously twisted tale and set the bar high. Also Coraline has just been made into an animated feature film by the wonderful Henry Sellick, the genius behind The Nightmare Before Christmas, which will undoubtedly seal it's status a a modern classic. So how does The Graveyard Book measure up?

To begin, structurally this is a very different novel to Coraline. Whereas that book told a tightly focused and plotted tale, The Graveyard Book is more episodic. Each chapter deals with a different adventure in Bod's childhood and as whole the novel traces his story from birth to adulthood. Many of the chapters could stand alone as short stories, and indeed I was not to surprised to discover in the Afterword that initally this is how the book began, with Chapters 1 and 4 appearing in this fashion. Thankfully though, the books never feels bitty and crafts an intrguing tale. Despite each chapter being self-contained, the overall plot's momentum is sustained and it builts steadily to a satisfying conclusion. Gaiman demonstrates his natural flair for story-telling in this regard; he really understands how to make the episodic chapters work in concert, with each chapter revealing at little of more Bod's world and leaving you keen to journey further with the character. It is one of those 'just one more chapter' books you'' find hard to put down.

The book comfortably achieves a pleasant balance of both horror and humour, and like the Kipling stories that inspired it, whimsy and humanity. There's nothing in here that will terrify younger readers too much but there's lots that will delight to anyone who loves spectres and spooks. The story weaves a pleasing magical world that could exist close to ours; I have no doubt that many children will now be looking for ghoul gates in their local boneyards and will have know by heart the chant to summon a friendly night-gaunt. Indeed, I must confess that on a recent photography shoot I did keep an eye for the former.

While it is obvious that Neil is bouncing a literary ball off the wall of The Jungle Books, with several chapters parralleling Kipling, The Graveyard Book also reminded me of the works of R. Chetwynd-Hayes. Like many of Chetwynd-Hayes' stories, there is a similar sense of ghoulish fun, a shared fascination with the private life of ghosts and monsters and the same mixing of a fantastic supernatural world with a mundane suburban England. Also like Chetwynd-Hayes, The Graveyard Book features those usually overlooked undead horrors, ghouls.

This is a charming little book and my biggest criticism is that it wasn't longer! The world it creates and the story it tells is so beguiling, I'm sure many adult readers will, like myself, be wishing for more. The book's universe certainly has great scope and while I appreciate it's length was probaly determined by the 'for-all-ages' rubric, I still wish there was more. Sadly as it tells a coming of age story, there isn't really room for a sequel.

I do have one niggle though, and that's his description of the night-gaunts. Gaiman describes them as being brown and possessing black obsidian eyes... but as any reader of HP Lovecraft knows night-gaunts are black and do not "wear a face where faces should be found". I know this a minor point, but speaking as a fellow who has a five foot Cthulhu head mounted on his wall, I can't help feeling that he should have either stuck to HPL's conception of the creatures or called them something else.

Also as a novel for all ages, anyone waiting for the next American Gods may be disappointed. Those of you were disappointed to find that Anansi Boys was a comic novel, will probably feel that The Graveyard Book is another slight offering from Gaiman. But one must take this book on its own terms. And while it's great book for children and the ideal gift for a younger relative, this a novel anyone can enjoy. Although it may be short in length, it's long in imagination, rich in humour and deep in heart.

Also the illustrations in both versions are wonderful and beautifully compliment the story. On one hand they will appeal to children, and on the other will please book lovers no end. They also certainly lend the book the air of an old school classic.

All in all, this is a worthy sucessor to Coraline. And while it's very much typical Gaiman in some regards, it never feels like just more of the same, except in terms of quality. It's one of those cosy little books whose world will become a favorite place to revisit for many readers.

And if you enjoy The Graveyard Book and are after some more ghoulish good fun, I'd recommend checking out R.Chtwynd-Hayes' The Monster Club.

JIM MOON, 27th February 2009