The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
Illustrations by Dave McKean
Published in 2008
Genre: Fantasy, horror, children’s literature
“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.”
A man stalks up the stairs of an English house, searching for his final victim. Blood drips from the knife in his hand as he nears the finish of his dark deed. Victory, however, is not to be his. So begins The Graveyard Book, the tale of a baby toddling into a graveyard and being taken in by those who walk (0r float) in the twilight. Setting the tone for the book, the opening details a killer known as the man Jack who looks for the remaining child of a family of four who were fated to fall to his blade; or so he thought.
The sole survivor (more like SOUL survivor, am I right?…no?) of his family’s murder, Nobody “Bod” Owens is adopted by the myriad spirits of the graveyard in which he sought succor. Coming under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Owens, a couple of ghosts (both literally and romantically), Bod is given his name and earns the protection of the graveyard and its ghastly inhabitants. His guardian is a stoic vampire named Silas, his tutors are ghosts and an Eastern European werewolf, and he even befriends the spirit of a young witch.
Bod not only makes a monster mash of friends but also meets Scarlett, the first living person he comes in contact with. Much of The Graveyard Book deals with Bod’s adventures and his growth during his childhood in the graveyard. He runs into ghouls, learns how to Fade and hide himself from people looking for him, and enjoys the Freedom of the Graveyard which gives him abilities beyond most mortals while in his dreary home.
Though the graveyard is his haven and home, the outside world is still fraught with peril for young Bod as the man Jack seeks to finish him off. Bod’s character is revealed through his assertion that he isn’t afraid of the man who means to murder him. Rather, the man Jack should be afraid of Bod for stealing his birth family away. Due to this confidence, Bod takes on some foolhardy errands and despite his good intentions, often needs to be rescued by his friends.
It is the one time that his guardians are indisposed, however, that Bod must use all he has learned in the graveyard to keep Scarlett safe. The man Jack is revealed to be part of *Spoiler Alert* a secret society called the Jacks of All Trades, and he killed Bod’s family in order to stop a prophecy. The prophecy spoke of a child being born (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) who would bring about the end of the society, so the Jacks of All Trades decided to kill Bod to defy what was foretold. It is this revelation that ramps up the pace of the story and with the remaining Jacks of All Trades on his tail, Bod must use the skills he gained growing up in the graveyard to stop them.
Though many of the characters are dead, they never fail to impart the importance of potential only present for the living that Bod has access to. The dichotomy of life and death are explored throughout the book and Bod is often reminded by his deceased counterparts that he has a life to lead outside the graveyard. There is a scene of the Danse Macabre, or the Dance of the Dead, where the living and dead dance together one night a year. However, the living never remember the dance and it is not talked about on the other days of the year because the living and the dead need to remain separated. The dance celebrates the connection of death and life but does so briefly in order to maintain the separation between the two. Once the danger in the book’s third act has passed and he has reached a mature age, Bod is sent out into the world, leaving his metaphoric and ironic womb to find his place in the world.
A craft aspect I enjoyed of the book that I feel is worth mentioning is how Gaiman points out headstones that are nearby during the action taking place in the graveyard. Often the setting will be described and end with the headstone, birth and death dates, and epitaph of a nearby denizen of the dead. This brings about a sense of realism and in some cases humor that really help the tone of a book that could otherwise become very macabre…in a bad way.
The copy I have was illustrated by Dave McKean and though the artwork was limited, it definitely aided my visualization of the story. The Graveyard Book is a wonderful tale of macabre mystery and fascinating fantasy. The characters are simultaneously familiar and unique and Gaiman’s pen moves with a flourish that paints a peculiar yet hopeful story of growing and living in a place of death. Entertaining from beginning to end, The Graveyard Book is another fantastic addition to Gaiman’s body of work.
Verdict: 4 Jacks of All Trades out of 5
Recommended for: Children ages 9 and up, adults, fans of horror and fantasy, and you!
Not recommended for: The man Jack, the Jacks of All Trades, or those afraid of graveyards being mentioned (I mean, that’s where most of it takes place; it’s going to come up. I’ve used it 16 times in this review alone. Graveyard. 17 times).