2012 US paperback edition, cover by Dave McKean
“It takes a graveyard to raise a child.”
(back cover of The Graveyard Book, US edition)
Appropriately for today, the Day of the Dead, we present you with a discussion of this year’s read-along book, a novel set in a cemetery. Four of us–Lory* from The Emerald City Book Review, Chris at Calmgrove, Jean at Howling Frog Books, and Lizzie–spent the last few weeks of summer discussing Neil Gaiman’s Newbery Award-winning novel, The Graveyard Book (2008). We addressed four questions of interest to us.
Many of you know this book, or have read it recently, and we hope that after reading our discussion you’ll add your own comments and questions, expanding this in new directions.
What did we think of the novel’s gothic nature?
A bloody knife promises danger.
Chris:The Gothick elements include the menace right from the off and the memes or motifs that Gaiman deliberately uses — ghosts, graves, vampires, the innocent abroad, the enclosing boundary representing safety.
Lory: What I find interesting is that Gaiman makes some of the traditional villains of horror/gothic fiction, the monsters, into guardians and protectors of humanity. He gives them new names and doesn’t use the old ones, though we can deduce them (vampire, werewolf) from our knowledge of the tropes of fiction. The creepiest part of The Graveyard Book to me is the chapter where Mr. Frost gains Scarlett’s trust, and that has nothing supernatural about it. It’s an all too everyday story.
Jean: Mr. Frost, unassuming nice man, is really frightening. He knows just what to say to manipulate Scarlett and Noona into trusting him.
Chris: Jack Frost’s grooming, of both Scarlett and her mother Noona, is all too recognisable, and as creepy (though in a different way) with the older woman as with the 15yo. That’s Gaiman’s skill, I think, to mix the menace of Gothick with everyday evil, and somehow to suggest that the mundane type is more horrific than ghosts and ghouls.
Lory: Exactly! When Gothic lit veers into the unbelievably silly and absurd, it is just too much for my taste. It’s a grounding in reality that makes it truly scary, and also educational. We need to realize that evil is an everyday occurrence and the only way we can defeat it is to recognize it – above all, in ourselves.
Chris: I’m about a quarter of the way through Radcliffe’s A Sicilian Romance which is very much in the style I remember from Walpole’s Castle of Otranto but the atmosphere is of a different nature to Gaiman’s: archaic not contemporary, classic Gothick not serio-comic, teenage-focused more than child-centred.
Lory: Jean, since you are reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, do you see anything to compare there? I confess that hardcore Gothic is not my thing and I tried to read Radcliffe once and could get nowhere. I did read Uncle Silas, though, and Gaiman’s using the name is a nod to the genre I think.
Lizzie: I’m the same, Lory. I’ve read The Monk, and Walpole and Radcliffe, and they’re all just silly.
Jean: The silliness is part of the fun! Walpole always cracks me up; how did he come up with the idea of a giant helmet falling out of the sky and squishing the heir? (I also like B-movies. So that might be part of my problem.)
Lizzie: Yes, Jean, that giant helmet is hilarious — plus the giant foot and sword. That’s some curse, to manifest itself through size.
Lory: It’s not so much the silly external events as the silliness of the characters that bugs me: when they are just too stupid to live, or their actions simply make no sense. (I’m really basing this comment on Uncle Silas, which has a lot of that.) To be thrown into fantastical, weird situations and have to make sense of them is all to the good, narratively speaking; that’s what Bod has to do a lot, isn’t it?
Lizzie: 18th and 19th century gothic fiction relies heavily on the helpless female, allowing “heroes” to rescue them from Dracula/Frankenstein’s monster/the Monk/whoever is threatening their life and/or chastity. I’m glad that Radcliffe stepped away from that particular trope. And certainly the fainting woman that Austen parodies in Northanger Abbey [in Love and Freindship, Austen advised: “Run mad as often as you choose, but do not faint!”] was being replaced by redoubtable women like Jane Eyre and the various widows of Mrs. Gaskell’s Cranford (although David Copperfield’s Dora comes far too close to the gothic model). I’m happy that Gaiman didn’t include anything like this – unless you count Noona being taken in by Mr. Frost? A case where the adults are dupes, although Scarlett is also fooled. But I assume/hope not the careful reader, who, upon seeing a character named “Mr. Frost” ought to move immediately to “Jack Frost”.
Lory: It’s certainly fascinating to look at gender roles in Gothic lit. E.g. in Frankenstein, a man takes on a female role (giving life) but then he is too weak to take responsibility for the result and just runs away from it. One wants to say, “Be a woman!” And with Dracula it seemed to me that Mina Harker had more brainpower than all the men put together, who insisted on being all manly and protecting her and just made things worse. However, this takes me a bit far afield from TGB, where (with a mostly preteen protagonist) the gender issue is not so much in the foreground.
10th Anniversary cover, art by Chris Riddell
Jean: Much of Gothic fiction, it’s true, has helpless females who need rescuing, but it’s not at all uncommon (in the women-authored ones, anyway!) for the heroine to conquer through bravery and common sense. Eliza Parsons and Ann Radcliffe are both notable for their sensible and brave girls, though Radcliffe’s heroines feel faint a heck of a lot. The Monk is just completely bananas anyway …. I think the women authors felt much more of a responsibility to write heroines that could be models for the girls they knew were reading the books.
Udolpho, like all of Radcliffe’s works, is notable for its championship of common sense and emotional self-control that stands in opposition to the background of creepy castles, evil villains, and nameless horrors. Emily’s triumph comes through defeating superstition (including belief in ghosts) and standing firm in her moral certainties – both against money-grubbing men who want to force her into marriage, and against the panic-inducing fear of ghosts. I’d say that Silas does teach Bod a lot of sense. He’s good at calmly figuring out not just how to deal with the Indigo Man, but also solutions to real-world problems, like the school bullies. He eventually marries defeating both the supernatural and the ordinary terrors by luring Jack into the Sleer’s cave.
Lory: Nice characterization of the qualities that can be strengthened exactly through encountering their opposites in the Gothic genre. I might give Radcliffe another try at some point.
Gaiman has said that TGB was inspired by seeing his own son riding a tricycle through a graveyard, a perfect metaphor for how life continues renewing itself in the midst of death. What does this suggest about the book’s setting?
Chris: It’s a tale set in limbo, playing on the threshold between life and death, and between amity and adversity.
Lizzie: The final defeat of Jack Frost requires Bod to have no fear of the Sleer – and that was the case the first time he met it. I guess growing up surrounded and taught by ghosts teaches a person that death isn’t anything to fear. I’ve had this quote for ages: Letum non omnia finit. (“Death doesn’t end everything.”)
Lory: Yes, that ties together all the incidents and themes in a way. And makes it clear why setting a book in a graveyard does not mean it’s morbid or anti-life.
I recently came across a quote from Tennessee Williams – “We live in a perpetually burning building, and what we must save from it, all the time, is love.” I think this is a book about love, the love that has the potential to lead us safely through dangerous and liminal spaces, that is able to discern good and evil within our own hearts and to point us in the right direction, even when conventional wisdom might tell us something different.
How do we live in the face of mortality? Not by denying it or trying to erase it. Bod lives in the very realm of death, and what he “saves” from it is primarily learning and relationship. I find that a worthwhile message to ponder right now.
Cover of Italian version, artist unknown
Chris: I think you’ve pinpointed this very well, Lory. If there’s a leitmotif in much of Gaiman’s work, it’s love – the compassionate type more than the passionate. I had a spot of heartache in the final chapter, even the suggestion of a tear, and I remember a similar feeling at the end of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. And closely allied to love’s pang are partings, and loss, and change.
Lory: Agreed, Chris. The poignancy of change and loss is strongly present in Gaiman’s work. That’s always a factor when love is truly present, because we have to learn to let go what we cherish, so that it can be free. I believe that is what the “graveyard” setting conveys here, rather than a ghoulish delight in decay and corruption. I don’t usually enjoy horror stories which exist to indulge such an unwholesome appetite, but I can read his because they walk on the right side of that line, for me.
Jean: I love your Tennessee Williams quotation, Lory, and yes, it’s a theme I find in Gaiman a lot – and I think in Pratchett too – that love is what brings us through. Not usually romantic love, but compassion and mercy. Bod walks out of the graveyard and into life “with his eyes and his heart wide open.” He has no illusions about people or the world being particularly nice, but he’s willing to love. So I think you have wonderful points there, Lory.
The graveyard isn’t a ghoulish place, even. Sure, it has dark crypts and old coffins of bones, but really it’s a little town with a lot of cozy homes and a lot of people rubbing along together through their many differences.
Lory: It’s ironic, though, that it’s in the graveyard that Bod is considered safe! The outer world, for him, holds greater dangers. And it’s again a good point that it’s by really knowing and experiencing all that is in the graveyard that he comes to have the abilities he needs to meet the challenge on the threshold of growing up. Continue reading