“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?
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.
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.
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.
Is TGB’s episodic nature a strength or a drawback in a novel with every appearance of a bildungsroman?
Jean: I remember the first time I read TGB and knew I’d read part of it before. Except it was a brand-new novel, so how could that be? It was a while before I figured out I’d read it in a collection of short stories.
Anyway, I don’t mind the way the story goes along in episodes. We get glimpses into Bod’s life at pivotal times. It does kind of imply that his life is pretty monotonous the rest of the time! It doesn’t so much ‘build’ or develop as it jumps from level to level.
Lory: It seems in fact to be a fairly common thing for writers to take a shorter piece and develop it into a novel. I usually haven’t read the original version, and it generally seems to meld seamlessly enough into the longer version. I don’t think I would have noticed that “The Witch’s Headstone” was published separately first if not for reading a note somewhere.
Chris: Oddly, when I first started TGB the first chapter felt very familiar, and I went through Gaiman’s collection Smoke and Mirrors convinced that was where the memory came from, but in vain. It must have been “The Witch’s Headstone” I’d remembered which was bundled up in another collection featuring Coraline.
Lory: Well, obviously if The Jungle Book was the model, that was extremely episodic with the stories appearing in serial form first and not even all of them about Mowgli. Gaiman is not slavishly imitating Kipling, but in terms of that format he gives him a nod. And I don’t think it’s a problem. There is enough connection between the stories, though they do jump from “level to level” as Jean says.
Chris: I believe Gaiman was also a fan of Edith Nesbit, and all the Treasure Seekers and Psammead novels were episodic because first appearing in serial form. TGB has just this feel, which I like.
Lizzie: However episodic Gaiman’s book is, it all builds to a neat whole. Everything that happens to Bod comes into play in the final showdown with the Jacks. What’s interesting to me is that this all started as that one chapter about Liza H’s headstone, and Gaiman built his novel backwards and forwards from that. The threads that run all the way through – amazing how a short story can develop in so many directions, and on so many levels. It’s like building a house around a second-floor study.
What about Gaiman’s sense of humor?
Lizzie: I laughed when Miss Lupescu asks Bod to “name the different types of people”, and he lists “the living … the dead … Cats?” He and Pratchett (and many others) certainly portray cats as an almost unearthly species.
Jean: I love the humor. I just opened to the “….Cats?” page last night and it’s a delightful moment. I also love the bit where Silas and Miss Lupescu are hunting Jacks, and it’s a very tense, frightening scene (even though we never see the Jacks at all), and the mummy guy is holding a pig – because it’s lucky. That scene comes off very well in the graphic novel, which is able to add touches of visual comedy too. The mummy, for example, has wings (because he’s an Assyrian mummy, I presume) and is holding a nice little pink pig.
Another fun moment is the poet’s enthusiasm for revenge, served cold. Very cold indeed.
It’s not exactly humorous, but someone I enjoy very much is Bod’s mother figure, Mrs. Owens. She sees a child in need of a family, and she knows just what to do. Arguments are useless, because “‘His mama gave the boy to me,’ said Mrs. Owens, as if that was all that needed to be said.” And it is. I like that kind of practical sense.
Lory: I think it’s a very special thing about the book, and Gaiman’s writing in general, that he can work in several tones that don’t in any way clash or create awkward transitions: the humorous and the dramatic and the creepy/scary and what I can only call heartfelt (but I don’t mean sentimental) … there are also several kinds of humor, from pure wordplay (the names of the Jacks) to a more slapstick comedy (the race toward Ghûlheim).
Lizzie: And the names of the ghouls as well: “the Bishop of Bath and Wells”, plus a Duke and a US President (#33 = Truman).
Chris: There actually is a Bath and Wells in the Church of England hierarchy! Always the occasion for humour because of their association with water (both spots archaeologically predating the Romans).
Jean: I do love those ghoul names! The ghouls are very funny, except also terrifying.
Lizzie: They remind me a bit of the orcs in The Two Towers, arguing about whether to kill and eat Pippin and Merry – and of course the trolls in The Hobbit.
Lory: Yes, funny and also terrifying! It’s really quite impressive, when you come to think about it.
And not everything is spelled out, either. That’s what makes a great children’s book, I believe, that children are able through their reading to take in more than just what they can comprehend on a literal level. As adult readers, we see more of those implications and make more connections based on our own wider experience, but there are still greater mysteries that even we don’t understand. A writer who has respect for child readers will know this, and it means such works have an ageless quality: they can be read at many different ages with no loss of integrity, and no condescension or talking down to the reader. (E. Nesbit, mentioned by Chris, was another master of this.)
Chris: This is really the mark of a good writer who appeals to all ages, that youngsters are able to take the narrative in their stride according to their life experiences.
At the end, why does Scarlett turn against Bod?
Lory: It’s understandable Scarlett would be overwhelmed by everything in the end and need to just get away, but her gesture of rejection made me sad.
Lizzie: I, too, found that moment sad, but it may be another instance of Gaiman breaking away from the gothic models. Scarlett isn’t going to be the helpless woman grateful to have been rescued. She’s going to be mad as hell, because she didn’t like being used as bait, and I don’t blame her (although, to be honest, I was surprised to read that – I hadn’t gotten that sense from Bod when he sent her there; I just assumed he figured the Sleer would protect her. I never thought her fear would draw Jack Frost to that place). I understand Silas deciding she needed to have her memory erased.
But I also believe fear makes people do strange things. Bod taught her to be afraid of him (she hadn’t been, when they were younger), and there was probably a certain amount of guilt at being fooled by Mr. Frost and then putting her mother and Bod in danger. So many complicated feelings involved in the whole thing – she probably would sooner forget the whole thing.
Jean: Yes, I think it’s natural for her to be so freaked out that she just closes down. It’s sad, but I do think she’s reacting like a regular human (the reader) would. Bod already knows about ghosts, and death, and ghouls, and Jack. He lives much closer to the realities of life and death and the supernatural than Scarlett, who lives an average 2008 kind of life – very insulated from death or anything involving the supernatural, but fraught with difficult personal relationships and an overwhelmingly complex society. Those are her realities, that Bod doesn’t know anything about. All this other stuff is so new, so terrifying and incomprehensible, that she can’t deal at all. I don’t think Bod meant her to be bait, but she sees the whole thing so differently than he does; they discover a massive gulf between them that they can’t bridge. It is sad, but the situation might be inherently tragic. Bod is getting ready for the world, but the world is never going to truly understand Bod.
Chris: Scarlett has already been used once by a male, Mr Frost. (She reminds me of how Sylvia must have felt about Mr Grimshaw in The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, though Sylvia was always suspicious of him, never being taken in by his creepy attempts to befriend him.) She was reluctant to have a lift with Frost, then accepted him, then was betrayed when she realised his true nature. So when her relationship with Bod is seen to be coloured by his usage of her, even if it’s well-intentioned, it’s the straw that breaks the camel’s back, the ultimate betrayal. I don’t really blame her.
Lory: That’s all very true and helps me make sense of the narrative choices here. It’s not that I blamed her, just that it made me sad to have that central relationship broken at the end of the story. But she does need to heal and to grow up herself, safe from such violation.
Chris: I suppose that part of Gaiman’s storytelling is that, however much we’ve invested in Scarlett, the focus is on Bod, and that this alienation or rupture is crucial for allowing him to leave with no ties and go out into the world. I often think that much of Gaiman’s work is about himself, and that this story about Bod (whom nobody owns) is at its core a reflection of the author.
Lory: It all makes me wish even more for a sequel! But it is also good to be left with an ending that is open to all the possibilities of life. Thank you for the discussion, it brought up so much to think about and will add to my enjoyment of the book when I read it again.
Rattle his bones
Over the stones
It’s only a pauper
Who nobody owns
(traditional nursery rhyme, epigraph, The Graveyard Book)
*Lory Widmer Hess grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, but recently moved with her husband and son to Switzerland, where she is struggling to learn multiple languages, among other projects. She has been blogging for almost seven years at The Emerald City Book Review but in 2021 will move over to Entering the Enchanted Castle. She started Witch Week in her first year of blogging and is thrilled to see it continue in a new form.
What were your responses to The Graveyard Book? Did we miss any important Gothic elements? Did we get everything wrong? anything right? Let us know in the comment section below. And if you’d like to read the full discussion, you can find it here.