I have a bit of a confession. I am not a Neil Gaiman fan. He writes only one story. Don't get me wrong, Gaiman writes that story well..... but it's basically just one story. The central gimmick of a generic Neil Gaiman story is: What happens when an ancient god has to take a modern form? That's the plot of "American Gods," and "Good Omens" and "Anansi Boys" and most of the "Sandman" series. I loved a lot of the "Sandman" books.... but after a while I get the gist. When I opened "The Graveyard Book" I was half-expecting to read some story about "Paul" with the golden hair who works with solar panel technology. "a-PAUL-o," get it? Wink, wink? Nudge, nudge?
Anyway, I opened "The Graveyard Book" and found a Neil Gaiman story that I had never read before. Not only is the tale free of the usual Neil Gaiman tropes (well, mostly free)... but it is also a truly original fantasy tale. It's a story with an extraordinary setting that I have never seen in any other tale. The concept of "The Graveyard Book" is beautiful, sad, idyllic, loving, and strange. And very, very human. I loved reading every page of "The Graveyard Book."
When did I first realize that "The Graveyard Book" wasn't a typical Neil Gaiman tale? Probably by page 2. We are in a house late at night. A man and a woman lie in bed, their throats slit. Their five-year-old daughter lies nearby, her throat slit too. The murderer with the knife just has one victim left: the baby. He steps into the nursery, not realizing that the 14-month-old child has crawled curiously out the door that the murderer carelessly left ajar. Unaware of the danger or the fact that his parents are dead, the baby crawls down the street and into the gloomy graveyard at the end of the road.
Already this is pretty dark stuff, even by Neil Gaiman standards. Men killing children? Babies crawling alone down dangerous dark streets into graveyards? This is more Stephen King territory than Neil Gaiman. Gaiman himself realizes that he had better lighten the atmosphere quickly. As soon as the baby crawls into the graveyard, he's greeted by the ghosts. The spirit of a plump Victorian-era woman and her husband float out curiously to look at the baby. They are immediately enchanted by him. They are also curious as to why the baby is (unlike most living humans) able to see them. The ghosts themselves, though drawn with a blue hue by the amazing Kevin Nowlan and always-reliable P. Craig Russell, are solid enough. The are able to pick up and comfort the baby. And thus the baby is adopted by the ghosts, given the name "Nobody Owens" (his adoptive ghost parents are named Mistress and Master Owens) and raised in the graveyard.
A child growing up in a graveyard sounds grim but the amazing illustrators of "The Graveyard Book" make the ancient British burial grounds look like an idyllic Garden of Eden. Nobody "Bod" Owens has a childhood full of loving if rather old-fashioned ghost guardians, a home of beautiful ancient marble graves twined around with magnificent old trees, and (in a rather creepy touch) plenty of happy ghost children playmates courtesy of the 19th century's high child mortality rate. Bod's more practical needs are met too through the character of Silas, an austere paternal vampire who is able to leave the graveyard occasionally to pick up food for the child. Between the fussy, loving, old-fashioned ghosts and the vampire who feeds the human child instead of ON the boy, Neil Gaiman cleverly inverts supernatural tropes. Like his down-on-their-luck gods in "American Gods," Gaiman reverses and gently mocks ancient human fears of the supernatural.
I do have a few tiny quibbles. The graveyard Bod grows up in is HUGE! Acre after acre of picturesque ancient British landscape, gothically beautiful trees and marble statuary make up Body's graveyard and it appears to take more square kilometers than the city of London. It's beautifully drawn. The artistic license taken with the graveyard's size is forgivable, I suppose. Maybe it's drawn that way on purpose, seen as larger than it really is through a child's eyes. Certainly it looks idyllic and you can't help but feel a little jealous of Bod for growing up in such a gorgeous paradise.
In any case, "The Graveyard Book" is the most original fantasy story I have read in years. The illustrations are gorgeous and the characters of the ghosts and Silas and Mrs. Lupescu (Bod's firm yet protective werewolf tutor) are wonderful. "The Graveyard Book" is a very sweet, very warm, very human and very British story that is an utter delight to read.