Reviewed by Jeremy Billingsley
Neil Gaiman is a British writer now living in Minnesota, the author of many books, including but not limited to American Gods (a television event on Starz), its sidequal novel Anansi’s Boys, the Sandman series of comic books, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book, which I recently read. The Graveyard Book is classified as a children’s novel in as much a horror and dark fantasy author can write a children’s novel. (A number of years ago, I read the first adult novel by a famous and well-respected children’s author also familiar with the genres of horror and dark-fantasy, and — to say the least — I finished the work because I cannot leave any book unfinished, though with that one I wish I’d never started it … cough cough … RL Stine). I have been dubious about transitioning between audiences (transitioning between genres, however, can prove serviceable in the hands of one who understands craft), and I should admit that had I known this was a book written for children, I would not have picked it up.
I’m glad I didn’t know then what I know now. The Graveyard Book is an absolute delight with a story that doesn’t read as though it is for children — kids nowadays must be either more desensitized or more worldly than I — but whose themes, allusions, and ideas would resonate with any young reader, in part because The Graveyard Book is not a previously un-imagined tale, but rather the reimagining and modernization of a classic.
Nobody Owens is a toddler when his family is murdered. A man Jack sneaks into the house late one night and, with his knife, snuffs out the lives of his older sister, his mother, and his father. He intends to kill the baby too, but in a moment of luck for the inquisitive child who figures out how to escape the confines of his prison crib, the would-be murderer misses the child who retreats up the hill to the town’s cemetery. There the baby meets two denizens of the graveyard, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, who agree to watch after the baby, and the enigmatic Silas who agrees to serve as guardian. The boy is given a name and is given the freedom of the graveyard, which allows him to walk with the dead.
As he grows older, Nobody meets the others interred at the old cemetery who become his teachers and his friends. He witnesses the Danse Macabre and meets ghouls and Silas’ friend, Miss Lupescu. There are werewolves and mummies and vampires and night shrieks and phantoms and bullies and, as true with a number of Gaiman’s works, a shadowy evil and ancient underground movement bent on the destruction of the hero in their quest for power.
As I said, this is a story that reflects another — Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book — intentionally. Nobody Owens mirrors Mowgli, and Silas is Baloo and Miss Lupescu is Bagheera the black panther. But as with any good adaption, this is not a linear copy, but Kipling’s stories serve as more a source of inspiration for Gaiman’s novel. The themes that resonate through both books — the search for belonging, for identity, and what it means to have a family — are themes that resonated with Kipling’s first readers way back when.