Neil Gaiman Neverwhere:
The Author’s Preferred Text
Headline Review 2005 (1996)
In fairytales the overlooked, usually youngest son or daughter in a family commits an act of kindness that allows him or her to succeed where the other brothers or sisters didn’t. Sometimes the act of kindness is misplaced, as in the Arabian Nights tale of the genie in the bottle, and potential disaster follows. In this fantasy Scotsman Richard Mayhew comes to London and rescues a young woman from her pursuers, as a result of which his life is changed forever. He passes into London Below, supposedly the bourn from which no traveller returns. This is an Otherworld — at times a Dante-esque Inferno, other times reminiscent of Tudor or Restoration London — which has successfully reappeared in various modern guises, in Michael Moorcock’s Gloriana (1978) for example, Andrew Sinclair’s Gog (1967) and more recently in Miéville’s fantasies such as Kraken (2010).
Neverwhere‘s strengths largely lie in those fairytale motifs that much good fantasy draws from: the innocent protagonist from elsewhere, the acts of charity, the fairytale realm where the dimensions of time and space are not as ours, the Helpful Companions, the ogre figures and so on. Gaiman’s talents are to update and transform the settings in which these motifs take place, to make the quaint old folktales, told round a fire, narratives more relevant to our times and tastes.
Speaking of tastes, Gaiman’s whimsy with names and characters doesn’t appeal to all. Whimsy is one of those aspects of storytelling that requires great skill to carry off. Simply turning the names of putative London Underground stations into characters (the Angel Islington, Old Bailey and so on) isn’t enough, they have to be turned into believable individuals, something that Gaiman mostly does, especially with the more disreputable figures. The Marquis de Carabas is a particularly memorable character, arguably the best in these pages, who deserves a sequel all to himself (his appearance in the fairytale Puss in Boots must count as a prequel, perhaps). Croup and Vandemar (who most remind me of the Fox and the Cat in Pinocchio) are the most chilling of Gaiman’s creations here, and may be the direct ancestors of those other nightmare creatures, Goss and Subby in Kraken. I mustn’t neglect Door and Hunter either, Richard’s companions on his Stygian journey.
I’m not the first to be rather less enamoured of the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, who comes across as weakly reactive and, on the few occasions he is proactive, mistaken. But that’s a weakness that can be levelled at many another successful novel and, of course, many of the fairytale heroes and heroines that inspire modern fantasy. In this ‘Author’s Preferred Text’ edition we are gifted a ‘final’ version of the tale following its previous incarnations as TV script and in various international editions, plus the extras that a DVD generation has come to expect.
There is also a hint that the Neverwhere characters and the Below world that the author suggests exists under other cities may make another appearance in that rarest of works, the Gaiman sequel (“Sooner or later I’ll write another Neverwhere novel. It’ll probably be called The Seven Sisters,” he wrote on his blog). I do hope the Marquis de Carabas features in that. There is also a novella that only appeared this year, in the short story collection Rogues, called “How The Marquis Got His Coat Back”. The Marquis definitely appears in this!
Post first published May 30, 2012 and here slightly revised