The bourn from which no traveller returns

GB at night

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 

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13 thoughts on “The bourn from which no traveller returns

  1. As a long-time Puss-in-Boots fan, I was thrilled to see Gaiman give the Marquis de Carabas a role in this novel (although we shouldn’t forget that the Marquis was initially the cat’s invention!).
    Neverwhere’s world is claustrophobic, dark and terrifying, appealing to any commuter who spends time traveling through darkened tunnels. The graffiti and “ghost stations” in NYC’s subway system certainly suggest another world. And there’s something disconcerting about the announcement, “We apologize for the delay, but we are being held here momentarily”, especially when “momentarily” goes on for ten or more minutes and the conductor rarely identifies the cause. One is left to wonder: Held by a monster? a horde of giant rats? a gang of underground highwaymen?
    I, too, was frustrated with Mayhew, but I’m certain that’s what Gaiman wanted. It’s the character trait I call “useful idiocy.” It’s like the basement in a horror film. The audience knows the killer is hiding there, and we scream at the character not to go down, and yet the idiot goes. If she (in horror films, it’s almost always she) didn’t go — if she’d left the house and called the police as any thoughtful person would do — there’d be no story. We need someone like Mayhew to make mistakes and get himself deeper into trouble, so that there’s a story to tell.

    1. ‘Useful idiocy’, great phrase! It’s like that feeling you get in waking dreams where you can’t help yourself, Bluebeard’s bloody chamber you have to enter, the red button marked ‘Do not press except in emergency’ your finger hesitates over, the letter addressed to somebody else that some people can’t help reading… No Rubicon crossing means no consequences, end of story, as you rightly point out.

      On the London tube you are exhorted to Mind the gap, but I’m not a frequent enough visitor to know the equivalent of being held in the subway, I’m afraid. Something bland, I expect.

      Bland. That’s something the Marquis is not.

  2. A ‘preferred text’ usually means that the author was originally forced into changes or exclusions, but in this case apart from the Harrods change in the TV series – not apparantly the fault of the producers – it would seem that he simply wanted to add scenes.
    I am never too fond of dithering protagonists (Covenant drove me insane) unless they simply start that way and then grow into a hero role.

  3. This is another book (and author) that I need to reread. I think I like Richard more than most people do, although I’m not sure why – it probably had something to do with the state I was in, the first time I read it. Thanks for the heads up about Rogues! I’ve yet to check what stories are in it, and now I have another anthology in my “want” list.

    1. I’ve only seen references to Rogues, not read it, so would be interested in what you had to say about it if you do get it! I’m hoping to read this again sometime, and may even revise my opinion of Richard then — second readings are often quite illuminating!

  4. Now I need to check out Rogues. May need to check this edition too.

    Whatever it may say about me, I’ve always found Croup & Vandemar to be the funniest characters in the book – jester meets serial killer, I suppose. They appear to have ancestors in “Diamonds are Forever” (James Bond film).

    I’ve also alway found it interesting that Gaiman wrote the book and BBC screenplay simultaneously.

    1. I’d have to read the book again to decide if those two were funny/peculiar or funny/haha — I just remember them turning up when least (most?) expected far too disconcerting, smooth-talking literary stalkers as I remember them. Hmm…

      1. A particularly dark, dry humor, as I recall. Many of those whom I’ve introduced to Neverwhere came to a similar conclusion (which may say something about the company I keep). 🙂

  5. Croup and Vandemar reminded me of the murderers, Burke and Hare.
    What I particularly liked about the book is the setting. Gaiman’s use of the underground was perfect. Instead of placing his world beyond our reach, he makes us uneasy with the idea that there is something sinister right beneath our feet.

    1. Yes, both pairs were/are quite nasty!

      ‘Underground’ does have a sinister sound to it, so similar is it to the classical idea of the Underworld and the more recent association of ‘underworld’ with criminal types. Possibly this is why Londoners seem to prefer the connotation-free term ‘the Tube’ to the more long-winded ‘The London Underground’.

      Incidentally, Sari, do you know when was New York’s rapid transit system first called the Subway? I’m guessing it must be around 1904 when the first underground tunnel was constructed. Was it a populist term (like the Tube) because both the Brooklyn and Interborough Rapid Transit Companies were each a bit of a mouthful?

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