A noir memoir

Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean:
The Comical Tragedy
or Tragical Comedy of Mr Punch:
a Romance
Bloomsbury 2006 (1994)

Childhood is a dim, misty country. Facts and faces, people and places all flit in and out of the streetlight of memory, all mediated by the prism of emotion. Neil Gaiman’s Mr Punch captures that feeling exactly, through the eyes of a small boy — Neil himself — and it feels authentic because it is essentially autobiographical, and because it also has a sense of place without being being too specific.

Dave McKean’s atmospheric artwork matches young Neil’s perspective in the 70s, ferried to and around Southsea in Portsmouth to stay with grandparents and where he encounters other strange relatives and their associates. Self and space, adults and events are presented in a kaleidoscopic fashion that mirrors those confusing years when adults have control, violence may be around the corner and nothing truly makes sense, however much you try to fathom it out.

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Spooky portal fantasy

Neil Gaiman: Coraline. The Graphic Novel
Adapted and illustrated by P Craig Russell
Colourist: Lovern Kindzierski; letterer: Todd Klein
Bloomsbury 2008

Gaiman’s Coraline is a chilling portal fantasy, a warped version of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871) as seen through a distorting prism, and here impressively presented in graphic novel form. Coraline’s family moves to a flat in an old decaying mansion, but her parents are too wrapped up in themselves and their work to pay much attention to her. In her boredom, exasperated at the rather dotty aged residents in the other flats, she explores the house and eventually finds a locked door.

Though it’s bricked up she soon somehow finds herself through on the other side, only to find herself confronted by a psychic vampire of an ‘other’ mother with button eyes, eventually becoming trapped in a nightmare existence. However, just as Alice had both her Dinah and the Cheshire Cat, Coraline has a feline helper as adviser and companion, guiding her through the labyrinth and assisting her with the tricksy obstacles the other mother puts in her way.

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Human yet deliciously alien

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Headline 2014 (2013)

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space—were it not that I have bad dreams.
— Shakespeare: Hamlet

Like all good fantasy books, what makes this novel outstanding is not so much the magic (of which there is enough to sate the most avid of fans) but the essential truths that it contains: of human nature, of joy and pain, of choices and consequences, of life and of death. It strongly evokes what it’s like to be a child trying to make sense of an adult world, learning through books and above all through bitter experience. My main criterion when judging a performance, a work of art or a book is: Would I want to experience it again? In this case the answer is unhesitatingly Yes! And why? Because it is life-affirming; while conversely — and, seemingly, perversely — affirming that the inevitable consequence of life is death.

I confess I shall be hard pushed to mention everything that struck me as I read this, so exquisite was the underlay below the equally rich surface details. The unnamed narrator has been attending a funeral in Sussex — for his father, one soon realises — and afterwards drives off to the site of the former family home, and then on to a farm, curious about the pond that he remembers being there. It instantly brings back childhood memories, specifically when he was around the age of seven; and what memories they turn out to be!

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A heavy responsibility well acquitted

Diana-Wynne-Jones

Diana Wynne Jones
Reflections: On the Magic of Writing
Foreword by Neil Gaiman

Greenwillow Books 2012

Where to start? Diana Wynne Jones was a very individual and distinctive voice within British fantasy writing, highly regarded and rightly so, though that recognition was perhaps long coming: for example, though I was aware of the name I only first read her work in 2004, on a strong recommendation, beginning with The Merlin Conspiracy. However, from then on I was hooked. She had a growing loyal following from the mid-seventies onwards, but perhaps the fillip to her popularity came with an audience keen for more fiction along the lines of the Harry Potter books, aided by the success of the Japanese animated film of her Howl’s Moving Castle. Sadly, within a relatively little time she discovered she had cancer, dying just two years later in 2011.

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The Joy of Books (1)

There’s something about book anticipation that gets to this particular bibliophile. When I was a kid I remember being intrigued by the packaging of Fry’s Five Boys chocolate bar with its fivefold image of one lad in various stages: Desperation, Pacification, Expectation, Acclamation and Realization. Maybe I won’t quite go through all five stages before acquiring the desired object — in my case, the book rather than a bar of chocolate — but that stage of expectation is one that I especially relish. Even the image of books (as in a watercolour of vintage paperbacks hanging on our wall) is enough to have me salivating.

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Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws

angel

Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman Good Omens
Corgi 2011 (1990)

Good Omens is the inventive comic fantasy you’d expect from both these authors, a eschatological novel which in 1990 documented the final week of History. The cast of characters whose individual actions and thoughts gradually coalesce for the final denouement are easily distinguishable, from the angel who guarded the gates of Eden to the angel “who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards”, from Witchfinders to fortune-tellers, from the group of mostly ordinary kids entertaining themselves over the summer to the Four Horsepersons of the Apocalypse (Equal Opportunities apply to supernatural beings these days too) appropriately sporting Hell’s Angels on their motorcycle jackets. Has Armageddon really arrived? Only this book can tell you. Continue reading “Hell’s Angels meet the Outlaws”

Wanderer in lands remote

raven sutton hoo
Raven, from the Anglo-Saxon shield found at Sutton Hoo

Neil Gaiman American Gods:
the Author’s Preferred Text

Headline Review 2005 (2004/2001)

“Muse make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile, who far and wide
A Wand’rer, after Ilium overthrown,
Discover’d various cities, and the mind
And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote.
He num’rous woes on Ocean toss’d, endured,
Anxious to save himself, and to conduct
His followers to their home.” — William Cowper (1791)

Contrary to popular opinion the new millennium actually began at the start of 2001. This was the date celebrated by director Stanley Kubrick in the Arthur C Clarke inspired 2001: A Space Odyssey and with good reason — not only did this narrate a new beginning for humankind but it referenced the voyages of wily Odysseus after the sack of Troy. 2001 was also when the first and original version of Gaiman’s American Gods appeared and this too treated with new beginnings allied to wanderings, this time around the United States.

What’s it about? “It’s about the soul of America, really,” the author tells us. “What people brought to America; what found them when they came; and the things that lie sleeping beneath it all.” It’s also about a wanderer called Shadow who, in Cowper’s words about Odysseus, discovers “various cities, and the mind | And manners learn’d of men, in lands remote”. Of course we can tell from the title that it’s about faith and belief: when we believe in gods do they have a kind of physical existence in this world? And if we then cease to believe in those gods do they cease to exist?

The novel begins realistically. Shadow (a Jungian name, if ever I saw one) is nearing the end of his jail sentence, imposed for an uncharacteristic act of violence. Looking forward to returning home and seeing his wife Laura, he is surprised to be released early. Shocked by the news he receives he heads home, only to be offered a job by a mysterious stranger who calls himself Mr Wednesday. Things then take a strange turn and his odyssey zigzagging around North America begins.

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