First Lines: The Graveyard Book (re-read)

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The hand belonged to a man named Jack, and the knife just killed a father, a mother and a sister. It did not kill the little boy, who managed to escape to the nearby graveyard, where he was raised by the ghosts of that place, and a vampire guardian.

Since I first read Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book 10 years ago, I have also read Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book(s), which Gaiman has said was somewhat of an inspiration. And I can see that, much like the stories in The Jungle Book, each chapter in The Graveyard Book can stand on its own. (In fact, chapter four, “The Witch’s Headstone” was published as a short story a year before the novel came out.)

In each chapter, we see that the young boy — now called Nobody ‘Bod’ Owens — has grown a year or two, and he has an adventure. At first, they’re quaint little affairs — befriending a living girl and visiting an ancient tomb far below the cemetery; being captured by ghouls and outwitting them; arranging a headstone for a witch — but as Bod grows up, it slowly becomes more serious, like dancing the macabray with the Grey Lady, or going to school. Finally, all the story threads come together in the final showdown, where Bod has to defeat the man Jack and his buddies all by himself.

If not for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The Graveyard Book would probably be my favorite Gaiman book. It’s clearly aimed at younger readers, and the story is fairly straight-forward, but it just tugs at my heart in all the right ways.

Book read
Neil Gaiman — The Graveyard Book
First line
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

Seen Live: Daniël Lohues, “Elektrisch”

As I have said before, I only really got to know Skik after they went on an open-ended break. I saw them live once, and it was fun, but I only knew a few songs. So, after seeing Daniël Lohues playing in theaters several times, I was really looking forward to see him play on his “Elektrisch” tour: in clubs, with a band, playing songs that could really use a band. And some Skik stuff as well. Sounds like a guaranteed success to me.

And, to no-one’s surprise, it was excellent. A sold out show in Haarlem’s Patronaat, and as soon as Lohues hit the stage, you could see he was really into it: cowboy hat on his hat, guitar all plugged in and having a great time. By all means, I should have been totally into it.

Unfortunately, due to reasons we’ll get into in the new year, my head was somewhere else entirely. Which is a shame, as it took all the fun out what should have been a great night.

See live
Daniël Lohues, “Elektrisch” + Marlene Bakker on October 19, 2018 at Patronaat, Haarlem
Bernard Gepken – guitar, background vocals / Reyer Zwart – bass, background vocals / Bram Hakkens – drums, background vocals / Ferry Lagendijk – piano, keyboard, Hammond organ, background vocals
Set list (Spotify playlist)
Volle maone / Kwelt / Weg van alles / Prachtig mooie dag / Ik haal mij ‘n hond op / Van hier tot Tokyo / A28 / Naor huus (Skik) / Let mar niet op mij / Gao weg / Ja boeh (Lohues & The Louisiana Blues Club) / Hoe kan dat nou (Skik) / ‘t Giet zoas ‘t giet (Skik) / A’j joe verkleden as schaop / Hier kom ik weg / Allennig moe’j ‘t ok kunnen / Ondergrondse hutte / Nie veur spek en bonen (Skik) // Anja de vreemdgangster / Op fietse (Skik) / Ze benn benauwder veur joe as ie veur heur / ‘t Ien of ‘t ander Lohues & The Louisiana Blues Club)

First Lines: Elevation

Stephen King’s Elevation is a novella about a guy who is mysteriously losing weight. It’s a good story, a bit heavy on the current state of politics, but not especially great. It also contains the weirdest concept for a department store e-commerce website I’ve ever seen: you go to a website, and after an old-fashioned splash screen, you see an empty room and a search bar. By entering a keyword, the room then gets filled with furniture and other trinkets in that particular style. I don’t believe that would work, but what do I know? Anyway: decent story that would not have been out of place in one of his short-story/novella collections. Don’t know why this would warrant a stand-alone release.

Earlier this year, I also read Laurie, another short story, released online (PDF) this summer. It’s a sweet little tale about an old guy who gets a dog from his sister. At first, he’s not quite impressed, but then, as always, stuff happens.

Book read
Stephen King — Elevation
First line
Scott Carey knocked on the door of the Ellis condo unit, and Bob Ellis (everyone in Highland Acres still called him Doctor Bob, although he was five years retired) let him in.
Story read
Stephen King — Laurie
First line
Six months after his wife of forty years died, Lloyd Sunderland’s sister drove from Boca Raton to Caymen Key to visit him.

First Lines: The Ocean at the End of the Lane (reread)

Upon finishing my reread of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, I am pretty sure it is my favorite book of his. And I suspect that is because I have absolutely no clue what to make of it.

It is an absolutely fantastic story, in every sense of the word. But despite all the maiden-mother-crone triple goddesses, all the weird and wonderful and very evil things that happen, I cannot help but feel that there must be so many layers that you have to peel back before you get to the story’s true meaning. Layers all the way down. When you read, say, Neverwhere, you know it’s all, well, made up. Ocean is nothing like that.

In a blog post I have mentioned here years ago, his wife Amanda Palmer explains it in a way that makes so much sense:

neil writes fiction. i interviewed him for my webcast (the AFP Salon) a few weeks ago and we discussed our differences in writing, and a truly bizarre metaphor (but an apt one, i believe), came tumbling out of my mouth.
we are the ingredients of our own art (much like i said in the writers’ conference speech: “we can only connect the dots that we can collect”), but the amount of distance from the “reality of our experience” to the “art we create” spans a scale of one to ten on the blender of art-making.

we start off with all these fresh ingredients, recognizable (a heart, a finger, an eyeball, a glass of wine) and we throw them in the art-blender. i only let things mix very slightly. i keep my blender on 2 or 3. you can recognize the component parts: in the final art-soup, the finger might be severed and mangled, but you can peer into your bowl and see that it’s a finger, floating there, all human and bloody and finger-y. neil puts his art-blender on 10. you wind up with a fantastic purée, but often you have no fucking idea where the experiences of his life wound up in the mix of his final product.

She goes on to say that for this book, he turned the blender down a lot, and that that was hard for him to do. But know this does not bring the story behind the story within reach. In his 2012 Zena Sutherland lecture, What the [Very Bad Swearword] Is a Children’s Book Anyway?, Gaiman acknowledges that this is a very personal, nearly autobiographical story:

The third book I wrote is the one that inspired the title of this talk, and is the reason why I puzzle and I wonder. It has a working title of Lettie Hempstock’s Ocean. It is written, almost entirely, from the point of view of a seven-year-old boy. It has magic in it — three strange, science-fictional witches who live in an ancient farmhouse at the end of the protagonist’s lane. It has some unusually black-and-white characters, including the most absolutely evil creature I’ve made since Coraline’s Other Mother. It has Sense of Wonder in it, and strangeness. It’s only 53,000 words long, short for an adult book, but for years considered a perfect length for a juvenile. It has everything in it I would have loved as a boy…

And I don’t think it’s for kids. But I’m not sure.

It’s a book about child helplessness. It’s a book about the incomprehensibility of the adult world. It’s a book in which bad things happen — a suicide sets the story in motion, after all. And I wrote it for me: I wrote it to try and conjure my childhood for my wife, to evoke a world that’s been dead for over forty years. I set it in the house I grew up in and I made the protagonist almost me, the parents similar to my parents, the sister an analog of my younger sister, and I even apologized to my baby sister because she could not exist in this fictional version of events.

I would make notes for myself as I wrote it, on scraps of paper and in margins, to try and work out whether I was writing a book for children or for adults — which would not change the nature of the book, but would change what I did with it once it was done, who would initially publish it and how. They were notes that would say things like “In adult fiction you can leave the boring bits in” and “I don’t think I can have the scene where his father nearly drowns him in the bath if it’s a kids’ book, can I?”

I reached the end of the book and realized that I was as clueless as when I began. Was it a children’s book? an adult book? a young adult book? a crossover book? a … book?

It is a book. A glorious, uplifting and satisfying book, that does not really give you any answers as to what it really is about. Do I want to know? Bet your ass I do. But also, no.

Book reread
Neil Gaiman — The Ocean at the End of the Lane
First Line
It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm.
Favorite quotes
“I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”
“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr, and, very soon, I slept.” (😻)