At eight years old, reclining blissfully on a couch made for reading marathons, I let the world dissolve into the hair-raising plot twists of Alvin Schwartz’s More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. It was forbidden, tucked away firmly between composition books and homework to make sure my parents knew I didn’t have it. There was a textbook beneath it in case Mom or Dad came back in from their evening down time. Every breath matched the story’s pace. Earlier that day I felt Poe’s heartbeat while our librarian, thick-spectacled Mrs. Marshall, neutrally checked it out. The danger of getting in trouble added to the horror romance: What’s in here that causes parents to freak out? I’m so curious! Nightmarish tales unfolded, and as loathe as I was to admit it, my parents were right. I didn’t sleep well for weeks but an addictive thrill was sparked.
Neil Gaiman knows how to produce this thrill, sneak you back into your childhood, and keep you turning pages quickly and eagerly in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The simple beauty of the writing, the credible narrator, and the creativity Gaiman displays with his “monsters” are superb. It brought me back to that couch. Reading for sheer fun is a wonderful pastime.
It’s great to be mesmerized by Romantic sentences, fraught with research and brilliance. It’s also important to let extremely well-placed, emotion-stirring and plainer words help you find story. Examples of this are “Jesus wept,” “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” and “I know why the caged bird sings.” The power behind these statements outweighs its brevity. In The Ocean at the End of the Lane the unadorned dialogue leaves room for the story’s concept. It points to its depth, told from a young and still fairly innocent voice. The boy in this story is experiencing so many emotions and upheavals in his life. He does it with a concise grace. Another bonus is that the simpler language makes for faster reading. And believe me with this plot, you want to see the resolution as soon as possible. After witnessing a tragedy near his family’s land, the narrator starts to see his world change in disturbing ways. People aren’t what they claim. His new friend Lettie is shrouded in exciting mystery. Relationships with his immediate family shift and turn sour. Beneath all of this lies a supernatural current. Will he survive the unknown evil? Is Lettie strong enough to help save him?
This adolescent shows that children are capable of seeing clearer than adults. In seemingly unrelated details like bedroom design, evening routines and a shed filled with chemistry experiments, readers see a pattern form. The way his life works is basic, but never uneventful. He eats. He sleeps. He plays. He battles otherworldly creatures, including his sister. He shares community with the farmers down the road. They help him unlock the key to fighting monsters. The narrator is honest about his struggles, experiencing all senses with the audience. The feel of his foot in the sinking mud that he runs through in order to escape. The smell of plants and flowers. The comfort of a kitten snuggling close to his chest for rest. Gaiman provides all of this through an enjoyable point of view. The narrator is a friend to seven-year-olds everywhere and those who remember being seven. Here’s a great passage displaying the child filter:
“So I simply watched them from the huge branch of the beech tree. When they
walked out of sight, behind the azalea bushes, I clambered down the rope ladder,
went up into the house, up to the balcony, and I watched from there. It was a gray
day, but there were butter-yellow daffodils everywhere, and narcissi in profusion,
with their pale outer petals and their dark orange trumpets. My father picked a
handful of narcissi and gave them to Ursula Monkton, who laughed, and said
something, then made a curtsey. He bowed in return, and said something that
made her laugh. I thought he must have proclaimed himself her Knight in Shining
Armor, or something like that.
I wanted to shout down to him, to warn him that he was giving flowers to a
monster…” (pg. 67)
A creative way to introduce monsters in a story is to make them normal things or people. Rather than painting them elaborately, Gaiman pares it down to what truly scares us. Childhood expectations of parents being shattered, fear of loneliness, and mean people are some of these themes. Just as the evil presence in the book seems simple but becomes complex, the solution fares the same. Narrating his way through fight or flight, the main character takes time to describe nature. Appalled by his father’s treatment he navigates the elements like a Lost Boy. The monsters are savage, corrosive and completely mundane. Safety from the monsters is described in terms of hot meals, soothing baths and a clean set of clothing. Safe people walk with him through these trials and he perseveres wiser and braver. Everything ties together like magic in this book.
This is one of three works I’ve read by Gaiman (Sandman– impressive, Neverwhere– not my favorite), and hunger for his extensive library presses on.