Apologies to Gaiman Fans:
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this new Neil Gaiman novel when it came out some months back. Not because I had been enamoured with the previous book of his that I had attempted, but rather because I hadn’t been. You see, I thought the fault was mine; and the odd thing is that I still do.
Gaiman is the talented writer who gave us 75 issues of the comic book The Sandman for DC between 1989 and 1996. At this stage anyone who has even a passing interest in the comics medium will know that Sandman ranks in importance of breakthrough into the mainstream market along with the likes of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns or Alan Moore’s Watchmen. Several years ago when those issues of The Sandman were reprinted in a series of trade paperback volumes I read them with a kind of awe.
This to me showed a rare single-mindedness on the part of the writer. From the beginning Gaiman had a start, middle and end in mind. This is unusual in a medium where longevity is figured in terms of commercial success. If a comic is successful then it will continue long after the original writer has left it. In this case, however, a comic book ceased publication at the height of its success, because that was the natural point at which to end it. I’ll always admire Gaiman for that.
As it happens, I’m re-reading Sandman at the moment and I’m just on Volume 5. In many ways it is better than the first time around as I’m picking up on so many of those nuances that Gaiman inserted with such subtlety. (I’m also having my feelings reinforced regarding some of the art work. It was always done by various artists and I thought at the time that some of them didn’t suit the material at all, that in fact they sucked. That hasn’t changed.)
When I had finished the collection some years back I went straight out and bought American Gods, anticipating a great read. Much to my surprise I couldn’t even finish it. Hell, I couldn’t understand what was happening here. It is the kind of story that I love: Gods of myth and various religions walking the earth, their power depending on how much belief in them is still here in the modern world. Yet I couldn’t believe at all. It just didn’t work for me. In fact I kept thinking that I could accept this premise in a comic book but not in novel form. And I put the fault down to being my own.
And now the same thing has happened with The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The only difference is that I finished it, just about.
I still didn’t believe it though.
It begins promisingly enough: a man has returned to his home county of Sussex for a funeral and finds himself driving around the area that he had grown up in. After a while he visits the home of neighbours that he had befriended as a child…and dark memories come flooding back.
The Hempstocks are a strange breed. They see the world in a way that is different. The youngest—or is she?—Lettie, believes that the little duck pond at the bottom of the property is an ocean. The ground on which their farm stands is home to shroud monsters and other things that are in danger of breaking through. And I didn’t believe any of it. In fact I wondered if Gaiman was just being strange for the sake of it.
During the ‘straight’ passages concerning the man as a young boy, there is some great stuff that rings very true:
“I wished my family would buy normal white sliced bread, the kind that went in toasters, like every other family I knew. My father had found a local baker’s shop where they made thick loaves of heavy brown bread, and he insisted on buying them. He said they tasted better, which was, to my mind, nonsense. Proper bread was white, and pre-sliced, and tasted like almost nothing: that was the point.”
Now that is spot on; and so is:
“…I had persuaded my parents to take me to Madame Tussaud’s waxworks in London, when I was six, because I had wanted to visit the Chamber of Horrors, expecting the movie-monster Chamber of Horrors I’d read about in my comics. I had wanted to thrill to waxworks of Dracula and Frankenstein’s Monster and the Wolf-man. Instead I was walked through a seemingly endless sequence of dioramas of unremarkable, glum-looking men and women who had murdered people—usually lodgers, and member of their own families—and who were then murdered in their turn: by hanging, by the electric chair, in gas chambers. Most of them were depicted with their victims in awkward social situations—seated around a dinner table, perhaps, as their poisoned family members expired.”
That is so true. It brought back to me with a crystal aching clarity my own disappointment as a child when I was taken to a wax museum. I don’t know, maybe they’ve changed.
But these are the ‘straight’ sections.
It bothers me, this. I’ve read fantasy fiction all my life and I’ve never had a problem with making that imaginative leap into another world if it is done right. And since I know that Gaiman is good at what he does I come away thinking that it is my fault that I couldn’t believe in this world.
In fact I think it might be time for Volume 6 of The Sandman.