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For good or for evil – and I firmly believe that it is for good – Mrs. Owens and her husband have taken this child under their protection. It is going to take more than just a couple of good-hearted souls to raise this child. It will,” said Silas, “take a graveyard.”

Between 2003 and 2004 I lived in Edinburgh. I still consider it one of the happiest times of my life (admittedly things have been quite rosy of late as well). Despite only living in the city for less than a year, I managed to move apartments three times (!), spending the longest period of time in a cosy flat on Dalkeith Road. Edinburgh is a beautiful part of the world, old and venerable, but with a vivacious social scene. It was not the living that concerned me though. It was the dead. On my street alone there were two graveyards. The Meadows, a large public park popular with picnickers in the summer was reputedly a black death burial ground. Sometimes while I wandered home through the park in the middle of the night I used to wonder if  the dead were to rise, would the living inhabitants of the city have a chance?

The Graveyard Book opens with a brutal murder of a family, which is survived by a small, nameless infant. Through a quirk of fate the child manages to crawl all the way to a local graveyard and is rescued from a horrible fate by the taciturn Silas and a group of ghosts who reside there. Mr and Mrs Owens, dead for centuries, are charged with raising the child. Silas, who is neither living or dead and therefore unable to enjoy the advantages of either, becomes the infant’s protector.

The man Jack is still hunting for him, somewhere out there in the city.

As no one knows the child’s name, he is given the moniker Nobody Owens, or ‘Bod’. Given the ‘Freedom of the Graveyard’, he learns how to hide from the living and some of the secrets of the dead (but not all of them of course – that will have to wait). After a few years Bod meets a lonely young girl, Scarlett, his first ‘living’ friend. She of course assumes he is imaginary. The world outside the graveyard remains a mystery to Bod. While some of the dead do help in his education, most of their knowledge is centuries out of date. Scarlett provides a rare insight into what ‘life’ is really like. While Silas is able to protect him within the gates, there are plenty of dangers inside as well. Ghouls go hunting among the graves at night and the souls buried in unconsecrated ground are restless. Bod will have to learn to survive, as the man Jack is waiting for him. As he grows older, the boy who lives with the dead becomes more eager to meet him and find justice for his murdered family.

Neil Gaiman has become an accomplished novelist since leaving comics. In fact, I find more to recommend in his writing with each title. Many people have sung the praises of American Gods which I found derivative of some of his earlier work with the Sandman comic. In all his work there are certain recurring ideas – once again Death appears here personified as a beautiful young woman – but over the years he has discovered an ever more confident voice as an young adult and children’s fiction author.

I have in the past been overly critical of Gaiman, though no fault of his own. I have no problem with his writing, so much as I do have one with some of his fans. I have heard some crow that Un Lun Dun had managed to out-Gaiman the author’s own Neverwhere.  With The Graveyard Book I feel that he has raised his game once again. The story combines his usual whimsy with a gripping and increasingly epic storyline. There is an incredible vision of a Ghoul City that resembles Gaiman’s depiction of Hell in Sandman. The killer of Bod’s family is referred to as ‘the man Jack’, and his introduction is chilling for the emphasis on his knife, lending it more agency than the murderer himself. Then there is the delightful device of giving the full name and epitaph of each of the graveyard ghosts when Bod meets them.

Simply put this is a lovingly written, smart and funny book about growing up with death.

She had been prepared to love it, but there was not very much to love. She had never seen a baby so thin and wizened. Its face was just creases, thick with down. It had the finest, darkest, sourest lips, disapproving anciently, godlikely, distantly. It had the look of a lamb born badly, of a baby bird fallen from the nest – that doomed look, holy and lifeless, swollen-eyed, retreated too far into itself to be awakened.

I have a confession to make. I have been running scared of this book for years now. Neil Gaiman’s jacket quote – “One of my favourite books in ages…powerful and moving”, – screamed at me from the shop shelves, but I kept on walking. See when Tender Morsels was first published, I read a review which described the opening chapters of this book. Margo Lanagan is a fearless writer, who does not shy away from disturbing material, in this instance rape and incest.

I cannot remember the newspaper in question, but I recall putting it down shuddering and making myself a promise never to read this book. I have said it here before, but as a child I read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which left me deeply distressed. Even as an adult I did not want to revisit such matters in my reading.

My confession is that I was very wrong to avoid this book for so long.

Ever since Liga’s mother died, she has been trapped in a small hut with her drunken abusive father. Terrorised and humiliated by him, made to think that she is worthless, stupid and wanton, her father’s cruel taunting breaks her will as he repeatedly rapes her, convincing the teenage girl that his actions are her fault entirely. Longfield keeps his child in ignorance even of the children he begets on her, employing local witch Muddy Annie to supply different kinds of potions and treatments designed to abort them. When her father abruptly dies, Liga is left alone and vulnerable, delivering the one child he failed to kill. She continues to live in the family home, tries to keep to herself, but isolated in the forest she soon falls victim to more brutal outrages.

At her lowest hour, Liga is visited by a strange being, who transports her to another world that in appearance is not that different, and yet those whom she hates are not party to this private heaven. There is plenty of food to eat and comfort to be had. Liga raises two daughters, Branza and Urdda, in this realm where innocence is not punished and childhood is preserved in a permanent state of grace.

As the years pass, others find their way into Liga’s world. The borders between the real world – cruel, callous and full of pain – and this lifelike fantasy realm – where kindness is everywhere and the welfare of Liga’s family prized by both people and animals alike – erode. These strangers seek to exploit the fairy-tale world and threaten the innocence of Branza and Urdda. The two girls react differently to the temptations offered by the ‘real world’, and it is left to Liga to decide whether she will let her daughters return, or whether she will face the horrors buried in her past.

I cannot state this strongly enough – this book is marvellous. Lanagan’s Grimm Fairy Tale is a masterpiece of repressed sexuality and symbolism. Magic is shown to be a means not only to escape the pain of this world, but a tool to be employed to improve it. There are even conniving dwarves and bear-men, although they are quite different from the standards of fairy tales.

Reminiscent of Angela Carter‘s equally revisionist The Bloody Chamber, Tender Morsels is no mere parody. The dialogue is delivered in an unusual pidgin English, that can seem at times childlike, yet at other points deeply threatening. Time and space are rendered fluid by the border between the two worlds and some who cross over assume their actions in Liga’s world are little more than drunken visions, excusing them of any responsibility. Lovers parted by the divide age at different speeds.

For me though the most beautiful scene is Liga refusing the fantasy offered to her by the entity, insisting that she does not deserve it, only to realize that her daughter does and more.

Rich in symbolism and incisive psychological detail, a modern day fairy tale with incredible punch from a visionary Australian author.


I studied Othello for my Leaving Certificate examinations. I really like that play, so drama studies was one of the few classes I looked forward to. Our teacher decided to take us to see a production of Othello showing in the Tivoli Theatre in Dublin. The director had made an interesting choice. While a white actor in blackface played the Moor, he cast the part of Iago with a black actor. This was intended as a comment on the racial politics surrounding productions of the play in the past. Thankfully it is rare to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production featuring a white actor in the main title anymore. Unfortunately the overall play that we saw was fairly mediocre. I will never forget the actress playing Desdemona slipping into her native D4 accent mid-speech: “O-thell-looah”. Yikes.

I will always remember that play though, as it showed a certain bravery in attempting to reinterpret Shakespeare, who has become a sacred cow that we mere mortals are not allowed to doubt. I love the language of the plays, the sonnets, I love the mystery as to the Bard’s own identity, I love his use of propaganda in the historical plays – but above all the work of William Shakespeare was intended to be entertainment. Its richness and wit were part of the package, but in the years since his work has been raised on a pedestal, become abstract, divorced from the sense of fun often present in the plays. His writing is full of profundity, but it also was intended to get a laugh.

By divorcing the ‘genius’, of Shakespeare’s plays from the content – be it frivolous, thrilling, or indeed a ‘weepie’ – we have done his memory a huge disservice. He is the dry, dusty voice of academic lectures, while the height of wit enjoyed by the likes of his audiences has been replaced by: Hallo ladies, Look at your man, now back to me, now back at your man, now back to me, sadly he isnt me

“Hey Mike, get this Bill Shakespeare on the blower, I think we have the purrfect guy for that Othello part!”

McCreery and Del Col’s story begins with the history of Prince Hamlet. Exiled from the castle of Elsinore following his murder of Pelonius, his friend Rosencrantz confesses to him that he and Guildenstern have been commanded by King Claudius to make him a captive of the King of England. Before Hamlet can decide on a course of revenge, he is visited by a dreadful vision, which in turn is interrupted by an attack of pirates.

The ship lost, his friend dead and Hamlet barely escaping with his life, he comes to on the shores of England. He is welcome by King Richard III (notice anything) who informs him of a prophecy by three witches (nudge, nudge) that he is to kill an evil god known as Shakespeare (meta!). Richard promises Hamlet that if he does this his father will be returned to life and his evil uncle Claudius dethroned. The Danish Prince agrees and accompanied by the king’s aide Iago (eep!) sets off on his quest.

This book is great fun. Shakespeare’s villains including Richard, Iago, Lady MacBeth and Don Jon conspire to destroy their own creator, whereas rebels known as ‘prodigals’, such as Juliet Capulet, Othello and Falstaff seek to prevent their enemies from succeeding. In this ‘England’, Shakespeare is a literal god, whose power is represented by a talismanic quill that Richard wishes to possess. The villains of course plot and scheme against one another, while the ragged band of heroes try to convince Hamlet to do the right thing and protect the innocent country folk harried by murderous soldiers in service to the king.

There are a number of other books out there, such as Mike Carey’s The Unwritten, or Bill Willingham’s Fables that are similar to this, although I imagine Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, particularly the Midsummer Night’s Dream storyline, is the primary inspiration for this mash-up of ‘high’, and ‘low’, culture. My personal favourite example of this trope is Bugs Bunny abridging Wagner’s Ring Cycle to seven minutes!

However, this book earns bonus points for making Othello bad-ass. Check out that panel up top.

Here’s a fun, unpretentious mash-up of classic literary figures and an action/adventure story. Great fun.

Gaiman and McKean make for a stellar team. One a master of dark, yet whimsical fantasy writing, the other an artist who introduced a post-modern, industrial aesthetic to the comic industry. During Gaiman’s seminal Sandman for DC’s mature reader’s Vertigo imprint McKean provided much of the amazing cover art and continued to do so for various spin-off titles that emerged afterward. He also interpreted the esoteric script for Grant Morrison’s Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth as a Jungian nightmare that elevated DC’s Batman mythos far above its pulp origins.

The dynamic duo have moved on from comics to greener pastures, with McKean providing the credit sequence for Gaiman’s television series Neverwhere (as well as the cover for the tie-in novel). Later McKean took on directing, with his assured debut Mirrormask, scripted by Gaiman (of course) a hallucinatory vision of a rust-brown dream world, with winged gorillas, stone titans and dark queens waiting within.

With this book the pair took their inspiration from Gaiman’s daughter’s complaint about his ‘crazy hair’. The story’s narrator explains to young Bonnie just how crazy his hair really is. Featuring pirates, a polar bear, exotic birds, butterflies and even stalking tigers, it is very crazy hair indeed.

Hunters send in

Expeditions

Radio back

Their positions

Still, we’ve lost

A dozen there

Lost inside

My crazy hair.

Eventually Bonnie attempts to groom the narrator, only to disturb a mysterious voice inside the hirsute jungle. She is suddenly seized and pulled into the world of hair and has many amazing adventures.

Gaiman’s rhymes accompany McKean fantastic visuals throughout. Giant, cracked follicle seas; tentacle-like strands stretching out from the narrator to Bonnie; a comb thieving blue polar bear; and curiously lifelike merry-go-round creatures. Although one line describes – Butterflies and Cockatoos/ Reds and Yellows/Greens and Blues –  McKean’s attempt at my favourite Australian birds look more like parrots. I guess that’s the problem with living on the other side of the world.

In keeping with classic fairytales, while the story of a man with a head full of wonderful creatures seems a fanciful notion, McKean’s angular art-style and crowding shadows introduce a perfectly sinister note to the proceedings. Much like Maurice Sendak’s Where The Wild Things Are, this is a fairy tale that flirts with scaring the children reading it, while also letting them know it’s ok to be afraid. I attended a signing for this book some months ago in Dublin and McKean spoke about the importance of not censoring dark material in children’s books. He believes it is just as important to frighten your audience as it is to make them laugh, or cry, much like readers of any other age-group. I am eagerly awaiting McKean’s next project, a children’s book on explanations of the meaning of life, written by Richard Dawkins. From the following article

“We take thirteen questions about the world and answer them initially in the ways we have in the past – myth, religion, folk stories – and then present our best scientific answer, which hopefully proves to be even more astonishing and magical than the others.”

What I admire most about Gaiman & McKean’s approach to children’s literature is their refusal to condescend to young readers. It’s something that can so easily scuttle a story, as if kids are unable to tell when they are being lied to, or being force-fed an insipid tale of good triumphing over evil. These two creators do not pretend that there are not reasons to be afraid of the dark, but instead remind their readers that often it is more important to not spend one’s whole life running from shadows.

In short, this is a magical fable that should be enjoyed by everyone. Pick it up.

He snorted softly to himself. It wasn’t selling souls that got you into trouble, it was buying them. Next time he would have to make sure there was a return policy. He laughed, opened his eyes a little. The dead man, Craddock, sat in the passenger seat next to him. He smiled at Jude, showing crooked and stained teeth and his black tongue. He smelled of death, also of car exhaust. His eyes were hidden behind those odd, continuously moving black brush strokes

Brrr. Spooky.

I feel for Mr Joe Hill though, I really do, because every review of this book starts with the same phrase. I don’t see any reason to break the tradition – see Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

I will say this though, I reckon he’s a better writer.

Judas Coyne (everyone calls him Jude) is a fifty-something rockstar who came up with the era of heavy metal and is now a lion in winter decked out in black leather, enjoying his reward for a career of Satanic-ish heavy metal by sleeping with goth-girl groupies named after the states of the union. He also has a predilection for the trappings of the occult and weird stuff in general. Not that he believes in any of it, he’s just a compulsive collector. Preserved skulls of madmen who had been trepanned, signed confessions of a witch burned at the stake, Aleister Crowley’s chessboard. Stuff like that.

So when a ghost comes up for auction online he immediately slaps down a bid for a thousand dollars. Judas Coyne’s very own ghost. The media release alone would make it a purchase worth its weight in gold.

Then the sceptic who enjoys scaring middle America with satanic rock finds himself trapped in a house with the ghost of a dead hypnotist. And it dearly wants to hurt him for what he did to its stepdaughter, another in a long line of groupies used up and dumped by Judas over the years. His own house becomes a prison, the stereo system whispering death threats and television announcers predicting his suicide. In a panic Judas takes to the road, racing through the night as a dead man in a funeral suit and fedora hat follows close behind.

Heart-Shaped Box comes with ecstatic blurbs from Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. That got my attention. I open the book and there’s a quote from Alan Moore’s The Voice of FireHow may the dead have destinations? Ok, I was sold. It’s an impressive debut and Hill shows excellent promise. This is a simple ghost story, one that relies on that basic fear of death we all feel. No monsters or vampires jumping out from cornfields. Here the scares are delivered by spectres appearing at the end of a long, dark hallway, or Ouija boards suddenly jumping to life and dogs growling in fear at invisible presences. The haunt itself, Craddock, is a malevolent spirit, whose hypnotist powers add an extra dimension of fear, controlling the will of Coyne and those around him to harm themselves. Reminiscent of the demented preacher Kane from Poltergeist II, his relentless pursuit of the terrified former rock star turning a more or less traditional haunted house story into a spooky road trip across America.

As the title implies, this is a book written by a member of the post-Cobain generation. The media hysteria surrounding heavy metal, grunge and goth music is rejected with the simple truth that true horror often happens behind closed doors in family homes. The lyrics of bands tarred with the ‘satanic rock’ brush often expressed feelings of rage and self-loathing that attracted troubled teenage listeners without the means to speak out themselves. Judas Coyne is cynical about his music and the trappings of a rock star, but Hill establishes that he is just as much of a victim as some of the emotionally damaged young people who buy his records. Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Trent Reznor are name-checked in the novel, with Coyne’s association with them allowing the character to represent the era of their music.

This is a gripping debut, a frightening race into the black night. Read it with the light on.

So tell me, comrade commissar, what does Marxism/Leninism say about headless mutants? It has bothered me for a long time. I want to be ideologically strong, and I’m drawing a blank on this one.

In one leap I jump from aristocratic London, to post-apocalyptic Moscow. I have very broad taste in books. This is certainly quite different. As the quote above attests though, Glukhovsky brings some welcome humour to this usually dour fare. The world has ended! Let’s joke about communists.

The last remnants of humanity huddle together in the Moscow subway system, the surface of the earth scorched by nuclear war. Many years have passed and the survivors have built communities around individual stations along the Metro line. At first they were confronted with radiation sickness, birth mutations in the next generation, plague. Then there were additional threats – starved rats attacking the communities at night, territorial conflicts over control of the line, diverging ideologies taking over each station until finally an uneasy peace was declared when people could no longer afford to fight and die. Then the dark ones came.

No one knows who or what they are, but they’re thought to have come from the surface, hunting the surviving humans underground. When the attacks on the northernmost station VDNKh suddenly increase, young Artyom is sent on a mission to warn the remaining communities of the danger should the dark ones break through. Along the way he meets different guides, experiences strange dreams and visions, and begins to wonder if some greater purpose is working through him. Could he be the chosen one who will save mankind?

Immediately I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere while reading this book. But Glukhovsky offers a meatier treat. While it is exposition heavy, with the various characters Artyom meets offering their own take on the situation and giving clues as to what led to the destruction of the surface, the author loads these philosophical discussions with a degree of richness and verve. Of course he’s Russian!

For a horror novel, Metro 2033 is unusually metaphysical in its concerns. What would happen to man if the world ended? Is the human race capable of survival, of transformation into a new form of life? Each of Artyom’s guides mark a different stage in the argument. He meets the self-proclaimed last incarnation of Genghis Khan, who insists that the Metro is a prison for the souls of the dead, heaven and hell having been obliterated by nuclear war. An elderly academic whispers of a hidden University that preserves all the greatest annals of culture and history and that will restore to humanity what it has lost. He even encounters a revolutionary cell of dogged Che Guevarrists, who insist that the battle to achieve true socialism must still be fought.

Within the cramped confines of the Metro, humanity has turned in on itself and Artyom has to contend with Neo-Nazis, communists and cannibals, all staking their own claim to territory along the line. Mutants, Nazis and rats are all well and good, but there is something simple and terrifying in walking along a pitch-black tunnel, where every unexplained sound is a possible threat. Glukhovsky understands this and does not overdo the gore quotient, instead allowing the reader’s imagination to share in Artyom’s growing unease.

At times the pace of the novel slows to a crawl, which is a shame for all of Glukhovsky’s world-building is thrilling in itself and would have been sufficient had he thrown in a few more surprises. Instead towards the end familiar landmarks and destinations are rushed past, with the characters racing to catch up with the plot. Certain passages feel like padding and this is certainly quite a thick book. Nevertheless there is dry wit and even occasionally a surprising degree of poignancy here alongside the claustrophobic horror of mankind being herded into the darkness below the surface of the Earth. On two occasions characters mention how similar their dilemma is to that of the Morlocks in Welles’ The Time Machine.

This is a thoughtful and rewarding addition to the dystopian sub-genre of horror fiction. You can even buy a game based on the novel now for the X-Box/Windows. Just wait, there’ll be a film next.