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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.

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.

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