First Posted: 10/28/2014
No bones about it, if you’re looking for eerie reading matter for Halloween, get your claws on Neil Gaiman’s latest novel, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane.”
Although Gaiman considers this a story “for all ages,” I’d be reluctant to give it to very young children – just too nightmare inducing. But this superb fantasy will captivate readers from about age 10 to those who are old enough to require bifocals.
A book about memory, among other things, it is narrated by a nameless, middle-aged man who traveled to Sussex County in England to attend a funeral – whose, we’re never told. After the service, he visits the area where he grew up and, although his home is long gone, the farm just down the lane remains, and he is drawn to it.
The first whiff of mystery comes when we learn the farmhouse is still inhabited by the grandmother and mother of his only childhood friend, Lettie Hempstock. As the man sits by the duck pond that Lettie called her “ocean,” he remembers the lonely, unhappy, bookish boy he was, and how the suicide of his family’s lodger was the catalyst that unleashed evil forces into his world. He recounts how, when Lettie tries to bind these forces, his own, inadvertent, mistake opens a pathway in his body and puts his life, and the future of the world, in grave danger.
The danger appears in the guise of a diabolical nanny, who’s been hired to care for the boy and his little sister. In an interview, Gaiman refers to the nanny as “the thing who called herself Ursula Monkton.” Ursula is evil personified and the rest of this riveting tale revolves around the attempts of Lettie and the boy to send her back from whence she came and close the portal behind her. In the process, they will encounter the deadly and terrifying hunger birds, nightmare vultures bent on destroying the world.
If Ursula Monkton represents hungry, persistent malevolence, the Hempstock women stand for ageless goodness and their presence in the story is one of the best things about it. Readers familiar with Greek mythology will recognize old lady Hempstock, her daughter Ginnie, and her granddaughter Lettie as incarnations of the Horae, the goddesses of justice, order, and peace, and of the seasons, whose work was to maintain the stability of the world and society.
If you’ve read Robert Graves, you’ll also see that the Hempstock women are reminiscent of the Triple Goddess: maiden, mother and crone. These similarities are underscored by the grandmother’s ability to control the phases of the moon, and by the Hempstocks’ timelessness that even the 7-year-old boy recognizes.
But even without these correspondences, the three women are fascinating. Not only can old Mrs. Hempstock change the moon, she also can erase memories by snipping them out of one’s clothing. Ginnie can see the future and Lettie, forever 11 years old, has the power to bind and banish destructive forces.
The book’s loveliest moments take place in the inviting warmth of the Hempstocks’ kitchen, which is filled with the comforting aromas of good, plain food. Here, the boy finds happiness, contentment and a temporary refuge from the pain and terrors of his own home.
No wonder he is drawn back there again and again.
The second component that makes “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” such a standout from your run-of-the-mill horror story is the author’s brilliant evocation of childhood and its defining moments. Readers young and old will empathize with the boy whose birthday party is a total bust because no one comes, whose ghastly nightmares make him afraid of the dark and whose little sister is a royal pain.
Above all, Gaiman reminds us how helpless we feel, or felt, as children.
But even though this small boy feels powerless to communicate with his parents and to save himself from Ursula Monkton’s control, in the end, he proves to be intrepid. His epiphany comes when he discovers that, despite his fear, he can act courageously, sneaking out of his window in the dark and making his way to Lettie through a horrific thunderstorm. In the end, he is willing to sacrifice himself to save the world.
The mythic power of this book, with its exploration of the borders between goodness and evil, life and death, fantasy and reality, is more than enough to recommend it.
Young readers will love it for its scary adventure, but Gaiman will also teach them, in a non-preachy way, that we all must face the consequences of our actions. Adult readers, especially, will find its meditations on morality, memory and self-awareness compelling. “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is certainly a great Halloween read, but I think it’s a book for all seasons.
Boo to you if you miss it.