Tuesday, 15 July 2014

The boy from the graveyard

Full title: M Is for Magic
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Fiction, fantasy, stories
Attributes: 272 pages, hard cover
Publisher: Harper Collins; reprint edition (2007)
On the scale of Zero to OneZero (i.e. borrowed from local library)

This is a collection of stories by Neil Gaiman. The main ingredients are, therefore, to be expected. There’s fantasy, there’s imitation fairy-tale, there’s preternatural adventure and otherworldly quests, there are animals that talk and knights travelling to the twentieth century to sort out Arthurian problems. All of this (plus more) being the case, readers might find it close to impossible to isolate one of the texts and call it the favourite. But sometimes a reader’s got to do what a reader’s got to do. For this reader, the one with that extra something is “The Witch’s Headstone.” The longest story in this collection of republished work is also, in fact, an excerpt from the future Graveyard Book, Gaiman’s much-awarded fantasy novel of 2008. Which really makes it less re-published and more – pre-published.
Whatever the case may be, “The Witch’s Headstone” deserves a special place.
The protagonist, to start with him, is an eight-year old boy (calling him a ghost may be too much at this stage) by the name of Bod; short for Nobody – Nobody Owens. He’s, obviously, far from normal (does Coraline sound familiar?). He moves with equal ease in the world of the living as well as in the world of the dead. He lives in a necropolis of sorts, where the dead-and-buried teach him lessons about invisibility, and where he is part of a network of delightful, if quirky, Addamsian (that’s from the Addams Family, of course) characters. He comes to know a dead (but lovable) witch, Liza Hempstock, who, executed centuries ago, lies buried in the unholy ground next to the cemetery. She was put in an unmarked grave. And that’s an injustice Bod sets out to correct by ways he is incapable of handling. He goes to the nearby town to buy a headstone. And since there’s no payment he could possibly make for such an object (remember, he lives in a cemetery, among the long-deceased, who have no currency of their own), he manages to steal from a grave a precious ring, with which he hopes to pay for the headstone. The rest of the story is the narrative of Bod’s going to town and failing in his task. What causes this failure? Simple answer: human nature.

The Graveyard Book was later (2009) rearranged into a novel proper. 
Abanazer Bolger and Tom Hustings, a duo of Oliver Twist-like profiteers who eventually fall victims to their own greed, are given the narrative role of teaching Bod a few things about humankind. They imprison the boy, try to extort him of all possible treasures, threaten him with deeds of the worst criminal sorts. Once their miserable show is finished and Bod escapes, helped by none other than the witch once sentenced to death for her presumed pact with the devil, the balance of morality is readjusted. There’s this strong sense that, in this story at least, the world of the dead (the graveyard with its unsettling wickedness and its twice-told tales of death and ache) is preferable to that of the living. Moral message – check.
Fragment or not, “The Witch’s Headstone” is quite a piece of fictional work. An adventure in itself, one in which the reader grows satisfied by the very fact of their dissatisfaction, it demands a lot of readerly participation. One needs to sort out narrative puzzles, understand relationships between characters, figure out allusions, manage a lot of subtext. A paradoxical tale, one that ticks a lot of Gaimanian boxes, from pace and tempo to mood and personality: funny as well as grave, inspiring as well as heart-breaking. A story many may be inclined to call ‘complete.’ Paradoxically.