Author: Neil Gaiman
Published: HarperCollins, 2008
Genre: Young Adult Fantasy.
"THERE WAS A HAND IN the darkness, and it held a knife."
"The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately."
"The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet."
Neil Gaiman is best known for his adult fantasy and graphic novels, but he is more and more entering the world of children's and young adult fantasy. His recent books Coraline, M is for Magic, and Interworld have helped bring the darker side of literature to youngsters everywhere. The Graveyard Book is no exception.
It starts with a psychopath killing a family in their beds. It's not graphic, but it is disturbing. Happily, the youngest member of the family has recently learned how to escape from his crib, and he happily toddles out the open door and into the street, blissfully unaware that a ghoul is on his heels. As chance would have it, the family lives just down the road from a graveyard, and fortune smiles as the traumatized souls of the murdered family make a brief appearance just as child passes the graveyard gates. The graveyard ghosts are so moved by the family's grief that they take an unprecedented step -- they agree to adopt the toddler and protect him from the killer that is even now stalking him...
So, the boy stays, to be raised by ghosts and other denizens of the night. The book is written in a style not seen much these days, presented as a series of semi-related adventures, one per chapter. This, for me, calls to mind Winnie the Pooh and The Jungle Book, and all the more so as the earlier stories follow the boy, now named Nobody 'Bod' Owens, as a young child of four and five. His adoptive parents (the Owens') and his self-appointed guardian, Silas (a stolid, mysterious man, and the only resident of the graveyard who can travel amongst humans) do their best to keep Bod out of trouble, but he still manages to get involved with Ghouls, vengeful ancient spirits, and human visitors to the graveyard, all of which he handles through a combination of luck and supernatural skills taught to him by the ghosts.
Personally, this is my second favorite Neil Gaiman book so far, shadowed only by the magnificent Stardust. However, it is best taken as a series of short stories. The backstory to the killer is a bit hokey for my taste (but I can't tell you more, as that would spoil everything), and if you look at it as a novel it will appear to have a moderate-severe case of ODTAA. Speaking of short stories, one chapter of this book, The Witch's Headstone, previously appeared as a stand-alone story in M is for Magic.
It is worth noting that this is an 'illustrated novel'; this does not mean that it is a graphic novel. It contains a number of illustrations scattered throughout the pages in the traditional way; they are in no way integral to the story, although they do add something to the book. The illustrations were done by Dave McKean, the same illustrator who did the cover for Coraline, and who illustrated Gaiman's Signal to Noise and Mr. Punch. The illustrations are simple, somewhat misshapen, and frankly often not very good, but they do add to the dark tone of the book. The copious and dramatic illustrations in the first ten pages of the book completely justify McKean's involvement in the project.
You can hear Neil Gaiman read the book aloud here.