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Neil Gaiman: A Friend to Libraries, and a Real Friend to Readers

August 5, 2016 at 12:19 PM by Cathy Polovina

Ever since Neil Gaiman hit the literary world in the early nineties with the groundbreaking graphic series, The Sandman, and the comic apocalypse story, Good Omens (with fellow fantasist Terry Prachett of Discworld fame), the reading public of all ages have never gotten enough of the author’s dream-like visions of good-natured horror. Hollywood loves Gaiman too, producing Stardust (2007) and Coraline (2009) as feature films.  Now that his sweeping allegorical masterpiece American Gods is in the works as a television series, the British transplant, who lives part-time in Wisconsin, begins to sound like a kid-friendly Stephen King with an English accent.

Gaiman is also a great believer that public libraries are vital to a free society. His 2016 non-fiction book, A View From the Cheap Seats devotes an entire chapter to “Why Our Future Depends On Libraries”.  He writes that he was once “a feral child who was raised in libraries”, and credits early reading with transforming his life, while praising “the sheer awesomeness” of librarians who introduced him to authors like Edgar Allan Poe, and books such as J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.  No librarian could do better these days than to lead children and adult readers to the work of Gaiman whose most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, will charm and terrify the rapt audience.

When he returns to his site of his childhood home after forty years, the narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane recalls his childhood and the traumatic suicide of his family’s lodger.  The incident provoked a sinister magic he only now remembers, and introduced the young boy to the curious Hempstock family who lived on a farm down the lane.  Here he befriended young Lettie, who proclaimed that their pond was an ocean and who was especially helpful guiding the boy through the terrifying events that followed.  Space and time are twisted as the man remembers the boy pulling a worm from his foot—a wormhole, it seems, from which apparently emerged a cruel and beautiful woman who became his nanny. Ursula, the nanny believes she is invulnerable in this world and keeps our young hero locked in his room and proceeds to seduce his father.  He eventually escapes to the Hemstock farm and immerses himself in the family’s spooky knowledge of the worlds, past, present, and sideways. As an adult, it seems, he had forgotten the whole remarkable incident.

It is a book about children for adults who will slowly reawaken, like the unnamed narrator, to what it was like to be a child and to believe in the worlds alongside ours. As in his novels for younger readers, Coraline and The Graveyard Book, Gaiman matter-of-factly mixes the mysterious with the mundane, as a child’s world is at once threatened and opened to fantastic possibilities.  You can find the works of Neil Gaiman in writing and on film at the Kenosha Public Library.