[Dumb Books] The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman


There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.

I am a big fan of great opening lines. If I have not said it here before, then let me say it now: words are magic. At a basic level, they can transfer knowledge from one person to another without the two ever needing to meet. One of the people could even be dead at the time and communicate with another person living in the distant future. At a higher level, though, words can do more than just transmit information. They can make you think new thoughts, thoughts that weren’t in your head before reading the words. They can make you feel things. They can be used to put you on the right track or to fool you and draw you astray. Words hurt and heal, lift up and cast down, broaden horizons and crush your dreams. Don’t believe me? Think back to a time when you walked up to someone with hope and courage and asked them to go to coffee with you or to dinner or to bed, for that matter. Think about how it felt when they said a single word: No. One word, and everything you wanted, the potential future you had built in your head, was gone in an instant, like magic. Words are magic, the words that open a story doubly so.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost.

The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

Mother died today.

You know that feeling you get when you haven’t eaten in a while? You’re really hungry, craving just about anything, and you finally take a bite of something too sweet. It’s so good, but it also almost causes your mouth to seize up, too. It’s like your stomach is overly excited to get any sort of food, your brain is overly excited to get sugar, and your mouth can’t handle the overload of simultaneous need and fulfillment so it shuts down for a second. That’s how I feel when I read these opening lines. That first one, though. That one’s my favorite.

There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. The line both sets the scene and the mood. Wherever the hand resides and to whomever the hand belongs, it is in darkness, and it holds a weapon. With one compound sentence, Neil Gaiman delivers us into a space of dread. He didn’t say a terrified man or woman is shakingly holding on to the knife to defend him/herself, ala Wendy from The Shining. Instead, he just mentions a hand, malevolent in its simplicity. There is still hope after this one line that the knife is being held in protection rather than more sinister motives. Gaiman continues:

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.

With that, any lingering hope that the knife was wielded by a hero or desperate innocent is gone. Now we, with full knowledge of the nature of our knife wielder, must sit and watch the horrors we feared play out on the page. This is the beginning of my favorite book, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

The first time I finished the book, I closed the cover, set it on the table next to me, and cried my eyes out for about half an hour, which I admit is an odd reaction to a book containing werewolves and night-gaunts and witches. Then, I picked it back up, and read it again. I repeated this cycle a few more times within the span of a week before admitting that I had found the perfect book. It was the book that I had been searching for, even though I didn’t know I had been searching for anything. It told me a story about myself.

I believe that there is a book out there that tells you exactly what you need to hear. It’s not the same book for everyone, of course. For some people, it’s something like The Call of the Wild or To Kill a Mockingbird. For others, it’s Eat Pray Love, although I pity those people immensely. For me, it’s The Graveyard Book.

When I read it the first half dozen or so times, I simultaneously found new passages that I hadn’t noticed before and uncovered things about myself that I hadn’t known. I realized that, for twenty-four years, I had been obsessively concerned with being a grown up. Because I was doing what I perceived to be the necessary steps to achieve true adulthood and therefore happiness and wealth, every setback made me feel like a total failure. However, after the main character of The Graveyard Book, Bod, goes through the trials of his life, which are many, varied, and increasingly interesting, he doesn’t end up with any of the things I equated with adulthood. He doesn’t have money or a job or a spouse, yet here was a fictional boy who I recognized was more of a man than I was. What I thought were basic truths were not even guidelines. Being an adult, being a man, was so much more and so much less than I had believed. With a heap of words, all of those preconceptions, the potential future I had built in my head, were gone in an instant, like magic. I was free.

I mentioned in my previous article that I love to be scared, and, from my description of the first few opening lines of this book and the fact that it contains werewolves, witches, vampires, night-gaunts, etc., you might assume that this is a horror. It is, I suppose, and a perfect Halloween read, but it is also much more than that. It is the story of Nobody Owens, a living boy who grows up in a graveyard. That’s really the heart of it, growing up. It’s about adventure and believing in things and taking punishment that you’re due and doing things because they’re hard and learning and sharing and fighting and caring for others and doing what’s right for the right reasons and being more than you thought you could be and showing more bravery than you ever thought you had in you. The Graveyard Book is about my life. And yours. It told me what I needed to hear so that I could finally be an adult, so I could understand that growing up doesn’t mean getting more and more cynical until you can’t trust or take joy in anything. Rather, growing up means facing your life, its pain, its pleasure, and refusing to feel persecuted, accepting both triumph and disaster as the building blocks of a full life, which you have to walk into with your eyes and your heart wide open.