This is one of the many articles/review that I have reblogged from Caffeine Crew, the collaborative geek blog I write for. I am in the process of truly posting these here on my personal blog. While they will be edited for any prior missed errors, I will not be really updating them beyond that so some information could potentially be outdated, erroneous, or defunct.
This month’s book The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman was a refreshing breath of air (ocean?) after last month’s rather clunky affair. I have to admit I wasn’t very fond of Gaiman when I first picked one of his books up. It was either American Gods or Neverwhere, but his writing was too harsh for me at the time, and I didn’t try him again until Stardust, which I adored and glowingly reviewed here. Ocean falls into the vein of Coraline (from what I hear). It is haunting and eerie with words that linger like wine on your tongue.
Ocean follows the forays of an unnamed male protagonist when he meanders away from a funeral (we’re never told whose) back to the locale of his youth and into the past. We’re treated to an extensive flashback where the MC recounts the most peculiar incident of his childhood when he was seven years old. At the end of the lane from his house was a pond, but it was always known as an ocean to Lettie Hempstock, the daughter of Mrs. Hempstock, and the granddaughter of Old Mrs. Hempstock. Gaiman explicitly states that the three women are the triple goddess presented in a unique way, and knowing this now, I believe the antagonist represents the fourth face.
The seven year old MC suspects Lettie immediately of being something other even when she insists that she’s only eleven years old. He asks “How long have you been eleven?” and Lettie can only smile. Our young protagonist lives with his parents and sister in a large country house, and when finances begin to dwindle his parents decide to rent out rooms to help make up for the lack. When one of their tenants commits suicide near the edge of the property and the Hempstock’s farm, that’s when the strangeness begins. The Hempstocks dwell in a sort of in between. Their farmhouse is in this world, but also beside it. So when the man dies, it arouses the attention of something “nearby” that sees human weakness and frailty and decides it wants to make people happy, because on a cosmic scale that’s quite easy. The thing begins giving people money, which our protagonist discovers when he awakens to a coin in his throat. Having the sense that Lettie would be the best person to explain this, he tells her, and her mother and grandmother decide to let the youngest Hempstock handle the issue and take our young hero along.
This turns out to not be the best idea when they meet something that can barely be described, a strange flapping fabric abomination that manages to get inside our hero through a hole it drilled in his foot. Now in our world the thing that calls itself “Ursula Monkton” masquerades as our MC’s nanny. “She” has managed to convince/take over his parents and sister, and there is an insanely disturbing scene between the protagonist and his father where you’re certain our young hero is going to die.
Gaiman is the master at weaving disturbing tales, because just when you think it can’t get any darker or creepier it does. There are creatures called “hunger birds,” the carrion eaters per se of the universe. Everyone fears the darkness, but what does the darkness fear? The answer in Ocean is the hunger birds, but the layers go even deeper than that. Even the greater darkness fears something…there is always a dark behind the dark. The hunger birds remind me of the creatures in the Father’s Day episode of Doctor Who. They only come around when things are disjointed and out of place and need to be set to rights. Also the Silence from the same in a way, because the MC can’t keep their faces in his head. They also could just be too horrible to conceive. There’s a definite Lovecraftian vibe to this story with the air of the cosmic horror. *spoiler* When you see the hunger birds at work, you will be reminded of the Nothing from The Neverending Story *end spoiler*
I absolutely love the way that Gaiman treats cats in his novels. I’ve only seen the movie Coraline, never read the book, but I like that he has cats as guides and guardians. So many narratives treat cats as evil and nefarious, but I’ve always thought of them as more neutral than anything else. Cats like to be comfortable. They want a balanced world, because chaos doesn’t leave much time for a nap. Now it is a well known fact that you put cat eyes on anything, it’s insta-creepy.
Oh my god, why?!?!???? Kill it with fire!!!!!
But you put cat ears on anything and it becomes instantly adorable.
Cats can definitely pass between the worlds. Slice through reality with their sliver slim pupils and find their way in between.
Ocean as a whole reminded of Gandalf’s quote in LOTR about “nameless things.”
“Far, far below the deepest delving of the Dwarves, the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not. They are older than he. Now I have walked there, but I will bring no report to darken the light of day.”
As bad as Ursula Monkton is, there are things far worse holding the puppet strings, this idea being the crux of my two favorite narratives: here and here, nor is it uncommon. The idea of something more eldritch than what you think you’re facing ramps up the darkness factor, and for a seven year old boy, the world is already a strange and frightening place, but even to an adult you start to ponder the horrifying implications after the fact.
Our unnamed protagonist only sees a glimmer of the horror the world can hold, but to balance it (and make it less Lovecraftian), he also sees a light. There is hope though it might be shrouded or too far away for you to reach.
I was extremely impressed with this novel. As stated before it was a refreshing read after the prior month’s Maze Runner. Ocean gave me everything I could ask for in a story and more. The eerie tides that flow beneath the foundation of the world that most of us will never see and for that we should be glad. Gaiman in less than 200 pages revealed what our own world could be, what horrors could be unleashed through the eyes of a child (which is what we all become in the dark), and he left us with a bittersweet song.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane earns five out of five stars for me. I highly recommend it, sincerely hope it is made into a movie, and I intend to read Coraline, American Gods, and more of Mr. Gaiman’s work.