Borrowing a concept to write a novel is a risky decision. The outcome potentially derivative beyond face-in-public possibility, or conversely, a highly original spin on an old idea that makes successful waves of its own, everything depends on approach. Neil Gaiman’s 2009 The Graveyard Book one such offering, time has yet to tell whether his choice of Kipling’s Jungle Books and Halloween have been mixed enough to offer a story entirely of his own.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Bod Owens and his life in a graveyard after his parents are killed. Escaping his crib while the assassin Jack murders his family, Bod crawls his way into the neighboring graveyard and is adopted by the ghosts, vampires, ghouls, werewolves, and other creatures of the night who call the quiet grounds home. With The Jungle Books as inspiration, The Graveyard Book is structured such that each chapter is a story on its own, individual threads binding the whole together. Like windows, these chapters relate various episodes of Bod’s upbringing. From a trip with the hounds of hell to spending time with the girl Scarlett, mastering The Slide to encountering the mysterious Sleer beneath a grave, the book is full of imagination. And like Kipling’s showdown with the limp tiger, the final chapters feature Jack still trying to find the child who went missing that night so long ago.
Though labeled young adult, The Graveyard Book is one of those works, like The Jungle Book, The Hobbit, Watership Down, Planesrunner, and many others, which can be fully enjoyed by adults as well. Imagination and simplistic storytelling for the young and an undercurrent of more thoughtful content for the old are in place. A balance is likewise struck between stereotypes and their subversion, the older more aware, the younger perhaps absorbing the material subconsciously.
There are some drawbacks to the book, however. The first is a disparity. Bod’s time in the cemetery a Tim Burton dream, to say that the boy’s adventures and coming of age are tinted in shadow—as active as it may be—is an understatement. Jack, on the other hand, and in particular his secret society, are presented in a lightness of tone that does not suit the Gothic overtones of Bod’s time with Silas, Miss Lipescu, and the Owens amidst the twilight headstones. Thin to the point of tearing, Jack’s character motivation is weak, a facet which largely deteriorates the tension in the denouement. At least Shere Khan could rely upon just being a tiger.
To give Gaiman credit, however, he does present the cemetery as a place to relax and enjoy, rather than fear and dread. It’s only the characters filling the story which are all too familiar. In general, Bod’s home shown as a positive environment to grow in rather than a place to escape from. The wisdom he gains in the cemetery is more often than not helpful in the moments he deals with real society and personal matters. The basket of story may be well-used, but what’s contained within has originality and value.
In the end, The Graveyard Book is for those who love the fantastical potential of the cemetery and are not scared of its quiet gravestones. A most unusual coming-of age, Bod’s story can be enjoyed by the young and old (like Coraline). Raised amongst the dead, the graveyard-shift is actually classroom time. Vampires, ghosts, and ghouls amongst his friends and teachers, he observes quotidian life from a different perspective, learning about himself in the process. Able to make hard decisions when the time comes, Bod’s story is one with a moral, but worth it for the parallels to Kipling’s exotic tales.