Fearsome fairy-tales: Neil Gaiman and The Ocean at the End of the Lane

For some reason, Neil Gaiman’s novels have an uncanny ability to leave you feeling unsettled. Faeries, witches, gods, and other worlds exist in all their glory, but something about them always tends to hit uncomfortably close to home.

It’s the nature of Gaiman’s writing to portray reality eerily well whilst incorporating elements of high fantasy, and it can be extremely disconcerting to newcomers.

For those of us used to the oft-predictable storylines of fantasy novels – the hero’s quest, the rampant (and decidedly segregated) ideals of morality and immorality, the sacrifice – a novel such as The Ocean at the End of the Lane can throw you for a loop.

Sure, there’s magic, monsters, and an awkward young boy – good, stable ingredients for a fantasy novel. Throw in some of Gaiman’s more graphic, real-life elements, though, such as a hypnotized father holding his son’s head under ice cold water, or a beautiful monster getting screwed from behind, and you’ve got something completely different.

To give a brief overview, The Ocean at the End of the Lane follows a middle-aged narrator’s memories of a significantly supernatural childhood event. At the age of 7, he meets a young girl named Lettie, who has come to earth from the old country – in reality, she’s much older than she appears. The two seek out a rag-like monster in the next world over that has been disrupting the town by giving people ‘what they want’ – in some cases, forcing money down throats and causing people to die.

The story is rife with traditional fantasy tropes: the age-old witch-like character, the protective fairy ring, the shadowy monsters of the dark. Alongside all of these, though, are the uniquely disturbing – yet, for our world, normal – elements that Gaiman so craftily uses to give reality to the story. The beautiful, fluffy black kitten that gets run over by a taxi. The exotic opal miner staying with the family who commits suicide in the back of a Mini. The narrator’s seventh birthday party that no one attends.

As Gaiman’s short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors, demonstrates, the author is a master of the traditional (and when I say traditional, I mean positively medieval) fairy-tale. As other reviewers have pointed out, Gaiman embraces the fear and horror of the original fairy-tale: the sense of childlike seclusion from adulthood and adult characters, and the inherent sense of danger in the midst of monsters that are, in fact, real.

The mixture of paranormal and normal is what gives readers an unsettling feeling when reading this book. Couple that with the unique experience of peering over the narrator’s shoulder as he rends a buried worm from the bottom of his foot (subsequently leaving a worm hole that’s actually a wormhole), and you’ll end up both entranced and slightly disturbed.

In any case, Gaiman has taken a world that is so unequivocally ours and gave it over to the darker fragments of fantasy and fairy-tale. As in Neverwhere, when the reader is taken on a tour of a familiar, yet grotesquely unfamiliar London Underground, so too in The Ocean at the End of the Lane, a novel that will resurface all of your childhood fears and yet never entirely reassure you that everything will, in fact, be alright.

CC photo credit: Neil Gaiman and HarperCollins

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