Neil Gaiman has only started writing for children recently, yet his books have already caused a stir. Best known for his DC Comic Sandman series, later turned into graphic novels and described by Norman Mailer as ‘a comic strip for intellectuals’, he brings with him a wild imagination often shading into the dark. His best-known children’s book, Coraline, describes how the little girl of the title passes through an old door in her house into another very similar dwelling dominated by someone who looks exactly like her mother except for her black button eyes. Gradually Coraline realises that this increasingly menacing figure is out to capture her soul after which she will leave her to join the husks of other children she has trapped in the past. But like Lewis Carroll’s Alice, with whom she has much in common, Coraline asks a number of very pertinent questions, allowing her finally to outwit her tormentor before returning home.
Gaiman is now a well-preserved 45 years old, tall, good-looking and immensely approachable. I met him in London when he was on a trip from America, which he moved to from Britain in his thirties along with his American wife and their children. A cult figure for his many graphic novel fans, who queue up in vast numbers for every occasion on which he speaks, he is quite without affectation. Time for the first question: what is Coraline really all about?
‘I started writing it for my daughter Holly years ago when she was aged five, then took it up again around ten years later. It’s about both the powerlessness of children and the way they can and should always fight back. I thought it would be only five pages long, but the story had other plans. Children I have spoken to since see it as an adventure; it’s only the adult readers who have nightmares about it. It’s certainly the strangest book I’ve done. It took the longest time to write, and it’s the book I’m proudest of.’
As well he might be, given the story’s subsequent endorsements from Terry Pratchett and also Diana Wynne Jones, an author he particularly admires. But why does Gaiman want to frighten children at times, even if a happy ending is always there to restore the balance of things? My own grandson Joseph aged five is frightened of Gaiman’s picture book, The Wolves in the Walls, illustrated to terrifying effect by Dave McKean, the author’s regular artist. This tells the story of young Lucy, convinced that the rustlings she hears in the walls of her house are made by wolves. Only when they come bursting out one night, all staring eyes and open mouths, do her parents finally believe her. Order is restored when Lucy and her exiled family finally return to live in the walls themselves, eventually frightening the wolves away in their turn. But my grandson, otherwise a tough little boy, has never allowed me to get this far; along with Jack and the Beanstalk and a few other feared picture books, it remains a banned title. I doubt too whether he could be induced to see the opera that this book has also inspired.
Gaiman has his answer to such fears in the young. ‘When I was a small child I was convinced that my house was inhabited. In the bath, I was sure that the brief gurgling noise as the water ran out was actually made by tigers. I never let on to my parents why I always had to get out of the bathroom in such a hurry before this happened. So when critics accuse me of putting scary ideas into children’s heads, my reply is that those ideas are already present. You’re not telling them something they don’t know when you say there are monsters out there. But you are informing them about something different and valuable if you go on to show how these monsters don’t always win. Or as G K Chesterton put it, “Fairy tales are not true, they are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”
‘I started writing this book for my daughter Maddy after she woke up from a nightmare precisely about there being wolves in the walls. For several days following that I made up various stories on this topic, just to get her out of a state of absolute terror. But after a while the wolves in the stories started getting funnier, just as they do in the finished book if you persevere to the end. Far from being covered in blood, as one complaining adult critic once imagined, they are in fact smeared with jam. They’re yobs without manners, not monsters, and not really that scary at all.’
Is Gaiman particularly interested in fear because he experienced terrors himself as a child? ‘No, it’s more that once I had my own kids a lot of my childhood came back to me, including some of the fearful moments, but also some of the comic ones too. My picture book The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, for example, was directly inspired by my son Michael when he was aged six. Fed up with me one day for some reason, he said “I wish I didn’t have a dad. I wish I had goldfish.” And I just stood there and thought, that’s brilliant. That’s exactly how I once would have thought.’
This picture book, written several years after this incident, follows its title up to the stage when after an increasingly frantic search the lost father is eventually returned home, having already been swapped several more times down the line. Continuing to read his newspaper while all this is happening, he remains uninterested in what is going on round him. Even so, although basically good humoured there is still something a little worrying about this book too. While not in the same sinister league as Lucy Clifford’s The New Mother, written in 1882 and describing another family that loses a parent after a hasty word from a child, it shares a similar atmosphere of a dream that could at any moment turn into a nightmare. But Gaiman is more often compared to Lewis Carroll. Does he acknowledge this influence?
‘When you write for children, you soon become aware that they live in a different world from your own, the same in some ways, very different in others. So for me, it’s natural to write about the existence of two parallel worlds in my books, fantasy and reality, since these two modes of thought and the interaction between them constitute the essence of the childhood imagination. As for Carroll, he was an author I read and re-read so often as a child that his Alice books ought to be engrained on my DNA. He must be a huge influence, whether I am conscious of it now or not. So too was E Nesbit, a writer I have always felt a natural kinship with.’
Gaiman’s adult novel Anansi Boys could easily be enjoyed by teenage readers too. It is a joyous account of a downtrodden young accountant nicknamed Fat Charlie who discovers that his father was Anansi, the trickster spider-hero of Caribbean folk tales. He then meets a brother he had not known about before who has inherited his father’s magician skills. Charlie’s life after that is up-ended in a series of weird but very funny adventures, with everything finally working out for the best. Written to make people smile, it is described by Gaiman as a ‘magical-horror-thriller-ghost-romantic-comedy-family-epic’.
Another adult novel, Stardust also has much in it for adolescent readers. Originally published in monthly instalments by DC Comics in 1997 and then re-issued as a stand-alone text in 1999, it is a fairy tale about a young man’s hunt for his heart’s desire. It too is hard to pigeonhole, going from Victorian Britain to unicorns and the whole dangerous but enticing world of faerie. Passing from sentiment to moments of horror, with the reader never knowing what is going to come next, it is a beautifully written, haunting story. Gaiman’s adult fans have already flocked to both titles; there is no reason why younger readers should not relish them too. But Mirrormask, written in conjunction with his illustrator Dave McKean, is less accessible. The book of the film that was released in 2004, its complex dream-story is hard to follow although it may work better on the screen.
Gaiman’s currently re-issued graphic novel, The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, also hauntingly illustrated by Dave McKean, is another title with all-age appeal. Originally published in 1995, its story is narrated so personally it is hard to remember that this is fiction rather than autobiography. Within it, an eight-year-old boy discovers how the brutal humour of a Punch and Judy show is re-created within his own family. While his own mother is having another much wanted baby, his grandfather, who hosts a Punch and Judy show in his failing seaside arcade, is meanwhile chasing away the woman who works for him who is now bearing his illegitimate child. Images of Mr Punch throwing the baby from his tiny stage take on a new sense of darkness as the old man’s grandson slowly begins to understand what is happening. Revisiting the scene as a man, the story that the boy is now able to put together is shot through with pity as well as horror. If anyone has ever doubted the power of a graphic novel to grip the imagination in ways beyond the powers of an ordinary unadorned text, this is the title they should certainly read.
So what of the future? ‘I’ve been tremendously lucky. I’m a writer without a day job. I have made a lot of money from my adult novels and writing for the movies. I’m working at the moment on the script for Robert Zemeckis’s new film Beowulf. So I only write for children when I feel like it. There will never be a ‘Coraline Goes to the Moon’ or ‘Coraline’s Exciting Under-Water Adventure’, produced simply because I need the cash. If I do write about her again, it will be because I wake up one day with an idea that simply demands to be listened to.’ Children’s writers with the freedom to write whatever they want whenever they want constitute a rare bonus. When the writer is as deeply imaginative and totally unpredictable as Gaiman, the stakes are high indeed.
Coraline, 0 7475 6210 5, £5.99 pbk
The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish, 0 7475 7840 0, £7.99 pbk with audio CD
Mirrormask, 0 7475 8111 8, £14.99 hbk
The Tragical Comedy or Comical Tragedy of Mr Punch, 0 7475 8844 9, £9.99 hbk
The Wolves in the Walls, 0 7475 7472 3, £5.99 pbk
Anansi Boys, 0 7553 0507 8, £17.99 hbk, 0 7553 0509 4, £7.99 pbk, 0 7553 2937 6, £49.95 audio CD
Stardust, 0 7553 2282 7, £7.99 pbk
Nicholas Tucker is Honorary Senior Lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.