December 23, 2010


The Graveyard Book. By Neil Gaiman. Illustrations by Dave McKean. Harper. $7.99.

The Vampire Diaries: Stefan’s Diaries #1—Origins. Based on the novels by L.J. Smith and the TV series developed by Kevin Williamson & Julie Plec. HarperTeen. $9.99.

Invisible Things. By Jenny Davidson. HarperTeen. $16.99.

     Treatment of the supernatural can range from the astonishing and deeply moving to the wholly conventional and unconvincing – witness the differences among these three books. The Graveyard Book is excellent in every way, fully worthy to be the only novel ever to win both the Newbery medal (U.S.) and the Carnegie medal (England). Told in a series of interconnected short stories, it is the tale of Nobody (Bod) Owens, who is raised by ghosts in a graveyard after his family is brutally and mysteriously killed by a man named Jack. The premise sounds outlandish, and would be if Neil Gaiman had not surpassed his usual narrative skill here with a level of stylishness and emotional connection that he has not previously achieved. Gaiman produces scenes that are genuinely weird in a dreamlike way – the chapter called “Danse Macabre,” in which the living and dead trip the light fantastic with each other but never discuss what has occurred, either before or after, is a marvel. He also produces strong emotional connections and characters who truly seem to be of their time, as in “The Witch’s Headstone,” which has Bod trying to help a young, long-dead witch buried in unconsecrated ground and wanting only a memorial above her final resting place – a quest that has repercussions throughout the rest of the book. From his creation of a wholly new and wholly bizarre “guardian” character called the Sleer, to his moving reinterpretation of werewolf and vampire legends, to his production of a Lovecraftian chill in a chapter about the habits of ghouls, to the tearjerking but optimistic finale in which Bod must finally leave the land of the dead and truly join the living, Gaiman creates a fascinating universe filled with memorable characters, astonishing and often genuinely frightening events, and a level of warmth that readers would scarcely expect to find in a graveyard. Originally published in 2008 and now available in paperback, The Graveyard Book is one of the best supernatural novels you will find anywhere, with an approach to the spooky that is unique in its sensitivity and storytelling polish.

     Few books stand up to Gaiman’s. Few try to. The latest spinoff from the TV show The Vampire Diaries is much more conventional fare, from its tie-in to television (the book’s actual author, if there was one, is never mentioned; it seems to be a committee production) to its focus on a single aspect of the background of the story that is told visually whenever The CW Network shows the program. The Stefan’s Diaries books (this is the first of a trilogy) join the original The Vampire Diaries book series and the sequences called The Return and The Secret Circle as in-print spinoffs from the show. Set during the Civil War, Origins tells how Stefan Salvatore, engaged to Rosalyn, a girl he does not love, falls for another, whose name is Katherine – who turns out to be a vampire. Katherine becomes the center of a love triangle when Stefan’s brother, Damon, also falls for her, and thus, so the novel goes, begins a story that will span time. There is nothing the slightest bit surprising in the plot or the dialogue (which makes no attempt to be in anything but 21st-century in form – in contrast to the way Gaiman has ghosts from various ages look, speak and behave much as they would have in their times). Although intended for ages 14 and up, Origins is surprisingly reticent in its language: “The kiss was so soft and tender that I felt her essence and mine combine, creating a force that was larger than ourselves. We explored each other’s bodies as if for the first time. In the dim light of her chambers, I was never sure where reality ended and my dreams began.” It is unfair to compare a deliberately constructed potboiler with a genuinely thoughtful and sensitive novel, so Origins gets a (+++) rating for doing just what it sets out to do and for likely being pleasing to fans of the TV show on which it is based. But it is a shame that those fans may never realize how much more there can be to supernatural concepts than they will ever see on The Vampire Diaries.

     Invisible Things is another (+++) novel, but is somewhat more ambitious and certainly better written than Origins. It too is for ages 14 and up, and it too is set in the past – a more recent past, the 1930s. This sequel to Jenny Davidson’s The Explosionist resumes the story of 16-year-old Sophie, who is seeking the truth about her parents’ death (a very standard plot device, which even Gaiman uses). With the help of her friend Mikael and against the backdrop of looming war in Europe, Sophie is determined to wrest the secrets of decades past from her parents’ former employer, billionaire Alfred Nobel. Nobel is not the only historical character introduced and reinterpreted in this alternative history – physicist Niels Bohr, for example, also plays a role. And Davidson constantly reaches for the exotic and pseudo-historical in settings, as by talking of “the Hanseatic identity of Denmark,” whose capital she spells as the Danes do (København), and by tossing about the names of Scottish physicist Charles Thomson Rees Wilson and the aggregate god Hermes Trismegistus. Davidson seeks a certain exoticism of style, too: “The name Elsinore was romantic to Sophie because of Hamlet, the character and the play, but whatever turrety erections might grace the Danish coastline, the trip that night was so chaotic, and the evening so dark and overcast, that Sophie was left with only the vaguest impression of crenellations and looming battlements.” All this style is at the service of what is essentially a standard quest story that turns out also to contain elements of the old “B” movie, Donovan’s Brain. Sophie eventually learns what she seeks to know, including more of her own history than she suspected, and the book comes to a conclusion reminiscent of that of Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, The Snow Queen – which, as it turns out, was Davidson’s original inspiration for this book and its predecessor. There is rather too much going on here for the novel to be wholly effective, and Davidson does not always handle the various threads of the story seamlessly. But certainly readers who enjoyed The Explosionist and wondered what happened afterwards will find Invisible Things a satisfying followup.

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