Neil Gaiman's 'Neverwhere'

Disappearing into Neverwhere

Books

I read a Guardian Long Read a while back about a young man named Christopher Knight who inexplicably abandoned society one day. He’d driven until his car was out of fuel and then started walking with only the most basic of supplies in his pack. It was difficult to become totally lost, even finding himself back in his own neighbourhood at the beginning of his travels. But then he began to adapt and understand his newfound invisibility. He wasn’t seen again by general society for almost a quarter of a century.

Knight said that he didn’t really know why he left. He had given the question plenty of thought but had never arrived at a specific answer. “It’s a mystery,” he declared.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere isn’t about a man who chooses his fate in the same way that Knight did, but it is about someone who one day disappears, nonetheless. I wondered to myself, reading Gaiman’s novel, whether there’s a point in the kind of invisibility that Christopher Knight achieved, versus the one Richard has flung at him.

I have wished I was invisible more than once. I do not fit in, simply put. At parties, I see only tight knit circles of friends, all with their backs to me, all in private conversations holding private jokes, talking about the things normal people talk about, leading terribly, terribly interesting lives. If not for the pitied half conversations that strays make with me for matters of politeness, I’d be invisible already. I have been in parks and on grassy fields when an errant football rolls by, kicked astray by some more physically fit person than I, “Oi, mate, chuck over that ball!” I cringe inside, not least because I can neither throw any better than I can kick, but also because I have become noticed and I have been entered into a social contract that I never agreed to. And how I long in those moments for total invisibility, a disappearing act.

Richard becomes a non-person, not in the Orwellian malicious sense, but in a very true, historical sense, where the memories of you are overwritten by fact; you never existed, so nobody can remember you. Knight, on the other hand, remains very much real, though a little mythologised – his own disappearance, at the young age of 20, must have caused pain to his family or friends. And whilst Richard finds himself in a fantastical world of fiefdoms and floating markets, creatures in the depths and bird-men living on roofs, Knight was in the woods, stealing from holiday cabins.

Neverwhere answers those urges to remove oneself from society with stories of wonder and excitement, but never fails to ground it in sneaking reality. At the end of the book, as Richard talks rabidly to the homeless woman, you feel unease that this may have all been some sort of mental breakdown, what’s believable and what’s not suddenly becomes a little more fragile (again, Orwell’s Nineteen eighty-four and its ending is strangely relevant). It not Gaiman’s duty to tell you, Hey, don’t run away from your life because I wrote about living in sewers, that should hopefully be implicit. What he did instead is to have offered you that escape anyway. I have rarely been so enraptured by a book, rarely lost myself and my surroundings so intensely. Almost every morning reading it on my commute into central London, I have nearly missed my stop, barely lifting my head in time to see the platform racing into view. Now I’ve left the incredible world of London Below, I feel at a loss, but it has left its mark on me – and I’ll never forget to Mind the Gap, either.

Eleanor’s Mind – The Haunting of Hill House

Books

If, as Stephen King put it, we step into the mind of a madman when we enter Hill House, then it’s only a partial truth. Really, it’s the mind of Eleanor, not quite mad, not quite stable. It’s a mind in turmoil like millions of others living right now. She imagines elaborate alternate lives, daydreams sequences of fantasy and wonder, she escapes to foreign worlds because her own is so unsatisfying – that Hill House should seek her out is no real shock, then. But what is interesting nonetheless, is how we come to understand or, more importantly, to stop understanding her as her life unfolds in Hill House.

Spoilers, duh

Will I, she thought, will I get out of my car and go between the ruined gates and then, once I am in the magic oleander square, find that I have wandered into a fairyland, protected poisonously from the eyes of people passing?

The first chapter allows us a view of Eleanor’s mind in stark contrast to the introductory passages dedicated to the other characters’ lives and thought habits. Those other characters are, though very much alive and with their own quirks, not quite interesting enough. Before even her fantasy around the stone lions and oleander fairyland, Eleanor alone is given the most human treatment: she knocks over an old lady and the agonising awkwardness of the encounter is perhaps one of the most relatable things in the entire novel (unless, of course, you yourself are a haunted house, in which it is less relatable).

She crashed into a very little lady, sending packages in all directions, and saw with dismay a bag upset and break on the sidewalk, spilling out a broken piece of cheesecake, tomato slices, a hard roll. “Damn you, damn you!” the little lady screamed, her face pushed up close to Eleanor’s. “I was taking it home, damn you damn you!”

Don’t you know that feeling? You seem to spend all day aching over your inconvenience to those around you, and yet in those pinnacle moments of most care, it all seems to fall away from you. Well, I know the feeling anyway. Eleanor isn’t quite careless, in fact, her whole life has been defined by caring, but she is flawed in a way outside of the fictional world necessarily needed for a scary story, she’s actually one of us. And it’s this relatability that grabs at the core of why her mind is such a fascinating concept in this book.

Now let’s look at that first evening in Hill House, in chapter three. What is it that begins to take a hold of Eleanor? It’s there, it’s affecting her and yet what is it? I have long been deeply appreciative of any writer about to narrate the experience of alcohol taking its hold on a thought process. If you want my opinion, my favourite writer so far is George Orwell in his underrated (even he disliked it) book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying, when his terribly unlikable protagonist gets paid for a poem in an American magazine. That is how you write about booze. But is it booze that’s taking hold?

She could feel the thin stem of her glass between her fingers, the stiff pressure of the chair against her back, the faint movements of air through the room which were barely perceptible in small stirrings of tassels and beads.

The most inane becomes the most sensitive when alcohol wraps its around a synapse or two, and so this seems fit for it. Eleanor’s internalised narrative is strengthening in this moment, her mind is fixating. We’ve already seen this in her appraisal of her surroundings and her self-validation of having, for wont of a better word, a clan to which she belongs, before Mrs Dudley’s dinner is served. It continues on, her reappraising of her situation, her own judgements becoming more prominent.

She likes attention, Eleanor thought wisely and, without thinking, moved and sat on the floor beside Theodora.

Again, is this the brandy? Is this a mind merely on the cusp of intoxication, mixed with the anxieties of the everyday you and me? I won’t linger – let’s fast-forward.

After the first terrors of Hill House have visited themselves upon the guests and the fear is alleviated with jokes at the expense of Mrs Dudley, there should be respite – if it were not for that ghoulish message scrawled across the walls, of course.

“And maybe, of course, you wrote it to yourself,” Theodora said again.
[…]
And the doctor laughed, then, and she stared at him and then at Luke, who was smiling and watching her. What is wrong with me? she thought. Then – but they think Theodora did it on purpose, made me mad so I wouldn’t be frightened; how shameful to be maneuvered that way.
[…]
“I was frightened.”
“Of course you were,” the doctor said, and Eleanor thought, How simple he is, how transparent; he believes every silly thing he has ever heard.

What was, and continues in parts to be, packaged with insecurity and the need for validation somehow now seems sinister, doesn’t it? There’s something chilling creeping over Eleanor’s internal commentary. A virus, spreading and mutating through her thoughts. It is attacking her rational defences. We’ve all done it, we’ve all rushed to conclusions, but in the moment of Eleanor’s terror, the conclusions she reaches seem alien from herself. We read on in horror, not for the events inside Hill House, but for the events inside Eleanor’s mind, that troubled, bumbling human being.

 

 

 

 

The Invisible Man, by H G Wells: A Note From A Lost Generation

Books

Never have I so romantically been engaged in the reading of a book as I was this one. It happened some years ago now, in my first year at university. Desperately unhappy, as I am often found to be, I was seeking solace on my own and slowly discovering the power of fiction to console me in those moments of solitude. One day, as the fire alarm went screaming above my head, rousing me in a panic from an uncomfortable sleep on the thinly mattressed university bed, I had an idea. It was a scheduled thing – the alarm, not having ideas – every Wednesday morning, some time around 8, that the alarm test was performed – woe betide any student foolish enough to have earned a hangover from the night before – in that moment, I decided that I would no longer be there for that goddamned screaming red bell. Instead I would take a beautiful battered old book and have breakfast in the cafe on campus. 

A large black Americano coffee, strictly no sugar, and a plate of Belgian waffles generously drizzled in warm, silken Canadian maple syrup. I do hope you will appreciate the further joy that this literary, gluttonous breakfast afforded me on those mornings (usually ice cold, in January and February): people watching. At a university this means world renowned academics trundling in, looking downtrodden and anguished in their long clothes and achingly artistic fashion sense. I hoped the anguish was at the state of the world in some deeply philosophically cruel way, but it may have been sleep deprivation. 

The book I chose was The Invisible Man, by H G Wells – to date the only one of his I have read. I picked it up in a charity book shop in the city. The city was Canterbury, England, by the way, where the head of the Church of England resides some of the time and where you will hear some of the greatest buskers that this country has to offer. If you’ve never been, visit, but don’t live there…live near there if you must.

In the cover, this note is the first thing after the pencilled pricing that you see. I have always wanted so desperately to know who these people were. Lovers? Family? Friends? And why was the book a gift, for what occasion? But more gravely than anything, these other queries fade into insignificance to my overriding worry: did they know what was coming? Did they outlive the next four years of hellish brutality just across the channel?

This book provided me with an escape and the opportunity to begin forging the identity I wanted, I needed, to be true. Although I was terribly alone at university, fraught with fear and anxiety, this tale of an invisible man tortured by his own monstrosity, as well as the world’s, was enough to keep me going from day to day. Whatever happened to Brian and Peggy, I’ll probably never know.

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