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

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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.

 

 

 

 

Madness in The Haunting of Hill House

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Madness. Suffocating madness. Poisonous madness. The kind of madness that creeps and crawls in the dead of night as you sleep, peering over the edge of your mind, laying doubts, unanswerable wonderments in those unmonitored darkest corners and creases. It is insidious. That’s the horror of The Haunting of Hill House. Stephen King, in a deferential essay in Danse Macabre, said of Jackson’s novel, “One thing we do know about Hill House is that it is all wrong. It is no one thing we can put our finger on; it’s everything. Stepping into Hill House is like stepping into the mind of a madman[.]”

Gentle spoilers ahead…

Eleanor, the novel’s protagonist, is the result of a troubling start to life and, over the span of the story, seems to be the unfortunate vehicle for both the progression of the narrative but also the reader’s sense of horror. People, especially young people, like Eleanor, who must quickly learn to shoulder a burden few ever have to consider can often become wounded by the continued grind of simply being. They are bound to carry on, sometimes by duty, by love, by guilt, by any number of instinctive feelings, combined or totally separated, and they’ll do it accumulating more and more mental exhaustion to their burdens. It’s no wonder then that we spend so much time in Eleanor’s mind; her coping mechanism has become a fantastical, internalised world that carries her off at the flick of mental switch. And what better place to instil those first terrors.

There are some beautiful passages in the book. So much so that I’ll even take the somewhat daring step of comparing the final paragraph of The Haunting of Hill House to the final paragraph of The Great Gatsby. Both speak to the impossibly stubborn continuation of being. The things that hurt, that cause or feel pain, the things that experience all the love that can both cause it and destroy it. And rather than meditate on that – because I’m definitely not the first – I’ll simply say that these are the words we all live for. They aren’t exactly comforting in the reassuring sense, but they do offer comfort in a way that tells us that some things are immovable. Being defiant in the face of fear is courageous some of the time, but there’s also a great deal to be said about yelling and screaming and running away as fast as you possibly can. We are not immovable.

 

 

Lightning over a dark horizon - Stephen King's "Revival"

Religion, Music and Drugs in ‘Revival’ by Stephen King

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I finished Revival  – and without taking the planned break at page 300 to write a post marking the milestone, whoops. Instead I found myself obsessing over the story and was helpless but to relentlessly tear through the rest of the novel at every available moment. What follows however is not a review, I’m simply not one to be trusted on that front, and so instead I present a discussion of what interests me most about Revival.

spoilers

On Religion

Stephen King is a believer in God. He told Rolling Stone magazine last year, “I choose to believe that God exists, and therefore I can say, ‘God, I can’t do this by myself. Help me not to take a drink today. Help me not to take a drug today.’ And that works fine for me.”

This particular use of belief as a tool for support or strength that King seems to have plays into the novel. Where faith parts with Jamie Morton, drugs and alcohol appear to take over; where faith parts with Charles Jacobs, obsession and amorality. Both are examples of one such supportive crutch being replaced with others. Whilst this may have been the doorway to a novel that battled faith against atheism, I was glad to see King refrain from doing so.

You’re not real!‘ I shouted. ‘You’re not real! It’s all a bunch of tricks! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, Jesus! Damn you, damn you, damn you, Jesus!

Those words are spoken by our narrator as a young boy marking the end of his belief. I like to believe that King used damn intentionally, a nod to the pervasiveness of adoptive theological language in our everyday tongue, ironically even in the renunciation of faith itself. 

 

On Music and Drugs

I recently spoke to an old friend of Stephen King. He’s a musician from Chicago, who fell into addiction at the same time that King was climbing out of it. Michael McDermott’s music (think Springsteen, Chris Rea, Dylan, etc.) made such an impression on the novelist, in fact, that an essay penned by Stephen now takes pride of place on his website. I mention Michael because I saw him, for better and for worse, in the pages of Revival. Taken in by the rock’n’roll lifestyle, both our narrator and McDermott fell into addiction at a young age and subsequently saw big-time success slip away – and just like Jamie, McDermott is now clean and sober. 

Jamie’s story feels genuine because it echoes much of what Michael has told me in our conversations: the helplessness of addiction, the hypnosis of playing rock’n’roll live, and the longevity of love through it all. Did King draw from his own experiences of addiction and those of his friends then? It seems likely.

“Nobody lives one day at a time like a drug addict. You don’t think yesterday or tomorrow. You just think now, where is it? I was high much of the eighties, and I’m not a very reflective person, so it never crossed my mind that it was an existential thing, or that it was wasteful or anything else. It was just what I was doing that day.”

– Stephen King, Guardian interview, 2000

“I went to jail for it (I was facing 3 to 6 years in prison), that didn’t stop me. Ruined relationships, that didn’t stop me. Became a car thief, that didn’t stop me. Overdosed, that didn’t stop me. […] I would be asked to speak at churches and between services I would be outside in my car, drinking whiskey and snorting cocaine.”

– Michael McDermott, in a forthcoming interview on my Huffington Post UK blog.

“The future was looking brighter. I would score at the fair, find a place to crash – maybe at a local homeless shelter, maybe outside – and tomorrow I’d ride the big gray dog to Shytown. There was a musicians’ exchange there, as there is in most big cities, with players sitting around, telling jokes, swapping gossip, and looking for gigs. For some this wasn’t easy (accordion players, for example), but bands were always looking for competent rhythm guitar players, and I was a smidge more than that. By 1992 I could even play a little lead, if called upon to do so. And if I wasn’t too wrecked.The important thing was to get to Chicago and get a gig before Kelly Van Dorn put out the word that I was unreliable, and the pisshead just might.”

– Jamie Morton, Chapter 5, Revival

 

 

100 Pages in… Revival, by Stephen King [No Spoilers]

Books

kinghciar1One hundred pages in and I’m reminded of something: Stephen King is effortlessly absorbing. And he is a master craftsman in world-building. So, put those together and you find yourself often in Derry, Castle Rock, Dallas, or Harlow, without so much of a scuff of your feet as you hit the dusty road. After a slightly drab, though ultimately cathartic, stumble through Mr Mercedes, Revival has me hooked again, feeling the heat and smelling the electrified air.

Both in time and space, Revival‘s narrative takes over the steering wheel. In some novels, I find myself making a concerted effort to drive the narrative on with my attention in tact, identifying reasons to be intrigued and indulging in intricacies of language where plot offers only nuances of change. Now, that’s no negative aspect, as far as I’m concerned, because sometimes a story requires less adrenaline, less races of the heart, and more inspection of the finer details – it can often to be the clue to the whole thing being really rather beautiful – but it’s nice to get inside, feel the tug and shove of relentless shifts of time and place, and simply enjoy the ride, however bumpy it may be.

I was bound to love this story, as it turns out. Science, religion, music, sex, drugs and violence – it’s a list to entice most. And although I know there were some mediocre reviews for this book, I sit happily in the knowledge that the experience is subjective to the reader. I relate to the above topics, especially religion and drugs and music, so I’m completely invested in knowing how everything turns out.

My Uh-Oh moment so far? When King’s narrative monkey jumped on the shoulder’s of relative strangers. When that happens, you know something terrible, something utterly awful is going to happen. Well, it did.

And I loved it.