So I’m a reader. I think most of you know that. I typically read a short story a day and average about a novel a week (I say average because I finish about four novels a month. I prefer to read several at a time). This is an old habit that I inherited from my family, particularly my mother’s parents. They had a small house in a very deep, dark hollar (or “hollow” for ye of the north) in ruralest Kentucky. I spent a good deal of my childhood there and it was a magical place. Equally important was the lack of television reception. You could usually get the ABC affiliate if the weather was good and sometimes, with some jiggering of the antenna, you might pick up some fuzzy CBS from 100 miles away. That meant that for much of my childhood there was playing in the woods until sundown and then, because there is nothing more frightening than deep Kentucky hollar woods at night, retreating to my snug little room to read until the wee hours of the morning. I finished my first adult sized novel when I was about eleven. By the time I was fourteen I had read somewhere around two-hundred. I was proud of my stack of books- all pulp paper backs, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, all purchased with hard won mowing and brush clearing money. The only bookstore was thirty-five miles away, a B Dalton, and it had about eight linear feet of shelf space for what I read, and I knew all 96 inches of it.
To be fair, most of the stories I read were truly dreadful, not worth the soft book paper (or hard toilet paper) they were printed on. I read all the TSR books- Dragon Lance, Forgotten Realms et. al. Then there were the well loved titles of the science fiction golden age- Heinlein, Clarke, Asimov and friends. But my favorites, the books that would change me the most, were the ones I came upon by accident, because I would never have thought to buy them. An old sixties copy of Robert E. Howard short stories, a copy of Ursula Le Guinn’s fairy tales with the cover half torn off, an unlicensed H.P. Lovecraft tome from the seventies called, “Book of Nightmares” that looked to have been bound with wood glue. These books changed me and in the changing they made read all the other books through borrowed eyes. I read my last TSR dreadful when I was thirteen and I don’t think I could finish it because I had started reading “The Inferno.” Certainly I missed most of the references (references I have spent a lifetime coming to understand), but it didn’t matter, it was a book about hell.
This was my own golden age. The magic, and it is truly magic, of childhood was colliding with the colder, more mundane but deadlier realities of adulthood. I owned (and still posses) a book called, “A Children’s Illustrated Bible Story Book” that comes from an era when people that illustrated for children did not spare the gore. In that book there is a great deal of art devoted to the Garden of Eden and in that section is the painting that was alway my favorite (if you drop the book it inevitably falls open to this page, such was the amount of time I spent studying its imagery). After several pages of voids being filled and fruit trees and cunningly covered naked first humans and a snake, there is the image of tearful Adam and shamefaced Eve cowering beneath a stern angel with flaming sword as they stumble out of the gates of paradise. For me, that was thirteen.
I went to get the tires rotated a couple of days ago and before I left I grabbed a copy of the Neil Gaimen novel, “The Graveyard Book” that I had been saving for some time now. It is called a children’s novel, indeed it won the Newbury Award (big gold seal that you see on the cover of such luminary novels as “The Witch of Blackbird Pond,” “Bridge to Terabithia,” and “A Wrinkle in Time”) it also won the Hugo, which I need not describe here. So this book has its laurels. I can tell you they were well deserved. I haven’t read a book that so captures the mysterious, bittersweet, and at times tenebrous nature of growing up in a long, long time. Where Neil finds his power is the way which he imbues things that might be terrifying or uncomfortable with all the warmth and invitation of a happy home and at the same time takes things that might be mundane or common and entangles them with a sense of mystery, terror, malevolence, and above all- imminent danger.
So thank you Neil, you have carried me many a mile on your back. I can’t wait for our next trip.
science of fiction (blah blah blah)