The premise is something out of a nightmare—the mysterious “man Jack” kills an entire family, intending to end with the toddler in the upstairs bedroom. Instead, the child escapes, and makes his way to the graveyard’s gate, where a kindly “ghost” immediately takes the child in. As a mother, the image of this baby crawling up the hill, alone in the night, to a graveyard absolutely chilled me, but what happens there is the best possible outcome.
I put “ghost” in quotes above because the residents of this graveyard aren’t haunts in the usual sense—they’re not unhappy spirits with unfinished business, wandering the earth. In Gaiman’s book, the afterlife is simply another part of life, a stage in the process—after death comes an existence frozen in time but not unhappy, and nothing to be feared. In the graveyard, the child named Nobody Owens, otherwise known as Bod, is the newest member of an extended family who will never leave him, and who can answer questions about anything from rule under Cromwell to the best way to escape ghouls.
It’s a weirdly inverted world. Everything a child might be expected to be afraid of—graveyards themselves, the dead, the dark—here are familiar, comforting. For Bod, the danger is the mundane world outside the graveyard gates that he knows almost nothing about, and the man Jack who is still out there somewhere, determined to one day finally kill him.
Gaiman’s style here is gorgeously old-fashioned, almost the chronological story of a life a la Dickens. But the timeless feel of it is perfect for a story wrapped in mist and myth, and there’s plenty of both here. Bod is as curious about the dead as he is about the living, a trait which serves him well in the end, even if it does lead to necessary misadventure from time to time.
The ending is not fairy-tale happy, however, not completely, as few things in life in are. But it is hopeful, and reassuring in its way—Bod’s graveyard family has given him what he needs to exist beyond the iron gates and the dark, just as any child’s family, we hope, gives him what he or she needs to survive in the world.