Nor do I believe in ghosts or zombies or vampires (even the hot, sparkly ones). I don’t believe in Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster or the Jersey Devil, and if I’m going to be thorough, I suppose I should also mention that I believe in angels and demons as much as I believe in leprechauns and fairies, which is to say not at all.
But man. I want to believe.
This has been a constant in my life, reaching all the way back to my early exposure to J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Hobbit when I was five years old. I can start there and trace a line of influence that stretches all the way to high school, passing through dalliances with Greek mythology (3rd grade), Terry Brooks’ Shannara series (6th grade), Dungeons & Dragons (middle school), and ending with my discovery of the stories of Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, and Harlan Ellison. I was the kid happily brandishing a stick for a sword as I plunged headlong into the woods behind our house on those endless summer days when I could play with the giants and monsters that crept from the underbrush. And it pains me to know just how dissatisfied that kid would be with the skeptical adult I’ve become.
But the desire to believe persists to this day. It mainly manifests itself in my love of horror movies. This morning I watched Bobcat Goldthwait’s 2014 film Willow Creek.
A played-straight, found-footage riff on the Bigfoot legend, the movie is a lot of fun, but as soon as it was over I immediately began scouring Wikipedia for more information on sasquatch, which sent me down a cyber-rabbit-hole of Native American legends, scientific jargon, and hoaxes. This, despite the fact that I laugh with derision whenever clips from the TV show Finding Bigfoot show up on TV. Of course I know there’s no such thing as Bigfoot, but the thing I wanted to do most this morning was go camping in the Pacific Northwest just in case, you know, if.
I went through something similar after watching André Ørvedal’s brilliant found-footage gem, 2010’s Trollhunter.
A Norwegian film based on the Scandinavian legend, I immediately lost myself in stories and descriptions of the various types of trolls while simultaneously resisting the urge to book a flight to Norway. These found-footage movies are especially good at stoking my imagination because of the way the camera acts as a surrogate for the viewer. In a way, I’m there, watching things through the other end of the lens. And for a kid who was scared of the dark like I was, there will never be anything more frightening than two people cowering in a tent while small children giggle maniacally from the darkness.
The point is, all my skepticism and cynicism notwithstanding, I’m obviously susceptible to stories of the supernatural that are done well (and even some that aren’t). And they’re rarely done with as much grace and style as Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane. The novel is bookended by a funeral, as the unnamed narrator, now grown, returns to rural England to memorialize someone whose identity is never revealed. He’s struck with the impulse to visit the site of his childhood home (long since demolished), and once there he decides – is drawn? – to visit the home of Lettie Hempstock, his playmate when he was seven. He arrives at her house, meets her grandmother (who vaguely remembers him), and ventures out to the back of their property to visit the pond that Lettie called the ocean.
From there the narrator is cast back in memory to the age of seven, when he met Lettie and her mother and grandmother for the first time, and how they helped him save the world from dark forces that lurked in the pastoral English countryside. To reveal too much would be to do two things: 1) Ruin the immense fun of the book, and 2) Render it potentially uninteresting due to its relative simplicity. Distill any fairy tale to its essence and it loses its power. Such would be the case here, because The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, at its core, a fairy tale. A fairy tale that begins with a suicide and at one point involves a character having an extramarital affair with a demon, but a fairy tale nonetheless.
What you need to know: In an effort to help Lettie cast an evil being out of this world, the narrator accidentally brings something back from the other side, and this thing is bent on destroying reality as we know it. What follows involves the narrator coming to terms with what he’s done, dealing with the aftermath, and figuring out how he’s going to fix the problem he created. It’s a simple story that follows the arc of most fairy tales, but Gaiman writes with such uncommon poetry that the novel is imbued with an otherworldliness that suits its content:
I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I have understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building brick of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, ‘Be whole,’ and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping.
Beyond all this, though, it’s a novel about the power of literature (the narrator reads as an escape when things get bad) and the discovery of friendship. Even more, it’s about a boy’s realization that adults can’t solve everything. At one point the narrator has a conversation with Lettie’s mother, and she tells him this:
“‘Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.'”
I haven’t gone out of my way to find books reflecting this very same belief that’s been occupying my thoughts lately, but they’ve definitely taken the time to find me (see my recent reviews of Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon and Roger Ebert’s Life Itself for evidence). In Gaiman’s book we see it again – the notion that nothing much changes as we age, for better or worse. Only here we get an addendum: If something needs saving, the first place to look is within.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, if anything, perhaps deceptively simple. It’s brief, it shares the worldview of a seven-year-old, it follows the pattern of children’s stories. But it’s sly and it’s wise and it possesses the kind of magic in which even a cynic like me can believe.
Okkervil River – The Stage Names (2007)