‘The Graveyard Book’; or, How the Dead can Raise the Living

Pauline Thier
Pauline Thier

‘The Graveyard Book’ is about a little boy who survives the murder of his family. The ghosts of the graveyard take the boy in and raise him. At this graveyard, the dead raise the living.

The setting of this book and the circumstances that led the protagonist to this setting are horrific. However, Gaiman managed to change the stereotype of the graveyard and transforms certain conventions of horror so that he created an enjoyable story for children set at a homely graveyard.

The graveyard in the opening scene of ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968) is a classic depiction of a traditional horror graveyard.

The two characters — a brother and sister — go to the graveyard to mourn their dead father, but are attacked by a Zombie. Before the attack, it becomes clear that the sister does not like to be at the graveyard. It literally gives her the shivers.

The brother tells a story about how he used to scare his sister at the graveyard, but it turns out that his sister is still scared, even though they are both adults.

The entire mood of scariness and horror at this graveyard is typical of the use of graveyard settings in horror fiction. The graveyard created by Gaiman for ‘The Graveyard Book’ contrasts significantly to the horror graveyard as it features predominantly as a home and safe haven.

The analysis of Gaiman’s ‘The Graveyard Book’ in this chapter will focus on the setting and the characters of the story.

My aim is to show how Gaiman was able to create such a haunting setting and characters for this book without scaring his readers away. What is really scary about this novel are the characters who live in the “real” world, such as the shopkeeper and The Man Jack; not the graveyard.

Even though the setting of a graveyard is nowhere near the snug setting that is often found in children’s books, Gaiman managed to create a homely setting within a graveyard.

The graveyard is not the source of horror for this story; the real world is. Gaiman adapts Griswold’s idea of aliveness as a central motif in children’s literature. In doing so he transforms the horror motif of “raising the dead” into the homely motif of the dead raising a child.

As mentioned in the introduction, Griswold’s five themes are often aspects of style, while others are motifs, rather than literary themes of children’s books.

In the case of ‘The Graveyard Book’, aliveness is a motif. The term aliveness explains itself; inanimate things have come to life in the story. Aliveness can vary from talking animals, to living toys.

Children see “a presence of sentience in insentient things” (Griswold 111). Their imagination is more developed than that of adults. To work with characters of aliveness in a children’s book is a success because of the children’s view of inanimate objects coming to life.

An example of this is when children talk in different voices when they are playing with their toys. The different voices are attributed to different toys, and the child brings these toys to life in their own imagination.

According to Griswold, “in the world of Children’s Literature and in childhood, a cosmic urge to come alive seems operative everywhere” (116). Even at such a dark and scary place as a graveyard, the insentient objects come to life. The aliveness at the graveyard creates a sense of intimacy between the reader and the book.

The reader can read about the living dead characters at the graveyard, but in the book itself, only the people with the Freedom of the Graveyard can see the dead people. This bond between reader and characters ties the reader and the book closer together. Bod’s story becomes valuable, as Bod is a window into the world of the dead — a potentially scary world at the graveyard that turns out to be more attractive than the world outside the gates.

In the case of ‘The Graveyard Book’, aliveness is related to dead people. Why this is not odd to the child readers is because they have a larger willing suspension of disbelief: “We do not boggle when animals [or dead people] engage in conversation, as long as that happens in children’s stories” (Griswold 103).

If talking toys and animals are not scary to children, then maybe a couple of loving parents who are dead but taking care of a living boy are not scary either.

The fact that the dead people who live at the graveyard seem to be alive and have a living boy amongst them is acceptable for the child reader, because according to Griswold, children “lack a sense of self-­importance […] the child has yet to embrace the adult notion that thinking and feeling are capabilities exclusive to us and our kind” (109).

Because of this lack, “consciousness is permitted to exist or acknowledged to exist in the world at large” (109). Children have a way of “non-­dualistic thinking,” as Griswold calls it (109). This type of thinking permits them to bring inanimate objects to life. In the case of this book, that also means dead people.

Gaiman uses familiar figures whom he brings back to life because, as Griswold states, “we are not surprised by talking animals in children’s books, because they feel and think like we do; there is no shock that might come from a more naturalistic presentation of their differences. In fact, the talking animals [or dead people who live at the graveyard] of children’s stories so resemble us, they sometimes seem to be mocking us with their impersonations.”

The people living at the graveyard are Bod’s parents, friends, and teachers. These familiar figures are figures that “normal” children — who are actually alive — will also come across in their lives. In that way, Bod’s life does not differ much from the child reader’s life. Because Gaiman uses figures familiar to the child reader, they are friendly and above all caring, rather than scary, menacing, or vengeful ghosts.

The real life adults in the story are scary, menacing and vengeful, dangerous even. One of those scary real life characters is The Man Jack. He is the killer in this story. He keeps chasing after Bod, in order to kill him. He disguises himself as a nice, harmless, old man who visits the graveyard very often.

Later on, the reader finds out that he only visits the graveyard to try to catch Bod. The fact that this man wears a mask and pretends to be someone he is not, is very scary.

The final shock of the story comes when The Man Jack reveals himself to Bod and Scarlett (Bod’s only friend from the world outside the graveyard). Interestingly, the setting where this major shock is revealed is a very homely setting — the house of The Man Jack.

Gaiman places characters in unforeseen places: a murderer in a loving home, caring friends and family at a graveyard. Traditionally speaking, a killer should not be at home, but at a graveyard; a dark setting more appropriate for a killer.

The shopkeeper is another character from the “real” world that is scarier than the characters who live at the graveyard. The shopkeeper represents human greed. When Bod enters his shop with a precious stone, the shopkeeper instantly wants to have it. He locks Bod up in the backroom of the store, because he recognizes Bod as the kid who the Man Jack is after.

The two characters are conspiring together. It is a character from the graveyard — who was considered immoral during her life — that saves Bod. The real, living people in this story are morally corrupt.

Some characters are attributed characteristics of aliveness. The obvious characters with these elements of aliveness in The Graveyard Book are the dead people who live at the graveyard.

A reader could easily dismiss these characters as being dead or ghostlike. However, at the beginning of the novel, the narrator of the story ensures the reader that the dead people are really alive: “You would have seen these things, in the moonlight, if you had been there that night. You might not have seen a pale, plump woman, who walked the path near the front gates, and if you had seen her, with a second, more careful glance you would have realized that she was only moonlight, mist and shadow. The plump, pale woman was there, though. She walked the path that led through a clutch half‐fallen tombstones towards the front gates.”

The narrator tells the reader what he/she might have seen if he/she had actually been at the graveyard.

At first, the narrator says that a woman could have been seen, but he then tells the reader that after a second, more careful look there actually is a woman at the graveyard, walking as if she were alive. This character contains elements of aliveness.

As the first chapter progresses, the reader soon finds out that most of the characters who live at the graveyard possess characteristics of aliveness.

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