For almost as long as we’ve been together, my wife has asked me to read to her before she goes to sleep. I believe we started with anthologies of Bill Watterson’s Calvin & Hobbes, and after many months, maybe more than a year, we got through every single strip. Since then we’ve also read Norton Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth, some Edward Goreys, a little Shel Silverstein, Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman, a couple Roald Dahls, to name but a few. But the author we’ve read most is probably Neil Gaiman: Coraline, Mirrormask, almost all of Sandman. So this past June when m’lady gifted me with Gaiman’s latest, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane, I knew it was also a gift for her, a new bedtime story. Which was totally cool with me, because I enjoy reading her bedtime stories as much as she loves being read to.
While part of me wished I could scarf the book down as fast as I could, I think I preferred reading it out loud, in small pieces, late at night, over the course of several months. After all, most of Gaiman’s non-comic stories seem to’ve been written with out-loud reading in mind.
And like most Gaiman books, Ocean is essentially a fairy tale in a literary fiction dust jacket, a novel-length illustration of when GK Chesterton said:
The timidity of the child or the savage is entirely reasonable; they are alarmed at this world, because this world is a very alarming place. They dislike being alone because it is verily and indeed an awful idea to be alone. Barbarians fear the unknown for the same reason that Agnostics worship it—because it is a fact. Fairy tales, then, are not responsible for producing in children fear, or any of the shapes of fear; fairy tales do not give the child the idea of the evil or the ugly; that is in the child already, because it is in the world already. Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey. The baby has known the dragon intimately ever since he had an imagination. What the fairy tale provides for him is a St. George to kill the dragon.
The “dragon” in The Ocean takes many forms, one of which sounds an awful lot like the crippling doubt of depression:
It was not one voice, not any longer. It was two people talking in unison. Or a hundred people. I could not tell. So many voices.
‘How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time, until your loved ones give you poison and sell you to anatomy, and even then you will die with a hole inside you, and you will wail and curse at a life ill-lived. But you won’t grow. You can come out, and we will end it, cleanly, or you can die in there, of hunger and fear…’
Reading that passage aloud shook me pretty hard. I knew those voices, and I was truly, deeply frightened for Ocean‘s little hero. But then in the next paragraph, Gaiman’s little hero finally slays that dragon, and elegantly so, with just a few simple words:
‘P’raps it will be like that,’ I said, to the darkness and the shadows, ‘and p’raps it won’t.’
I don’t know if my wife heard it in my voice, but reading that next part aloud was like hearing the answer to a prayer, and suddenly I was awash in glorious relief.