Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Neverwhere - A Modern Classic of Urban Fantasy

Neverwhere is Neil Gaiman's novel about a bizarre and frightening world existing in an alternative world called London Below. This world is accessed through the London Underground (subway system), and is a kind of parallel universe containing all kinds of strange creatures.
The story begins when Richard Mayhew, a young man with a rather ordinary life, helps a strange young girl named Door who he finds injured on the sidewalk. When he finds out that Door is being hunted by a pair of sinister assassins, he follows her into the underground world of London Below and his life is never the same.
The plot of Neverwhere is quite complex and to summarize it any further probably does not do justice to the book. To appreciate this novel, you have to sit down and read it and allow yourself to be transported to the world Gaiman constructs. This is, of course, true of almost any novel and especially fantasies. It is, however, especially true of Neverwhere, which is strange even for a fantasy novel.
By certain conventional standards, Neverwhere is not a perfect novel. Some of it is, at least on one level, cliched or even silly. For example, the two killers who stalk Door and Richard fall into the all too familiar genre of amusingly articulate psychopaths, seen everywhere from James Bond films to the work of Quentin Tarantino and Elmor Leonard. Yet, they are frightening all the same. One of the characters Richard and Door meet is an angel -literally. Placing an angel, an icon from Christianity (or other monotheistic religions) in the middle of an otherwise very pagan-style book is, to put it mildly, incongruous. Yet the angel is a fascinating character all the same. This is a sample of what I find almost puzzling about Neverwhere -it seems to work far better than it should, based on any description of its elements. Gaiman is not afraid to go overboard, to create unlikely collages of characters and events, and to challenge even the fantasy reader's sense of what is possible.
Perhaps it is because Gaiman's roots are in graphic novels and comics (such as Sandman) -which, incidentally, I am not very familiar with; Neverwhere was my first experience reading him- but Neverwhere is an almost excessively elaborate and bizarre tale. As I began reading it, I at first had some resistance to it, thinking things like, "this is too far-fetched; it doesn't make sense, etc." Yet the book somehow drew me in, just as London Below draws in Richard. By the end, I was sorry to have to leave this world behind. Neverwhere is a book I hope will have at least one sequel.
This is why I have to rank Neverwhere very highly as a fantasy novel. Like Tolkien, who in a very different kind of tale, makes us love and believe in MIddle Earth, Gaiman creates a modern, urban fantasy landscape that we cannot possibly believe in, yet we do all the same. It is as though top notch fantasy writers actually channel (to use an overused new agey expression) alternative realities that readers can intuit are, in some sense, at least as real as the world around us.
Larry Christopher is a writer and researcher on many topics, including cultural issues, the arts and metaphysics. He is also the author of the urban fantasy novel, The Stone of Alexandria. For more on the fascinating world of urban fantasy, visit http://www.urbanfantasy.info

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