The ghouls are the ickiest supernatural creatures in The Graveyard Book. Like many beings in the novel, they have a rich history in legend, folklore, fiction, and film. “Ghoul” is even in the dictionary, defined as, “a legendary evil being that robs graves and feeds on corpses” (source). Yep, they’re really that gross.
Neil Gaiman expands on this basic idea to create some very memorable ghouls. Although we discuss the names of the ghouls that Bod meets in a moment, the ghouls are all pretty similar in character. They all have the same four basic goals:
They don’t seem like much of a danger to your average person, thank goodness. That is, unless, you happen to be near your local graveyard’s ghoul gate, or, in plainer language, entrance to Hell. If this happens, and the ghouls find you (like they found Bod), then you could be in danger of becoming a ghoul too, or at least becoming a ghoul dinner. If you see a ghoul, you should probably cross to the other side of the street and try not to draw attention to yourself. That’s our ghoul pointer of the day.
Bod’s experience with the ghouls is important to his development and to the overall plot of the novel. From the ghoul episode, he learns some big lessons.
Lesson 1: How to open and close a ghoul gate. Bod learns how to open and close a ghoul gate from the ghouls. (Say “Skagh! Thegh! Kavagh!” (3.123) to open a ghoul gate. Say, “Wegh Khârados” to close one.) This might not seem so important until we get to Bod’s final showdown with the Jacks in Chapter 7. Yep, fourteen-year-old Bod uses the information he learned way back when he was six to open the ghoul gate and banish Jack Nimble, Jack Dandy, and Jack Tar to Hell.
Lesson 2: How to tell the good guys from the bad guys. Bod is only six years old in Chapter 3 when he meets the gross ghouls. The only people he knows are the ones in the graveyard (unless you count Scarlett, who isn’t in his life right now). Until the ghouls, he hasn’t met anybody who doesn’t have his best interests at heart. (Except Jack, but Bod's too young to remember Jack killing his family.)
So, we can’t blame the kid for having things backwards – he just doesn’t have much life experience yet. He thinks Miss Lupescu is mean, when in fact she’s going out of her way to teach Bod useful information. He thinks the ghouls are nice guys because they promise him cheap thrills and good food. Clearly Bod hasn't sat through any school assemblies about not getting into cars (or ghoul gates) with strangers that offer you candy.
But by the end of Chapter 3, Bod has things sorted out. Ghouls = evil. Miss Lupescu = good. He’s learning to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
Lesson 3: Running away doesn't fix your problems. When Bod meets the ghouls, he’s in a really bad mood. He feels lonely, abandoned, and unloved. Most of this is because Silas has left Bod for the very first time. We later learn that Silas is off fighting the Jacks of All Trades (so we suppose that’s an excellent excuse). The point is, we feel Bod’s pain. When someone we love leaves and we don’t know why, or when he or she is coming back, it’s hard – whether we’re six or sixty.
Because he's feeling so down in the dumps, Bod decides he'll start a new life with the ghouls. He pretty much decides to run away. But soon he realizes that the ghouls don't care about him. In fact, they might want to eat him. And their city in Hell is awful – nothing at all like the nice graveyard Bod grew up in. Bod quickly grows homesick. His adventure with the ghouls shows him how much he actually loves his life in the graveyard.
Lesson 4: Memories are valuable. Bod's run-in with the ghouls also makes him appreciate and value the memories he has of his life. Aside from not wanting to eat dead things, Bod doesn’t want to become a ghoul because when you become one, you lose all memory of your pre-ghoul life. He'd forget Mr. and Mrs. Owens, Silas, Scarlett…everybody. Memory is an important theme in Bod’s life (and the novel, for that matter). He’d rather die than lose his memories:
At least if he died, thought Bod, he would have died as himself, with all his memories, knowing who his parents were, who Silas was, even who Miss Lupescu was.
That was good. (3.206-3.207)
This helps us understand why Bod will be so heartbroken when he learns that he can’t talk about his memories of the Danse Macabre with anybody. Knowing how Bod feels about memory, how do you think he’ll feel about Silas taking Scarlett’s memories away, once he has a chance to think about it?
The ghouls in The Graveyard Book take on the name of the first dead person they eat. It’s especially significant, that the main ghouls Bod meets have the names or titles of famous, wealthy, or politically powerful men:
The Duke of Westminster: Dukedom is passed down from a male to his heirs. There have been several Dukes of Westminster, all belonging to one of the wealthiest families in Great Britain.
Honorable Archibald Fitzhugh: This doesn’t seem to be the name of a real person. But it sounds rather… honorable.
The Bishop of Bath and Wells: Bath and Wells is a district of the Church of England. The Bishop of Bath and Wells is the head of this diocese of the church. There have been many.
The Emperor of China: There have been hundreds of Emperors of different parts of China.
The 33rd President of the United States: At least this one’s easy to peg: Harry S. Truman was the 33rd President of the United States, most known for ordering the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II.
Victor Hugo: Hugo was a French playwright and author from the 1800s. He’s most famous for writing The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Les Misérables.
Since these ghouls aren’t supposed to be these men, but to have eaten them, it’s hard to find an obvious political message here, though Neil Gaiman does seem to be having some wicked fun with it. One message we can glean is this: even if you’re powerful, famous, or wealthy in life, you might just end up ghoul-meat in death. Cheery, isn’t it?