If you don't know that Neil Gaiman is a Big Deal (that's right—we busted out the capital letters for this one), then we feel majorly sorry for you. But we can also guess why you don't know about this lion of the fantasy genre: you live in the United States (or, you know, you just don't read much fantasy).
In Britain, however, where Gaiman comes from, his book covers are plastered along the Underground tunnels in poster form, streets are renamed after his fictional tales, and in 2013 his book The Ocean at the End of the Lane won the prestigious Book of the Year award—and for good reason.
The man has such a vivid imagination; he creates whole worlds that would feel right at home in a Tim Burton movie, and then plops them down in the middle of pastoral settings in such a way that you think to yourself: "Yeah, okay—sure. There's always been an eccentric family down the road, of course they're secretly immortal beings with infinite power and wisdom." If nothing else, you'll never look at your neighbors the same way—definitely not after reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
In The Ocean at the End of the Lane, we are listening to a jaded middle-aged man who's gone home for a family member's funeral reminisce about some crazy adventures he had when he was seven years old and befriended an odd little girl named Lettie Hempstock.
The thing is, though, while he's visiting the farm where everything went down, he can remember all the strange, mystical occurrences—like being attacked by an angry, malicious circus tent and pulling a kitten up from the ground like a ripe carrot—but the minute he steps foot off that property it all seems like a dream that's too hard to remember clearly.
So we, the readers, are left wondering—was this whole ordeal some kind of rare insight into aspects of reality that we're normally protected from knowing, or was this some desperate attempt of a bored little boy to inject a little adventure into his otherwise lonely childhood?
Either way, it's a story that will leave you feeling surprisingly haunted—by both the devastatingly real moments as well as the magical surrealism that permeates the little boy's memories. The best part is, Neil Gaiman has touted this book as by far his most autobiographical work yet—so we get to pick it apart and wonder exactly which bits really happened. Let's hope it's not the part where [spoiler alert] his dad tries to drown him in the bathtub. That'd be pretty unfortunate.
There are plenty of reasons why you should read this book—it's a haunting, engaging story that's sure to leave you thoroughly perplexed and yet satisfyingly entertained, for one. But the biggest reason you should read it is because Neil Gaiman is a major player, and if you haven't heard of him yet you might be surprised to find he's had his finger in a lot of different pies. (Ew—that idiom makes us feel a little sticky. Plus pie abuse is no laughing matter.)
Gaiman has a certain dark-yet-humorous view of the world that delights in surprising an audience into a reaction that can't help but be totally and unabashedly authentic. When he does readings of his novels, he will purposefully read chapters that contain spoilers or cliff-hangers, and clap his hands in glee when his listeners react in dismay. And his desire to instill child-like wonder in adults is something that appeals to many different genres and methods of storytelling.
One place Gaiman is very well known is the comic book world—which may or may not surprise you based on the intellectuality of his writing. His work on Sandman has earned him a ton of critical acclaim—plus Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a fan, so need we say more? We thought not. But we will anyway, because Gaiman just might be more popular than Gordon-Levitt is handsome (maybe).
Do you follow Doctor Who? It's a long-running cult classic television show from the BBC that boasts a rather rabid fan base—and Neil Gaiman wrote one of the more hyped episodes, called "The Doctor's Wife." Pleasing this particular set of television aficionados is a difficult job, but he pulled it off with aplomb. To some, this is the height of accomplishments, and he might as well give up now.
He's also the guy behind the animated movie Coraline, a kind of steam-punk horror/fantasy in the flavor of Tim Burton, which was based on his book that was published in 2002. And if you have not have seen Stardust starring Robert De Niro and Claire Danes, we highly recommend you rectify that situation immediately. Stardust, his book the movie is based on, has been hailed as one of the first fairy tales intended for adults since The Princess Bride—which you may have heard of (we certainly hope you have).
Basically, the guy has an imagination that just does not stop. He is a largely untapped resource of fantasy and fiction, and pops up in places you'd least expect. So read The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and we're pretty sure you'll be hooked into the Gaiman universe—and luckily for you, there's tons to explore in his realm.
Inside Gaiman's head.
This is Gaiman's own website, including a journal that is, frankly, prolific.
New York Times Sunday Book Review
Looking for a neat, tidy little summary of the book? This one's not too shabby.
This Review is Too Big for It's Britches
Ever read a review that might be trying to top the lyrical prose of the work it's reviewing? Well, here's one for you.
The Ocean on the Big Screen
Yup—Gaiman's magical realism gets the silver screen treatment.
Symphony Space Q&A
A great article/interview summarizing a book reading and Q&A with Gaiman.
How The Ocean at the End of the Lane Came to Be
Fantastic article with quotes from Gaiman about how this story came to be told.
Colbert Grills Gaiman
We love Stephen Colbert. We love Neil Gaiman. See them together, in their glory, discussing The Graveyard Book.
Gaiman was very excited to see this poster for his book in the Underground.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane—The Lane
During his book-signing tour his agent had the street that Gaiman grew up on (or one very close to it) renamed.
Pretty, and Kinda Creepy
We like this concept art for the book.
Remember When the Boy Climbs Down the Drainpipe To Escape Ursula Monkton?
Yeah, we do too… And here's a picture of Neil Gaiman on the drainpipe of his house growing up.