Study Guide

The Ocean at the End of the Lane The Supernatural

By Neil Gaiman

The Supernatural

I wondered whether, after all these years, there was anyone still living there, or, more precisely, if the Hempstocks were still living there. It seemed unlikely, but then, from what little I remembered, they had been unlikely people. (Prologue. 14)

"Unlikely people" seems like one heck of an understatement. Sure his memory has been tampered with, but he has to wonder why he'd think Gran, who was already ancient when he knew her, would still be kicking around picking daffodils and milking cows.

I wondered why they were all called Hempstock, those women, but I did not ask, any more than I dared to ask how they knew about the suicide note or what the opal miner had thought as he died. They were perfectly matter-of-fact about it. (2.75)

The Hempstock's matter-of-fact treatment of the supernatural makes it seem more realistic, doesn't it? The genre of magical realism (to which this book certainly belongs) treats things that are fantastical and surreal as things that could happen everyday and aren't worth batting an eye over. It's pretty cool to be nonchalant about supernatural occurrences.

"Someone's just trying to give people money, that's all. But it's doing it very badly, and it's stirring things up around here that should be asleep. And that's not good." (3.47)

Stirring things up that should be asleep is never good—for reference, try waking someone up at 6:00AM on a Saturday. Unpleasantness ensues. Now add the fact that this thing is something not of this world and we've got a problem on our hands.

…"[The opal miner] started this all off, like someone lighting a fuse on a firework. His death lit the touchpaper. The thing that's exploding right now, that isn't him. That's somebody else. Something else." (3.60)

We get pretty scared when Lettie goes all vague on us. That's not to say that she's typically forthcoming with a ton of information, but when she starts throwing around phrases like "something else" without clarification, we can pretty much assume it's a bad thing and she's trying to protect us from wetting our pants in fear.

Ursula Monkton smiled, and the lightnings wreathed and writhed about her. She was power incarnate, standing in the crackling air. She was the storm, she was the lightning, she was the adult world with all its power and all its secrets and all its foolish casual cruelty. (8.101)

One of the definitions of supernatural states that it is "departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature." Yeah, we're pretty sure this manifestation of Ursula Monkton qualifies.

"I'm not saying you're not. But snippage … well, you couldn't do that. Not yet. You'd have to cut the edges out exactly, sew them back without the seam showing. And what would you cut out? The flea won't let you snip her. She's not in the fabric. She's outside of it." (9.38)

This "snippage" stuff seems pretty difficult, but it's nice to see that all of the amazing skills these women have seem to be earned rather than just inborn. Part of it definitely has to do with their heritage, otherwise one wouldn't know where to find an authentic mandrake root, but Lettie's been around for longer than we can imagine and she's still not ready for "snippage."

I watched Old Mrs. Hempstock reel the thing in, and I was still unable, somehow, to entirely make sense of what I was seeing. It was a hole with nothing around it, over two feet long, thinner than an earthworm, like the shed skin of a translucent snake. (9.113)

We guess that pulling the portal out of his foot had to be at least marginally better than when he pulled the Ursula Monkton-worm out? No?

Moonlight spilled onto the stairs, brighter than our candle flames. I glanced up through the window and I saw the full moon. The cloudless sky was splashed with stars beyond all counting. "That's the moon," I said.

"Gran likes it like that," said Lettie Hempstock.

"But it was a crescent moon yesterday. And now it's full. And it was raining. It is raining. But now it's not."

"Gran always likes the full moon to shine on this side of the house. She says it's restful, and it reminds her of when she was a girl," says Lettie. "And it means you don't trip on the stairs." (9.136)

Gran is nothing if not practical. Why turn on a light if you can have a hallway lit by the full moon every night?

"We don't do spells," she said. She sounded a little disappointed to admit it. "We'll do recipes sometimes. But no spells or cantrips. Gran doesn't hold with none of that. She says it's common." (10.62)

So this answers one question… sort of. But spells and cantrips tend to be in the domain of witches, and the Hempstocks are supposedly above all that. So maybe they're not witches. Thank the Flying Spaghetti Monster that they cleared that up.

I would have been hard-pressed to describe their faces, though. I could see them, look at them, take in every feature, but the moment I looked away they were gone, and there was nothing in my mind where the hunger birds had been but tearing beaks and talons, or wriggling tentacles, or hairy, chitinous mandibles. I could not keep their true faces in my head. When I turned away the only knowledge I retained was that they had been looking directly at me, and that they were ravenous. (14.18)

The way Gaiman describes the hunger birds does an amazing job of leaving us with the same impression as the little boy: we get little snippets of images, but nothing sticks, because the next line promptly contradicts the picture we've started to form in our heads. You might start to picture angry, violent ravens, but then he mentions tentacles and all bets are off. It's a pretty neat technique. Bravo, Gaiman, bravo.