ED. NOTE: Today, Comic Riffs kicks off a new feature in which we take a close look at various aspects of storytelling. And to launch this offering — as well as The Post’s new animated-interview video — we couldn’t think of a better candidate than best-selling and beloved novelist/comics writer Neil Gaiman (whose first adult novel in eight years, “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” hits bookshelves physical and virtual Tuesday). So today, we pause to appreciate one of Gaiman’s particular gifts: His ability to tap the stirring power of “place.”
During an interview with Michael Cavna while in D.C., acclaimed author Neil Gaiman offered his take on the visuals of “Official Washington” — his sense of a global city’s distinctive monuments and memorials and towering history:
PLACE, in a prose story, is more than scene or setting — it is vantage point. The words guide our eye and establish our sight-lines with a sleight of hand that, the writer hopes, becomes imperceptible. The author's eye becomes our eye until the seeing becomes synched and the illusion is complete.
In almost every other art form, the viewer is allowed real choices within the window of vision. Examining forms in a painting or comic panel, studying figures along a stage or performance space, the onlooker has options as to where to turn the eye. In prose, though, the storyteller is visual director absolute; whether it's an extreme close-up or panoramic landscape, the reader’s scope and range and focus are typically pre-set and fixed (unless, of course, readers indulge in flights of out-of-frame imagination — but they still must return to the writer's path to proceed).
Neil Gaiman knows the profound power of location. He understands that the setting must evoke a sense of place — that rendered environment should contribute to resonant emotion. And nowhere does the bestselling British author practice that craft more purely than in his first adult novel in eight years, the deeply personal “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” (being released today). As an unnamed middle-aged narrator travels to a childhood home that holds supernatural secrets, Gaiman paints settings so vivid and true — imbued with the seemingly ineffable — that the verbal becomes seamlessly visual.
Gaiman, as good as he is — and as familiar as his bag of literary tricks is — now, at 52, is reaching new levels of wizardry. He has grown even defter at which sentences to strip down, and which passages to build up, to summon this dizzying sense of real — and surreal — place. And his gift for “location, location, location” has been honed over 30 years of passionate and self-challenging “vocation, vocation, vocation.”
Genre-hopping since the ‘80s — hopscotching among horror and science fiction, fairy tales and adult fantasy, the magical and the macabre — has rendered Gaiman a master of many literary dark arts. He first made a worldwide name for himself in comics, which preclude a writer from being visual director absolute. For his seven-year epic “The Sandman” (1989-96), for example, Gaiman collaborated on the graphic novel with many artists, and even then, the viewer ultimately controls the field of focus. So for a writer like Gaiman, creating comics is a visual partnership twice over — once between him and his artist, a second time between creators and reader. Even when Gaiman skipped over to the cemetery for 2008’s acclaimed “The Graveyard Book,” the children’s book featured dozens of striking illustrations by friend and collaborator Dave McKean, so the hand of visual director was twinned.
Like any story featuring fairy-tale elements, Gaiman opens upon a land that appears planted with enchantment. There are the “slick black road” and the “tangle of meadows,” the “whitewashed” walls and daffodils that sit like sunlight. The author is well-aware that the locale, however magical, must feel real and tangible and concrete to the reader before the veil to another world is pulled back. And like a supreme chiaroscuro painter, Gaiman knows he must bathe parts of this world in light before he leads us into the foreshadows of the blackness – that the high contrast itself will heighten our anticipation and fears and thrills.
The author, this black-clad veteran of horror, is perhaps an even surer tour-guide through the dark. To be without illumination or bearings is to lose not only our orientation, but also our sense of the real and sometimes, even, hope. “…I was lost in a dark field,” Gaiman writes in “The Ocean…,” “and the thunderclouds had lowered, and the night was so dark, and it was still raining, even if it was not raining hard yet, and now my imagination filled the darkness with wolves and ghosts. I wanted to stop imagining, to stop thinking, but I could not.”
If location is vantage point, Gaiman writes with stirringly accurate detail from the vantage point of a child — in this case, how a 7-year-old rich in imagination and rife with fear sees his rural neighborhood, or his bedroom, or even a bathtub that can be both sanctuary and battleground for survival. Visuals rendered as sharp as three-point perspective help animate the riveting emotion from this child’s intense one-point perspective.
Perhaps most profoundly, Gaiman — who was properly weaned as a lad on Lewis Carroll and the ever-shifting proportions of a subterranean Alice, among his many influences — knows that deftly toying with the scale of a setting unsettles the reader in ways that engage. And if anything can mess with our sense of scale, it is the fog of memory.
Eight years before his death, Mark Twain visited his Hannibal hometown for the final time. When the great author shuffled up to the two-story clapboard structure he was raised in, he said: "It all seems so small to me. … A boy’s home is a big place to him. I suppose if I should come back again ten years from now it would be the size of a bird-house.” As much as Twain’s fictional children relished playing tricks, they’re no match for memory: Nothing pranks the mind like the passage of time.
“I remembered it before I turned the corner and saw it, in all its dilapidated red-brick glory: the Hempstocks’ farmhouse. … ,” the narrator says in “The Ocean… .” upon visiting the Sussex lane of his childhood. “I had been here, hadn’t I? A long time ago? I was sure I had.”
The narrator anticipates coming upon a duck pond. “The pond was smaller than I remembered,” he says. This was the very duck pond, at the end of the lane, that his spellbinding childhood friend called “the ocean” — a body of water made massive by magic, or was it imagination?
We can’t always trust our memory. We can’t always trust our perspective, or our sense of scale. We apparently can’t put our complete faith in how we once differentiated between the real and the fiction.
In Gaiman’s gift for location, gratefully, we can place our trust — even as, with his each inviting word, we trust our place.
Gaiman will appear Friday at 7 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.