In everyone’s life there is always at least one door. You know the door I mean. It’s the one that you’ve never opened, even though you’ve always wanted to. It could be the front door of the creepy, abandoned house at the end of your street. It could be the strange door at the top of the stairs in your school, the one that doesn’t lead to the roof and probably leads to a boring storage closet but might—just might—lead to another world entirely. It could even be … a wardrobe. These are the doors of possibilities.
My door is set inside a hill that overlooks Port Arthur Collegiate Institute. If you’ve passed that way, going down Red River and then Waverley Road, you know the door I mean. I don’t know what it leads to, but from the outside it is every bit as enigmatic as a door of possibilities needs to be. (For some reason, I don’t have a photo. I’ve asked a friend to rectify that for me.)
We seldom end up opening these doors. But sometimes, they open anyway.
Neverwhere is a tale of one such door opening for Richard Mayhew. When first we meet him, he is about as bland a protagonist as you might like: the overrepresented, boring middle-class man working a numbers job at a big London firm. He’s about to marry someone not at all right for him. In every respect, Richard’s life is OK—but it is also dull, dull, dull. Then he helps Door, a girl on the run for her life. She exits his life just as quickly as she enters, but as her name implies, she leaves behind a crack—a sliver, really—in Richard’s life, one just wide enough to let him fall through it into London Below. His life in London Above is no more—he never existed—and as he is forced to come to terms with this fact, Richard discovers there is more to London—and more to life—than he ever suspected.
Neil Gaiman is one of those writers who excels sublimely at reminding us of the fantastic latent in the world around us. His fantasy is escapism at its best. Most of his stories plunge people from the real world into skewed versions of reality. In Coraline, the eponymous protagonist ends up in an alternative version of her house where her parents can’t boss her around; in American Gods, Shadow finds himself embroiled in an apocalypse—but no one else seems to notice. And then there’s the Sandman series, replete with visits to dreamworlds, Hell, and eternal planes outside space and time.
Throughout these travels, Gaiman weaves the language of storytelling itself into his worlds. The worlds are constructions of language as much as—if not more than—attempts at self-consistent realities. In American Gods, the rules change based on prayer and belief, with gods rising and fading away depending on how much stock humanity puts in their stories. In Mirror Mask, the world in Helena’s drawings becomes real—but only just. So while much of Gaiman’s fantasy might reasonably be called “portal fantasy,” he’s not just writing stories about people hopping to other worlds. His worlds are of the more symbolic, more metaphorical variety, their inhabitants determined by myth and story.
The characters of Neverwhere exemplify this standard. The Marquis de Carabas, much like Mr Wednesday from American Gods, is a scoundrel of no small authority. He has power, because he has been around long enough to accrue it and has survived—no mean feat in a world where the rules always seem to be changing. His is the grey world of honour and favours; though not a bad person by any means, there is the implication that he would not be as helpful were it not for the favours he collects in return.
As usual, however, I think Gaiman excels at the secondary characters. Take, for instance, his introductory description of Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar:
There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar apart: first, Mr Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr Croup; second, Mr Croup has eyes of a faded, china blue, while Mr Vandemar’s eyes are brown; third, while Mr Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr Croup has no obvious jewellery; fourth, Mr Croup likes words, while Mr Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing alike.
That last sentence transforms an otherwise workaday description into entertaining prose. And Gaiman repeats this feat throughout the book. In this way, London Below takes shape. It’s not as well-defined as London Above, or Middle Earth, or Narnia—again, this is a fantasy world created as a reflection of the city it lies beneath. Gaiman reminds us time and again that history of London is, much like the city itself, practically a palimpsest. London sprawls, like some twisted and tangled old growth forest, far beyond its original, ancient limits. There are places so old and forgotten that they have passed from the annals of history and into the realm of myth—and it is in these interstices where Gaiman paints the places and people of London Below.
London Below works on Richard Mayhew in a reversal of pathetic fallacy. His journey through this bizarre reflection of London as he seeks to help Door find who murdered her parents is an opportunity for him to grow up, to find who he is and develop the confidence required to assert it. The first glimmer of this happens during Richard’s first brush with London Below, as he rescues Door despite his fiancée’s protest that they will be late for a fancy dinner. In that moment, Gaiman telegraphs everything one needs to know: Richard, despite his situation, has within him the capability to be heroic; Jessica, despite her breeding and intelligence, is painfully not right for Richard. (“Someone else will be along; someone else will help her” indeed!)
That’s just the beginning. London Below works on Richard, changing him inexorably in the way that only a fantastic situation can. At every turn, he is confronted by a problem that is entirely outside his comfort zone. He has to compromise, because no matter how much he tries, there is no making sense of the experience. He learns he just has to go with it, to be brave, to take chances because it’s what’s right—and, as Anaethesia’s disappearance makes clear, make every decision count for something.
Richard reminds me a great deal of another well-established British doormat: Arthur Dent. Arthur begins The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in similar straits. All he wants is his home back—but he loses it, and then loses his planet, and finds himself stuck in a brave new world where everyone else knows the rules and he can’t even figure out the name of the game.
Which leads to the most important consideration: why do we need Richard at all? After all, Door is arguably the heroine of the book. It’s her family that was brutally murdered; it’s she who must defeat the bad guy using both her unique portal-opening ability and her intelligence and guile. Why couldn’t Gaiman just write the story from Door’s point of view? It’s been done in other fantasy novels, where the author doesn’t have the benefit of a character from the “normal” world to act as the reader’s intermediary.
While a “Door’s adventure” version of Neverwhere might work as a story, it would lose that essential message about becoming lost and finding oneself. Door has lost her family, true, and must rediscover her purpose and niche in London Below. Yet, having been born there, she is still of London Below in the most indigenous sense of the word. Richard, on the other hand, has made that transition; he has fallen through the cracks and landed hard. That pain, and the necessity to adjust and learn virtually a new language, is what gives Neverwhere its flavour. This isn’t just a story about facing off against two ageless assassins and their mysterious employer in a twisted, fairytale-esque London. It’s about all those people you pass on the street, the ones in the corner of your eye, who just fail to catch your attention. It’s about all those doors never opened.
Most of us probably aren’t as whiny as Richard or Arthur, but we’ve all been there. We’ve all lost things, or suddenly found ourselves completely out of our depth. At the same time, there is something thrilling—something so vivid—about being out of one’s depth. Gaiman captures that sense of wonder so inherent in fantasy and distils it through his wonderful, loquacious characters and his whimsical, mythical descriptions of setting.
Photo by Jessica Reinnika, used under a CC-BY license.