Saturday, January 05, 2008


My friend asked me if I could spare a few hours to help out the organization she works with. Several nights a week they seek out folks sleeping on the streets of the downtown Seattle area and offer blankets, hats, socks, gloves, scarves, sandwiches, and hot chocolate to whoever wants some. Last night the wind kicked up, slicing up the streets with a chilly malice, so the blankets especially were quite popular.

I took the bus downtown to meet them, and on the way I finished Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. It's a fantasy novel about the hidden Other World that exists in and under London, and what happens when unassumingly mousy Richard Mayhew finds himself inexorably entangled up in a plot and a quest with the people and creatures of London Below. Neil Gaiman has a way with description and plot and OtherWorldly characters (and their plots) that makes for an absorbing read.

It also makes for a bit of a haunting afterward. All night I kept doing these little double-takes--at the bright red light I glimpsed, ten feet beneath my feet, through a sidewalk grating. Or the little plaque at the edge of a pier that memorializes a ship that "sank beneath your very feet on this spot in 1909;" Tim pointed out a padlocked iron door at the edge of the platform and said that when he was a kid the door used to be open. "You could go right down and look at it," he assured me.

Saying that the world is a "magical" place tends to evoke rainbows and unicorns, twee talking animals and harmless, dainty fairies that sip from buttercups. Neil Gaiman remembers that "magic" is deep and dark. He knows that if there are talking puppies with limpid eyes, then there are also slinking creatures, all pointy teeth and rapacious hunger, who prowl in the dark and disembowel the puppies and feast on their eyes. If there are gleaming towers and languorous feasts, there are weird dirty caves hacked out under the freeway concrete, small worlds clustered in the hidden places, and thin, bright-eyed men with curly beards who speak sadly but firmly of others that have been tossed into the dark, cold waves...

So, then, the world is a magical place. Shudder at the thought.


Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman. Published 1996, 352 pages. Fiction.