Violence, Glee, Phantasmagoria: Gaiman’s ‘Neverwhere’

Readers familiar with Neil Gaiman’s dreamscapes will find new corners of Neverwhere in this new edition of the author’s seminal first novel.

Neil Gaiman often depicts fantastical mirror worlds that operate alongside our own mundane, workaday reality. In Neverwhere, this world is a brutal, clandestine, and dirty one, a dark reflection of London Above that teems with its own specially-adapted, scrappy forms of life.

Our entryway to this world, appropriately enough, is the Lady Door. Alongside hapless Arthur Dent-like protagonist Richard Mayhew, we pass into the world below and seek out the ominous floating market, which is just as likely to appear on the closed nighttime floor of Harrods department store as on the deck of the HMS Belfast. Door is fleeing a pair of contract killers (who speak in a kind of flowery Victorian argot) and attempting to avenge the death of her father, Lord Portico. Richard has been forced to leave his comfortable, humdrum life after his contact with London Below renders him invisible to “upworlders”, but not before being dumped by his harridan-caricature girlfriend. Along the way they meet a wily ally in the Marquis de Carabas, find the world-renowned bodyguard Hunter, and drink wine from Atlantis with an actual subterranean angel.

The novel’s title evokes Neverland, the place where children never have to grow up and Peter Pan will always triumph over the brigand Captain Hook. Gaiman’s dark vision, however, shows readers a very grown-up world of family infighting, petty fiefdoms, and hardscrabble survival. It is because of Gaiman’s storytelling prowess and feel for texture that this hostile underworld feels so seductive—we want to follow Richard Mayhew down the rabbit hole, or the manhole, as the case may be. Although it is filled with killers for hire, runaways, vampires, thieves, and ruthless traders, the subterranean world of Neverwhere teases the imagination with its promise of absolute freedom—it is vibrant, though dark, while London Above is a grey, soul-draining place.

Readers familiar with Gaiman’s work will know that disturbing themes and violence often coexist alongside moments of childlike glee and fairytale phantasmagoria. His dark menageries are populated with whimsical scamps and cold-blooded murderers alike. It is this wild tonal juxtaposition that makes Neverwhere so vital—like in so much of Gaiman’s work, wonder and horror bleed together so completely as to become indistinguishable. Gaiman’s pitch-black humor is also on display, perhaps best exemplified by an exchange early in the novel. When asked if he likes cats, Richard replies that he does, and the follow-up question is, “thigh or breast?”

Nods to popular children’s literature are littered throughout Neverwhere, and Gaiman delights in subverting the tropes of the genre. For example, a group of London Below’s inhabitants take their orders from a benevolent rat named Lord Longtail. There’s likewise something of the children’s book narrator about his wryly whimsical descriptions of the residents of the kingdom under the metropolis, as when he describes a professional bodyguard (a necessary job in the mean streets under the streets) as “like a dream … something.”

Any run-of-the-mill similes falter in this topsy-turvy land of perpetual night. The world below with its floating markets and wrinkles in time is a kind of fairyland, which Richard the knight errant stumbles into when he first rescues the bloody, bedraggled Lady Door. It is a land where metaphor is literal—Blackfriars and Earl’s Court are named for real monks and a bona fide earl of the Underground. Richard, as the text says, “had gone beyond the world of metaphor and simile, into the place of things that are, and it was changing him.”

Spending time in the nooks and crannies of Neverwhere changes readers, too. It forces upworlders to examine their attitudes toward people who “fall through the cracks”. Gaiman’s dreamworld under the city streets makes literal the divide between haves and have-nots, and the invisibility of homelessness. While the novel is not necessarily meant to be an extended allegory about the plight of the urban poor, it confronts us with the willful blindness to the suffering of others that is a part of life in any city. This unsettling awareness lingers like the stench and grime of the undercity; once you cross the threshold, there’s no going back up.

The Author’s Preferred Edition, in addition to some explanatory info about London geography, contains a new story from the Neverwhere universe: “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”. This inventive, engaging short story dips into the history of the mysterious Marquis de Carabas, whose cleverness is matched only by his stubbornness in the face of asking his slightly more handsome older brother for help. The Marquis once again proves himself to be a hard man to kill when he meets up with an old adversary—the Elephant—and falls under the sway of the infamous shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush.

Nearly 20 years after Neverwhere was first published, Gaiman reveals wondrously gruesome new corners of London Below, from the Elephant’s domain to the eerie psychedelic intimacy of the Mushroom People. The story couches potent themes of self-made identity in all the gory derring-do, fleshing out the Marquis in the process. This tale suggests that every resident of London Below has a story, and Gaiman effortlessly expands and deepens his world to tell one of them. It turns out the sewers and forgotten passageways beneath London are still fertile narrative ground, after all.

RATING 8 / 10