Lovecraftian Works by Modern Masters: Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”

By Douglas Wynne — check out his Amazon page here.

In this series of articles, I will be taking a look at some modern mainstream novels that were either directly influenced by H.P. Lovecraft’s work, or at least echo his themes.

In his own lifetime, Lovecraft’s reach was limited to amateur publications, so I’d like to look at where his style and conceptions have broken into the mainstream and the bestseller lists since his death, through the work of writers he influenced. Rather than dwelling on mere imitation, I’ll focus on examples in which modern authors have fused Lovecraft’s strengths to their own to create something new, and, in many cases, more developed than the material that may have inspired it.

While the bulk of Lovecraft’s output consisted of short stories, this column will focus primarily on novels. But let’s begin with a short one: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman.

Gaiman has paid homage to Lovecraft’s work before, often in a more directly referential way, and usually in short form. The most overt examples are:

I, Cthulhu” (1987)

Only the End of the World Again” (1994)

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” (1998)

A Study in Emerald” (2003)

In an interview with The Weird Fiction Review, the author talks about reading Lovecraft at the age of 11 or 12 at his grandmother’s house by the sea and credits Lovecraft’s essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature” as providing the roadmap to other weird fiction masters, such as Machen and Chambers, who influenced him more profoundly.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is, in part, a book about growing up with a love of books, learning survival strategies from them, and seeking refuge from pain and confusion in them, especially books of mythology. The narrator says, “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.”

Gaiman works his best magic in that no man’s land between adult and childhood stories (see The Graveyard Book), and like much of his work, Ocean is imbued with the feeling of a modern myth or fable. There are rules of the realm the protagonist has stumbled into, but he is precariously uncertain of what they are. He encounters predators and guardians possessed of supernatural powers, and the plot unfolds with the sort of satisfying dream logic peculiar to mythology and the best weird stories. For my money, it’s his best piece of fiction; an elegant little book that is both beautiful and horrific, that brings subtle poetry and philosophy to the task of describing the indescribable and offering a glimpse of strange aeons.

The story opens with the narrator returning to his childhood hometown of Sussex, England for a funeral. While driving from the funeral to the reception, he unconsciously meanders down country roads to the lane he grew up on and the neighboring farm. There, he sits beside a pond and is flooded with memories of his terrifying seventh year, when he met an eleven-year-old girl named Lettie Hempstock, who told him that the pond was an ocean.

According to Lettie, her family brought the farm and the ocean with them from the Old Country. They may have brought some monsters with them as well. One of these gets loose and targets our young protagonist when a local suicide creates the catalyst required to grant it access to our world.

Fortunately, the boy hero has allies, and we are introduced right at the outset to a trinity of characters who compensate for a blind spot in Lovecraft’s own work. The Hempstock women—Lettie, her mother, and grandmother—represent the three archetypal goddess forms of maiden, mother, and crone. And in fact, all of the characters, good and evil, with real knowledge and power in this story, are female.

The monster incarnate arrives in the form of Ursula Monkton, a new housekeeper charged with caring for the narrator and his little sister, but he knows that’s just a thin veneer, a glamour cast over something ancient and malevolent capable of seducing and controlling his father. The dynamic creates an opportunity for Gaiman to balance the mundane horror of an unhinged parent with the cosmic horror lurking just out of sight. The dread that children feel when confronted by a world over which they have no power is magnified by the presence of forces against which any adult would be equally impotent and insignificant.

You’re just a little boy,” Ursula Monkton says. “I’m a grown-up. I was an adult when your world was a ball of molten rock. I can do whatever I wish to you.”

At the other end of the spectrum, Old Mrs. Hempstock has the power to undo an act of parental violence by cutting a piece out of time—as if it were a bit of fabric—with her scissors.

Fabric recurs throughout the story as a thematic element, and some of the most unnerving descriptions of the monster depict it as a tattered rag floating in the sky, its colors echoed in the housekeeper’s wardrobe. And yet, “she” is also described as existing outside the fabric of time. Like the best literature, the book operates on multiple levels, uniting elements of dark fantasy, body horror, and coming-of-age tale, while revealing little truths about friendship, heroism, monsters, and memory. It’s a cat and mouse game, but it’s also a sublime example of cosmic horror.

Gaiman weaves so many threads into this short novel, but I’ll stop short of giving too much away. You really should experience it yourself, if you haven’t yet. I’ll just leave you with a taste of the Lovecraftian spring that feeds these deep waters, glimpsed when the narrator sets foot in a bucket and finds himself plunged into the mystic ocean:

Lettie Hempstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe, from Egg to Rose. I knew that. I knew what Egg was — where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void — and I knew where Rose was — the particular crinkling of space on space in two dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchards, and which would mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind.

I knew that Old Mrs. Hempstock would be here for that one, as she had been for the last.

I saw the world I had walked since my birth and I understood how fragile it was, that the reality I knew was a thin layer of icing on a great dark birthday cake writhing with grubs and nightmares and hunger. I saw the world from above and below. I saw that there were patterns and gates and paths beyond the real. I saw all these things and understood them and they filled me, just as the waters of the ocean filled me.

By Douglas Wynne — check out his Amazon page here.

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