Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book (Audio Version) (Harper Audio, 2008)

A number of months ago I had the opportunity to attend a public talk given by Neil Gaiman and, while discussing The Graveyard Book, he mentioned a comment made by writer and reviewer Kim Newman in which Newman summed up the difference between Gaiman's adult books and his children's books by stating that the children's books were much darker.

I recalled this comment as soon as I heard Neil Gaiman read the first sentence of The Graveyard Book:

"There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife."

The Graveyard Book follows the growing up years of Nobody, or Bod, Owens, with each chapter of the book set in a different year of Bod's life. Each chapter is also a story which can stand alone, making the chapters perfect for listening to one at a time during a commute to work or school.

My personal test for whether I want to read the text book or listen to the audiobook is to ask, is the audio version going to bring anything extra to the story over the text version? With Neil Gaiman, the answer is always yes.

Unlike many readers, who give a dramatic performance rather than a reading, Gaiman's voice never changes overmuch, yet he conveys the range of characters and their emotions -- the obstinate but ritualistic call-and-response of a children's quarrel, the wry tones of a teenaged ghost-witch, the cold menace of a monster wearing a human face -- through subtle tones and inflections. It's like the audio equivalent of one of those old black-and-white horror movies, where the subtle play of light and shadow conveys as much of the atmosphere as the story itself. Whether you are getting this audiobook for a young person you know or for yourself, Gaiman's silver-and-shadow reading style is equally suited to both older and younger readers. As a matter of fact, if you are someone interested in learning how to read aloud to an audience, The Graveyard Book is worth studying.

The fact that the first chapter of The Graveyard Book plays out like an understated slasher film is only made creepier by Gaiman's dry and understated delivery, as if he were channeling Alfred Hitchcock telling a bedtime story. The second chapter of the story, in contrast, provides a break in the tension by providing an almost Dickensien story in which the ghostly inhabitants decide to adopt the foundling and name him Nobody, while Chapter Three, titled "The Hounds of God," is possibly even creepier than the first chapter.

And so it goes, with the standard beats of a young adult story -- home life, friends, school, scrapes and scraps and self-discovery -- interwoven with a spooky tale about murder, magic, and monsters.

If you need just one more reason to consider listening to the audiobook, it features a brilliant version of "The Danse Macabre" performed by Béla Fleck on the banjo. Fleck ended up making the recording after Gaiman posted a request to his blog for submissions of musical performances of "The Danse Macabre," and many of Gaiman's fans are already clamoring for a MP3 version of the piece.

The audiobook of Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book would make an excellent holiday gift or stocking stuffer for readers of all ages, and is available as a CD set from Amazon.com and Harper Audio. It is also available as a downloadable digital audio file from iTunes and Audible.com.

[Kestrell Rath]