Reposting to include Maron’s new essay.
Neverwhere is a novel that improved dramatically for me on reread, which actually was a surprise to me. I originally read it about six years ago when, in an odd twist worthy of London Below, it mysteriously appeared one day on my clunky Kindle 2, without my having ordered it. About a month later it just as mysteriously disappeared again (luckily I had finished it just in time). I was fascinated by the marvelous and imaginative setting of Neverwhere and London Below, but only mildly entertained by the plot, which ― other than the beginning and the end ― I found quite forgettable.
Still, when I was offered the chance to read a 2016 edition of Neverwhere with the “author’s preferred text” and illustrations by Chris Riddell, whose illustrations make Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle so memorable, I jumped at the chance. It was a wise decision on my part.
Richard Mayhew, the “everyman” character whose impulsive kindness toward a wounded stranger on the street upends his life so dramatically, was a more sympathetic character for me in this reread. He becomes virtually invisible to normal Londoners, like the homeless whose ranks he physically and symbolically joins. Richard takes a chance, following the path of Door, the young girl he saved, down into London Below, a Byzantine setting with a bewildering assortment of fantastically strange characters. The plot is equally disorienting, a labyrinthine quest that takes Richard and his group from one place or contact to another, as Door tries to find out who killed her entire family, and why, and Richard hopes that somehow he’ll be able to regain his normal life in London Above. They’re relentlessly pursued by Croup and Vandemar, a pair of gleefully horrible assassins, whose employer is shrouded in secrecy.
Both the plot and the characters gained clarity and cohesiveness for me on my second read, freeing me to appreciate Gaiman’s wry humor and the intricacies of the story and its setting. I smiled at the family of Lord Portico (despite their tragic fate), who all have portal-related names and the ability to open doors and locks at will. And I understood better the nature of the capricious Marquis de Carabas:
The Marquis de Carabas was not a good man, and he knew himself well enough to be perfectly certain that he was not a brave man. He had long since decided that the world, Above or Below, was a place that wished to be deceived, and, to this end, he had named himself from a lie in a fairy tale, and created himself — his clothes, his manner, his carriage — as a grand joke.
Districts and areas in London become weird characters or morph into something sinister. Hammersmith is a jeweler; Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court building) a feather-covered old man who lives on the rooftops; Earl’s Court is really an earl’s court, though an odd one indeed; Knightsbridge (an area of West London named after a crossing of the River Westbourne, now relegated to an underground river) becomes Night’s Bridge, a darkness-shrouded crossing that takes a terrible toll on those who pass. Blackfriars (an area in central London) is the home of the Black Friars, like Brother Sable and Brother Fuliginous. Most interesting to me was the real-world counterpart of the Angel Islington: The Angel, Islington is a historic landmark area (originally an inn called the Angel Hotel) on the corner of Islington High Street and Pentonville Road in Islington, an area of London. (The building is now a bank, but the Angel name has been adopted by an adjacent pub.) This web page is a Google map that links actual London locations to their references in Neverwhere, a fun exercise for those who’ve read this book.
Riddell’s whimsical pencil drawings add greatly to the story. Along with the full page illustrations at the beginning of most chapters, there are countless sketches that wrap around and through the text. Rats peek around the corners of paragraphs; lovely, vampire-ish Velvets eye you from the tops and sides of the pages. It’s entrancing.
This illustrated edition of Neverwhere also includes Gaiman’s aptly named 2014 short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” which should be read after the novel. In it we learn more about the Marquis’ family, and meet some characters that were only briefly referenced in Neverwhere, like the sinister shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush.
If you’re going to read any edition of Neverwhere, I strongly recommend this illustrated edition, whether you’re already a fan of London Below and its inhabitants, or are considering checking it out for the first time. Despite some weaknesses in the story, it’s well worth your time to experience this fantastical world, especially as envisioned by Chris Riddell.
I hadn’t read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere before opening up the illustrated edition, though I’d read Kat and Stuart’s reviews of the audiobook and heard, from trusted friends who are hardcore fans of Gaiman’s work, that it’s an enjoyable read. I’m glad that the illustrated novel is the author’s preferred text, as I always prefer to read the version that’s closest to an author’s intent, and the story tacked on at the end, “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” was a short-but-worthwhile trip back to London Below and an opportunity to touch on some people and places not explored in Neverwhere.
Overall, the settings and the playful inventiveness of the story were the real winners for me, and it’s obvious how strongly Gaiman’s work has influenced writers, artists, and other creative people. For example, I’d be completely surprised if the Troll Market in Guillermo del Toro’s movie Hellboy 2 wasn’t inspired in some way by the Floating Market. And I loved the way that Gaiman took place-names throughout London Above and turned them into characters like the Black Friars or Old Bailey, each with their own eccentricities and charm.
Of the characters, Richard himself was the strongest in my eyes: even as the story opens, he’s a little unsure of himself and tremendously kind, which (of course) gets him mixed up in all of this trouble with Door and the Marquis de Carabas. I really appreciated that his storyline was propelled by his desperate desire to get out of London Below and back to the life he recognized, even if it wasn’t an exactly challenging or fulfilling life, as opposed to a heavy-handed lesson to be learned about being kind to strangers or homeless persons.
Messers Croup and Vandemar are terrifyingly delightful, the Marquis himself is charming, and I really enjoyed the unexpected twists in Hunter’s character, but Door herself was a little flat and one-note. Her quest is to find out who killed her entire family, and while she’s an active participant in that quest, so much of Neverwhere’s focus is on Richard’s reactions to the strangeness of London Below that Door turns into a supporting character — to borrow some of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth terminology, a combination of herald and mentor for Richard’s journeying hero — rather than a hero in her own right.
Chris Riddell’s illustrations are absolutely top-notch, and a perfect addition to Gaiman’s text. I thought it was a really great idea to fold the illustrations into the text itself, sometimes framing or interrupting a block of text, and sometimes taking up a full page for a portrait of Old Bailey or the beautiful Angel Islington. And the illustrations carry through into “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” which was an added delight.
If you’re new to Gaiman’s work or you’re curious at all about Neverwhere, I definitely recommend picking up the illustrated edition. Gaiman’s story and settings are wonderfully imaginative, Riddell’s drawings match the tone and substance of the story perfectly, and you’re sure to spend many hours enjoying a peek into an entirely separate (yet somehow recognizable) London.
Richard Mayhew has a life that most men would envy: He’s got a good job, a nice apartment in London, and he’s about to be married to a beautiful wealthy woman. But when he stops to help a girl (named Door) in the street, Richard soon finds that he’s slipped through the cracks into Neverwhere: a magical and frightening underground London that people like Richard never knew existed. How could he have known that his Random Act of Kindness would ruin everything? And, most importantly, how can he get his old life back?
Neil Gaiman rarely fails to amuse me with his creative concepts, quirky humor, and over-the-top villains, and Neverwhere (1997), the novelization of his BBC television program of the same name, has all that. What it doesn’t have is a tight and gripping plot or exciting and well-developed heroes. Richard is an average guy who’s mostly along for the ride and Door and her monster-hunter bodyguard (named Hunter) aren’t too stimulating either. The best characters are the caricatured villains, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, ancient assassins who enjoy killing famous world leaders and biting the heads off kittens. This is totally and purposely overdone, and humorous because of it.
What makes Neverwhere worth reading is, without doubt, its wonderfully fantastical setting: an alternate London Underground. After visiting Neverwhere, you’ll never look at a London Tube Station map the same way again. Ever wonder how Earl’s Court Station got its name? Well, obviously, because a medieval lord holds court there. Who are the Blackfriars? And what about Islington at Angel Station? You’ll meet them all and discover what they’re up to in Neverwhere. I am not familiar with Underground London, but Neil Gaiman made me want to don a headlamp and begin exploring its closed off tunnels and tracks (“Mind the Gap!”). He could have done more with this setting, so I hope that someday he’ll write another novel in this world (a sequel has been rumored for years).
The other aspect of Neverwhere that I think is really well done is Richard’s confusion about what is real. Is he really in another world below London, or is he just going mad? It’s estimated that ⅓ to ½ of the homeless are schizophrenic and Gaiman captured their delusional behaviors so well, explaining them in the context of Neverwhere.
“Neil Himself” narrated the audio version I listened to. He’s a good reader and his voice is always pleasant, but I think it’s a little too light and upbeat for some of the darker scenes in Neverwhere. Still, it’s nice to hear the author’s interpretation of his own work.
With 268,000+ ratings and 13,700+ reviews on Goodreads, mostly positive, Neverwhere hardly needs my approval or otherwise. I frequently try to review books that are lesser known and deserve more attention, but Neil Gaiman and his books have a huge following, and I have really enjoyed his SANDMAN comic series, as well as his books The Graveyard Book, Stardust, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Several of his books have become movies or TV series, so by any measure he is hugely successful.
I actually wasn’t that impressed by the book when I first read it two years ago, but since moving to London last summer and spending the year exploring all the wonderful parts of London mentioned in the book, like Westminster, Blackfriars, St. Pancras, King’s Cross, Tower Bridge, Leicester Square, St. Pauls, Earl’s Court, Shepherds Bush, Camden Town, Knightsbridge, Angel, Islington, Elephant & Castle, and realizing how cleverly Neil Gaiman has taken such unique and charming names and fashioned an atmospheric and memorable story around them, I had a much greater appreciation of his craft. So I’m revising my review accordingly.
The setting of London Below is great, I loved the atmosphere, architecture, people, and neighborhoods of the city, it was an exhilarating experience. So I was ready to be drawn into his magical underworld. The most memorable characters were the malicious but hapless assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, who were hilariously over-the-top. But the main character, Richard Mayhew, was just such a milquetoast office-working British everyman, so he wasn’t particularly interesting.
However, the story excelled when it focused on its monsters, villains, scoundrels, rat-speakers, angels, demons, beasts, and vagabonds who have fallen through the cracks of normal society. While it may have been far-fetched to have such a variety of magical creatures existing in a shadowy world hidden in plain sight from the normal humans of the city, Gaiman is always skilled at breathing life into his contemporary fantasies. Now that I have read most of his books and seen the related movies, I have finally gotten on the same wavelength as his legions of fans.
“It’s the terror of knowing what this world is about…” — Davie Bowie, “Under Pressure”
The week leading up to Thanksgiving 2020 was hectic, filled with news, and not all of it was good. On Wednesday I felt like I needed a comfort read, the fictional version of a steaming mug of hot chocolate and a piece of shortbread. I took Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere off the shelf. While I enjoyed it, it didn’t quite deliver the hot chocolate experience.
I still loved London Below and the cast of wild characters. It was just obvious, more even than when I read it the first time in the late 1990s, that this is a story about a comfortably privileged white man coming of age, and assuming his place in society, where, without examination, he is handed the keys to not one world, but two. It’s an innovative story for its time, based on unexamined assumptions about the natural order of the world.
In the family of fantastical fiction, Neverwhere is an uncomfortable ancestor, someone who might be a bit disreputable, but is still an important, beloved figure.
To recap the story, ordinary bloke Richard moves down to London for a job. In no time he is comfortably ensconced in said boring job and has acquired a pretty, smart, ambitious and very managing fiancée, Jessica. On their way to dinner with Jessica’s boss one night, they literally stumble over an injured homeless woman in the street. Jessica steps over her, but Richard stops to help her, and takes her back to his apartment. This choice flings him into the magical world of London Below, where he becomes part of a quest to discover who killed family of the woman, Lady Door, and to recover a powerful magical key.
Richard’s brush with the magical world erases him from London Above. Once in London Below, his adventures range from whimsical to serious to scary to life-threatening. At the end, Richard must choose between his love for Door and his desire for his earlier non-magical life. He chooses the familiar, returning to London Above where things have magically gotten better for him, but he’s dissatisfied. Using magic, he returns to London Below, exactly like Tommy in Brigadoon.
Richard has literally been given the Keys to the City of London Below, and the (metaphysical) riches he brought back from that magical place enriched him in our world. The white boy now has influence over both realities.
Basically, this is a boy-comes-of-age story, with an unchallenged assumption that it is naturally right that Richard wields power in both places. It’s not like I didn’t know that the first time I read it, or the second. Looking back at it from the threshold of 2021, though (see what I did there?), it bothers me more this time.
Door, the most magically powerful person in the book, is repeatedly described in words that evoke vulnerability or fragility. More than once she huddles her “impish” self into the leather jacket that is too big for her. She is waif-like, and she needs male protection.
Richard briefly becomes functionally invisible to nearly everyone except the homeless people of London — who are, also, invisible. He is powerless — even his ATM card doesn’t recognize him. Richard notices this, and internally comments on it, but doesn’t address it beyond slipping a tenner to a homeless woman at the end of the book. This isn’t a book about someone seeing the world around him for what it is, of course, it’s a Boy Becomes a Man story. It’s the Hero’s Journey, which is rarely about improving the everyday world around the Hero. Gaiman was trying to do more than that here, I’m sure, mainly because two old homeless women bookend the story, but he didn’t quite manage it. Or he did, for 1996, and deserves some credit if we’ve moved far enough beyond that to at least look undomiciled people in the face now.
And yet, and yet. The world of Neverwhere is beautiful and magical — not just London Below, but the mundane world above, the imaginings of defunct hospital complexes, dark alleys, sub-basements and especially the city’s ancient sewers. The imagery settles in under your skin, and you live with it while you’re reading the book.
Gaiman’s pleasant, wry and slightly distant narrative voice is distinctive, and it reassures the reader that nothing terrible will happen to them, as they follow this charming voice into darkness, cold, pain, loss and blood. Gaiman’s voice is like many of his characters, charming and dangerous. Nothing too bad will happen, it seems to say. At least not to you. Gaiman delivers whimsey, his version of the anglerfish’s lure. Whimsey leads you down that alley or through that door until you reach the truly terrible, even if that terrible thing is simply the vastness of the universe.
Still, while he reveals the terrible and frightening beauty of the world, Gaiman always leaves a slight buffer between his characters and the reader. His work rarely evokes awe in me. Instead, it evokes the memory of awe. I think back to my first memory of the ocean, for instance. I remember a Christmas eve when my now-husband and I walked through a redwood forest late at night, the crunch of our footsteps on the frost-rimmed needles in the otherwise silent grove, the way the stars looked in the spaces between the massive trees, and how completely clear it was to me that there was a world, vast, complex, interconnected and old, that would go on moving and breathing with or without my petty, busy, mammalian concerns. Gaiman doesn’t create those moments in me — but his prose puts me back in touch with them.
In Neverwhere, Gaiman asks us to feel a sense of awe for the history of London, the deep history of cities. In the book, Hunter (who is also a problematic character in some ways) dreams of a beast she killed under an ancient city in Thailand. In her dream she doesn’t kill the giant animal, she dances with it.
Neverwhere, as an ancestor book, is a little bit like Star Trek: The Original Series. It’s wince-inducing now, sometimes; not just the special effects, but the earnest dialogue and the simplistic answers to questions we now see as complex, the unexamined assumptions that underlie most of show. We have to consciously remember how many barriers it broke. And it was the first. I would argue that The Expanse as a show would not exist if Star Trek hadn’t. I might even argue that the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey would not have existed if it weren’t for Star Trek. In the same way, I think many of the recent fantasies I’ve loved were inspired in some small part by Gaiman’s vision of a convoluted, layered, living city, and his obvious love for it.
Those new kids approach the idea of the living city, the self-aware city, with different eyes, different voices and different sensibilities. China Miéville’s King Rat came out two years after the novel of Neverwhere (which started as a teleplay). Mieville’s magically-brushed character, who becomes the Rat King in spite of himself, is aware of politics and income inequity; instead of the segregation we see in Neverwhere, the dark places, the magical places people congregate in King Rat are underground dance clubs. Mieville’s two Londons are entwined, enmeshed, and at one point, a character looks out window at the cityscape and imagines building accordion-folding away like stage sets.
In The City We Became, the first book of N.K. Jemisin’s new series, the magical avatars of New York don’t whimsically convert subway stops into kingdoms; they don’t live in sub-basements or on rooftops, and they are far from invisible. They are angry. They are proud, they are loud, and they are right in your face. They are not the citizens of a fey, otherly kingdom; the labor, inventiveness, creativity and passion of their ancestors built the bones and pumped the blood of New York, and no one is going move them on or move them out.
Peter Grant, the main character of Ben Aaronovitch’s RIVERS OF LONDON series, might be a direct spiritual descendant of Richard. Child of immigrant parents, Peter is a cop whose life changes when he becomes aware of magic. While much of the magic in this series has a basis in physics, the living city in embodied in the titular rivers. In Neverwhere, we hear about the “red-brick regency sewers…” in RIVERS, we meet the humans who embody the force of London’s rivers, many of which have been dammed or driven underground, in this case literally.
(True story: Re-reading Neverwhere, I came across a reference to Fleet Ditch. I asked my husband, who was watching football, “have we met the Fleet, in the RIVERS OF LONDON books?” much as I would ask if we’d been a cousin’s friend at a Thanksgiving dinner years ago.)
The stratified “English” culture is represented by Nightingale in those books; Peter is often at odds with his mentor. Nightingale, stiff-upper-lip, old-school-tie remnant of the Empire, is caught flat-footed more than once by the initiative shown by Peter and, tragically, by Leslie May.
I don’t know if any of these writers claim inspiration from Neverwhere (and I didn’t check), but plainly they are writing in the same tradition, questioning those underpinning assumptions, asking the “what-if” questions, moving beyond The Original Show to create new vibrant work.
As an exercise in imagination, I envisioned leaving Neverwhere off the shelf, and pulling down these other books to join it. I’d settle them comfortably in the library and leave them alone to talk. I think the younger books would enjoy hearing from Neverwhere, a book that may have inspired their existence. And I think Neverwhere might learn a lot from the “magical city” books that followed it.