The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

The Graveyard Book

By Neil Gaiman

312 pages

Published by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc (2008)

The Graveyard Book began with... death.

Three of a family – the father, the mother, and the daughter – were assassinated by a man called Jack. But the youngest child – a boy barely two years old – escaped Jack’s knife when he crawled out of his cot and out the door, which had been left open by Jack. The baby crawled and tottered away into the night, unaware of Jack who was desperately trying to trace his whereabouts in order to finish him off, too.

The infant eventually arrived at an old graveyard, where he was found by Mr and Mrs Owens, the spirits of a childless husband and wife who were interred in the graveyard some two hundred years ago. The couple was thinking of leaving the baby as he was, but an apparition of the slain mother appeared at that moment to plead Mrs Owens to protect her baby, indicating that someone was out there to harm him.

Without much information regarding what really happened, Mr and Mrs Owens agreed to care for the baby. The apparition of the baby’s mother disappeared just as Jack arrived at the graveyard, having finally managed to track down the baby. Jack was just in time to see the baby being engulfed in a mysterious mist, and then was gone before his eyes.


Jack then encountered an enigmatic man, whom he believed was the caretaker, and the latter sent him away in a muddled mind: Jack suddenly thought that he had made a mistake when he went to the graveyard. And now the boy – the final thread in his mission – was gone without a trace.

The man who sent Jack away, Silas, was not really a caretaker of the graveyard. He was a resident, too, but he was not dead. Neither was he alive. Silas was, apparently, a vampire – his ability to muddle Jack’s mind was one clue (in addition to his habit of sleeping during the day, his ability to heal itself after an injury, and his not having a reflection – as told later in the book).

Meanwhile at the graveyard, the resident spirits were having a debate as to what was to be done by the baby. It was just absurd to have the dead bringing up a live child, in an abandoned graveyard, and away from the living. The graveyard was seldom visited by any living person, for it had been gazetted as a forest reserve.

Silas insisted that the Owenses be allowed to raise the living baby in the graveyard. Silas also offered himself to be the guardian of the child. As he was not insubstantial – like the rest of the dead – Silas was able to appear in the world of the living and bring food for the child. Additionally, Mrs Owens suggested that the baby be given the Freedom of the Graveyard, a special gift which will allow for the child to live in the graveyard as normally as possible.

The child was also given a new name: his original name was unknown after all, and Silas believed that it could be more safer for the baby to assume a new name. Many ghosts in the graveyard suggested names; all suggestions were based on the names of a person whom the ghosts had encountered in their lives, which they believed the boy resembled. In the end, Mrs Owens insisted that the baby resembled nobody; the baby was his own self, one of a kind. And thus the baby was renamed as Nobody Owens – better known as Bod.

For many years of his early life, Bod enjoyed security within the gates of the graveyard. He was clever and curious, but mostly obedient and was never a troublemaker. Bod was dressed in a winding cloth and slept in the tomb with his foster parents. Every night, he would go meet Silas and talk with him. Silas taught Bod how to read as well as about life outside the graveyard.

Bod had special abilities which a normal living person would not have. Bod could see all the spirits and talk to them; he had the ability to see in darkness; and he could walk through solid walls within the graveyard compounds. These abilities were all a manifestation of the Freedom of the Graveyard which had been bestowed upon him when he was a baby. Over the years, Bod also developed more special abilities learnt from the other spirits, such as Fading: which allowed him to merge with the environment and go unnoticed.

As Bod got older, Silas arranged for several ghosts in the graveyard to be Bod’s teacher, teaching language and various other knowledge – although the lessons were, most of them, way outdated. Most of the ghosts had been dead for hundreds – or even thousands – of years, after all.

When Silas had to be away for some time (on a reason he would not elaborate), he arranged for his friend Miss Lupescu to take over from him in caring for Bod. Miss Lupescu was a werewolf, but she called herself a Hound of God due to her special abilities, which she believed was granted by God. Miss Lupescu also taught Bod many new things such as astronomy and strange beings of this world.

Bod had encountered dangerous entities within the graveyard grounds. Bod had faced the vicious Sleer, an enigmatic creature guarding an ancient tomb in the graveyard. He had also been kidnapped by sinister ghouls, who decided to either turn Bod into one of them, or kill the boy and made him their meal. But then, everyone believed that Bod was still much safer within the graveyard grounds rather than outside.

Silas, the Owenses, and all the friendly beings within the graveyard had always told Bod not to leave the graveyard, for the world outside was dangerous for him. Now and then, Bod did hear about how he came about the graveyard, how a man had slain all his family members, and how that man was still on the hunt for him after all these years. All through the years, Bod had obeyed the rule and never left the graveyard. Until he was eight years old.

It began when Bod befriended the ghost of a girl, who was a witch during her lifetime. She lived during the era of William the Conqueror. At the time, witches would receive the death sentence and buried unceremoniously. Elizabeth Hempstock was drowned and burnt, and was buried in an unmarked grave on unhallowed grounds on the edge of the graveyard.

When Bod learnt that Liza got no headstone to mark her grave, he was sympathetic, as he found the witch quite agreeable too. Bod really wanted to find a headstone to mark Liza’s grave, and as he did not want to just take pieces from the others’ broken tomb, Bod decided to venture into the outside world to find one.

And his first ever excursion outside of the graveyard turned out to be a dangerous mistake. Bod encountered a man named Abanazer Bolger who not only knew Jack, but he also knew Jack was looking for the missing baby he was supposed to kill eight years ago. However, timely intervention by Liza Hempstock and Silas had saved Bod from being turned to Jack. In the end, Bod made do with a colourful paperweight as Liza’s headstone, and she was quite pleased too.

Bod never left the graveyard again until he turned 11. By then Silas had bought proper clothes for Bod and he was no longer dressed in a winding cloth. Bod had requested Silas to send him to school, so he could explore the world of the living, learn many more things, and also read books. Bod loved reading, but there was only one book in the graveyard, which belonged to a grumpy ghost who was buried with a book. Bod wanted to read more and a library was the answer to it. Silas did not like the idea of Bod being out of the safety of the graveyard compound.

But on the other hand, Bod was actually indifferent about getting killed by the man named Jack. His family and best friends were, after all, dead – all of them. So Bod did not fear death. But his guardian and all his ghostly friends did not seem to be too keen on the idea. They had their reasons to keep Bod safe.

“...You’re alive, Bod. That means you have infinite potential. You can do anything, make anything, dream anything. If you change the world, the world will change. Potential. Once you’re dead, it’s gone. Over. You’ve made what you’ve made, dreamed your dream, written your name...” (Silas, page 179)

Eventually Silas allowed Bod to attend school, but on the condition that Bod practiced his Fading techniques and maintained a low profile to go unnoticed at school. Bod was successful at first – being a forgettable student at school which no one remembered – until he got entangled in a conflict with the school bullies. The episode had left both Bod and Silas leaving many traces in the world of the living, in which the party which was searching for Bod might use to track him down.

Bod then left school and did not return again. Bod continued his life for three more years in the graveyard, under the care and guidance of Silas, Miss Lupescu, the Owenses, and the other ghosts.

When Bod was 14 years old, his childhood friend Scarlett returned to the town. Scarlett used to play with him in the graveyard when he was four years old, but she moved to Scotland after only a short stay. And now that she had returned, and that she remembered him, they rekindled their old friendship once more. However, their new friendship was different from the innocent days of their childhood. This time, it was more gloomy in nature.

As a teenaged girl, Scarlett wanted to know a lot of things about Bod – and Bod trust her enough to tell her about his life hiding in the graveyard from the man called Jack who was out to get him. Scarlett wanted to help Bod by searching for more information about the murder of his birth family. Information was scarce – as if the case had been hushed up by certain parties – but Scarlett managed to track the location of the triple murders. It turned out the house which used to be Bod’s original home was now resided by a Mr Frost, an elderly man whom Scarlett found quite amiable. Scarlett told Mr Frost about the case, and he, being a history enthusiast, promised to research more on the incident.

One day, Mr Frost asked Scarlett to bring Bod to his home so he could talk to Bod about the truth behind the case. At the time, Silas was away and Miss Lupescu also did not come to take Silas’ place. Without a guardian, Bod decided for himself and agreed to meet Mr Frost.

It turned out that Mr Frost was Jack Frost, the Jack who had been looking for Bod for the past 14 years. Bod managed to escape Jack’s house, taking Scarlett with him, and they ran to the graveyard for safety.

But Jack Frost had enough information now. He had four other accomplices – all by the name of Jack – and together the five of them stormed the graveyard to end Bod’s life, once and for all. Without his guardians, Bod was alone to face his adversaries. It was Bod’s own battle, anyway.

The men were members of an ancient organization called the Jacks of All Trades, which practiced some kind of magic. But the members believed in a prophecy about the end of the organization: the Jacks of All Trades would see its downfall when a child, who had the ability to walk the borderlands between the living and the dead, grows into adulthood. The child was Bod, and that was the reason all the Jacks were determined to see Bod finished away.

But with the graveyard being the battlefield, Bod was quite contented. He knew the graveyard like the back of his hand. It was his home, after all. And all the dead in the graveyard were his friends, determined to help Bod as best as they could.

The ghosts – invisible to the eyes of the Jacks – became Bod’s eyes and ears, telling him the whereabouts of the five men and what they were up to. Bod managed to get one Jack fell into a deep grave. Three Jacks were baited into following Bod to the edge of a ghoul-gate, the entrance to the land of the ghouls. The three Jacks fell into the ghoul-gate, their fates sealed: the ghouls would surely find them soon and take care of them. The final Jack – the Jack who had killed Bod’s family – was lured to the ancient tomb where the Sleer was. The Sleer, an ugly snake-like monster with three faces, enveloped Jack Frost and took him away.

Scarlett saw what happened to Jack Frost and she came to a state of bewildered confusion. She refused to believe what had happened and she became fearful of Bod. Bod wanted to reassure her but she would not listen to any of Bod’s explanations.

Silas arrived then, and he took Scarlett home. As a vampire, he was able to erase people’s memories: so he made both Scarlett and her mother to forget about Bod and Mr Frost. The two went back to Scotland not long after. And Bod’s friendship with Scarlett was no more.

Bod learnt that Silas and Miss Lupescu had been away to fight the Jacks of All Trades organization, too, thus their absence in the graveyard for quite some time. The organization had people all over the world, and Silas and Miss Lupescu had been to Poland then. Miss Lupescu had died in battle, determined to protect Bod from the organization till the end. Bod was very sad, and was upset that Silas did not bring her body back to be buried in the graveyard. But then, Miss Lupescu was different from a living person, thus she could not possibly reappear in the graveyard like a human with a soul.

Whatever had happened, the battle had come to an end and their side had won. Once Bod grew into adulthood, the Jacks of All Trades organization will crumble for good.

Bod stayed at the graveyard for another year, and at 15 he began to lose his special abilities around the graveyard. Bod could see less and less of his ghostly friends, and he could no longer Fade into the background or walk through walls and get into sealed tombs like before. Bod could barely see Mr and Mrs Owens too.

When he went to see Silas, Bod knew it was time for him to leave the graveyard – he was grown enough to see the world on his own and live his life like what a living person should do. Silas was also leaving, wishing to return to his hometown soon, which he had left a long time ago. And of course, Silas would not allow Bod to follow him back. Bod had to explore his own life and do what he wanted.

Silas had prepared some necessities for Bod: some money, and a passport registered under the name Nobody Owens, amongst others. Bod never knew his real name to this day. His original family name had been Dorian, but his real name was still unknown.

It was an emotional parting – especially for Mrs Owens. But she was proud to see the baby she had raised now grown into a fine young man. Bod had to find his life anyway, for life in the graveyard was stagnant. Nothing changes if Bod continued to live in the graveyard: the ghost who used to be his friend when he was a child, remained a child when Bod grew up. Bod needed new experiences and explore the world – he was particularly captivated by the life of Alonso Jones, who had travelled the world when he was alive. Bod wanted to see places like Alonso Jones did. And in order to experience what his ghostly friends had went through when they were alive, Bod had to leave the graveyard.

When Bod finally stepped out of the graveyard gates, he was determined to pursue his dreams, see the world, and live his life to the fullest, until the time comes for him to finally leave the world – and then only he could return to his friends in the graveyard again.


The Graveyard Book was a wonderful yet poignant book; it evoked a mixed feeling within its readers: sometimes gloomy and sometimes humorous, sometimes sad and sometimes heart-warming. It was a tale of familial love and friendship, and, of course, of life and death.

This was my first reading of a Neil Gaiman masterpiece, and I found his work quite to my liking. The ghosts in the graveyard were compassionate, thus extremely lovable – and I chuckled whenever the author included (funny) epitaphs when introducing these ghosts to the readers.

Neil Gaiman also had a talent for weaving a beautiful story out of an otherwise creepy situation. My favourite chapter was the Danse Macabre, where the living and the dead got together and danced the entrancing Macabray, in commemoration of a rare event when the winter flowers in the graveyard bloomed. Bod saw all his dead friends parading into the town hall and then they began to dance with a living partner. The dance went on and on, and all the living people were mesmerized that no one questioned anything. When the dance was over the living seemed to remember the event as a distant dream, while the dead would not speak anything about it.

Although the book was originally written as a young adult fiction, adults alike could benefit from some ponderings about life in particular. The Graveyard Book encouraged optimism in the future even if you were surrounded by darkness. Bod grew up among the dead, but in the end, he decided to take all that life had to offer and live his life to the fullest where he still had the chance.

If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained.” (Nehemiah Trot, page 233)


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