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The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains (2014)

Written by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Eddie Campbell

William Morrow and Company

Hard to believe I've gone this long without reviewing a picture book by Neil Gaiman.

I remember way back when The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish was first published, it was a huge deal. Neil Gaiman wrote a children's picture book! And it's illustrated by Dave McKean! I remember not finding the story to be especially compelling, but the artwork more than made up for it. It was beautiful, so artfully assembled. And it was Neil Gaiman!

Unfortunately, I do remember noticing that I could never find it in the actual children's picture book section of any bookstore. Not initially. It was always in with the general Science Fiction and Fantasy section, which I found annoying. Kind of in the same way that Harlan Ellison's collection Troublemakers - which was ostensibly for young adults - never graced the young adult section of any bookstore or library that I ever happened upon. Science Fiction and Fantasy. Kind of a catch-all, I suppose. Strange how it's a genre which collects a wide spectrum, yet for some reason Stephen King, Kurt Vonnegut and the macabre supernatural works of Joyce Carol Oates among many others were always firmly planted in the Fiction/Literature section. So it goes.

I can see now why it made sense. The demographic who would be most interested in buying a Neil Gaiman book would not necessarily be the same one that would be browsing through the picture book section. Put it where it will sell! And sell it did.

Now I am happy to see that The Day I Swapped my Dad for Two Goldfish does appear in with the children's picture book department of the bookstores I peruse. And Neil has got quite a few picture books under his belt and even won the Newbery award. Doesn't get much more respectable than that. For me, though, he'll always be the writer of the "Cereal Killers" issue of The Sandman (Sandman #14) and of the most horrific 24 hours you would ever want to spend locked in a diner with a group of strangers (Sandman #6). I loved The Sandman, read it as it was still being initially serialized, and it was one of the seminal works which really opened me up - way up - to the possibilities of making sense of the world from a non-Judeo-Christian mythological worldview.

For me, Neil Gaiman is the kind of author who needs to be illustrated. I don't exactly mean that as a compliment.

I was generally non-plussed by his novels American Gods and Neverwhere, didn't really care for The Graveyard Book. I'm sorry to say it. I think it's great that they're all so widely well-received and have turned on so many to him and his writing. For me, his strengths lie in his stories, his characters, and his dialogue. So I find him perfectly suited to comic book and picture book writing. His weaknesses - as I see it - is his prose. I never got any real atmosphere out of The Graveyard Book. I didn't feel like I was in a graveyard, cavorting with ghosts and gravestones. Same with American Gods. There were pacing issues which I felt threw the story off, and I never really got the sense of two people - gods or otherwise - traveling across the highways of America. It was a lot of wonderful dialogue and colorful characters, but little atmosphere.

I love atmosphere. It's one of my favorite aspects of any story. And when a writer is able to perfectly convey an atmosphere and a tone using nothing expects words on a page, it's a magical thing.

All that is to say, I miss Neil Gaiman the comic book writer. (If anyone is wondering, Sandman Overture has been wonderful, but it's being released at a glacial pace.)

I think it's the artists who are able to convey the atmosphere. It's the artists who are able to find the proper pacing. A good artist can take Neil's stories and characters and dialogue and take them to the next level. They can make them something horrific, something fantastical, something filled with terror and beauty and absurdity. I think mostly of Michael Zulli's pencils in The Wake which just elevated that final storyline into something of profound and intense emotion and beauty and P. Craig Russel's evocation of Baghdad in the Ramadan issue. When you take away their images, you're not just removing the pictures, you're taking away the pace and the atmosphere.

When I found The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, I was excited. "A Tale of Travel and Darkness with Pictures of All Kinds," reads the subtitle. It is a beautiful volume, with a painted cover by Eddie Campbell who I know best as the illustrator of Alan Moore's magnum opus From Hell. I couldn't wait to read it.

It was initially published as a prose piece in an anthology called Stories. I wonder what I would have made of it if I had read it there, if that had been my first encounter with it. It's hard to imagine the story now, without Eddie Campbell's illustrations. They seem like such an integral part of it.

It delivered on all counts. I felt like I was finding Neil Gaiman again for the first time. I hate to even talk about the story at all, as reading through it and watching it unfold was just so pleasurable. It's wonderful. And it's not a children's book. It is one of a growing number of picture books for adults, full of murder and madness and other lovely sundries. I hope there are more books like this to come. I pray to the gods.

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