Death and the Monster: The Graveyard and the Dream

Author: Roni Natov (Brooklyn College)

When I was seven, my beloved Uncle Harry died. I didn’t know what to make of my grieving father’s insistence that Uncle Harry had gone to heaven, and so I kept asking, “But did Uncle Harry die?” to which my father kept repeating, “Uncle Harry went to heaven.” Neither of us seemed able to face it, that Uncle Harry had in fact died and that we would never see him again. The never-ness of it sticks in my throat even now.

When my son was about seven and we had had some discussions about death (not for a very, very, very long time would I die), he said that we should have a special sign when I died, so that we’d know we were in touch, something that might mitigate this never-ness.

When my granddaughter was maybe a year old, her Zadie (grandfather) died. I am not sure what she was told, but when she was two or three she said, wistfully, “I don’t think I’ll ever see Zadie again.” Again, the never-ness, and though she was sad, she seemed accepting.

There are many more anecdotes that come to mind—for me, as I am sure for everyone, as we try to deal with this painful, challenging, and mysterious subject. For most of my life I’ve looked to literature to approach feelings evoked by such subjects at one remove—metaphorically, or indirectly through story. I like children’s writer Sophie Masson’s statement that her book about death “came out at white heat.”[1] She affirms that she doesn’t “flinch from pain and sorrow, but […] that it must also be a kind of journey, we need […] a resonance that can perhaps be achieved through the lyrical.”[2] And in her article, “Death in Children’s Literature,” Francelia Butler quotes C. S. Lewis, who claimed that “a children’s story is the best art form for something you have to say.”[3] Butler notes that “[l]ike a parable […] the limpid simplicity of the form makes it easier to see into the depths, even of death.”[4]

Two recent children’s books about death have received acclaim from critics, won several awards each, and have been hailed by children as well. Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book (2008) and Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls (2011) present death in powerful and imaginative ways. They don’t lie to children about the nature of death or smooth it over; neither denies the truth about its brutality for children nor its finality, though both use fantastic elements to help children deal with its strange and unknowable essence. Gaiman’s graveyard world, in which the child hero encounters lively ghost figures, refocuses our attention from the brutal murder of the parents to the strange illumination of the graveyard, as the landscape where the infant survives. The graveyard is a unique and lyrical world, one in which we want to remain. And although the hero must return to the “real” world, he is emboldened by the reversal of life in death, the graveyard in which he is nurtured, so that he can reenter the world in which death, as a part of life, really is final.

Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls presents a hero’s journey through an intra-psychic nightmare figure, the monster of dreams, an embodiment of the child hero’s guilt in the face of his mother’s imminent death. Death here is necessarily excruciatingly painful—losing one’s mother is perhaps the worst thing that can happen to a child. However, here Ness addresses the guilt that often accompanies the child when facing that tragedy with his own desire to live. For an authentic portrayal, Ness could not weaken the horror of the death. But although the monster represents both the pain of loss and guilt, it also offers the power to heal—and the process, internal and psychological, is deeply portrayed by the text and the complex drawings of Jim Kay.


The Graveyard Book

Always working with ideas of freedom—that of childhood and the dark imagination—Neil Gaiman’s Newbery award winning and bestselling children’s novel opens on the darkest, most chilling scene imaginable: the murder of a baby’s entire family. Gaiman writes on a black page in white letters, “There was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife. The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.”[5]

The murderer, called “the man Jack,” wears shoes with “such a shine that they look like dark mirrors: you could see the room reflected in them.”[6] Indeed, the man Jack and his crime reflect the ugliness and corruption of the world. We learn midway through the book that he is part of a group of powerful men—European, African, Indian, Chinese, South American, Filipino, American—from whom the baby survivor of the murdered family has escaped, having fled into the dark pastoral of the graveyard to safety, where he was adopted by ghost-parents and the ghost community. So comforting and engaging are the graveyard characters that, by the middle of the book, and until the “Convocation” of world leaders, we have forgotten about the image of the hand in the darkness and the knife it held. But the return of the black page and the white lettering, which tells the story of the gangsters’ meeting, reminds us that “Every Man Jack” is still searching for the child. And we learn that, rather than there being a single man Jack, there are Jacks everywhere in our society. Gaiman pulls no punches here. Corruption is ancient, traditional, and ongoing, so that although the child will have to claim his place in this real world as every living person does, first he will need the nurturing of the graveyard world—the transformation and flight from the darkness of the living world into the light of the dark pastoral. Here the fantasy world supports this child until he is able to enter the “real” world less painfully, more safely.

In the graveyard community, the child is renamed Nobody, or “Bod” for short. The name suggests a reversal of the everyman hero. In many ways, he is an everyman hero—what he learns and what he experiences reflect the world that all young people will enter. But here, Bod’s no-name name strips him clean of the real world and plunges him into this dark and lovely pastoral, where he remains protected for his early childhood. His no-name name is also a reminder of his mortality: he is the body, vulnerable and subject to death.

The Graveyard Book is also a Bildungsroman, and Bod journeys through unsafe territory, which again reflects the dangers of the world he must learn to recognize. The graveyard world itself contains dangers, manifestations of the powerful leaders of the real world. The child’s task is to protect himself from and prepare himself for the real world. Gaiman locates all the fantasy figures in the corruption of the real world. Like the best of all fantasy, the real world is transformed, though it is never far from the story of Bod’s journey.

The first of these dangers are the ghouls, who disguise themselves as judges, dukes, and bishops: one claims to be the 33rd President of the United States, another Lord Mayor of London, and yet another Emperor of China. One even introduces himself as Victor Hugo. They represent the treachery and pretentions of the “civilized” world. They live in Ghûlheim, a city “like a huge mouth of jutting teeth.”[7] They “slip from shadow to shadow, never seen, never suspected […] fast as thought, cold as frost, hard as nails, dangerous,”[8] and they represent the beginning of Bod’s education, at the heart of which is learning to differentiate the true from the false. During his imprisonment with the ghouls, the sky is “an angry, glowering red, the color of an infected wound,” and, as described later, “the color of bad blood.”[9] There, in Ghûlheim, a “dead sun set, and two moons rose, one huge and pitted […], and a smaller moon, the bluish-green color of the veins of mold in a cheese,”[10] all of which signal disease, nature denatured, and which are in contrast with the green pastoral graveyard, where “bumblebees explored the wildflowers that grew in the corner of the graveyard […where] Bod lay in the spring sunlight watching a bronze-colored beetle wandering across” a gravestone.[11] His meeting with Scarlett, a lonely child from the living, a soulmate, takes place on “a perfect spring day,” “the air […] alive with birdsong and bee hum,” “daffodils bustl[ing] in the breeze,” with “a few early tulips nodd[ing], and a “blue powdering of forget-me-nots and fine, fat yellow primroses” found within the walls of the graveyard.[12] Once Bod is rescued from the ghouls by Miss Lepescu, a lovely werewolf, he looks up and sees a glorious dark pastoral vision, “the Milky Way, see[s] it as if he had never seen it before, a glimmering shroud across the arch of the sky […] filled with stars.”[13] The darkness is described as “gentle,” a good place in which to rest.

The child Bod has the freedom to roam the graveyard as he pleases with the gift to see in the darkness, “like the dead”—a metaphor for the intuitive ability of children, an ability lost to them as they are taught to distrust their hunches and feelings. Bod can “fade from awareness” and “slip through shadows,” and he can make himself invisible—all metaphors for the ways in which the powerless in the world are actually invisible, “dead” to those in power. Furthermore, the way Bod achieves this gift of invisibility is telling. Bod has been taught, unsuccessfully, to “empty [his] mind,” so that he is “an empty alleyway,” “a vacant doorway,” “nothing.”[14] But this ancient advice—offered by Mr. Pennyworth, one of the graveyard community—fails him. Liza, the witch, in her rebellious wisdom, understands why emptying the mind doesn’t work for Bod. “‘It’s because you’re alive […]. There’s stuff as works for us, the dead, who have to fight to be noticed at the best of times.’”[15] What does work is a poetic incantation, something connected with the living, a movement in imaginative practice from the state-of-being verb “be” to the action verbs “slip” and “slide”:

Be hole, be dust, be dream, be wind

Be night, be dark, be wish, be mind,

Now slip, now slide, now move unseen,

Above, beneath, betwixt, between.[16]

This particularly contemplative moment in the book suggests that being heroic does not mean being empty, conforming to past expectations, or charging around to fill a void, but rather being reflective, thoughtful, embodying various aspects of the imagination that will provide movement into the real world. Bod’s quest is to leave his nameless state, to discover his real name.

Gaiman also asserts some very real creative and inspiring aspects of the real world, like the possibility for change. The graveyard creatures, for example, remain fixed as whoever and whatever they were at their deaths. The markings on their gravestones reflect the retrospective gaze afforded the dead, like that of Thomas Pennyworth, whose epitaph reads “here he lyes in the certainty of the most glorious resurrection” but who is still waiting, and Nehemiah Trot, poet, tagged with the epitaph, “Swans Sing Before They Die.”[17] Unlike these dead, however, the living Bod must move towards change and integration of the two worlds.

The evils of the graveyard are explicitly tied to the worldly world and are posited against the graveyard pastoral. Everything lively and loving belongs to the graveyard, with the exception of the child, Scarlett. However, there is no permanent escape from the evils of civilization. Even the graveyard reflects the prejudice of the living social world, like those relegated to the edge of the graveyard, buried in “unconsecrated land”—the criminals, suicides, “those who were not of the faith,” or those who are “‘not our sort of people.’”[18] Like traditional heroes, Bod must go to many corners of experience: the underworld and the earth, to the powerful and the powerless, and to the outcasts. He befriends and is befriended by the witch, whose story harkens back to traditional witch burnings—she has been tested by drowning and burned by her community. As horrible as those crimes are, Gaiman does not romanticize her as simply innocent. When Bod assumes that she did not have magic powers, that she was not in fact a witch, she says, “‘What nonsense. Of course I was a witch,’”[19] and acknowledges that cursing came easily to her, and that she was responsible for having those who drowned and burned her themselves drowned and burned. Still, her description of them burning her body—as she describes it, “‘on the Green until I was nothing but blackened charcoal, and […] popped […] in a hole in the Potter’s Field without so much as a headstone to mark my name” inspires Bod to find a headstone and provide her with a naming marker.[20] And though as a child he is powerless to purchase the costly headstone, he finds a paper weight, on which he carves her initials, “E.H.,” and touchingly adds, “we never don’t forget,” which resounds with the cry from the Holocaust, a testament to all those who have been forgotten by society.

Juxtaposed against the Convocation of the Jacks, the ritual meeting of the criminals, is the book’s central pastoral scene. Here is an inclusive and original tableau, an extraordinary moment in the Old Town’s history where the living and the dead come together in a Danse Macabre. But even this fascinating idyll is imperfect. Gaiman resists the sentimentality of such a harmonic vision. The beauty, the magic of the night, “[w]hen the winter flowers bloom” and “are cut and given out to everybody, man or woman, young or old, rich or poor” excludes Silas, Bod’s guardian.[21] Silas says, “‘you must be alive or you must be dead to dance [the macabre]—and I am neither.’”[22] He is one of the liminal characters who, in this novel, embodies the greatest wisdom, as he represents the knowledge of both worlds. Silas stands above the simplistic reading of dark and light, or good and evil. He has seen and been part of it all. He understands that even the man called Jack is not innately a monster but rather a pawn in the game. Further, there is a silence about the evening, an unspoken taboo against acknowledging this most extraordinary event. The epiphanic vision suggests that the only real sense of democracy is in the form of the Lady on the Grey, the figure of death, the great leveler, who at the end comes for everyone. She is, Gaiman suggests, not to be feared in her “long grey dress that hung and gleamed beneath the December moon like cobwebs in the dew.”[23] Her horse is “gentle enough to bear the mightiest […] away.”[24] And when she leaves, the dead all gone, the town square was “covered with tiny white flowers […] as if there had been a wedding.”[25] Such depictions of the Lady on the Grey, the great leveler, suggest the connection between life and death—that all human rituals, weddings and funerals, are universal and bind the human community together.

After this revelatory experience, Bod begins his entry into the real world: he goes to school and tries to challenge injustice with the school bullies. As much as Bod learns and as hard as he tries, in the end he must accept limitations, his own as a human being along with the world’s imperfections—and they are serious. Bod does learn his birth name, but he asserts that Nobody Owens is, in fact, his real name. He does lose his graveyard powers as he more fully enters the real world, and so too does he lose Scarlett. Silas wisely and sadly tells him, “‘People want to forget the impossible. It makes their world safer.’”[26] Silas has taken Scarlett’s memories so that she will not remember the trauma of the last battle with the Jacks, but Bod will be wiped from her consciousness. The wiping of consciousness of trauma and bad memories, Gaiman suggests, also wipes us clean of the good memories. Although Gaiman’s heroic vision includes the prophecy of a child born who would “walk the borderland between the living and the dead,”[27] and who will destroy the Jacks of power and tradition, the author also suggests that there will always be Jacks of all trades to replace those Bod manages to destroy. Essentially Gaiman urges—and all this is done subtly—that you must believe what you know and have seen to be true, even if the entire world denies its possibility. And you must accept that there will always be evil in the world.

Gaiman’s vision of a real democracy remains only a vision. He leaves us in the world at large, “a bigger place than a little graveyard on a hill,” with “dangers in it and mysteries, […] mistakes to be made and many paths to be walked before,” and he writes, “[Bod] would, finally, return to the graveyard or ride with the Lady on the broad back of her great grey stallion. But between now and then,” he concludes, “there was Life; and Bod walked into it with his eyes and his heart wide open.”[28]

In this novel, the fantastic depiction of death with the humor of the graveyard characters mitigates the horror and loss. Reality is carefully established in the shocking, gruesome opening and softened, but not denied, as it draws to a close.         


A Monster Calls

Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls is a complex and authentic treatment of children’s healing from severe loss, the death of the mother. Its focus is the feeling of guilt that often accompanies loss—or incipient loss. Siobhan Dowd, who is credited with the initial idea for this novel, died of cancer before she could write it. In emails to her editor, Denise Johnstone-Burt, she wrote,

I believe I have quite a lot of quality time left to me […]. The story’s theme is healing. It is really my paeon [sic] to the great, ancient tree, the yew, without which I might not be alive today, as all the Taxol drugs that so successfully treat breast cancers are derived from it. The yew tree is the oldest tree in the United Kingdom […]. The tree is known to be poisonous, especially the red berries on the female variety, but its healing properties were only appreciated in recent decades.[29]

Perhaps the genuine quality of the story derives from the tragic nature of Dowd’s death—that she died before she could write it, and Patrick Ness’s story retains that quality. In an author’s note included in the novel, Ness writes, “Almost before I could help it, Siobhan’s ideas were suggesting new ones to me […]. I felt—and feel—as if I’ve been handed a baton, like a particularly fine writer has given me her story and said, ‘Go. Run with it. Make trouble.’”[30] His guideline: “to write a book […] Siobhan would have liked.” An article in The Lancet Oncology located in its “Cancer and Society” section affirms the authenticity of Ness’s (and Dowd’s) narrative, remarking that the “unconventional story brilliantly addresses rarely acknowledged but extremely difficult feelings faced by children of sick parents, such as self-blame, anger,” and that it is “a stunning and uncompromising work that serves both as a fitting eulogy to Siobhan Dowd’s life and a reassurance to children […] that their feelings are completely normal.”[31]

In this novel, a monster appears to the child Conor, in the form of a nightmare, but one that does not frighten him because, as he says, it is not the nightmare. In the nightmare, the truly terrifying nightmare, Conor is holding onto his mother who is dangling over the edge of a cliff. The central horror is about not only his fear that she will fall, but also, and perhaps even worse, his unacknowledged wish to let her go. Ness describes the nightmare as “[t]he one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming. The one with the hands slipping from his grasp, no matter how hard he tried to hold on. The one that always ended with—.”[32] Conor can’t finish the sequence, so crushing is this desire to rid himself of the horror that he lives with daily, of his denial that his beloved mother is dying—so crushing that he wants it to be over.

The black and white illustrations of Jim Kay figure prominently in this gripping story. The monster “of his dreams” begins as an inkblot, emerges into a giant yew tree, and finally, as Conor gets closer to recognizing the monster as a contorted inner-self, it takes more and more of a human shape. Kay’s illustrations are fascinating and subtle as they morph into drawings of the monster as a comforting figure. When Patrick Ness was asked if he had a clear visual sense of the story before Jim Kay got involved, he replied,

Not a visual sense, no, more of an emotional feeling, kind of a sense of how the spaciousness and the darkness/lightness might go. […] Black and white, shadowy, suggestive. Then the most amazing thing happened, which is that we asked Jim to do a test drawing just to see what he might come up with. He sent back that incredible illustration of the monster leaning into Conor’s bedroom window. That drawing’s never changed and is in the book as I first saw it. He was instantly the obvious choice, and he came up with things I never could have dreamed of.[33]

The operative word here is “suggestive,” as the monster, we come to understand, is a representation of Conor’s guilt. Even the font—the italics in which all the monster’s words appear—marks the singular nature of his words and the state of consciousness he represents. That he does not seem to materialize to anyone else establishes him as a projection. He emerges from Conor’s own unacknowledged actions, most notably when Conor wreaks havoc in his grandmother’s house and brutally attacks the school bully, both of which are presented as the work of the monster. It becomes obvious at that point that it is Conor who has asserted himself in these outbreaks of rage.

Jim Kay claims he preferred “to work starting from a black canvas and pull the light out, which makes for a much darker image. The important thing was to give the reader the room to create their own characters and images in their mind, […] putting suggestions of the Monster and Conor in there to help them along the way; darkness and ambiguity allow the reader to illuminate the scenes internally.”[34] And ambivalence is the dominant emotional state in this novel. It characterizes Conor’s feelings, conscious and unconscious.

The novel chronicles Conor’s journey from denial to acceptance. It begins with his isolation—from his grandmother, his father, and his friends at school, as he retreats deeper and deeper into a dream state. He resists the limited support of his grandmother, whom he doesn’t really like or feel empathic towards, as well as that of his father, who has abandoned him in favor of his new family in America, and that of his friends—particularly his friend Lily, who knows about his mother’s illness and has apparently shared this dark secret with other children. In addition, as is often the case, there is the accompanying shame he feels about the difference between the lives of the other kids at school and his own tragic life, so that he tells no one at school. He seems to tolerate, or even encourage, the harassment by Harry and the school bullies. Unconsciously, Conor seeks the punishment Harry and the others inflict on him because he is guilty—of wishing it were over, of letting her go in his nightmare. Describing his process, Jim Kay has said that he “imagine[s] the story as a moving film or piece of theatre, and [he] start[s] building the props and setting the scenery around the characters.”[35] The story, in this way, seems filmic, with its black-and-white, suggestive scenes of the old yew tree metamorphosing into the monster as a figure of Conor’s internal struggle, portrayed in particular in the several dark double-page spreads that speak the unconscious and the double narrative. These illustrations arrest the time and pace of the main realistic, chronological narrative, which tells the stories of the monster’s appearance as nightmare, of the incidents at school and home, and of the mother’s slipping into death. The visual text resist the linear time-bound nature of the verbal; they are closer to the world of dream and imagination, in which the monster is both tree and human, in which time is frozen still or distorted, layering the text so that it portrays an internal as well as external reality.

Ness also layers the story so that the main narrative moves against three interpolated tales told by the monster. These short, somewhat convoluted, and often shocking tales serve to simultaneously disguise and reveal the main narrative as they mirror Conor’s struggles. The first tale begins in fairy tale time of “long ago” and in the pastoral “green place” where “[t]rees covered every hill and bordered every path.”[36] Characters include the anticipated prince, princess, king, and queen. But “the king was just a king” and when he dies, the prince’s step-grandmother wants to marry him. Conor, understandably moralistic, and in his predictably thirteen-year-old voice says, “‘That’s disgusting! […] She was his grandmother.’”[37] However, that is just the beginning of the unconventional and turned-about events of the stories. Each of the three tales takes two chapters: the first part is a fairly conventional tale; the second part, however—what Ness entitles “The Rest of the [First, Second, or Third] Tale”—reverses our expectations in a shocking turn of events. In the first tale, when it turns out that the [good] prince killed his beloved princess, the monster’s narrative defies all expectations as the prince not only goes unpunished but “rule[s] happily until the end of his long days.”[38] Conor challenges, “’So the good prince was a murderer and the evil queen wasn’t a witch after all? Is that supposed to be the lesson of all this? That I should be nice to her [his grandmother]? […] Who’s the good guy here?’”[39] The monster answers, “‘There is not always a good guy. Nor is there always a bad one. Most people are somewhere in between.’”[40] When Conor insists, “‘That’s a terrible story. And a cheat,’” the monster answers—and here is the real moral—“‘It is a true story […]. Many things that are true feel like a cheat.’”[41] This response indirectly addresses the terrible unfairness of death and illness, which, of course, will cheat Conor of his mom, his closest connection. And to help prepare Conor for the impending devastation, he needs to understand that the world is not fair and reasonable, and that his grandmother, with whom he will be left, has her good and bad points, like “most people.”

The stories get increasingly more realistic, as the second one is located in a specific time, fifty years ago, a time of industrialization, when “[f]actories grew on the landscape like weeds. Trees fell, fields were up-ended, rivers blackened. […] Villages grew into towns, towns into cities. And people began to live on the earth rather than within it. But there was still green, if you knew where to look.”[42] This tale is marked by boundaries between the natural and unnatural, the pastoral and the industrial, and between people whose defining characteristics are selfishness and destruction. Conor is challenged to redefine the protagonist he believes is “evil,” as the monster/tree explains, “He was greedy and rude and bitter, but he was still a healer. […] Belief is half of all healing.”[43] Conor’s mother insists, as she’s dying, that she still believes in the “green things of this world,”[44] which challenges the nature of truthfulness and emphasizes the necessity of believing.

The third story raises the issue of Conor’s “invisibility,” a state he both does and doesn’t want. The monster/tree has taught him that “[s]tories were wild, wild animals and went off in directions you wouldn’t expect” like the imagination, like life.[45] The double-page spread that most subtly and symbolically reimagines the state of Conor’s unconscious is of a rabbit on the left-hand page sitting on a weather vane facing away from the center, where the monster on the right-hand page, now human with twigs growing out of his head and body, sits facing the opposite way, head in hands. The natural and the unnatural are in opposition here, mirroring the isolation and fracture Conor feels, his inability to connect school and home with the world of his imagination and dreams. When the monster first appears, he asks, “’What are you?’” and the monster roars,

I am not a “what,” […] I am a “who.” […] I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! I am the wolf that kills the stag, the hawk that kills the mouse, the spider that kills the fly! I am the stag, the mouse and the fly that are eaten! I am the snake of the world devouring its tail! I am everything untamed and untameable! […] I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.[46]

These images and the incantatory language of poetry connect the dark aspects of life—what is unreasonable, uncivilized, desperate—aspects like his mother’s illness and the unconscious feelings Conor harbors. When such engulfing, overpowering pain inherent in the universe comes to those too young to grasp it, the feelings may be transformed into a narrative or poem, like the language the monster speaks here, held in the imagination and contained. In this book, Ness engages three kinds of language—three different genres—to express different levels of consciousness. The main narrative establishes the story, the characters, and the events in time and place. The interpolated tales, short and didactic, and set in an emblematic past, mix narrative and poetic in their concentrated form.

This last tale most closely mirrors Conor’s state of mind. It is about an invisible man, “‘not that he was actually invisible,’ the monster said. […] ‘It was that people had become used to not seeing him.’”[47] The monster raises the issue of identity, Conor’s need to be acknowledged as a grounded and real self. He says, “‘And if no one sees you, […] are you really there at all?” In the story, the invisible man decides to assert himself. “‘I will make them see me’” he says, which propels Conor to challenge Harry’s taunt, “’I no longer see you,’”[48] until Conor assaults Harry, landing him in the hospital. Ness presents storytelling as increasingly actualizing, forcing Conor into action, even action that he does not recognize as his own. The monster’s stories “‘chase and bite and hunt,’”[49] and though they seem weird, diverting the expected, moral ending, they do tell a necessary truth, one that is difficult to feel or even tell directly.

The fourth story, the monster demands, will be Conor’s to tell. It will coordinate with Conor’s teacher’s request that all students write life stories, something Conor fiercely resists. Conor’s tale, the fourth one, the monster insists, will be the truth and “’Not just any truth. Your truth.’”[50] This is most painful for him, what he has been avoiding, noting,

The hill, the church, the graveyard were all gone, even the sun had disappeared, leaving them in the middle of a cold darkness, one that had followed Conor ever since his mother had first been hospitalized, since […] it felt like, the nightmare had been there, stalking him, surrounding him, cutting him off […]. It felt like he’d never been anywhere else.[51]

Here Conor is forced (and ready) to speak the horror of his nightmare, and to finally let it go. He asserts, “‘I don’t want you to go.’” […] He leaned forward onto her [his mother’s] bed and put his arm around her. Holding her. He knew it would come, and soon […]. The moment she would slip from his grasp, no matter how tightly he held on. […] Conor held tightly onto his mother. And by doing so, he could finally let her go.”[52]

The ending is, naturally, inevitably, terribly sad. When the monster tells Conor that he has come, not to heal his mother, but to heal him, he speaks the excruciating truth—that no one can heal his mother. She will die and soon, but the book addresses, through story and through illustration, the process of healing and the complexity of feelings that emerge from and respond to that most basic and undeniable truth.

In a Washington Post column addressing the question of how to respond to child asking about death, Carolyn Hax advises “that death is an ordinary, natural and often sad part of life,” and “that some people believe you see God and some don’t, some believe in heaven, some don’t, and that no one alive can be sure […].”[53] (143). The meaning she urges is portrayed in the conclusion of The Graveyard Book with Bod’s openness before the world of the living. Though he has left behind the fantasy world of childhood—the graveyard where he was free to roam safely—change, growth, and creativity, Gaiman affirms, are at the heart of living. And Ness leaves his story with release: after his dreamscape journey, Conor comes to a difficult self-acceptance, and the equally difficult acceptance of the imperfection of humanity and of the finality and tragedy of death.


[1] Sophie Masson, “Death in Children’s Books,” Orana 30.4 (1994): 274.

[2] Ibid., 275.

[3] Quoted in Francelia Butler, “Death in Children’s Literature,” Children’s Literature 1.1 (1972): 104.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book, illus. Dave McKean (New York: HarperCollins, 2008), 7.

[6] Ibid., 9.

[7] Ibid., 82.

[8] Ibid., 81.

[9] Ibid., 79, 87.

[10] Ibid., 83.

[11] Ibid., 39.

[12] Ibid, 49-50.

[13] Ibid, 95.

[14] Ibid., 105.

[15] Ibid., 131.

[16] Ibid., 132.

[17] Ibid., 104, 232.

[18] Ibid., 100, 103, 106.

[19] Ibid., 111.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 154.

[22] Ibid., 149.

[23] Ibid., 160.

[24] Ibid., 161.

[25] Ibid., 163.

[26] Ibid., 289.

[27] Ibid., 271.

[28] Ibid., 307.

[29] Quoted in Nicolette Jones, “A Monster Calls: Patrick Ness and Jim Kay Talk about Their Carnegie and Greenaway Wins,” The Telegraph, June 14, 2012,

[30] See Author’s Note in Ness, A Monster Calls, illus. Jim Kay (Somerville, Mass.: Candlewick Press, 2011).

[31] Odhran O’Donoghue, “A Monster Calls,” The Lancet Oncology 13.5 (May 2012): 458.

[32] Ness, A Monster Calls, 1.

[33] Patrick Ness and Jim Kay, “How We Made A Monster Calls,” Guardian, June 14, 2012,

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ness, A Monster Calls, 52.

[37] Ibid., 55.

[38] Ibid., 63.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Ibid., 63-64.

[41] Ibid., 64.

[42] Ibid., 99.

[43] Ibid., 109.

[44] Ibid., 130.

[45] Ibid., 134.

[46] Ibid., 31, 34.

[47] Ibid., 146.

[48] Ibid., 145.

[49] Ibid., 35.

[50] Ibid., 36.

[51] Ibid., 173.

[52] Ibid., 205.