Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

Before my sons were banned from the library, I always took a moment to peruse the giant poster of Newbery Award winners. Some titles fascinated me, like the 1949 winner King of the WindSome titles I knew and loved, like the 1972 winner Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMHAnd then, I found some I wanted to read for myself, here in the now, like 2009’s winner The Graveyard Book. The coolest achievement in this particular work by Neil Gaiman isn’t in the premise of ghosts raising a living child, or the humor, or the ability to maintain taut pacing while still covering thirteen years (These are, for the record, cool achievements, just not as cool.). No, the real brilliant element comes from the villain(s). Gaiman took something old and often overlooked in current society and transformed it into pure menace.

51tAOAlaH7L._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_What could it be? I’m talking about a single, mono-syllabic name:

Jack.

No, not Jack Nicholson, freaky as that guy can be.

It all begins with a single phrase, one rooted in Elizabethan English (according to Wikipedia, anyway): Jack of All Trades.

We’ve all heard that phrase. Sometimes it’s paired with “master of none.” It’s not a very nice phrase, depending on the connotation. Gaiman takes hold of the phrase and pulls it up by the root, tracking every dirty, worm-entwined tendril to other Jacks polite society endeavors to avoid by crossing the street, turning up its nose, rolling its eyes, anything it can do to not see these Jacks:

Jack Frost.

Jack Ketch.

Jack Dandy.

Jack Nimble.

Jack Tar.

Gaiman gathers up these weeds of forgotten history, lore, and song. He plants them in his own story, and lets them twist, strangle, and meld with the other tender shoots finding their place in his earth. Gone is the mocking tone, the condescension. One can never look down on Jacks of all Trades such as these:

The white-haired man took another step closer to the grave. “Hush, Jack Tar. All right. An answer for an answer. We–my friends and I–are members of a fraternal organization, known as the Jacks of All Trades, or the Knaves, or by other names. We go back an extremely long way. We know…we remember things that most people have forgotten. The Old Knowledge.”

Bod said, “Magic. You know a little magic.”

The man nodded agreeably. “If you want to call it that. But it is a very specific sort of magic. There’s a magic you take from death. Something leaves the world, something else comes into it.” (270)

So are all these Jacks parading about in the entire novel, flaunting their evilness and wicked magic? After all, the first sentence of the book is:

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There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife. (2)

This is how readers meet “the man Jack.” He has just finished killing Nobody (Bod) Owens’ family, and is now on his way to killing baby Bod. I’m not sure if there is a more obvious flaunting of evil than watching a man eager to kill a baby.

But flaunting often hides a deeper motive, doesn’t it? Take “the man Jack.” We may read of him cleaning his knife and leaving a bedroom with a dead child in it and think monster and that there’s all there is. He’s just a bogey man who needs to be stopped. But Gaiman makes it very clear we are dealing with a man. Because we do not yet know of the Jacks of all Trades, the “the” is a brilliant little misdirect, too: we think this man acts alone until the chapter’s ending, where we find out he is working under orders.

In the little town at the bottom of the hill the man Jack was getting increasingly angry. The night had been one that he had been looking forward to for so long, the culmination of months–of years–of work.

The man Jack was methodical, and he began to plan his next move–the calls he would need to pay on certain of the townsfolk, people who would be his eyes and ears in the town:

He did not need to tell the Convocation he had failed.

Anyway, he told himself, edging under a shopfront as the morning rain came down like tears, he had not failed. Not yet. Not for years to come. There was plenty of time. (32)

This man’s a planner, and he answers to someone, someone who wanted Bod and his family dead for reasons unknown.

Who holds these reasons? At the halfway point of the novel we meet “The Convocation.” Our fellow “the man Jack” is there, but we also meet some other Jacks, like Mr. Dandy.

“I still have time, Mister Dandy,” the man Jack began, but the silver-haired man cut him off, stabbing a large pink finger in his direction.

“You had time. Now you just have a deadline. Now, you’ve got to get smart. We can’t cut you any slack, not any more. Sick of waiting, we are, every man Jack of us.” (169)

Once again, Gaiman takes a common phrase people would use offhandedly, in this case one that would show a sense of unity, and thrusts it into darkness. If all these men share the same name, then they share the same skills, too. The same nature. The same need: to kill Nobody Owens. It’s the reader’s first glimpse on just how large a scale the threat to Bod is, and how many hands move to act upon it…with knives.

Surely there can’t be a way for readers to connect with villains such as these.

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But Gaiman knows what he’s doing (because of course he does). These Jacks have been blending in with society for centuries. It’s part of their power: to be overlooked and unassuming (save for Jack Nicholson). Since Gaiman has been writing with third person omniscient, he takes advantage of a second-string character from early in Bod’s life and has her return in Chapter 7. Her ignorance is the perfect tool for Gaiman to bring blind eyes to the graveyard. Her point of view couldn’t possibly see anything more than an older man making rubbings of gravestones…

His hair was thinning, and he smiled hesitantly and blinked at her through small, round glasses which made him look a little like a friendly owl.

Mr. Um said his name was Frost, but she should call him Jay… (221, 225)

This man, Mr. Frost (AHEM), is extremely kind to the girl. He takes her out to eat, assists her with work, and even helps her open up about her parents’ divorce. He’s fatherly and kind, something Scarlett has been missing dearly. What reader can’t sympathize with a young girl who just wants a father back in her life? His goodness inspires much talk with Scarlett’s mother, too…

“You know, Scarlett actually used to play in the graveyard when she was little. This is, oh, ten years ago. She had an imaginary friend, too. A little boy called Nobody.”

A smile twitched at the corner of Mr. Frost’s lips. “A ghostie?” (226)

Mr. Frost knows exactly who Scarlett found in the graveyard. But not once does he betray his true intent, not even when Scarlett gets Bod out of the graveyard to meet Mr. Frost:

Scarlett had worried that Mr. Frost would ask Bod lots of questions, but he didn’t. He just seemed excited, as if he had identified the gravestone of someone famous and desperately wanted to tell the world. He kept moving impatiently in his chair, as if he had something enormous to impart to them and not blurting it out immediately was a physical strain. (252)

As far as Scarlett and Bod are concerned, this man is a mentor, a helper. His demeanor and his actions all relay as such. Only when Bod and Mr. Frost are alone does Mr. Frost thaw…or freeze. Whatever, the guy changes.

“We know he has dark hair,” said Bod, in the room that had once been his bedroom. “And we know that his name is Jack.”

Mr. Frost put his hand down into the empty space where the floorboard had been. “It’s been almost thirteen years,” he said. “And hair gets thin and goes gray, in thirteen years. But yes, that’s right. It’s Jack.”

He straightened up. The hand that had been in the hole in the floor was holding a large, sharp knife.

“Now,” said the man Jack. “Now, boy. Time to finish this.”

Bod stared at him. It was as if Mr Frost had been a coat or a hat the man had been wearing, that he had now discarded. The affable exterior had gone. (255)

What a transformation! I love how Gaiman describes it as a piece of clothing easily removed. On the one hand, we’d consider a coat or hat a rather ridiculous disguise, wouldn’t we? But that’s because such disguises are strictly external. There’s no hiding what’s beneath the coat.

With Jack Frost, the disguise is internal. By transforming his manners and personality, his entire exterior develops that “friendly owl” look that disarms Scarlett so completely.

Bod threw himself down the stairs…in his rush to reach Scarlett….

“Him! Frost. He’s Jack. He tried to kill me!”

bang! from above as the man Jack kicked at the door.

“But.” Scarlett tried to make sense of what she was hearing, “But he’s nice.” (256)

Readers met “the man Jack” when he was in control; when his target toddled away from him, he maintained that control. Yet there’s something about this final face-off between Jack Frost and Bod that gets me thinking.

What Scarlett saw was not what Bod saw. She did not see the Sleer, and that was a mercy. She saw the man Jack, though. She saw the fear on his face, which made him look like Mr. Frost had once looked. In his terror he was once more the nice man who had driven her home. (284-5)

“The man Jack” is running out of time. He needs to find Bod, and he is in that graveyard trying to figure out how he lost the boy’s trail so many years ago. He, this killer, is afraid of failure, and uses that internal fear to penetrate his exterior and become a disguise that fools the common individual. When the Sleer takes him, fear takes him, too.

Villains are more than silent feet and knives. They want. They need. They fear. But all of this, the feeling and motivation and all the rest, must stem from somewhere. Perhaps you plant the seed in a favorite urban legend of the community, or in a beloved song of your church. Or perhaps you walk further back, off to those forgotten corners of your world, where the childish things have grown wiry and wild with time. There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.

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46 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Neil Gaiman: Take the Commonplace & Turn It Villainous.

    • Thank you, and thank you! Gosh, isn’t it nice to have this working again? For some reason–Lord knows how–you and Dyane were suddenly labeled as spam. I contacted WordPress help and they pointed it out to me. I’m glad they fixed it, because this was happening to me on other blogs, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. ‘There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark’. As a line goes, they don’t get much better than this concluding line. With regard to ‘villains’ and the world ‘their’ domiciled within, there is a book to be written. So very, almost deliciously, dark. Nice one Ms Lee.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I have to say, that final line, ‘There’s no telling what knowledge their roots sip in the dark.’ is a very fine hook line indeed.One of those, “I wish I’d come up with that”
    I have just checked the stock/shelves at the library where I work. It says we have it. I shall look out for this book on Monday. Has a completely different cover here -probably down to being on its upteenth edition.
    Yep,,,love that line. Hope you’re going to use it again, some day 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Honestly? I was afraid that last line would be considered super-cheesy.
      Do let me know what you think of the book. It’s so well done, and I love it’s yet another fantasy for younger folk where Gaiman, like Diana Wynne Jones, doesn’t bother explaining everything or answering all questions.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Now you’ve made him all the more appealing. Not answering all questions or explaining everything means it’s multi faceted, multi layered, not patronising. It’s something that grown-ups can appreciate and enjoy and the young can interpret, research or make their own mind up. To me it means you can come back to it again and again, enjoy what you’ve learned but also, sometimes, find something new. I think all the best writers have this style, so that the book becomes allegorical or philosophical or holds a parable somewhere, ‘message’ is not the right word. Message suggests a a finite directive. But this other style of writing is often deeper. I will look out for it.
        And no, definitely not super cheesy. Not one bit x

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aw, shucks. 🙂
        But yes, do look! And if you also have the chance, do look up Diana Wynne Jones’ essay collection called Reflections on the Magic of Writing. She also talks about the bizarre irony of having to spell everything out for adults while children happily accept questions unanswered. I think you’d enjoy her sense of humor as well as the passion in which she shares her upbringing. Her childhood is one of the biggest reasons I attached so deeply to her.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I shall. And I did cast an eye over Diana Wynne Jones after you mentioned her (Goodreads, Amazon, Wikipedia), and I’ve placed her on my list to study in greater depth sometime.
    I completely forgot that this Monday is a National public holiday here, plus, that I will be away for most of the week(how could I forget? For good reason, I reply), but I will certainly look out for Neil Gaiman on my return.
    The good reason: I’m off to York Festival of Writing (Northeast England) in September to pitch my novel to three agents (testing the waters), as well as partake in some excellent workshops on writing and meet industry people and fellow writers. However, my dear half has planned this quick trip next week – no laptop allowed- and of course, my heart is buried in my book 😦 though I know the break will be good 🙂 What a dichotomy of emotions!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Oh how wonderful! I’m happily jealous and excited for you. I was just looking into a few writing workshops in my state; alas, they’re out of my price range, but some day…I hope you’ll let me–well, all your readers, but yeah, me, I’m selfish–how everything goes!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Feeling very overwhelmed with what I still have to do. Work, domestics and family life – as we all know-takes precious time away. And I will mention it closer to the time on my site- I think once I have sent my first three chapters (or first 10k )to the three chosen agents by 21 Aug deadline and prior to the festival weekend in Sept when I should have the whole MS together- eek! I will probably say a little more. Thanks for your good wishes, yes, I will most definitely fill you in.:)

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jean, this was a difficult post for me. I had to ‘creatively skim’ your amazing writing, because from the first paragraph I decided that I WANT to read this book, and needed to avoid spoilers- you’re too good at selling a story :). Unfortunately I can’t return to the library until we discover just where “Georgia: The Guinea Pig Fairy” has gone to (Sigh. I WISH I were making that up…) so that I can return her to her rightful home and not have to buy the library a new copy…
    So. For now I will just have to savor that last paragraph- WOW. “…childish corners of your world where things have gone wiry and wild with time.” You can turn a phrase, my dear!

    Liked by 2 people

    • 🙂 Thank you, Dearest Friend 🙂
      And you know, of all the insanity we’ve had with libraries (ahem) I’m amazed we’ve only lost one book, a Curious George picture book. we did find it, like, two months after it was due, so they could have just bought themselves a new one with that money, but we DID find it–wedged in Bo’s bible of all places!
      So, did the book get kinda shuffled inside of another book? That kind of search has saved our patoots a few more times since then. 😉

      Like

      • Good idea! And a babysitter recently organized our books for us—lovely thought but now who knows what’s where…Of course the school library has some of these fairy stories too so it may have gotten stuffed in the backpack and sent there and then who knows… ah, my exciting and mysterious life 😉 Anywho, thanks for a nifty sounding recommendation!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. “Before my sons were banned from the library,” is one of the most intriguing lines I’ve read since “It was a dark and stormy night.”

    I can’t help but relate to that line with every fiber of my groggy being, although (as you know) my situation is totally different.

    A refresher: I face major challenges with one of my children. I know I’m lucky it’s “just” one child, and her out-of-control (that’s putting it very, very, verrrrrrrryyyyyyy mildly) behavior only happens when we’re at home. The outbursts have happened almost every day and they have worn me down. Craig too.

    Yes, she’s in therapy. But that’s not a panacea, unfortunately. Sigh. We haven’t considered meds yet and that must be an absolute last resort.

    Her outbursts have improved a little bit, although yesterday it was back to square one.
    Meanwhile, other worrisome issues are going on. It’s not bipolar; her symptoms match the DSM-5’s “Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) 100%”

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_mood_dysregulation_disorder

    You know me – I digress anytime I open up my laptop and open the WordPress Reader.
    Back to the actual topic of your post. Well, I’m attempting to veer back! 😜

    There has never been any doubt before, but this post further confirms how brilliant YOU are as a writer and as an observer of any genre….all writers would be incredibly lucky for you to take a gander at his/her work and write about it!

    Don’t ask where this thought came from, but I had to share it:

    I’d pay $100 to see you and Madeleine L’Engle shoot the breeze about theology for an hour.🙏

    I’m sorry you had a rotten day on the 25th (I scanned the comments and I spotted that) and I hope things are much better today.

    My day is meh so far, for I’ve only had one cup of java, and I’m hurting, my friend.

    Must. have. more. jolts. of. Peet’s! ☕️

    I adore you! 💞

    Please come visit here someday!👍

    Okey dokey, coffee pot, here I come:
    ☕️☕️☕️

    Sending you giant hugs & please forgive my uber-long, “uber-digressy” digression today,
    SpyDy👀

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh to come by you someday! We’ll make it happen somehow!

      Oh yes, you’ve told me about your daughter. The boys…oy. It seems to be more Bash than both of them, but when the two are both eternally nasty and/or angry I’m just exhausted. I mean, the week I wrote this Bash drove me to tears for days over his actions, be it throwing stuff at me or trying to break stuff or running in front of a car barreling down the street and so on. It seems Biff is less prone to this level of horrid, but on his own his temper gets nasty over really dumb things, like me using the wrong kind of jelly on his sandwich. I’m really hoping that these guys can meet their new 4K teachers this month rather than in August so we can take time building up a relationship with them. They’ll be in separate classes, too, so at least the teachers won’t have these two winding each other up (that happened in 3K)
      Oh! Because I know you were curious before: Biff is pooping in the potty at last! It’s only been a couple of times, and the first time was me literally holding him down on the training potty so he couldn’t run and hide, but he did it! And today he did it WILLINGLY. So, progress there!

      Oh gosh, you’d be buying a ticket to watch me spill tea on myself and garble half-sentences about her awesomeness. Thought that might still be entertaining. 😉

      Now more hugs to you, and God-willing I get to catch up on YOUR blog today. Or tomorrow. I never know with Bath Night. 😉

      but all the love I’ve got is coming across the Mississippi and Great Plains to you, O Splendiferous Lady of the Bean SpyDy! xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx The Ever-Exhausted Java Jean 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello my darling I didn’t even know he wrote this comment until just now I’m so glad I came across it I’m talking into my phone like a fool while I walk Lucy bit I just wanted to thank you for all of this I adore you so and I’m glad deaf is pooping in the toilet I hear you on the exhaustion scuse the stream-of-consciousness mono sentence!!! Xoxo

        Liked by 1 person

      • LOLOLOLOL! Oh, this made my morning! You totally sound like me in everyday conversation, where my periods are nonexistent and tangents are guaranteed to take me from A to Q to 75 to & to B. 😛

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Oh no, my lovely.

    I wrote a long, kind-of-weird, very off-topic comment here, but for some reason, it didn’t post!!!
    I forgot what I wrote, but whatever it was, I was a little worried it might be too much.
    The LAST thing I’d want to do would be to offend my amazing coffee-filled friend.
    Please accept my apologies for it not going through. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise???? I’m off to catch up and read your latest post & I promise not to write anything too weird!!!!!
    XOXOXOX
    SpyDy

    Liked by 1 person

    • No no no, Dyane, you’re fine. For some bizarre reason WordPress went wonky with you and Shey’s responses on my blog and labeled them spam. That happened to me on some other blogs, too, but I think it’s finally fixed! WHEW! 🙂 xxxxxxx

      Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, shucks, thank you! 🙂
      Yes, I still feel woefully behind with NG, but what I’ve read so far I’ve loved. It’s hard to get into certain books of his, though, but that’s not his fault. AMERICAN GODS, in particular, is one I’d like to read, but I just can’t bring myself to pick it up because of all the insane hype about its television show. I’m glad it’s great and all, but hearing all this “THIS IS WONDERFUL YOU MUST LOVE IT” nonsense I’d rather just not approach it until people are done slobbering on and on about it. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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