Wolves in the Walls

by Neil Gaiman

Illustrated by Dave McKean


56 pages, 2003

Buy it online






The Walls Have Ears

Reviewed by Iain Emsley


In recent years, we have seen the growth of children's fantasy, the increasing debates about its purpose (if any) and also the internal debates with literary ancestors, particularly in the case of Philip Pullman's attacks on CS Lewis' Narnia which have seen a firm attempt at rebuttal in GP Taylor's Shadowmancer. Yet modern children's fantasy has taken a broadly similar line in its form, namely the use of secondary worlds.

Throughout his career, Neil Gaiman has demonstrated himself as a superb teller of tales, unconcerned about crossing supposed boundaries in his graphic novels and earlier writings. In interviews he has stated that he is more concerned with the development of a story rather than worrying about what conventions it needs, following the idea that genres are only guidelines not rules, as shown in American Gods where he casually drops short stories into the main novel, so reinforcing the narrative flow. He is also brilliant at reusing forgotten forms, such as the fairy tale in Stardust or reflecting upon what traditional children's literature is in Coraline. He shows himself to be a literary archaeologist and a supreme experimenter in form in his most recent book, Wolves in the Walls. He and Dave McKean have created a melange of nonsense and cautionary tales, where there is precious little moralizing but a real sense of a truth being portrayed and worked out in a humorous fashion. There is a sense of humor and joy that pervades the book as well as redeveloping other forms and modes.

The idea for Wolves in the Walls came from a nightmare that Gaiman's youngest daughter, Maddy, had where she could hear the wolves scrabbling around in the wall and she related this to her father. This was followed by her father telling her several tales where they were caught by the wolves but managed to escape, this enabling Maddy to cope with the terror initiated by the nightmare. After several false starts, Gaiman finally created the current book in tandem with Dave McKean. Through the novel, Gaiman alludes to the cautionary tale of the little boy who cried wolf with Lucy's repeated warnings about the wolves. Even the adults mention that this bodes ill for them but they fail to heed the warning. Lucy takes the consequences of this ignorance at face value and so turns the tables on the wolves but the ending is still open. The motive for taking action is uniquely childlike: it is the need to rescue her favorite bedtime toy that motivates Lucy to retake the house for the family, whereas the parents are considering moving to new pastures.

Acknowledging Lewis Carroll as an influence, Gaiman uses the nonsense tradition in his illustrated books, drawing from the absurdities in wonderland rather than the use of a secondary world. Gaiman and Dave McKean renew nonsense for an audience seemingly unfamiliar with the mode through the close mixture of words and images. Since the 1950s, secondary worlds in the vein of Tolkien and Lewis have dominated children's fantasy but Gaiman has created a wonderful story which draws from traditional nonsense in the vein of Lear and Lewis Carroll.

Dave McKean, Gaiman's long time collaborator in a multitude of projects, has illustrated the book and the words and images work to counterbalance each other, bringing different aspects to life in the story in the best tradition of illustrated novels, such as Tenniels or Peakes illustrations in Alice in Wonderland. McKean's illustrations develop the mood of the novel, moving from intensely fun and carnivalesque to the glowering and stormy, reacting with Gaiman's prose with the ease that comes from their long term creative relationship. Rather than making up portmanteau words like Edward Lear or Lewis Carroll, they create a nonsense that works with both text and image, such as the charming view of the wolves sliding down the banisters wearing the family's clothes or the images of ice cream and buns strewn all over the page when the wolves are finally evicted. In this way, they further delight the reader whilst removing the seriousness of the book, allowing it to be read as a harmless entertainment or a subversion of the idea of parental omniscience.

There is also a touch of the cautionary tale in Wolves in the Walls. Cautionary tales often work by repetition about the terrible fate that awaits the disobedient child, an often overstated accident or lingering death, they are not strictly didactic in terms of exhorting the reader towards a Christian life but they do center around the child not taking heed of warnings. Although not strictly fantasy, they do draw from the nonsense tradition of Edward Lear to highlight a sensible point in a humorous fashion that is accessible to children but safe for adults.

In Coraline, Gaiman and McKean revisited this restoration of the family theme with the abduction of Coraline's family by her other mother and so she has to visit the otherworld to rescue them, in the meanwhile liberating the three other spirits held in the marbles. These tales only begin when the central child is ignored by the parental figures. The father is swapped because he is ignoring the child to read his paper and Coraline is set a series of nonsensical tasks to keep her out of her parent's way while they work.

In Wolves in the Wall, Lucy continually warns her parents and brother of what is happening but she is silenced and ignored, leading to the tragedy which she alone can save them from. The central child is commonly pushed to the side of the family but, in contrast to most children's fantasy, Lucy and Coraline work to restore the family's fortunes and coherence in each book but do not warn them of the ensuing trouble. This novel is about the lack of communication between the various family members, a sub-theme of Coraline as well.

The reader knows that these stories are nonsense but cannot help empathizing with Lucy, Coraline or the unnamed narrator. With Lucy, the reader hears the hatching plots as the wolves prepare to come from their hiding places and we see the mayhem that they cause with their party and general naughtiness, but we know (as do the adults) that wolves cannot live in the walls. Pullman and Rowling have utilized alternate worlds to reflect upon our realities, Gaiman has gone back to the beginning of identifiable children's fantasy, in particular Lewis Carroll, to create a world which is recognizable to children. In Coraline, he took Alice in Wonderland and recreated it in his own image, mixing it with Narnia and HP Lovecraft, thus ensuring that it would be read as a modern work. Wolves in the Walls takes the nonsense aspect of Wonderland and develops it with talking puppets and the party that the wolves have. Whereas Carroll took general foibles of society and played with them, Gaiman looks at the closer home life and pulls out the slightly more ridiculous aspects. As in other children's fantasy novels, the parents are removed from the central role but neatly, this plot (and their previous children's novels) involves the child going on a hunt to re-situate them in the house, to recreate the family status quo. The quest is not one where the child needs to recreate her own world but to ensure that the family is reconstituted. In many ways, we can see how the authors see their own families and the paternal role through the recent books which have been marketed towards the children's market. The father has moved closer to the family as the books have gone on.

In Coraline, Gaiman reflects upon his own childhood reading, especially Alice and Narnia. When Coraline goes through the door into the other house, she is taking the journey through the common device of the portal into the other world (a clear homage to CS Lewis' Narnia). In Coraline, this is the connecting door that during the day has a wall behind it. This is a common way of traveling between worlds because it is at once a natural object but it can clearly go both ways an allow for easy return. It also anchors the portal into the real world and makes it realistic for the reader. Once Coraline goes into the other house, Gaiman delivers a clear homage to Through the Looking Glass via its use of the game motif (in Through the Looking Glass, Alice is caught in a giant game of chess, whereas Coraline becomes involved in a game of hide and seek) and the conceit of mirrors. Coraline's parents are literally trapped in the mirrors and so she has to go behind the mirrors, through the portal to a world which mirrors the real world but is subtly different. The other parents are happy to give her anything that she desires but she cannot explore very far, as she discovers when she goes into the garden and finds herself caught in the mist because, as the cat mentions, the parents have not got around to creating it yet. As Alice grows up when she moves through the portals, so does Coraline. Pushing against these boundaries, Coraline comes into contact with three spirits who call for her help. During the ensuing hunt, Coraline is offered anything that she wants but she declines saying that she doesn't want everything as this would get boring. It is at this point that Gaiman takes issue with his influences in late 19th-century and CS Lewis. Whereas Carroll and Lewis have a moralizing tone to their writing, Coraline has no moral tone. She grows and has moments of wisdom but she comes through at the conclusion as still being the same child that she was. What also comes through is that the cult of the childhood has changed subtly in to the cult of the family. The emphasis is not on the child or the child fixation but on the family and restoring the family.

Gaiman shows that he can ably utilize form and mode to an extent rarely seen. Wolves in the Walls is a short book, coming in at barely 2000 words, but it should not be taken as slight. The prose is deliciously entertaining, creeping and crumpling along with the imagery whereas Coraline's flat prose masks the danger that the title character is heading towards. The tales are aware of their forebears but manage to develop their own voices and styles while exploring the conventions of structures and themes.

Wolves in the Walls and Coraline are clever exceptions to the majority of children's fantasy in that they deal with the basics, rather than dealing with the immense issues of His Dark Materials or the social absurdities in Alice in Wonderland. In the current rash of children's writing, Gaiman and McKean have successfully resurrected the nonsense form and recreated it for a modern audience. They have taken what had seemed to be a forgotten part of the children's literary heritage and remade it in their own image, capable of carrying a modern story with its own considerable weight. In the vibrant world of children's fiction, Neil Gaiman has clearly shown that there is still room for experimentation and different ways of telling a story. He has effectively remade his own guidelines for telling a story rather than following any genre rules. | October 2003


Iain Emsley is a freelance contributor to a variety of publications such as SFRevu.com, Third Alternative, Time Out London and The Guardian. He is also a bookseller in London.