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Halfway through Neil Gaiman’s disarming fantasy novel, a tattered underworld marquis meets with two otherworldly thugs. The thugs—the small, pretend-tactful one and the huge, brutal one—ask him what he wants. “What does anyone want?” says the marquis airily. “Dead things,” the big beast answers with the utmost seriousness. “Extra teeth.”

That “extra teeth” is vintage Gaiman—a hint at terrors that curdle the blood by mere implication; he’s at his best when manipulating the imagination of his readers. Neverwhere isn’t precisely a genre novel, but its horror aspects avoid genre pitfalls, such as telling the reader when to be scared, or explaining that a character is seeing a sight too awful to bear. When Gaiman is writing strong and smooth, he is that rare thing, a writer with real trust in his readers.

But Gaiman’s relationship to readers is a complicated one. The British author of the Sandman comic-book series (10 volumes in trade paperback) tends to attract not just readers but rabid fanatics—overgrown D&Ders, graphic-novel geeks, Anne Rice’s sloppy seconds—the whole Goth residue, which has turned out to be a surprisingly sticky one. This is an audience with a set of standards both highly arcane and highly exacting, if not exactly high. But once an author has invoked the obscure passwords—or made up better ones—it’s willing to forgive him anything.

At the same time, Gaiman insists he is a writer in the purist sense. While he does write all the dialogue and stories for his comics, has also co-written Good Omens (with Terry Pritchard), and released a volume of gently fantastic short stories, his writing goes flat when there aren’t pictures around to bolster it. Either the graphic work has cramped and colored his ability to tell words-only stories with any complexity, or his talents never reached any deeper than was appropriate for the admittedly brilliant and troubling Sandman series.

Writing for graphic novels isn’t the same as writing for the black-and-white page. Written-word purists like to dismiss comix as the second-rate scribbler’s refuge. It’s true that the form has provided a haven for plenty of lesser lights, but that’s actually one of its blessings: It takes the pressure off the publishing world, traditional haven of the hack, whore, and greedy ghost.

Gaiman has made magic in picture books, often of the literary kind. Sandman is full of chilling or awesome moments conjured from words; one of the best short stories of all time is the independent Episode 4 from the volume Season of Mists, in which a child abandoned in an English boys school is visited by the aimless dead. “Paine,” he tells a dead friend with childish bravery, “I’m…I’m not afraid of dying.” The other kid looks straight down at him, his face in shadow: “You should be.”

But if writing comics has its own dignity and difficulty, it is not an art that can be transliterated directly onto the blank page. Good Omens suffered from a certain glibness that found Gaiman and Pritchard lolling contentedly in their high-concept premise (the end of the world is nigh, and it’s wacky) without bothering to wrest anything from it. Angels and Visitations, a collection of shorts, short-shorts, poetry of sorts, an introduction or so, and scattershot meditations, is similarly facile, while sometimes alarmingly clever.

Laid bare like this, it becomes clear that Gaiman’s style is not entirely literary; it’s visual but not cinematic—too flat to stand on its own, but by its nature—and the nature of his delectable and frightening vagueness—impossible to film. Just right, actually, for the shadowy, malleable form of storytelling that is the graphic novel.

Neverwhere is Gaiman’s first full-length, solo, text-only novel, but it’s like a kaleidoscope of all his previous works: the Sandman series, the books, as well as the one- and two-shots Black Orchid, The Books of Magic, and Death and the High Cost of Living. It’s a blenderful of his pet ideas and favorite tricks and tropes, his prodigious influences and distinctive rhythms. Not a bad thing, but a samey one for interested parties familiar with Gaiman’s oeuvre.

Neverwhere is the London underground, which is both the tube system and a fantasy realm beneath the streets of what those below call “London Above.” Like Sandman’s Dreaming, London Below is intangible and without boundaries; it bleeds into the mortal, waking world here and there, and some souls straddle the borders: Hob Gadling, Mad Hettie, Lyta, and others in Sandman; here, characters named Lear, Iliaster, and Old Bailey live unsatisfactory double lives, or rather two half-lives, in each realm.

The portals between the two worlds are beings, a family of “openers” headed by Lord Portico. When the openers are slaughtered, the surviving eldest daughter, Door, seeks vengeance. Pursued by the stock-character villains mentioned above, Door stumbles into Above and the path of Richard Mayhew, a nice, normal fellow and thus the perfect subject for a fantastic and harrowing sojourn in the netherworld.

Richard is the Central Casting smart-author-as-regular-guy character, and he neither does nor says anything unexpected throughout the story. After caring for the bleeding Door, thus earning the disdain of his bossy, polished fiancée (another uninteresting invention), Richard begins to lose his identity overground. Taxis won’t stop for him, his colleagues don’t recognize him—his identity is melting away. He is meant to exist only in the underworld—a glitch, as the twain aren’t supposed to meet, but our ordinary hero is destined for extraordinary things, as his premonitory dreams show.

Richard’s journey underground borrows wholesale and with impeccable taste—from the Chronicles of Narnia, The Phantom Tollbooth (during one stop, the principals are coolly informed that their task is impossible), the Alice books, and every time Gaiman himself has sent some poor everyman into weirdville, especially The Books of Magic and “A Tale of Two Cities” from World’s End. Richard accompanies the vulnerable, pixieish Door, who has strange opal eyes and an intermittently commanding manner (she’s Underground nobility, after all), and they’re joined by the untrustworthy Marquis de Carabas, a dry-talking, elegant ruin of a gentleman in aristocrat rags, and later by Hunter, a beautiful, enigmatic warrior of legendary prowess.

They travel the Underground via the underground, so there is much silliness and juvenile transposition as they board the dark car at Earl’s Court, which contains the ragbag kingdom of an Underground earl, and cross the daunting Night’s Bridge, which Richard has only known as the swank aboveground Knightsbridge neighborhood. The soulless voice that remonstrates, “Mind the gap,” to careless waiting passengers over the PA must be heeded on the London Below platforms, where it means that the Gap will open imminently and you’ll be eaten by the tentacled thing inside. And at Angel station in Islington, you (well, not you) can meet Islington, an angel.

As with the family of Doors who are doors, Gaiman frequently subverts physical states and their attendant purposes— a trick that owes much to G.K. Chesterton, a particular Gaiman idol. (Chesterton himself had a supporting role in the Sandman chronicle as, significantly, a place, a handsome haven called Fiddler’s Green.) Gaiman likes to manipulate big and little, high and low, thing and idea; in the collection Dream Country, the story “Calliope” ends with an author cursed with a constant flood of story ideas, all promising and all Gaiman: “a city in which streets are paved with time,” he rants. “A man inherits a library card to the library at Alexandria…an old man in Sunderland who owned the universe, and who kept it in a jam jar in the dusty cupboard under his stairs.”

Often the switch is made too glibly to do more than make the reader blink and smile; sometimes it’s cleverly extrapolated in a predictable direction, as in the story “Chivalry,” from Angels and Visitations, which posits a nice old lady who buys the Holy Grail in a thrift shop. Rarely, the trick brings about the elusive magic of rightness; few could argue that some people, whatever their special powers, are indeed others’ doors.

Even if he hadn’t traveled the Underground, Richard was in for emotional enlightenment and a test of strength; he’s the kind of character who exists solely for the purpose of proving himself, a surrogate for the manhood of readers in this weakling’s world (by the end they’re calling him “Warrior”). But the purpose of literature, especially of Gaiman’s fantastic breed, is more than an exercise in substitution and catharsis. It should take readers to worlds—physical or figurative—they can’t imagine. And Neverwhere, with its clever inside-out subway system and long-lineaged grotesques, is just a highly colored version of our own.CP