I have never been to St. John’s Wood. I dare not. I should be afraid of the innumerable night of fir trees, afraid to come upon a blood red cup and the beating of the wings of the Eagle.
–The Napoleon of Notting Hill, G. K. Chesterton

If ever thou gavest hosen or shoon
Then every night and all
Sit thou down and put them on
And Christ receive thy soul

This aye night, this aye night
Every night and all
Fire and fleet and candlelight
And Christ receive thy soul

If ever thou gavest meat or drink
Then every night and all
The fire shall never make thee shrink
And Christ receive thy soul

–The Lyke Wake Dirge (traditional)

These two eerie, disturbingly Christian mini-poems are how NEVERWHERE, one of the great fantasies of the last forty years, begins.

Fantasy, nowadays, has become part of what publishers call genre fiction. When people hear the word they think of Dungeons and Dragons or World of Warcraft; they think of Conan and elf-mages and dwarf warriors and what not.

And that’s ok. I mean I really like that stuff. Especially when it’s good, like Tolkien.

But that’s such a tiny sliver of what fantasy is. Fantasy is anything that takes you into a world different from ours — and without the extrapolation of some kind of scientific or futuristic premise. The Wind In The Willows, Watership Down, Peter Pan, The Golden Key — these are GREAT fantasy novels and they don’t have anything to do with naked barbarian swordsmen and spellcasting wizards (or teenagers). And they typically have a simple beautiful image or idea at their center — out of which the whole story unfolds. What if rabbits could talk? What if a little boy never grew up?

NEVERWHERE’s core image is a map of the London underground, which governs the whole arc of the story. The Underground: the subways, what the locals call the Tube stations. What if all those strangely named stations — Earl’s Court, Blackfriars, Shepherd’s Bush, Piccadilly Circus, Knightsbridge — really MEANT something? What if there were TWO Londons, and in one of them there really are Black Friars at Blackfriars and Shepherds at Shepherd’s Bush (“pray you never meet them,” someone advises halfway through the novel). What if this other London — London Below — was inhabited “by people who fell through the cracks in the world?” And what if some ordinary guy — a loser like you or me — fell into it?

There’s so much to love in this novel. It’s funny, terrifying, heartbreaking, lovely — and it has probably two of the most original villains in the history of Western literature (“Croup and Vandemar: the Old Firm, obstacles obliterated, nuisances eradicated, bothersome limbs removed and tutelary dentistry undertaken.”)

And finally I just haven’t read anything in the last few decades that so perfectly captures the desperate longing for (and terror of) a world just around the corner, through some wardrobe or down a sewer drain, the world on the other side of the mirror, where the Supernatural is real.

This aye night, this aye night
Every night and all
Fire and fleet and candlelight
And Christ receive thy soul