I just finished The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and it did something to me, something I can't quite explain or understand. It was like he knew of some psychological artery and tapped right into it, pumping the story right into every hope, dream, fear and insecurity borne from a childhood of nerdy isolation that I didn't realize I was still carrying around with me decades later.
It wasn't that scary, but it was TERRIFYING. It made my heart pound like almost nothing has in recent memory. It wasn't that skin-crawling, creeped-out feeling from horror movies, it was a visceral horror that was all-consuming at the time but that I don't understand days later. There was nothing fundamentally scary about it, or maybe I have it backwards, maybe it WAS fundamentally scary and I don't recognize that because it's FUNDAMENTAL.
When I was in college, I used to watch crime scene forensics shows because they fascinated me. Then when it came time for 9:00 pm orchestra rehearsal, I'd make a friend walk me across the dark campus to ensure that if I got serial killed, at least I'd have company.
That was scary. This book wasn't scary, this book was terrifying. It embodied all of the terror in being alone, powerless, abused and ignored. When reading, I was that child, had always been and maybe perhaps still was.
How can something that in hindsight was so unrealistic, such an obvious fantasy story have caused a physical reaction like it did? Crap, man, I don't know.
When I was a teenager, I so desperately wanted Avalon to be true. If there were other worlds, other dimensions full of fairies and magic, then I could be from there and that would explain why I was so alone and awkward in this world. I could belong to another place, one far less mundane, where people didn't care about popularity and being well-dressed and social awkwardness, there were far more pressing problems like magic and dragons and vampire space robots to fight off. It would be possible for me to to become far greater, far more wise and immortal than any parent or teacher or adult I had ever met and that would show them!
And then I grew up. Or thought I did. I realized/admitted that things like this just don't exist. They just don't and there's no scientific proof and never will be. There is no magic, there are no other worlds just through the mist. There's no higher power and things like souls and heaven and hell are also untrue, no matter how many times my mother uses those words in sentences. I put my trust and belief in things that are provable and factual. I read Dawkins and Hitchens ravenously.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane made me almost regret all of that. I found myself again wishing, hoping so completely that the fantasy were all true. If I could find a place, so peaceful with the immortal maiden, mother and crone, then I could transcend all of the worries of my life. Careers and the question of having children or not would all fade away when compared to the power of being able to magically repel ancient creatures from long forgotten places and to repair the fabric of the universe with the force of my spirit.
Having the book, and thus myself, leave all of that left me sobbing and confused. How could such a normal ending be so sad, so heart-wrenching and give me such a sense of loss?
This book messed me up for DAYS. I can't recommend it enough, although I do recommend reading it alone so nobody can see what it does to you.
I recently had lunch with a friend of mine from high school. She said the book did the same thing to her, and was beautifully equally unable to articulate it quite right. I just nodded, kept saying "no, I totally get it" and ordered another round of mimosas.
I think my next read will be on stock-trading algorithms, just to provide a counterbalance and to prove that the fantasy I just lived through was all really just a dream.