Sunday, July 19, 2020

The Wolves in the Walls (2003)

'These are the days of miracle and wonders
This is the long-distance call.
The way camera follows us in slow-mo,
The way we look to us all - Paul Simon, The Boy in the Bubble.

Where do fairy tales come from?  It a question that takes a certain frame of mind to even bother asking.  By and large, most of us never bother with such a thought.  One doesn't have to be at or near the years of the cradle in order to have such curiosity, yet it does take a certain frame of mind.  The fairy tale itself is, without doubt, perhaps the closest we will ever get to defining the oldest possible form of storytelling.  The question of defining the term is never easy.  It's made all the more difficult by the fact that the fairy tale itself has existed under several different names, and has been able to encompass more than one genre form in its history.  At the beginning of things (or at least as close as anyone has been able to get) they were often described as myths.  It's a phrase whose usage can be attested to even in the writings of ancient philosophers like Plato or Aristotle.  Later, when there began to be enough odd souls left around for an actual analytical curiosity to develop about the subject, all the myths were slowly compiled together over the ages.  When enough tall tales of gods, immortals, heroes, and otherworldly creatures had been gathered together from several cultures, these curious readers made several interesting discoveries.

The first was that all the differing cultures of the world had their myths.  The second was the unaccountable fact that so many myths, told by differing storytellers who never had the opportunity to meet one another, somehow managed to craft different fables with a surprising amount of narrative similarities.  Why this should be is a puzzle that no one bothers about very much, except for a similar small handful, to this very day.  The upshot, however, is that once all the tales had been compiled, the term folklore was used to designate them.  This stems from the fact that there was a time when storytelling was a common thing done by an actual majority of the folk of any given culture.  It was the mythology they used to explain who they were, what they were, and the meaning of their own lives.  The fact that the average person on the street would be surprised such things were even possible once upon a time says a lot about how much things have changed.

The best answer to the question of where do fairy tales come from is also the simplest.  The imagination put them there.  It's accurate so far as it goes, yet it doesn't even begin to scratch the surface of the topic.  It takes more than just a single article on a blog to answer that question.  All I can do is to take the problem one story at a time.  I do know that one, if not the only reason fairy tales came into existence was as an explanation for or a way of coping with a sense of threat.  Many of the first folktales originated in primitive hunter-gathering cultures in a time when everyone lived in the forest, and we lived almost nowhere else, because in a sense, there was no other place to go.  It was you, the world around you, and the  animals and fellow inhabitants you had to share it all with.  There wasn't even such a thing as Broadband, difficult as it is to conceive now.  Living with animals is really just another way of saying living with predators.  Part of the reason so many tales originated around a campfire is because it was one of the easiest ways of our ancestors to guarantee at least a small amount of safety for themselves in the watches of the night, when the eyes began to peer out of trees and thickets.

The animals of the woods would be drawn to the fire just like moths.  The  fireflies were the only ones daring enough to come right up to the flames, however.  The rest had an instinctive realization of fire, and the kind of damage it could do, and so kept a wary distance.  It didn't make the hunger, and therefore the threat, go away though.  Perhaps that's one of the reasons the more industrious of those ages soon began to contemplate an idea that eventually became indoor housing.  It might have solved a few concerns and safety issues.  However it was still a long time before the wolves no longer lingered at the door, clawing, scratching, and waiting for a chance, or a weak spot to get in.  I mention all this because in some ways it is those same primitive concerns that form at least one aspect of the title under discussion here today.

Neil Gaiman is still no stranger to the world of pop-culture as of this writing.  At the time the current book was written, he had already made a name for himself with such titles as The Sandman, Neverwhere, and American Gods.  At some point during all of that, he manged to become the father of a family.  He'd married into an American household, and his wife Mary still had relations she was very fond of and close to.  That meant sooner or later, Gaiman would have to knuckle under and move out to the States in order for her to be close to the people she loved.  The place Gaiman settled his family down was way out in the the near-wilderness of Minnesota.  It was this move to a new home that first brought the Wolves to Gaiman's attention.  He talked about it at some length to Hayley Campbell in her book about the author.

"We were living in a house that definitely had things in the walls.  I live in that house now, but lots of rebuilding has happened and the inside and the outside are a little more discrete, but back then there were bats in the walls, possibly rats in the walls, definitely mice in the walls.  And you would hear them.  They would scritch and they would scratch (250)".  There's a minor yet puzzling gap in the recollection here.  The good news is it can be filled in with the help of Hank Wagner's and Christopher Golden's brief account of the storybook's creation in their multi-part study, Prince of Stories.  According to Wagner and Golden, the whole thing got started by "Neil and Mary Gaiman's younger daughter Maddy, whose nightmares about hearing...scratching...within their home's walls inspired this book (355)".  It's from here that Gaiman is able to fill in the rest of the narrative.

"I went upstairs and heard crying coming from the bedroom.  And at that time (Maddy) was still sharing a bedroom with me and Mary.  She had her own little bed down in the corner of it, but she was asleep in my bed.  And she woke up.  She was crying.  I said "What's wrong?"  She said, "The wolves came out of the walls, they took over the house!  I had to run away from them!"  I said, "It's okay, it was just a dream."  She said, "It wasn't a dream.  I can prove it."  And I said, "How will prove it?"  She said, "I can show you the place in the wallpaper they came out from."  So she showed me the place in the wallpaper they came out from.

"Over the next few days she was still deeply worried about the wolves in the walls.  And I would tell her little stories in which she and I would take on the wolves in the walls, and we would win once they came out of the house.  They were definitely wolf-battling stories.  After a while she stopped worrying that the wolves were going to come out of the walls and I thought, "This is such a story.  This is so awesome (250)".  Gaiman had already published a previous illustrated book for young readers with longtime collaborator Dave Mckean when his daughter gave him the inspiration for a follow-up.

Campbell continues: "The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish had come out the previous year, so Gaiman was now a writer of children's books, and he sat down to write what would become The Wolves in the Walls.  Afterward, he looked at his two thousand words and decided they were "really lifeless and really dull" and contained none of the vibrancy of the thing in his (or Maddy's) head.  "So I went away and thought about it a bit.  And one day I was walking home and I suddenly thought, 'When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over'.  And I knew the rhythm of that.  And knowing that, I thought, Okay, I know what the rest of this sounds like.  I think I have a tone of voice (250-1)".  That just leaves three questions to be answered.  What does the tone of voice have to say.  Is there anything the voice has worth saying?  The most important question is what does the voice mean?

The Story.

Lucy is a nice girl.  She has a house, a Mom, a Dad, and a big brother.  It's a place with everything, and everything in its place.  Her Mom makes the jam, and her Dad plays the tuba.  Her brother meanwhile likes to taunt her while still glad to have her around.  Nothing is out of place, until it is.  One day, as Lucy puts her ear to the wall, she thinks she heard a sound.  It sounds like scratching.  It could be just rats, bats, or mice.  This is what her parents and her brother tell her.  Lucy, however, is not so sure.  There's an identity to the kind of sounds animals make.  Each noise, every grunt, growl, yip, and call is like a finger print.  The cry of a humpback whale is different from that of a blue.  Just as the hoot of a screech owl is louder and longer than the cry of a normal spotted one.

Just the same, these scratching sounds are different.  A mice makes a noise so small that you have to strain your ears to even know they might be building themselves a nest in the wall.  Rats, on the other hand, are a bit easier to spot.  They make scratching noises that you're able to pick out if you pay attention and know what to listen for.  Bats, of course, are the loudest of the bunch.  You wouldn't need to strain your ear in order to hear them.  Every time one of the creepy little buggers decides to take flight would result in a box or a perched chair knocked over.  That's the kind of racket loud enough to wake the dead (especially if they are restless, and their dreams are uneasy).  However, these scratches are different, and Lucy knows it.  It's not mice, not bats, or even rats.  Lucy knows better.  There are wolves in the walls.  Her parents and her brother dismiss her ideas, of course.  How can any mind believe such a notion, and continue to exist under conditions of absolute sanity?  Besides, as everyone knows, "When the wolves come out of the walls, it's all over".

"The Way We Look to Us All".

Before filling in this spot, I thought I'd try and see what insights others might have about this peculiar little story book.  Somehow I'm not that real surprised that there's very little to find in the way of legit critical comment on this text.  I think it's mainly down to the way Gaiman composes and tells his narrative that acts as a real stumbling block for a lot of the normal literati out there.  If it isn't spoon-fed, then it might as well not exist.  Gaiman, on the other hand, doesn't seem to either have much time for critical concerns of what is in the reader's best interest in terms of taste or content.  Judging by a surface glance at the content, Neil seems eager to get on with things and introduce his audience into the whole atmosphere of his secondary world.  He does with two approaches.  The first is through the complex and surrealistic effects of his words, which come together to form an almost hypnotic half-rhyme scheme that structures the story into a tale that is at once familiar and somehow new.

The second way Gaiman goes about his goal of narrative immersion is to enlist his regular partner in crime, Dave Mckean.  The talented graphic artist got his start with Gaiman in the same comic book industry.  It was Mckean's dream-like paper-mache, photo-realistic illustrations that helped make the initial issues of The Sandman comic book series stand out so well from all the rest of the pack.  In Wolves, Mckean uses this same technique to introduce us to a world that is forever familiar and off-skew.  The images show us a place we know, and somehow that makes us unable to ever get quite comfortable with it.  This is down to the way Mckean plays with his box of paints.  Everything has a somewhat cracked and angular feel, while the palette is always fading into shades of Gothic dark or brown.  Mckean knows how to illustrate a staircase in an average suburban household that looks unsettling even in the muted colors of the broad daylight.  I almost want to say there's almost a trace of German Expressionism in his style.  This raises the stakes on a subliminal level, so that when at last we see the same set of stairs later on after the terrors have been brought on from backstage, the use of shadow's doesn't just give us a scary background, so much as it is fulfilling on a promised sense of menace.

It's to Mckean's credit that his understanding of the nature of Gaiman's words are such that he can bring them to a winning form of uncanny life.  However, I think it kind of needs to be added or reminded that even the best painting or illustration probably doesn't amount to much if there's no through line attached to it.  A rose-red city half as old as time gives us an impressive image.  It also stops at being just that unless some author with talent can come along and fill in all the narrative blanks.  That's why I think it's important to remember that in the last resort it really all does depend on whether Gaiman's words are able to hold up to a close critical examination.  This is where the story comes in, and you have to ask how does it hold up?  My own verdict is that it all works out pretty damn good as far as I can tell.

The basic conceit of the tale is straight of the Brother's Grimm playbook.  We have one of those children that used to populate the covers of either an old Victorian storybook, or else a Ray Bradbury short-story.  Even the situation sounds like something out of a folktale.  In many ways, as the main protagonist, Lucy is very much a literal girl who cries wolf.  The spin Gaiman puts on the traditional trope is that the main character is right from the very outset, and it is the authority figures who are too careless to notice what is going on around them.  From there, the narrative takes a turn into a kind of territory I'm not sure I recall seeing anywhere before as the cast has to learn what to do when presented with the fact that they are living out a fairy tale.  The responses Gaiman allows his characters to have just serves to highlight the unreal and unexpected qualities of the situation.  It also raises a number of intriguing questions about the nature of the story.  The fact that the text itself leaves a lot things vague and unexplained is a creative choice that I think helps things lot more than it hinders.  The reason why is because it leaves all the thematic richness of the story intact.

I think the actual meaning of Gaiman's picture book is something that consists of at least two, maybe three layers.  The most obvious aspect of the book's theme is laid out by Wagner and Golden.  "(At) it's core, The Wolves in the Walls is about a child's frustration with a family's fragmentation and lack of communication.  Each family member is focused on their individual obsession to the detriment of the unit, and shuts out the home reality (the wolves are in the walls).  It is significant, of course, that Lucy alone recognizes the initial threat; silenced, ridiculed, and ignored, she is unable to protect her family from the disaster she alone sees coming.  Once uprooted, it is Lucy alone who conceives of how the interlopers must be dealt with, mobilizing the family as a unit to oust the canine invaders and repossess home and hearth.  By prompting communication - getting the family members beyond their obsessive, isolated behavior and finally working as a family unit - Lucy restores that which was lost (355)".  That's about as good a summation of the basic idea of the book as we are likely to get, I think.  However, while it's accurate enough, so far as it goes, I don't think it uncovers everything.  It goes a great deal, while still leaving a few extra miles ahead.  The good news is that Wagner and Golden have done a supreme effort in getting the close reader further down that road, and they deserve some accolades on account of it.  For that reason, the few remaining thoughts on the book's themes will have to take their lead from them.

I'm left with about two questions after closing the book.  The first might go something like, "What's the deal with family anyway?  I mean, like, am I the only one who thought there was something just a bit odd about that whole setup, even before things got real weird?  The second involves the wolves.  Like, seriously, what the hell is up with all that?  Where did they come from?  What are they doing in the walls?  Why the wall?  How do you even fit an entire wolf pack into the thin confines of a siding in a freakin' house?  What the hell are those things, anyway?  Are they actual wolves?  Are they even real?  The nature of the story itself inclines me to believe that the titular wolves, and a lot of the story itself, might be a bit less literal and a lot more metaphorical.  This is why I think it helps to see the story as one of interconnected layers, each one dependent on, and playing off of, the other.  As far as I can tell, the closest anyone is ever going to get to an actual understanding of Gaiman's fable depends on what there is to find if the reader starts to unpack and examine each level, one at a time.

Let's start with the basic setup.  The image Gaiman presents us with at the start seems pretty clear cut, at least to begin with.  What we've got, for all intents and purposes, is a normal, average, everyday family unit.  All the basic players are in place.  With the exception of the stylized way Mckean chooses illustrate these figures, there doesn't appear to be anything remarkable or worth commenting about on any of them.  In other words, Gaiman's basic setting is that of a neat little microcosm, the typical family home.  In most literature, such a setting is often used as an Apollonian symbol of order.  A good example of how this trope can play out in a dramatic context is, for better or worse, the 2002 thriller Signs.  That film showcased a single house in a country field under siege from an outside menace.  In some ways, Gaiman has taken this same setup as his starting point.  However, what he poses as a threat to his own microcosm seems to differ a great deal from any kind of outside menace.  I'll explain the meaning of that statement further on.  Right now I still want to keep the lens focused on the main character and her family.

The narrative opens with Lucy noticing something wrong in the house.  However what sounds an odd note in the readers mind, perhaps a chord that's a lot stranger than just spooky sounds in an old house, is the strange behavior each of Lucy's family members showcase whenever she tries to bring her concerns to them.  We expect Mom and Dad, and even her Brother to be dismissive of her concerns, it's the kind of reaction that's expected in a setup such as this.  For whatever reason, however, Gaiman allows his characters an extra mile by compounding their doubt with a strange kind of fatalist acknowledgement.  They say there is no  menace in one breath, and then each admits that if such a threat did exist, "it's all over".  They pass this statement off as something "everybody knows".  It's a very peculiar thing to say, and I think it comes from the fact that there's a kind of unnerving tacit admission underlying the response of all the family members.  We have an Apollonian microcosm in which a Dionysian note of unease is introduced.  One of the main cast notices and, in effect, "cries wolf".  The rest of the characters, on the other hand, seem to know something is wrong, but instead choose to ignore it out of a desire not to confront the problem.  The family has an issue that all are aware of, yet only Lucy seems to be the one who wants to deal it in any way. 

This brings us to the Dionysian aspect of the tale.  I said a minute ago that the threat of Gaiman's fable differs from the external menace of a film like Signs.  It's a take I'm willing to stand by, and I think that part of what motivates this view is the brush strokes that the families at the center of each respective narrative are painted in.  Mel Gibson's brood are just coming out of a family tragedy in the Shyamalan film.  This is explained by the subdued Gothic vibe that each character gives off throughout most of the film's runtime.  Lucy's family doesn't seem to give off quite the same note, yet a lot of the reader consensus seems to be that there is something fundamentally off about Gaiman's fictional household.  It's like there's this unaddressed problem in the air that no one is going near.

It's the one element of the narrative that was so marked, in fact, that when it came time to adapt the kid's book into a VR game, the developers decided to try and tackle it head on, as way of granting the player or audience a sense of completeness.  In the game, the story is expanded on just a bit with the addition of a grandmother figure in the family.  Nana, as she is referred to in the script, is one of those characters who are able to highlight their presence in story by their absence on-stage.  We never see her except for an abstract painting or photo on an attic wall, where she's seen propping a very young Lucy on her knee.  Both appear to be looking at the camera with wide eyed bliss.

This is a figure that VR Lucy talks about at great length during certain points of the game.  There are at least two instances that stand out as the most important.  Each consists of a series of monologues where the presence of the unseen Nana looms large.  The first is when Lucy takes down a copy of grandma's old journal and reads from it.  In the game, Nana, like her grand-daughter, also had her own experiences of the lupine variety.  "Nana said they live in packs," VR Lucy recites for audience, "and she used to hear them when she was a little girl in Russia, hunting in the woods at night.  They're nocturnal, and when their tummy's were empty, small animals would go missing...On the night of the full moon, they would leave the forest, and come close to the village, where the people lived, sniffing the air for loneliness.  Separation, Nana said, makes easy prey.  Then, they would circle in, calling out to each other with their loud, it sounded like they were inside the walls of her house.  I think it's a full moon tonight".

There is a secondary moment where the grandmother is invoked.  It's a minor sequence where Lucy is once more leafing through Nana's journal in search of what looks and sounds like a bunch of old world ingredients for a kind of protective potion or charm to guard her pig puppet with.  It's an interesting scene inasmuch as the character of the unseen relative is implied for us a bit more.  In these moments, she almost comes off as a kind of J.K. Rowling type figure, one of those old wives who went on to manufacture all the great folktales of the world.  The final major scene in which this off-stage figure plays a part is during a campfire sequence.  This takes place after all the Dionysian agents have invaded the microcosm, and driven the main cast out of their own dwelling.  We're allowed to hear audio snippets of the grandmother as the various characters recall back on their times together in the house.  It's significant that the grandmother is the center of each memory.  It's the story's way of signaling the audience that she's sort of an unspoken catalyst for all the action we see going on.

I remember one YouTuber commenting that his theory was that the wolves themselves aren't real.  Instead, he thinks that they are just a metaphor for the grief and anger the entire family is going through in the wake of the grandmother's passing.  I'm willing to admit this concept might just work out for the video game adaptation.  For the original book, I'm a lot less certain.  What jumps out at me the most is the line about the wolves searching for "separation".  The idea that loneliness is the kind of mark which they use to identify their prey is just a concept that sticks with me, at least on a somewhat modified level.  There may be a sense in which this does apply to the family in Gaiman's original book.  When I think of the family in that story, and the basic situation they find themselves in, for some reason it always reminds me of an old Paul Simon tune.  In particular it always makes me recall a lyric about "the way we look to us all".  If there's any key to what's going on with The Wolves in the Walls, I think Simon might have just handed one to us.

The way it fits (I think) is when the reader stops and pays close attention not to the wolves so much, but to the rest of Lucy's brood.  As Golden and Wagner have noted, they each seem preoccupied with a hobby of their own.  This type of situation doesn't have to be a problem when it's all kept in proportion.  However, the way things are narrated and illustrated in the story, it's clear that what's going on is more than just the natural turn of events that can sometimes occur whenever someone is engaged in the kind of work they can actually enjoy.  The natural results of that kind of situation are that sometimes the work can expand the mind outward toward a greater interest in the world around the subject.  In contrast, Lucy's parents and her brother each take to their hobbies or work not to expand their minds toward the outside world (including their daughter or sibling), but instead are using them as a means of retreating inward into themselves.  They are too much occupied with their own private concerns to the detriment of the situation.  They have succumbed, in short, to a form of narcissism.

I don't know if there's any label for the kind of setup Gaiman presents us with.  The best catch-all term that probably fits the narrative situation would have to be something like the Romantic Predicament.  It's what happens when the modern mind finds itself stuck in a kind of ill-defined rut.  It's a form of existential crisis that served as both a thematic and focal plot point for a lot of the subject matter of the 20th century novel.  Gaiman just seems to have found a way to take the general idea, or basic situation, and shrink it down to almost a compact life-size format that most readers could be able to intuit, if not outright understand.  Perhaps that's the reason why it's such a mistake to label the characters as narcissists.

For one thing, if any of the characters truly lived up to the label, the story would have no need for wolves.  Little Red Riding Hood's arch enemy would already be present on stage, in a manner of speaking.  The trick with the theme of narcissism in literature or art is that it has a very narrow definition with which to work.  The defining problem and character note of the narcissist is that the horizons are always limited.  If they show any display of the wide range of normal human emotions, in particular, of human affections, like Lucy's family does towards one another, then they have given up the game.  They have revealed a flaw in the armor that no self-respecting egoist must ever do.  The artistic narcissist is much farther down the road of insanity than your average man in the street.  If the ego cannot gain at least the semblance of supremacy over others, then the only other logical-illogical option left to it's warped way of thinking is to indulge in a good old fashioned total breakdown of the mind.  If this were the case in Gaiman's fable, the narrative would have to center on Lucy's attempts escape from the family square at all costs.  Instead, the story presents us with a girl doing all she can to keep her relatives safe and intact.  That's not the kind of situation you find in a Gothic narcissist story.

Therefore it makes more sense to label Mom, Dad, and Brother as more distracted and half-way asleep on their feet, rather than anything malicious.  Perhaps it makes better sense to say that none of them is narcissistic.  Instead, it is more that their general predicament is one which can, if left unchecked, breed just the right conditions for the traditioal unchecked form of literary egoism to have it's day.  I think that's what the titular wolves mean more than anything.  They are all the bad, narcissistic vibes that have been accumulated and stored up over the year under the same roof.  If I had to take a guess at why the family is experiencing this affliction, then I have to go once more to the idea of the Romantic Dilemma.  Rather than any family tragedy, it merely seems as if Lucy's family has fallen into a kind of familiar rat race rut.  They may be doing the things they like.  However, they've allowed themselves to become human automatons about it.  Their not living a real life, but more one that's a kind of wide-awake sleepwalking.  As I said, it was a common complaint of the 20th century novel.  The best literary illustration of this is from a story called The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, an early draft of the idea that later became Mad Men.

Lucy's family is not that far down the road, as I said.  Instead, all the wrong ingredients are being stored up and placed under a boiler.  Sooner or later, the pot has no choice except to boil over.  That's when the wolves come out of the walls.  It's also where Paul Simon's lyrics come back into play for me.  I think the wolves represent two things.  Rather than a literal presence, I think they are (1) the best a very young girl can do to articulate the problems that she knows is plaguing her family, and (2), if left unchecked, this is how Lucy and her other relative could have come to view each other, not as literal wolves, but metaphorical versions.  The whole problem seems to revolve not just around how to live their lives, but also how the family want to think about, and hence view or look at themselves.  "The way the camera follows us in slo-mo," as Simon says, "the way we look to us all".

The good news for Lucy and her pack is that, at a certain point, some form of understanding or self-realization is reached.  This is symbolized in the way the young child is able to find whatever inner reserves are necessary to first take some kind of positive action, and then, at last, to just plain take back their house.  The whole tale seems to be one of the more interesting spins on the examination of the narcissist trope in Gothic fiction.  If I had to give it a genre classification, then I almost want to label it more like a fairy tale than outright horror.  There are certain elements that can be classified in the terror territory.  However, there's just something about the whole deal that makes me not want to go the easy route.  I think it's more akin to Hansel and Gretel rather than a story like The Visit.  It just makes a whole lot more sense to me that way.        


These are the days of miracle and wonders
So don't cry, baby, don't cry - Simon, ibid.

I think part of the quirkiness of having to try and classify what is really just a simple children's book in the first place has to do with the kind of author Gaiman is.  The term we're looking for seems to be that of a what's known in book circles as a New Wave Fabulist.  Gaiman makes up a key component of this particular cadre.  It places him in an informal group of writers and artists who helped define the current of the fantastic genres way back in the 70s and 80s.  They found ways of taking old tropes and giving them a kind of hip, new, modern, surrealist spin.  This is best demonstrated by the likes Alan Moore's glory days in the comics industry, and the kind off-kilter graphic novels Gaiman used to put himself on the map.  These were stories where the typical boundaries of narrative logic were ignored if you could prove that it would result in a better story.  Some authors were not always successful, yet the good news is that Gaiman isn't one of them.

If I had to mark out Gaiman's place among his contemporaries, then the closest Fabulist he resembles more than any other is his contemporary Alan Moore.  So far as I can tell, the one trait both authors share the most in common is their penchant for trying to tinker with a lot of old ideas and giving them a trippy kind of twist.  This is obvious enough whether it's Moore's reworking and satire of the standard superhero arch in Marvel Man, or Gaiman's attempts at recasting various Gothic tropes in a novel such as Good Omens.  In fact, I think a pretty good description for a lot of the technique of the Fabulists is seeing how many ways they can tinker with the standard fairy tale in order to keep it interesting.  I know that's what Gaiman is up to in a book like Wolves in the Walls, anyway.

As fairy tales go, the concept is kind of an interesting mix.  I don't know whether or not the basic premise is all that original.  I want to say there are other old folktales out there with similar narrative beats and incidents.  Of course, this sentiment can always be chalked up the skill with which Gaiman is able to take a lot of the old ideas and blend them together in a new pattern.  The story itself could very well be original, yet the elements that make it all up are so familiar that it's easy to swear you've seen something like it somewhere before.  In the end, originality doesn't matter all that much.  The real question is whether or not the story itself is able to succeed on its own merits.  In Gaiman's case, I'd have to say that, yes, it does.

If there are those who choose to call it slight, or want to complain about the shortness of the tale, then all I can say is it's amazing just how much the author is able to pack into a narrative that is just shy of 200 lines of text.  Within that limited span of time, the audience is treated to a situation that is easy to grasp, while also featuring a heavy dose of complexity that is easy to overlook because of how flawlessly Gaiman is able to pack it all into the limitations which the narrative sets for him.  We have a protagonist, and a set of secondary characters that we are able to like almost from the opening lines.  Lucy is a good place to start when it comes to talking about how Gaiman handles female characters.  It's a creative strength that he's been noted and congratulated for a lot in the past.  The guy just seems to have a way with women that is able to place him in some kind of good standing.  I think part of it is that his commitment to his craft let's him know that even the smallest character has to be treated with at least some modicum of artistic respect if they're to step off the page and back into your mind.  This is the same way he handles Lucy.  He allows her to demonstrate her character through both her actions, and then with a glimpse into her style of thinking.  We learn how she handles the situations that intimidate and frighten her, and how she copes with them.  These are all the ingredients necessary for a protagonist you can root for.

The good news is that Lucy doesn't have to share the spotlight alone.  The same level of economic depth is at work in her family members.  Though Mom, Dad, and her Brother are never given as much screen time as Lucy, they nonetheless come across as three-dimensional figures who could be living an actual life.  Part of this is down again to Gaiman's skills at compressing character in a way that doesn't sacrifice a sense of personality.  He knows he has only a limited amount of space available to tell his story in.  That means he knows he's got to make every character moment count.  He does that by highlighting all the major defining traits of his cast when they walk on-stage.  We know the mindset of the family square after we come away from first introductions to each secondary character.  In this way, Gaiman allows the main group itself to form almost a fourth hive character with a life of its own.

It is the microcosmic nature of this group character that ultimately serves as the engine that drives the story.  The ultimate concern of the story seems to be with the relationship hazards that even the most well adjusted family can fall into if it isn't careful enough to know what to avoid.  Lucy is the one figure who seems aware of the trouble her family is going through for most of the book's runtime.  The others are caught up in their own respective traps until it's almost too late.  It is this, more than anything else that allows the wolves to come out of their hiding places.  There's a neat little moment in the VR game that kind of acts as a neat symbol of the kind of struggle the main character is up against.

We see the digital version of Lucy staring down a brightly lit hallway with a dark doorway at the end.  The hall is illustrated in colors that almost resemble a church glass window.  As she continues to stare, faint sounds of snarling and growling can be heard.  As the grunts and howls continue, they start to get closer.  As they get closer, the lights in the hallway start to snap off, as if the some invisible hand had knocked out the light socket.  As the growls get closer, we begin to here the  sounds of Mom and Dad buried within the animal noises.  It sounds like they're having an argument.  We can make out faint traces of dialogue (Dad: "The whole place reeks of jam!" Mom: "You told me we'd leave Lucy out of this!").  Lucy shuts the door before the growls reach her, and then tries to keep the unseen pack hunters on the other side from wrenching it open.

It's another way of packing a lot of unspoken info into just one neat little bit of narrative action.  It' also the one moment where I think the VR game is almost able to match up with the subtext of Gaiman's original book.  I'm just left wondering why they felt the need to add a grandmother figure into all that.  I think this can be chalked up to the developers worrying that the subtext painted the parents in too negative a light.  However I'm not sure there was much to worry about on that score.  Lucy's parents can be a bit dense in the story.  The difference is that the situation doesn't allow them to remain in that state for very long.  Once it all starts to hit the fan, they do reveal themselves to be caring figures to their daughter, even if she does have to give them one final sort of shake to get everyone on the same page where they need to be.

In a way, that's sort of the point of the whole story.  Gaiman tells his audience a fairy tale with a modern twist.  We have a damsel, a situation, and the curious route by which it's the damsel herself who is able to help set things right.  There are some very definite obstacles in her way, and I think part of the sophistication of the tale is that Gaiman hints that it isn't just any one thing, but rather the kind of all-encompassing mistake that leads to a lot of the old familiar fallout that can plague any household.  What makes it all come together, and keeps the tale itself from being some kind of harsh voiced screed is that the fairy tale is able to admit that troubles like this happen, while also admitting that  there is no such intrinsic necessity for such things to exist, and no fundamental reason not to try and overcome such obstacles.  I think it's this sense of balance that makes The Wolves in the Walls work so well.  It's ultimate message seems to be the same as an epigraph Gaiman used at the start of Coroline: "Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten".

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