I find it difficult to describe how The Ocean at the End of the Lane affected me, but I think it comes down to a two key elements: childhood and mythology.
Gaiman starts the book off with a well-chosen quote by Maurice Sendak (“I remember my own childhood vividly. I knew terrible things, but I knew I mustn’t let adults know I knew them. It would scare them”) and then goes from there: children know horror and they understand everything even when they don’t. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is both a children’s book and not a children’s book at all, which, again, fits with Sendak’s writing philosophy: “kid books, grown up books… That’s just marketing. Books are books.” Like Coraline before it, this work does not talk down to younger readers. It tells a complex story full of darkness and unexplained horrors and never offers an easy way out. I loved this book now, and I just know that if I had read this as a child, my younger self would’ve poured over this book obsessively and would have started to look for enchanted objects in the garden, digging for opal stones and dolls’ eyes and little tin soldiers.
This brings me to my second point: Gaiman often does not offer an explanation for the events that take place. He just shows you this fantastic, mindboggling thing, and then when you stare at him and demand answers, he shrugs and smiles enigmatically. Some people may find this frustrating, but I find that it is an important part of what attracts me to his books: their timeless magic. Gaiman’s books often don’t feel like he made them up himself, but seem more like ancient tales that feel familiar, like they’ve always been woven into our cultural heritage. He even touches upon this in the book itself: “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” See the pattern here?
The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a book that just is, that creates an incredibly vivid storyworld with so many wonderful little details that you can almost taste the honeycomb on your tongue when you close your eyes, feel the dirt underneath your feet, smell the flowers. You don’t know what it is or where it all came from, but somehow, deep down, you understand. Gaiman plunges you into the darkness and suddenly you feel like you know.