Apart from similar titles, the links between these two wonderful novels are many, including the detailed descriptions of two wildly different habitats, the authors’ supreme mastery of storytelling, their playfulness with detail, and, above all, the plotting. The acknowledged model for Gaiman’s novel is the much earlier JUNGLE BOOK whose brief plot review below reveals Neil Gaiman’s indebtedness:
Place: Rural India
Pursued by the lame, man-eating tiger Shere Khan, the naked man-cub Mowgli is adopted by jungle folk, specifically a grey wolf pack which protects him from the tiger’s malice. The bear Baloo instructs Mowgli in the law of the jungle and he learns specific cries to request help from other species, but he is not made aware of the dangers posed by the boastful, silly Bandar-log (or monkey-people), who carry him away to a ruined city. He is rescued by his friends at great cost to themselves. As a result of his foolishness with the monkey-people, Mowgli is spanked, banished from the jungle and sent off to live and learn with his own kind. Despite a woman who loves him as her son, he has little faith in humanity, and when he learns that Shere Khan lies in wait for him at the village gate one night, he cleverly implements a stampede of bullocks and cows to trample the crafty tiger to death. The plan results in his eviction from the village as a sorcerer. At that point, he goes out solo (with four wolf cubs) to make his way in the world.
Most of the characters are well-known to modern children and adults from popular entertainment.
SPOILER ALERT: THE GRAVEYARD BOOK:
Place: An ancient and abandoned graveyard of 10,000 souls in Britain, now a nature reserve
Major Characters: Nobody Owens (in prophecy, a child born between the borderland of the living and the dead); Mr. & and Mrs. Owens, his adoptive parents; the man Jack and Mr. Dandy of the evil Jacks of All Trades; Silas, a vampire; Scarlett Amber Perkins, a girl Nobody’s own age; Miss Lupescu, a Hound of God; Liza Hempstock, a witch; the Lady on the Grey, a figure of death; the school-kids Nick and Maureen; and the druidic Sleer.
CHAPTER 1: HOW NOBODY CAME TO THE GRAVEYARD
For reasons unrevealed to the reader, an entire family is knifed to death by the man Jack—except a toddler who blithely escapes the house and finds sanctuary in a nearby graveyard. The ghosts of Mr. and Mrs. Owens hide the boy from Jack attempting to enter, until Silas manages to alter Jack’s plans and turn him away. The child, dressed in a winding sheet, is to be given the freedom of the graveyard, while Silas—neither dead nor alive, who has discovered the bodies of Nobody’s family—offers to provide for the boy’s human needs.
CHAPTER 2: THE NEW FRIEND
Now going by the name Bod, the boy learns the art of ghostliness—fading, sliding, and dream-walking—and is able to navigate the graveyard as ghosts do. He meets a lively red-haired girl named Scarlett whose father teaches particle physics and her mother English. Bod takes her into a tomb over a barrow, where they encounter the not especially scary Indigo Man, a druid spirit named Sleer who protects his master’s treasures (poor as they seem to the children). While Scarlett’s parents believe Bod is an imaginary friend, after this episode when they believed their daughter had disappeared, Scarlett moves to Scotland and Bod continues his solitary existence and education with various ghost tutors because it is not safe for him to leave the graveyard.
CHAPTER 3: THE HOUNDS OF GOD
Silas has to leave for a while (evidently on a mission to keep the world safe) and introduces Bod to Miss Lupescu, whom he comes to resent for her lists and feeding him horrible food—primarily beets (beetroot). She introduces him to different kinds of people (living and dead, day-folk, night-folk, ghouls, mist-walkers, high hunters, and the Hounds of God.) and teaches him how to call for help in all kinds of languages. At a grave-tree struck by lightning is a ghoul-gate, and fast approaching the graveyard is an army of carrion-eating ghouls—bounding, loping, and skulking small fellows. Bod speaks with them at the ghoul gate, which opens and they drag him through to a place with a red sky like an infected wound and carry him toward their city Ghulheim. He is saved by Night-Gaunts, to whom to calls for help, and ultimately Miss Lupescu in the guise of a grey wolf. When Silas returns, Bod has warmed considerably to his temporary tutor.
CHAPTER 4: THE WITCH’S HEADSTONE
At 8 years of age, Bod discovers the unhallowed graves and meets the young witch Liza Hempstock, who tells him her story of torture and death, and craves just one thing—a grave marker. Bod realizes he needs money to buy a grave marker, and returns to the barrow to steal a brooch from the Sleer, which he intends to sell. In garden-shed clothing, he walks to an antique shop where the proprietor Abanazar understands the historical value of the Druid brooch and locks him up. Liza arrives to help him but too late to prevent Abanazer from notifying the man Jack about the boy who’s turned up—perhaps a bigger treasure than the brooch. When Abanazar fights his friend over the reward, Liza casts a spell to escape. Silas carries Bod home, where he is spanked for the misadventure but able to place a stolen paperweight with the letters EH on Liza’s grave.
CHAPTER 5: DANSE MACABRE
Bod is 10 years old, and ghosts in the graveyard talk in low tones about the “macabray”—a traditional village dance among the living the dead whenever a certain flower blooms in winter—the last one 80 years before. Even the lady on the white horse comes, and everyone dances but Silas. (One day everyone must ride the white horse.) At midnight, the dead disappear. Snow falls.
In an interlude, we meet the convocation of the Jacks of All Trades led by Mr. Dandy and his fellows who pretend to do good works but are anxious for the hitman Jack to finish the job he botched.
CHAPTER 6: NOBODY OWENS’ SCHOOL DAYS.
Bod loves reading but can’t get enough books. He talks to Silas, who tells him about his family’s murders and the fact that a man is still looking for him which makes it unsafe to leave the graveyard. But Bod asks “who will keep (that man) safe from me?” He finally gets his way and goes to school but must remain totally inconspicuous, to the point that no one can quite remember him as he fades from mind and memory. However, Bod can’t help but interfere with Nick and Maureen who bully kids and blackmail them in committing crimes for them. He finally punishes them both with his ghost skills, but his interaction with living people at school is over.
CHAPTER 7: EVERY MAN JACK
Silas goes away on a mission with Miss Lepescu, and Mrs. Owens takes the opportunity to describe the assassin to Bod. But 14 years have gone by, and Jack is changed. Scarlett is also changed when she returns to town. At the graveyard, she resumes her friendship with Bod and also befriends Mr. FROST who is interested in grave rubbings. She shares with him Bod’s interest in the house where Mr. Frost lives—the house where Bod’s family was murdered. Meanwhile, Silas and Miss Lupescu, part of the Honour Guard, are abroad battling evil and determined to end the Jacks of all Trades. Bod speak to the Sleer in its den because it wants a master, whom he will hold in his coils to protect him until the end of time. Bod and Scarlett then visit his old house, which Mr. Frost rents. Curiously, there was never a hue and cry after the murders, but Bod finds a knife in the attic where he used to sleep. He understands what is happening, fades, and runs downstairs past Jack’s boss and his henchmen. Bod and Scarlett make for the graveyard, pursued by the assassins. Bod hides Scarlett in the Sleer barrow as the henchmen, who are hunting for the child of prophecy who will destroy them, are disabled or sent through the ghoul gate until only Jack (Mr. Frost) remains. He tracks Scarlett into the barrow, but after a strange ceremony, Bod tricks Jack into becoming the Sleer’s new master, whereupon he disappears through a wall for all time. Scarlett is furious with Bod, and Silas, now returned, must block her memories of the event and suggest to her mother a return to Glasgow.
CHAPTER 8: LEAVINGS AND PARTINGS
At 15, Bod’s graveyard powers are diminishing. He can’t always see the dead, can’t always go where he used to go. Silas packs a suitcase for him, and Bod bids farewell to his old friends. The Honour Guard will protect the borders of things, while Bod, who wants to do everything, walks down the hill with a smile on his lips and eyes and heart open.