Parents don't often listen to kids or believe them, which is why our protagonist in "The Ocean at the End of the Lane" feels such terror in this book. You will too. The effect is a palpable one and this story gripped me like few others have done in 2013. It stands as proof that an author can write a very short novel and effectively convey all-encompassing horror, loneliness, and nostalgia.
The framing device for this story works well: the story is told to us in present day Sussex, England by an adult man who has returned to the countryside for a funeral. We quickly abandon the present and enter the past, the 1960s, being taken to a time when our protagonist used to live in the area long ago when he was seven. There's a witch-like maternal figure that comes to rent a room in his family's home since money is tight. Her name is Ursula Monkton and she is perfectly, genuinely the most chilling presence I've felt in years in a novel. She is damp and deadly and full of sin. Our main character also meets three generations of Hempstocks who live down the lane by a pond: a grandmother, a mother, and a girl around thirteen. You will fall in love with these strong female characters and the mysticism surrounding their origins.
Gaiman blends the worlds of reality and fantasy in such a compelling way that it becomes nearly impossible for the reader to decipher the metaphor from the actual happenings. It becomes increasingly clear that either the man narrating in the story, now a full-grown adult, is either recalling a fantasy his seven-year old self concocted to protect his impressionable psyche, or, in fact, all the craziness and surrealism truly occurred in his little English countryside home.
If you care to remember how scary it can be as a child, or simply enjoy literary fantasy, this one is a horror with a glimmer of hope at the end. The mechanics and rhythm may take some getting used to in the beginning, but overall, the tale is inventive and briskly paced. The protagonist is perhaps a bit too articulate and philosophical for a seven-year old boy, but if you put that aside, the imagery and adventure here is anything but ordinary. It's well worth the trip down to the end of the lane. (Recommended for adults and teens.)
Recommended by Matthew Lowder