I'm wrapping up a listen to Neil Gaiman's "Neverwhere," and it's reminding me of a particular type of sorrow I have, from time to time, experienced. The Russians call the sadness of longing with nothing to long for toska, which can mean ennui, deep regret, and also nostalgia. Nostalgia fits as well as anything in describing Neverwhere, as its intricate web of imagined undergrounds and subtle horrors reference a version of London now gone except for a few hidden patches. It also sums up my feeling of nostalgia for an idealized experience which I never experienced.
I should have read this book when it was released, in 1996. I think it could have easily become the source of significant obsession on my part if I had been so lucky to have encountered it then.
Maybe I'm older now and in less need (I suppose) for an alternate world of angels, droll cut-throats, and forgotten subway stations. It's also true that this is a work with a huge impact on the fantasy literature that followed it. Although I can't find any reference to J.K. Rowling's affection for the tv series or book, her world of hidden wizards and witches (and reliance on adverbs) bears obvious echoes to this earlier work. So reading Neverwhere now is a little like going backwards in a video game series; it's hard to see what makes something great if it's obscured by all that followed it.
But then, a little voice pipes up, who are you to say this isn't the best time to read this book? Although the spell doesn't quite captivate as fully, the incantations still holds power. In particular, Neverwhere gives writers all sorts of handy tools in pulling an alternate world into view: the matter-of-fact presentation, the precise descriptions, and the weary irony.
The work still holds up, with its moments of levity always carrying a sinister edge and its depravity delivered with a gentlemanly lilt. It helps that I'm listening to book on CD, narrated by Neil himself. The guy's voice is like a goddamn Stradivarius.
Chapter XIII of my espionage web fiction, "Agent Shield and Spaceman" is now available. Imagine James Bond in Bat Country, you'll have the basic idea of this serialized novel.