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Literature / The Ocean at the End of the Lane

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It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn't very big.
Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said that they'd come here across the ocean from the old country.
Her mother said that Lettie didn't remember it properly, and it was a long time ago, and anyway, the old country had sunk.
Old Mrs. Hempstock, Lettie's grandmother, said they were both wrong, and that the place that had sunk wasn't the really old country. She said she could remember the really old country.
She said the really old country had blown up.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a 2013 dark fantasy book by Neil Gaiman.

A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home in Sussex, England, for a funeral. While there, he remembers when he was seven years old and when he walked to the house at the end of the lane where the Hempstocks lived: Lettie, who was eleven years old, her mother Ginnie, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock.

The Hempstocks aren't normal, however. Lettie is eleven, but she's been eleven for a very long time, and she claims the pond behind their house is actually an ocean. And Old Mrs. Hempstock is very old. Older than the universe, p'raps.

But something dark had been unleashed. Something old and terrible. Something only Lettie Hempstock could help stop.


Tropes featured include:

  • Abusive Parents: The narrator's father isn't abusive at first. He said that he would never hit his children, since his father hit him, although he does yell... but after he is influenced by Ursula Monkton, the father finds a way around this by attempting to drown his son in the bathtub. Or maybe not even influenced; when the narrator accuses Ursula of making his father hurt him, she replies that she never 'made any of them do anything'.
  • Age Lift: The narrator's aged up to being 12 in the stage adaptation; Lettie's implied to look to be about 11 or 12 as well, but it's not said for certain.
  • Alas, Poor Villain: The Hempstocks make it clear that they don't hate the "fleas", who only act in accordance with their nature and without full understanding of the harm they cause. They're less forgiving of the "varmints".
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  • Alien Geometries: The pond is an ocean. But it's also a pond that can fit inside a bucket.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: The narrator's grandmother and aunts are mentioned as using Yiddish words occasionally, implying that he at the very least comes from a Jewish family. Given that Gaiman has admitted that the protagonist is based loosely on himself at that age, and Gaiman's family is Jewish, this is probably the case.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: "Does it make you feel big to make a little boy cry?"
  • Ascended Fridge Horror: The protagonist's sister has this as an adult. She says she liked Ursula Monkton but it was obvious that she was having an affair with their father in hindsight, asking why none of them saw the signs. The narrator thinks it's that no one wanted to believe it, least of all the kids.
  • Author Avatar: The protagonist is very loosely based on Gaiman himself when he was a child.
  • Babysitter from Hell: Ursula Monkton, although only to the protagonist and not to his sister, who loves her.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: You REALLY don't want to get on the bad side of the Hempstock women. They'll feed you, clean you, and treat you like a member of the family if you're in their good graces. Get in their way, and they'll sic horrifying Eldritch Abominations on you.
  • Big Good: The three Hempstocks as a whole, but particularly Old Mrs. Hempstock. They see it as their mission to shoo off "fleas" (otherwise known by others as Eldritch Abominations) back to where they came from, both to keep them from hurting humanity, and also to keep them from attracting the hunger birds.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Eldritch Abomination that's been haunting the narrator is defeated, but the hunger birds try to devour the narrator's heart, forcing Lettie to sacrifice herself. She's not technically dead, but she's been healing for over forty years and still isn't well enough to talk. The narrator can only remember tiny fragments of what had really happened, except when he's visiting the ocean.
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: The hunger birds don't care about anything except "cleaning" up after the fleas. That means eating not only the thing that escaped and her way home, but also the last piece of the hole inside the narrator's heart. They aren't 'evil' or 'good' - they just are. Lettie also implies this is the case for the fleas themselves - that they don't mean to harm, they are just doing what is part of their nature. They can't help it.
  • Bratty Half-Pint: The narrator's little sister never has anything nice to say to him. Her character doesn't improve under Ursula Monkton's influence.
  • Cats Are Magic: The cat the narrator finds isn't a normal cat. For one thing, it's still alive after forty years. Though that could be because the cat is normal, but time doesn't pass the same way on Hempstock land.
  • Cats Are Mean: Played straight with Monster, the orange tomcat, but averted with the narrator's two black kittens.
  • Chekhov's Gun: The pond, the kitten which was named Ocean.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: Lettie gives Ursula every chance to surrender and do the right thing. And Ursula at one point seems to agree, only to attempt a double-cross. Fortunately, Lettie was Genre Savvy enough to see it coming.
  • Color Motif: The flea, in all its forms, has a predominately pink and grey colouration, with variations (such as platinum-blonde hair). Disturbingly and inexplicably, the same colours dominate the narrator's parents' bedroom.
  • Cryptic Background Reference: Tons of details mentioned offhandedly by the Hempstock women. For instance, one of them mentions that their brother went off to fight in something called "the Mouse Wars".
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: The narrator has tea and eats dinner with the Hempstocks several times. They are really lovely people, even though they aren't actually people, and at least one of them is old enough to remember the Big Bang. A less pleasant example occurs when the narrator and his father and sister eat dinner with a much less benevolent Humanoid Abomination.
  • Did You Just Romance Cthulhu?: A Humanoid Abomination has sex with the narrator's father.
  • Distracted by the Sexy: The narrator's father, and Ursula Monkton herself, were distracted from the narrator's escape by...other activities. At one point the narrator lampshades this, wondering what might have happened if he had been old enough for Ursula to seduce.
  • Do Not Taunt Cthulhu: The hunger birds attack Lettie, causing Old Mrs. Hempstock to reveal her true form. She questions their actions, but they openly defy her until she notes exactly what she can do to them, at which point they back off immediately and begin begging for mercy.
  • Easily Forgiven: Subverted; the only reason the narrator and his father get along as adults is because he keeps forgetting that his father tried to drown him. Of course, given Granny's actions, that might not have actually happened.
  • Eldritch Abomination:
    • The hunger birds. They come from outside of reality and can literally eat the world into nothingness to restore it to its natural order, similar to Clock Roaches.
    • Also the "fleas", and, in a somewhat more benevolent version of this trope, the Hempstock women may qualify, given the birds' reaction to Old Mrs. Hempstock in her true form.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • As he approaches the Hempstock farm in the first chapter, the grown narrator half-remembers things from his first visit that are given fuller context later.
    • When the narrator sees Ursula Monkton for the first time, he feels a twinge in his heart...because that's where the last piece of the hole is.
    • When the opal miner first arrives at the narrator's house, he runs over the boy's kitten and gives him a tomcat named (appropriately) Monster. He later commits suicide in a car at the edge of the narrator's and Hempstock's property, where the barrier between worlds is thinnest, which attracts the attention of a "flea," which leads to a literal monster getting into the boy's house.
    • Almost impossible to notice without a second reading, but the narrator expresses in the first few pages that he produces art sometimes to fill a hole in him. Turns out this hole is more than a metaphor.
  • Food Porn: Given what else they can do, it's no surprise that the Hempstock's homecooked food is as good as homecooked food can be, and the narrator makes sure to point this out.
  • A Form You Are Comfortable With: Ursula (who actually looks like a mass of rotten gray cloth), Lettie (who actually looks like a form made of silk the color of frost illuminated by countless tiny flames) and presumably her mother and grandmother (Ginnie always appears human, and Old Mrs. Hempstock only partially reveals herself when the hunger birds almost kill Lettie as a woman whose hair and clothes shine so bright the protagonist compares her to burning magnesium). It's also implied that everyone's true self looks very different from their physical form.
  • Full-Name Basis: Ursula Monkton is always given her full name, at least when the narrator thinks of it. Out loud, he mostly refers to her as "her".
  • Framing Device: The novel starts when the narrator is middle-aged and returning to his home town for a funeral. He visits the street where he grew up, and it jogs his memories of what happened when he was seven...
  • Genre Savvy: By the end, the narrator has become this, fully knowing that while inside a 'fairy ring' and told not to cross it, he doesn't. Not even when his father appears, not even when Lettie appears. This is a very good thing, because otherwise the hunger birds would have eaten him.
  • Growing Up Sucks: A theme - the narrator often sees things better because he is a child and wonders why adults act the way they do. Lettie later tells him, however, that all adults are really only children swaddled in layers and that they get scared as well.
  • The Hecate Sisters: All three Hempstock women are this: Lettie is the Maiden, Mrs. Hempstock is the Mother, and Old Mrs. Hempstock is the Crone. They also have associations with the ocean and moon, two things the triple goddess is often associated with in Wicca and in a few folk religions. Also, Neil Gaiman loves this trope in general, so it's no surprise to see it here as well.
  • Heroic Sacrifice:
    • When the hunger birds want to eat the protagonist's heart but are prevented from doing so, they spitefully start devouring Earth instead. This is enough to get the protagonist to leave the safety of the Hempstock farm, knowing full well it meant his death.
    • As the narrator remembers it, Lettie put herself on the line to save his life. She didn't die, but was badly hurt, so her mother gave her back to the ocean to heal.
    • The epilogue implies that this is not exactly what happened, and instead the narrator died in the original timeline, but Lettie was so distraught that Old Mrs. Hempstock snipped-and-cut that out so Lettie could shield him with her own body instead.
  • Humanoid Abomination: The thing that calls itself Ursula Monkton... at least until it abandons its disguise. Also, perhaps all of the Hempstocks, although they are a benevolent version of the trope.
  • Human Pet: Ursula Monkton says she considers the narrator's family members her pets.
  • I Know Your True Name: Never specifically comes into play, but Ursula chides Lettie for trying to seal her without knowing her name and Lettie goes to a lot of trouble to find it out. She finally does find out what Ursula's real name is Skarthach of the Keep and is able to make Ursula behave herself more after she figures this out.
  • It's All My Fault: Several times throughout the story, both as a kid and as an adult, the narrator briefly (and very painfully) confronts the realization that all of the horrible things that did wouldn't have happened if only he didn't let go of Lettie's hand. Old Mrs. Hempstock, being a rather more practical sort, points out that even less would have happened if Lettie hadn't insisted on taking him with her to battle the "flea" - and by extension, that this line of thought goes on forever and is pointless to start on.
  • Jock Dad, Nerd Son: Explicitly stated at the end - the narrator's father liked cars and played rugby and wanted his son to do the same, but the narrator instead loved reading books and comics. He does say that they became closer after he grew up.
  • Karma Houdini: The narrator's father suffers no repercussions for being abusive, though part of it might have been Ursula's influence. In fact, he and the narrator even mend their relationship as adults!
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: The Hempstock women can alter people's memories quite skillfully. Sometimes it's not clear if they altered the memories themselves or actually changed the events.
  • The Load: The narrator doesn't directly influence the plot. He doesn't instigate it and he's not instrumental to resolving it. He just hangs along and tries to stay alive long enough to be rescued. Justified, since he's seven and is a regular human boy surrounded by reality-warping eldritch abominations.
  • Loophole Abuse: Ursula Monkton tries to invoke this when she follows the narrator onto the Hempstocks' property. Lettie orders her to get off her land, to which the "flea" replies she's not technically on her land, as she's floating in the air. Lettie isn't having any of this, though, and chases her off.
  • Magical Nanny: Of the worst possible kind.
  • Mature Work, Child Protagonists: Most of the short novel is the narrator flashing back to a time in his childhood when he encountered a family of magical women. Although he tells it from a younger perspective the events become darker and more horrific as it continues.
  • Maybe Magic, Maybe Mundane: Skarthach's last words: "I never made any of them do anything." A last mental barb at the narrator? Or was a father really willing to drown his son for a pretty smile?
  • Men Are the Expendable Gender: This seems to be true for the males of the Hempstock family. They get "the call" and wander the Earth, while the women stay at the farm and deal with fleas.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Nice job letting go of Lettie's hand after being warned not to, kid. Nice job trying to extract the worm in your foot by yourself rather than going to the Hempstocks causing a piece of it to stay inside you, making you a gateway to its own world, and then flushing the rest of it down the drain so it can appear as Ursula Monkton in your world.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain: Ursula's instinct to play cat-and-mouse gives the narrator the chance to run onto the Hempstocks' farm, where they can easily banish her and keep him safe.
  • No Name Given: The narrator is never given any name. Even his father usually just calls him "son", though a couple of throw-away comments make it fairly clear that his name is George (Ursula Monkton calls him "pudding-and-pie", in reference to the nursery rhyme "Georgie Porgie Pudding-and-Pie"; his father actually calls him "Handsome George" at one point). His sister, on the other hand, is always just referred to as "my [little] sister". Neither parents get named beyond their relationship to the narrator, and the family's last name is never mentioned.
  • Noodle Incident:
    • References are made to two previous times the Hempstocks had to shoo "fleas" off of Earth, one in Cromwell's time with a creature that looked rather like a giant frog who made people lonely, and one in "Red Rufus's Time" (Red Rufus being King William II) who made people's dreams come true.
    • The frame narrative itself: the narrator ends up going back to the Hempstocks' farm many years later after taking a detour on the way to his sister's house after a funeral. The circumstances make it seem fairly likely that one of his parents has died (from context probably his father), but this is never made explicit or expanded upon.
  • Plot-Triggering Death: The reason the narrator stops at the Hempstock farm to begin with is because he's been attending a funeral (likely his father's) earlier that day, while the actual plot of the book starts with the family's lodger committing suicide on the borders of the Hempstock farm, which gives the "flea" an opportunity to cross into this world.
  • One-Person Birthday Party: The narrator suffers one at the beginning of the novel. Inverted in that he doesn't really mind, because he knows that none of the kids who were invited were really friends, just people he knows, and it means he can spend the rest of the day reading his birthday presents instead of having to be sociable.
  • Orifice Invasion: How Ursula escapes Lettie's binding the first time and makes into the narrator's life. She went as a worm, burrowing in his foot.
  • Primal Scene: The narrator witnesses his father having sex with Ursula Monkton, though he doesn't understand what he's seeing, being seven years old at the time.
  • Reality Warper: Whereas Lettie and Ginnie's powers "merely" seem to work along the lines of those you'd expect from, perhaps, a very powerful witch, Old Mrs. Hempstock seems to be more or less omnipotent. The eldritch abominations who eat other eldritch abominations, and are in the middle of the process of tearing down our universe in a fit of spite, stop in their tracks and begin to grovel when they realize she's angry.
  • Really 700 Years Old: All of the Hempstocks are older then they look... much, much older. Old Mrs. Hempstock is said to remember the Big Bang.
  • Replacement Goldfish: Defied. The opal miner thinks there's no harm done for accidentally running over a little boy's kitten because he brought a tomcat to replace it. Even ignoring that his tomcat is orange and mean while the kitten was black and sweet, the narrator knows that no cat in the world can truly replace his kitten because it was a unique living being. Picking the supernatural black kitten from the place with the orange sky makes him feel a little better, but only so much because, while he enjoys its company, he recognizes that it's still a different cat.
  • The Reveal: At the end, the narrator finally asks Old Mrs. Hempstock why he came back there and she tells him that he always comes back. He always remembers for a bit and then leaves. It's Lettie bringing him back, wanting to know how his life is going. Wanting to know if her sacrifice was worth it.
  • Riddle for the Ages: It's never said whose funeral the narrator came for, though it was probably one of his parents.
  • Shared Universe: Word Of God says that Liza Hempstock from The Graveyard Book is related to the Hempstocks in this novel.
  • Shout-Out
    • Several ones to Doctor Who. Was anyone surprised?
    • "... and it's a dangerous thing to be a door." Neverwhere, much?
  • Terms of Endangerment: Ursula Monkton calls the narrator "sweety-weety-pudding-and-pie" right before threatening to lock him in the attic and then make his own father drown him.
  • The Stars Are Going Out: Near the end, the hunger birds decide that if they can't get to the narrator, they'll just eat everything around him... including some of the stars in the sky. After everything is resolved, Old Mrs. Hempstock makes them put it back as it was.
  • Time Abyss: Old Mrs. Hempstock is older than the current universe and she will still be around for the next one.
  • What Measure Is a Non-Human?: The narrator doesn't bother telling his parents the opal miner ran over his kitten, because he knows they wouldn't care since they'd figure it's just a cat, and they'd figure the opal miner bringing a new cat to replace it is a fair trade anyway.
  • You Won't Feel a Thing!: Old Mrs. Hempstock tells the narrator it won't hurt a bit as she pulls out a long needle, preparing to extract the last piece of worm in his foot. The narrator naturally doesn't believe her (as he knows that's what grown-ups always say before something hurts a lot), but is pleasantly surprised when it really doesn't hurt a bit.