I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s work since around 1993, when a friend shared some of her Sandman comics with me. Since then I’ve formed lots of fond memories around his work: the time I found a first edition of Good Omens in a second-hand shop, the way Anansi Boys helped me really dig into the idea of creativity as a salvific force, the way my friends and I identified with characters from Neverwhere in my twenties, etc.
Gaiman has remained one of my go-to reads. Somehow, though, I’d managed until this month to miss that his short story, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, has been republished in an illustrated edition with art by Eddie Campbell.
It’s a satisfying thing, reading Gaiman’s illustrated work. He comes from comics — Sandman, The Books of Magic, etc. — and while his unaccompanied prose is still fantastic, his work shines with an accompanying visual, especially given that he’s well-enough connected to find the right artist for the job.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is not a kind or gentle story. It is hard, like old fairy tales and myths are hard. It’s setting, too, is harsh. Gaiman utilizes the folklore and terrain of Jacobite Scotland, specifically the Isle of Skye. Think rough land, tough people, and short lives.
The narrator begins his story with an admission of guilts for which he is able to forgive himself — “For where I left him. For what I did.” — but also the one he can’t. For a year he hated his daughter for disappearing.
He doesn’t explain these guilts right away. Instead, he reveals them over the course of the story, which begins with how he sought out a man named Calum MacInnes to guide him to the Misty Isle. On the Isle, it is said, that there is a cave filled with gold, from which one can take as much as can be carried. MacInnes, it seems, knows the way.
MacInnes is suspicious at first — most interactions in this story are fraught, as in such a setting strangers are always considered dangerous — but he agrees to the journey. Over the course of their travels we learn more about the men, as well as the nature of the Cave. They meet other travelers, householders, and a ferryman. Over time, MacInnes speaks more about the Cave itself, and warns his client of its unusual price: It strips away a little bit of the person who enters.
Gaiman deftly weaves these details into a larger story that reveals both men’s secrets, both forgiveable and terrible, and like any good folk story it delivers an ending that fulfills its beginning. Campbell’s illustrations complement the story well. Like the rugged terrain of Skye, they are rustic: mainly rough paintings and jagged illustrations. The art is not pretty so much as it is haunting and harsh, more emotional than naturalistic.
While this book is slim and illustrated, don’t mistake it for a children’s book. Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains contains some mild coarse language, more than a little bit of death, and mentions of violence against women and children. The narrator, who is a little person, recounts experiences of being injured or treated badly on account of his stature. The story also contains mythological elements that are consistent with the tropes of the genre, but that some might find problematic in terms of ability and body types.
If you enjoy traditional folklore, or Gaiman’s dreamier stories, you’ll likely enjoy The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. The hardcover edition is a nice pick for collectors, or readers who want to round out their graphic novel shelf with books that straddle the boundaries of genre.
My rating: Four unfortunately placed Scottish dirks of Five.