You ask if I can forgive myself? I can forgive myself…
And so begins The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a haunting story of family, the otherworld, and a search for hidden treasure. This gorgeous full-colour illustrating book was born of a unique collaboration between Sunday Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman and renowned artist Eddie Campbell, who brought to vivid life the characters and landscape of Gaiman’s award-winning story. In this volume, the talents and vision of two great creative geniuses come together in a glorious explosion of colour and shadow, memory and regret, vengeance and, ultimately, love.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is less a novellette than a sort of form-defying artistic project; as Gaiman’s afterword says, it’s unlike anything he’s done before. That doesn’t mean that it’s immune to review, though!
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a simple little folk tale, essentially, with the traditional Gaiman darkness at its core, in this case on a number of levels. Indeed, in some ways, this comes from the same place as Stardust; a fairytale for both children and adults, which tells essential human truths and looks at basic human actions and motivations. The story feels like it should be much older than it is, tapping as it does into standard Scottish folkloric themes like reaving, otherworldly beings, feuds and the mysteries of Scotland; it’s a mark of Gaiman’s ability as a writer that he manages to pull that off with a story that is in fact very new. It’s a quality aided by Campbell’s art, which uses traditional Scottish imagery – the misty line of mountains, say, or the tartan – without ever touching kitsch, and just far enough from realism to be somewhat dreamlike in its qualities, especially in the way it can highlight elements of the story.
That story unfolds slowly, moving backwards and forwards at once, laying out what lies behind as it moves to an almost inevitable conclusion; indeed, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains has something like the famous ring structure of the Homeric epics, but also a kind of karmic logic to it. Gaiman doesn’t use it to moralise but to tell a powerful and effective story; that story works in part because of its structure which relies on mystery, secrecy and withheld information, and Gaiman is a master of those qualities.
The place this beautiful work falls down is, unfortunately, when it combines art and words. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is beautiful when art and prose are side by side, but when it tries to combine direct speech with art in comics-style panels, it gets messier; it breaks the natural reading flow, since it doesn’t fit the flow of the reader, confusing the scenes, needing some serious attention not to content but to layout to decipher the form. Campbell’s art in the panels is still beautiful, and his lettering clear, but the layout really does here not quite work when straightforward prose is interleaved on the same page as panels of dialogue essential to read the prose.
The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is undeniably a beautiful achievement and a wonderful story, but I fear Gaiman and Campbell may have to collaborate on a few more works in this vein before the problems are ironed out.