Source of book: Borrowed from the library.
We have already listened to a Neil Gaiman book this year, Neverwhere, so I ordinarily would have waited before reading more. However, my 14 year old second daughter is really into Gaiman right now. Okay, so she has loved him ever since we listened to Coraline a few years back. Anyway, she checked this book out, read it, and told me I should read it. When your teenager says that, well....
This book has some overlap with “M” Is For Magic, namely “October in the Chair,” “How To Talk To Girls At Parties,” “Sunbird,” and the poem, “Instructions;” but it also contains a number of more adult stories. The short stories and poems were mostly published previously in magazines or book anthologies. They span a wide range of genres, although they all are recognizably Gaiman within a few paragraphs at most. He has, shall we say, a style. I’ll stick to the format I used in “M” Is For Magic, and detail the short stories not in that former collection. There are also a number of poems, which range from fairly traditional to free verse. With the exception of “Instructions,” which is simply fantastic, the poems aren’t as good as the story, in my opinion.
A Study In Emerald
This is, as Gaiman puts it, Sherlock Holmes finds himself in an H. P. Lovecraft story. So some combination of the supernatural and aliens, but with a logical sleuth.
Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire
This one is a real gas. This person, who appears to live in a ghoulish fantasy world, keeps trying to write, as he puts in “realistic fiction on the human condition.” Except that his proper Gothic horror novel keeps getting “humor” thrown in - it starts sounding like a novel of manners from our world. Finally, a raven asks him the fatal question: “Do you enjoy writing it?” The answer, of course, is “no.” So he gives in and writes what he wants.
The young man shivered. He rolled the stock themes of fantasy over in his mind: cars and stockbrokers and commuters, housewives and police, agony columns and commercials for soap, income tax and cheap restaurants, magazines and credit cards and streetlights and computers…
“It’s escapism, true,” he said, aloud. “But is not the highest impulse in mankind the urge toward freedom, the drive to escape?”
I suspect Gaiman has gotten the equivalent of this as a result of his own dedication to fantasy, rather than “realistic” literary novels. But of course, good writing in any genre tells us things about human nature.
The Flints of Memory Lane
This one is a short ghost story. At least a sort-of ghost story.
This is story about a childhood memory, with a framing story of an old drinking club. Not necessarily Gaiman’s memory - although he says the places are real - but the memory of a character within the framing story.
This is a rather bizarre tale. The narrator is reeling from a bad breakup, and is out on the road, essentially running away. He meets this guy who asks for a ride to meet a tow truck to tow his broken down car. When they get there, the guy has forgotten his wallet and briefcase. The narrator goes back for them, but when he returns, there is no sign of either the man or the tow truck. He tries to find information, only to discover the man is apparently some sort of anthropologist on his way to a conference. He is unable to contact the man, so he impersonates him at the conference. From there, things get progressively more odd, and even supernatural. A classic Gaiman sort of story.
An interesting short take on hell. After the physical tortures, the man experienced this:
Everything he had ever done that had been better left undone. Every lie he had told - told to himself, or told to others. Every little hurt, and all the great hurts. Each one was pulled out of him, detail by detail, inch by inch. The demon stripped away the cover of forgetfulness, stripped everything down to a truth, and it hurt more than anything.
And then, over and over again.
It was like peeling an onion. This time through his life he learned about consequences. He learned the results of things he had done; things he had been blind to as he did them; the ways he had hurt the world; the damage he had done to people he had never known, or met, or encountered. It was the hardest lesson yet.
There is a school of thought within Christianity that this is the process that one must undergo to become fit for heaven. We cannot enter as we are, with all our arrogance and pride - we must be purged in some way. My personal view is that many will choose to be annihilated rather than face this process.
Gaiman describes this as a Mobius story - and that is a great description.
Keepsakes and Treasures
This is a really dark story, about an orphan (or at least foundling) who gets involved in a particularly sick underworld. It has some pretty rough sexual content. The main characters of Smith and Mr. Alice also turn up in “The Monarch of the Glen,” which is kind of a short story sequel to American Gods.
Good Boys Deserve Favors
A short story about a brief childhood career as a double bass player. Or at least being a kid who carried a double bass around and tried not to make noise in the rests. Except for one magical improvised solo.
The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch
Kind of a mystery ghost story.
Strange Little Girls
This is a collection of 12 short vignettes written to accompany Tori Amos’ album of the same name.
A story about Harlequin, the stock character from ancient drama.
The Problem of Susan
I had actually read this one previously. Gaiman takes on a seriously uncomfortable issue with The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis seems to simply abandon Susan to a hellish fate, simply because she grows up and - it is strongly implied - becomes a sexual being, interested in boys and love and marriage. This really stuck in Gaiman’s craw, even though he loved the books as a kid. His response is both a, well, response, and a challenge in its own right. Very thought provoking.
How Do You Think It Feels?
Gaiman was asked to write a story for an anthology with gargoyles as a theme. Writing is a weird profession sometimes. This is a pretty sexual story, with an ambiguous ending.
Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot
If a vampire wrote vignettes for tarot cards, I guess. Honestly, my knowledge of Tarot is pretty non-existent, so I probably didn’t get most of the references.
Feeders and Eaters
This is a really creepy story about a flesh eating woman and the man devoted to her.
A very short riff on snake oil “alternative medicine.” Humorous in the best Gaiman way.
In the End
A one-page imagining if the last book of the Bible was a mirror image of the first chapters of Genesis.
Gaiman wrote this for the website of the soon-to-be-released film, The Matrix. It’s pretty matrix-y.
Pages From a Journal Found in a Shoebox Left Somewhere Between Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Louisville, Kentucky
The story is barely longer than the title. It is kind of a log of a search for a mysterious woman named “Scarlet.” Very atmospheric and vague, with no real resolution. Which is a classic modern short story. Also, another one written specifically for a Tori Amos related event. Apparently Gaiman and Amos are friends - which is one of those unexpected things you learn.
This one is a poem worth mentioning. It is a reference to The Arabian Nights, obviously. But it is also about Gaiman’s belief that stories, even ancient, retold stories, had their genesis in a real person.
The Monarch of the Glen
This is the one which is both a short story sequel to American Gods (which I haven’t read), and the return of Smith and Mr. Alice. It draws on the Beowulf story, but with a weird, modern, twist. Again, classic Gaiman, with its mix of legend, supernatural, and realistic.
One of the things I am struck with when it comes to Neil Gaiman is this: he has a someone disturbing knack for writing about the most horrible parts of human nature. I mean, he makes torture and cruelty come way too alive for comfort. But along with that comes an amazing sense of compassion - one that I find mostly lacking in the conservative/religious/uptight sorts that clutch their pearls about his sort of writing.
Just as an example, my Evangelical former tribe has been tying themselves in moral and ethical knots to try to explain why it is okay to take a racist and xenophobic approach to refugees. You know, things like separating families seeking asylum, putting kids in cages, and stripping the citizenship of people who did nothing wrong. In contrast, here is Gaiman on refugees. The simplicity of “it could be you” is basically a restatement of Christ’s commands. Do unto others. And yet, Gaiman, who isn’t “Christian” in the sense Evangelicals mean it, somehow manages to sound so much MORE like Christ than they do. Oh, and rather than xenophobic fear mongering and lies, he actually uses real facts. Why the F..K can’t Evangelicals show this kind of decency? I just don’t get it.
Anyway, this is an interesting book, with some worthwhile stories. Gaiman has an amazing imagination, his stories generally have something intriguing in them, and hey, my middle daughter loves them, and that is high praise indeed. My favorite still is The Graveyard Book - or maybe Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett. But this one was good too.