My heart began to pound in my chest, to pound so hard that it hurt. I hoped it could not see me, that, in a dark house, behind window glass, I was hidden.
The figure flickered and changed as it walked up the drive. One moment it was dark, bull-like, minotaurish, the next it was slim and female, and the next it was a cat itself, a scarred, huge gra-green wildcat, its face contorted with hate.
Where Fragile Things was about ghosts and faeries, the opening few stories of Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors are more concerned with trickery and magic; the title refers to stage illusionists and their craft. Tarot cards are featured, as are magicians and their victims; Queen of Knives features the young Gaiman witnessing the very strange disappearance of his grandmother in a feat of stage wizardry. The later stories in the collection move towards a preoccupation with sexual encounters, and Gaiman also moves away from the supernatural to experiment with Raymond Carverish short pieces; brief, sometimes inconsequential, but often with the power to still disturb.
Then there’s Jonathan Ross. I knew that Neil Gaiman is a friend of the talk show host; they appeared together in Ross’s recent documentary about the Spiderman comic artist Steve Ditko and Ross’s wife has written the screenplay for the movie adaptation of Stardust. So it was no complete surprise to find the Ross couple featuring in a tale called The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch. Here, the circus masquerading as a horror show receives the Gaiman treatment.
I’m not really a fan of Ross, so his presence in the story is just a little too sickly for me, and where I was slightly disappointed with Smoke and Mirrors was with the high humour quotient. This collection has more comic tales than the more recent Fragile Things. We Can Get Them You Wholesale, about what happens when you wish for just a little too much, didn’t do very much for me and neither did Chivalry, concerning a very unusual charity shop.
Gaiman features far more autobiographical stories in this collection. As well as the Jonathan Ross adventure, we hear a lot about his experiences in Hollywood, up against the madness there as he attempts to deliver sane film scripts. Very good is The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories, which finds Gaiman staying in the hotel where John Belushi died, befriending an ancient gardener and musing upon the film stars of the past. Oh yes, and fish. Highly recommended.
Although I was surprised to find a higher number of stories that didn’t gel with me than expected, Smoke and Mirrors still has its gems. It’s like crazy paving; wild and varied and another example of Neil Gaiman’s fevered and incomparable imagination. For me, I still like the straight ghost stories, something he can do with aplomb. The Price features Gaiman again, this time protected by a black cat who sits outside the family home and who is discovered horribly injured and mauled every morning. Removing the cat to the safety of the basement, the Gaiman family are suddenly beseiged by bad luck. Well again, the cat returns to the outside. The good luck returns, but once again the cat receives injuries. Then the writer decides to do some detective work… with worrying consequences. A really great story.
Also worth mentioning is The Wedding Present, which Gaiman wrote for some newlywed friends as a gift but decided not to give it to them. Fantastic, although I can understand why he held it back. And then there’s Troll Bridge, which is an outstanding and adult take on the Three Billy Goats Gruff fairy tale. Quite brilliant this one too.
Smoke and Mirrors has its hits and misses, but Neil Gaiman’s hits are always superb. The Price is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. As a cat lover (and especially black ones), it’s the best cat story I’ve ever read. So worth a look.