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Smoke and Mirrors

Wednesday November 7, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

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.

Neil Gaiman: Smoke and Mirrors

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.


Blood and Chambers

Friday November 2, 2007 in books read 2007 |

That long-drawn, wavering howl has, for all its fearful resonance, some inherent sadness in it, as if the beasts would love to be less beastly if only they knew how and never cease to mourn their own condition.

Angela Carter is an author I’ve returned to after nearly two decades, deciding to read her collection of adult fairy tales as part of my quest for the perfect scary short story. Written in 1979, The Bloody Chamber seems defiantly anachronistic for those times. It’s still very modern, very current – and for a collection of fantastic stories – very real.

Angela Carter: The Bloody Chamber

Angela Carter certainly knows her fairy tales. She can take the basic premise and mould it into something far more chilling than anything that would be allowed at a child’s bedside. The title story in this collection tells of a young girl on her wedding night and it involves the usual suspects of fairy tale motifs; badly lit castles and forbidden keys to locked rooms – with a blind piano tuner thrown in for good measure. Carter is good at plunging the reader back into this storybook world before reminding that her fiction exists in the real world too. A telephone will suddenly ring, the dreamlike interrupted by the very real.

The story titles are very suggestive – The Tiger’s Bride, The Snow Child and The Lady in the House of Love all suggest what they deliver. Most recognisable is The Company of Wolves, adapted so magnificently for the cinema by Neil Jordan in 1984. It’s a vivid, weird film – itself I think out of place in the decade it was made – but the original is far more suggestive, impressionistic and – oh yes – scary.

I’m still undecided about The Bloody Chamber. Maybe I’ll have to leave Angela Carter alone for another long spell. In some ways her fiction is too demanding, too strange and ultimately too inaccessible for my simple tastes. Read it though, let me know what you think – let me know what I’ve missed. Or maybe she’s just still out of time…

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Anansi Boys

Saturday October 27, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

Each person who ever was or is or will be has a song. It isn’t a song that anybody else wrote. It has its own melody, it has its own words. Very few people get to sing their own song. Most of us fear that we cannot do it justice with our voices, or that our words are too foolish or too honest, or too odd. So people live their songs instead.

Recently I’ve become a fan of Neil Gaiman. His short story collection Fragile Things is a contender for my book of the year and I’ve been subscribing to Neil Gaiman’s Journal, one of the best author blogs I’ve seen. Anansi Boys is the first of his full length novels I’ve had the pleasure to read.

Neil Gaiman: Anansi Boys

Gaiman in a writer with a distinct style of his own, inventing a world that is always magical and imaginative, and one with a slightly dark edge to it. Anansi Boys follows the adventures of one Fat Charlie who, following his father’s death, foolishly opens the door to his life to Spider, the mysterious brother he never knew he had. Spider proves to be a sibling of nightmarish proportions, bringing annoying aspects of his magical abilities with him. He moves a whole alternative world into Charlie’s spare room and seduces his girlfriend. Just for starters.

Anansi Boys moves between London, Florida and The Caribbean as well as stopping off in other uncharted territories, namely ones invented by the apparently limitless mind of Gaiman. I’ve said this before, but his writing reminds me a lot of Susanna Clarke, who brought us Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. He has a similar knack of using the well worn trick of magic in a highly original way. I’m thinking here of the scene where Charlie hails a taxi to take him just a few streets home. The magic weaved by Spider prevents his driver from taking him home, getting more a more lost in just a handful of streets. And Gaiman provides also a very well written scene from the point of view of a ghost.

There are many joys in Anansi Boys. Luckily for me, Neil Gaiman is a highly prolific author, so I’ll be moving on next to Smoke and Mirrors. Can’t wait…

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Bradbury Country

Monday October 22, 2007 in books read 2007 | ray bradbury

Neil Gaiman’s debt to Ray Bradbury as master of the macabre short story made me want to go back and reread a couple of classics.

Bradbury’s world always appears to be on the periphery of what’s comfortable and safe, occupying antiquated fairgrounds and remote shacks on the edges of windswept landscapes. His characters are always just on the edge. The Dwarf is one such tale, using the setting of a hall of mirrors for its disturbing chain of events. The dwarf from a ramshackle fairground finds solace in the mirror maze, visiting night after night. He’s watched by a would-be tormentor, who realises that he is posing in front of a specific mirror, one that alters his proportions to a larger size. The nightly visits always satisfy the dwarf, until a mirror is mysteriously changed and things aren’t quite the same again.

The creepy showground is also the backdrop for The Jar, where a mysterious glass bottle houses something quite disturbing that may be a fake or may be a real and rather sickening specimen. It is real enough to spark flights of imagination in those who gaze at it – we hear of dead infants and drowned kittens – before the story ends with something very tangible taking residence the jar…

These tales date from 1955 and 1947 respectively, but Bradbury is still going strong. There’s a new film version of Fahrenheit 451 in production and there’s always room for a new version of my personal favourite The Martian Chronicles. But these older short stories are always worth a read. And always manage to unsettle.


Fragile Things

Monday October 15, 2007 in books read 2007 | neil gaiman

The imp grinned down at me from the wooden door, a vivid splash of crimson in the grey gloaming.
I walked around to the side of the playhouse and peered through all the windows, one by one, into the dark and empty room. Nothing moved in there. I wondered if the other three were inside hiding from me, pressed against the wall, trying their damnedest to stifle their giggles. I wondered if it was a big-boy game.
I didn’t know. I couldn’t tell.
I stood there in the courtyard of the playhouse, while the sky got darker, just waiting. The moon rose after a while, a big autumn moon the colour of honey.
And then, after a while, the door opened, and nothing came out.

Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is a collection of short stories and poems. It is about dreams, fairy tales, children’s games, urban myths and monsters. It celebrates the art of a good story told well, something that Gaiman shines in as a true artist of the ghost story.

Neil Gaiman: Fragile Things

In 26 brilliant parts, this book is almost beyond a review. Subjects include a homage to Conan Doyle with shades of H.P.Lovecraft, a Matrix style sci-fi tale and instructions on what to do if you just happen to find yourself trapped in a fairy tale. And three of the tales were the best short stories I have read in years…

October in the Chair is a tale within a tale. It’s excellently told, and even though it has loose edges this is what can be attractive about Gaiman. He’s unafraid in presenting fragments, stories that are even more chilling in their inconclusiveness. Real scares are not as neatly formed as a comfortable short story. In this story the months of the year take turns in relating ghostly tales. They take a while to settle down, discuss the odd urban myth before a story about a lonely child … and the dearly departed. Fantasy is expertly weaved into this chilling tale, and Gaiman manages to also weave what appears familiar with the truly original.

There are some similarities between this story and Closing Time, from where the opening quote is taken. Visitors to an after hours drinking den in the West End of London again settle into urban legends – one neatly echoing the story from October in the Chair – before embarking on an account of a boys game of dare that becomes mysteriously open ended. It’s effective enough, but Gaiman skillfully stitches on a particularly nightmarish conclusion that keeps just enough back from the reader to truly disturb. He also continues to excel in his Chinese boxes method of storytelling.

Closing Time stayed with me a long time after I’d put Fragile Things down, but my favourite may turn out to be the brilliant Feeders and Eaters, about a particularly hungry tenant in a lodging house, where Gaiman isn’t afraid at all to worry and haunt his reader. The ending made me want to snuggle into my armchair just a little bit more. Then again, I may develop other favourites such as The Monarch of the Glen, about a loner visiting Scotland who foolishly agrees to some unusual overtime…

Fragile Things is such a rich collection that it asks to be read again to be fully appreciated, and Gaiman is a writer that demands to be read full stop. He’s a master that carries the macabre tradition of Ray Bradbury, and comes across as the mischevous twin of Susanna Clarke. Read him – especially as it’s nearly Hallowe’en. My only worry is that Hollywood already has its clutches on Neil Gaiman – I just want him to continue with the short stories that he writes so brilliantly.

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