If you’re a fan of anything out of this world–whether this means books, graphic novels, movies, or TV shows–I’m pretty sure you’ve heard of Neil Gaiman. He’s a very prolific artist, and I say artist because he isn’t just a writer in the strictest sense of the term. Sure, most of the things he does can be considered writing, but normally a writer would have a specific field–it could be screenwriting, writing for graphic novels, or full-length novels. Neil Gaiman has done ’em all, and then some.
I would be hard-pressed to write an all-original introduction/description of the man that is Neil Gaiman. So, for this post, I shall borrow the words of Terry Pratchett, also a really good author and someone who’s worked with Gaiman even before Neil Gaiman became Neil Gaiman.
What can I say about Neil Gaiman that hasn’t already been said?
Well, he’s no genius. He’s better than that.
He’s not a wizard, in other words, but a conjurer.
Wizards don’t have to work. They wave their hands, and the magic happens. But conjurers, now…conjurers work very hard. They spend a lot of time in their youth watching, very carefully, the best conjurers of the day. They seek out old books of trickery and, being natural conjurers, read everything else as well, because history itself is just a magic show. They observe the way people think, and the many ways in which they don’t. They learn the subtle use of springs, and how to open the mighty temple doors at a touch, and how to make the trumpets sound.
And they take center stage and amaze you with flags of all nations and smoke and mirrors, and you cry: “Amazing! How does he do it? What happened to the elephant? Where’s the rabbit? Did he really smash my watch?”
And in the back row we, the other conjurers, say quietly: “Well done. Isn’t that a variant of the Prague Levitating Sock? Wasn’t that Pasqual’s Spirit Mirror, where the girl isn’t really there? But where the hell did the flaming sword come from?”
And we wonder if there may be such a thing as wizardry after all…
Neil Gaiman is considered a god even by the most prolific or most talented of writers, and only rightly so. Some people compare him to the master of horror, Stephen King himself, but for my money, Neil Gaiman is much better. King, with his words and stories, reaches into your head with a pasty white hand with chewed-on fingernails and twists and plays with your imagination until you’re sitting quietly in the corner of your room, rocking gently back and forth in an effort to keep the demons away.
Neil Gaiman’s approach, on the other hand, is less invasive. He takes your hand and gently guides you into his world which you realize much later is comparable to being high on LSD and watching the original Wizard of Oz movie–you just know that it’s gonna be weird as hell, but you’ll only realize this afterwards. It’s less of a mind invasion, and more of a gentle nudge towards insanity. Stephen King forces us to become insane, while Neil Gaiman assumes that we are all, to some extent, already insane–all we need is a little push.
Anyway, for this post, I’m not gonna make a list of reasons why you should read Neil Gaiman and proceed to pummel you with it all the way to the bookstore. Rather, I thought I’d give you a rundown of the Neil Gaiman books I’ve read and leave you to decide whether or not it’s worth reading. Fair enough?
Now, down the rabbit hole we go.
When I first read Neil Gaiman, I was already in college and was taking a World Literature class. My professor was this small, curly-haired geek (and I mean that in the nicest and most reverent way) and it’s partly her fault that my rather unhealthy Neil Gaiman obsession came into being.
In her class (by her I mean my World Literature professor), we were asked to read Neil Gaiman’s short story, We Can Get Them For You Wholesale. In retrospect, I am very thankful that my professor forced that short story on us. It was the perfect springboard for future Neil Gaiman fans. It was short, to the point, and freaky to no end.
To give you a taste of the good weird that is Neil Gaiman’s work, you should know about this particular short story. It stars Peter Pinter, a man as normal and boring as ever could be. The trouble starts when Peter finds out that his fiancee is unfaithful and, in the throes of logical rage, strives to find someone that would get rid of his fiancee and that slimy bloke from Accounting. To his surprise, he finds a promising company in the phone book, under Pest Control. But Peter has one failing: he can’t say no to a bargain. And when the company tells him that they can get them for him wholesale, well, what can Peter say? (You can read the story here.)
Like most of Neil Gaiman’s work, the story drags down phenomena as lofty as planet-wide murder to a personal level, which somehow makes it more terrifying because it’s so easy to believe. We could get so mad at someone tomorrow and think about calling a professional hit-man And that hit-man can show up at our door, offering his services. It’s not that far-fetched.
Smoke and Mirrors
The good thing about Neil Gaiman is, because he has a lot of short stories, he’s collected most of them in anthologies. Smoke and Mirrors is one of them, and it is where you can find We Can Get Them For You Wholesale. It’s the first Neil Gaiman book I bought, primarily because I needed that short story for class. I never regretted the decision, even though it gouged a deep hole in my already-ailing college budget.
To accurately describe this book and, hopefully, to reel you in, I don’t think anyone does it better than whoever wrote that summary at the back of this book:
In the deft hands of Neil Gaiman, magic is no mere illusion…and anything is possible. In this, Gaiman’s first book of short stories, his imagination and supreme artistry transform a mundane world into a place of terrible wonders–a place where an old woman can purchase the Holy Grail at a thrift store, where assassins advertise their services in the Yellow Pages under “Pest Control,” and where a frightened young boy must barter for his life with a mean-spirited troll living beneath a bridge by the railroad tracks. Explore a new reality–obscured by smoke and darkness, yet brilliantly tangible–in this extraordinary collection of short works by a master prestidigitator. It will dazzle your senses, touch your heart, and haunt your dreams.
What else can you ask for in a book?
This is another short story anthology and, in my opinion, a lot darker than Smoke and Mirrors. Fragile Things was more…mature, in a sense. I’m pretty sure that the stories Neil Gaiman didn’t want to put in Smoke and Mirrors because of the sheer terror that they inspired ended up in Fragile Things–this is coupled by the sneaking suspicion that Fragile Things refers to the readers’ minds, because my fragile mind broke after reading this and I was in a Lovecraftian hell for a few weeks before I came to.
A mysterious circus terrifies an audience for one extraordinary performance before disappearing into the night, taking one of the spectators along with it . . .
In a novella set two years after the events of American Gods, Shadow pays a visit to an ancient Scottish mansion, and finds himself trapped in a game of murder and monsters . . .
In a Hugo Award-winning short story set in a strangely altered (read, conquered by Lovecraftian monsters) Victorian England, the great detective Sherlock Holmes must solve a most unsettling royal murder . . .
Two teenage boys crash a party and meet the girls of their dreams–and nightmares . . .
In a Locus Award-winning tale, the members of an excusive epicurean club lament that they’ve eaten everything that can be eaten, with the exception of a legendary, rare, and exceedingly dangerous Egyptian bird . . .
Such marvelous creations and more–including a short story set in the world of The Matrix, and others set in the worlds of gothic fiction and children’s fiction–can be found in this extraordinary collection, which showcases Gaiman’s storytelling brilliance as well as his terrifyingly entertaining dark sense of humor. By turns delightful, disturbing, and diverting,Fragile Things is a gift of literary enchantment from one of the most unique writers of our time. (source)
So much for Gaiman’s short stories. Now, let’s move on to the books.
Since I sorta just rolled right through Neil Gaiman’s books, it wouldn’t make sense if I went through them with you now in the order that I read them, so let’s just do it alphabetically. Not that that would make any more sense but there you go.
This is the story of Shadow, a mountain of a man who just went through hell. He went to prison for something he may have or have not done and when he got out, he found out that his wife just died while giving head to a good friend who was in turn driving a car. Not the best of days, I’m telling you. He meets Mr. Wednesday, who turns out to be none other than the Norse All-Father, Odin himself. Mr. Wednesday leads him through the slums and alleyways of the world, where the once-great gods of old cultures–like Anansi, Thoth, Bast, Anubis, Loki, among others–live, reduced to what they are now because no one believes in them anymore. But that’s gonna be history soon, because times are a-changing. There’s a war brewing, between the old gods and the new. And Shadow’s going to play a big part–far bigger than he ever thought he would.
I’ve always liked American Gods. Reading it helped me meet a great girl, after all. But it’s a really good story too. It reminds us just how important believing in something is. The belief of a single man can move mountains, or even shape the world. It reminds us that we have power within all of us, and there might come a time when that power will decide whether humankind will continue as a species or not.
Also, if you’re a fan of HBO TV shows, you better give this one a read. There’s talk of making a TV show out of it, to be released by next year.
This is actually an offshoot of American Gods, so that worked out pretty well. As mentioned above, the gods of old cultures still walk around today, and one of them is the famed spider Anansi. Over time, the spider trickster evolved into a dapper man with a top hat and an umbrella. And, while singing in a bar on karaoke night, Anansi keeled over and died.
He left behind two sons, Fat Charlie and Spider. These two boys have no idea that the other one existed, and when they find themselves embroiled in each other’s lives, they must discover each other if they are to find out why their father died or, rather, why they are alive in the first place. This story is filled with so much magic that it’s impossible to put down–I know that sound so much like a cliche but I promise you, it’s true.
At first, I thought this book would be rather boring. Boy, I was so wrong.
Good Omens is a book about Armageddon. The End of the World. The time when the Four Horsemen (Bike-riders) of the Apocalypse shall ride forth. Boiling seas of blood and all that. Who knew that the whole thing can be this funny?
It all starts when two beings, a demon and an angel, meet at the gates of the Garden of Eden. The demon, still in the form of the snake, was watching two almost-naked humans walk away from the Garden and into the hostile forests beyond. The angel, who was the guard of the Garden’s eastern gate, was still thinking about how to explain to God that he lost his flaming sword.
These two beings eventually form a bond–it’s not quite friendship, but it’s the same thing that soldiers from different sides form between each other when they’re thousands of miles away from their superiors and they feel that they have more in common with the people who are supposed to be enemies than with the people in suits calling the shots.
Fast forward to the time of witches in England, to the life of one Agnes Nutter. Nutter is a witch, and is a real nutter even by Elizabethan standards. Despite that though, she comes up with the most accurate book of prophecies in the history of the world. These prophecies end a few hundred years into the future, when the world comes to a full stop because of Armageddon.
Well, here’s the thing, the demon and the angel really don’t want the world to end. The world is nice, with it’s vintage Bentley cars, first-edition books, and chocolate. And someone seems to have mislaid the Antichrist. So what’s gonna happen next?
Neverwhere is about Richard Mayhew who, when asked to describe himself, usually settles on one word: boring. That all changed when Door literally fell into his life and introduced him to London Below and the lives and times of those who have fallen through the cracks of society. You see, Door is from London Below, an entire world beneath the London Richard knows, and exists not exactly on the same plane as London. In this world, Richard meets such characters as the Marquis de Carabas, the Earl of Earl’s Court, Hunter, and the Great Beast of London.
In other words:
Richard Mayhew is an unassuming young businessman living in London, with a dull job and a pretty but demanding fiancee. Then one night he stumbles across a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. He stops to help her–and the life he knows vanishes like smoke.
Several hours later, the girl is gone too. And by the following morning Richard Mayhew has been erased from his world. His bank cards no longer work, taxi drivers won’t stop for him, his landlord rents his apartment out to strangers. He has become invisible, and inexplicably consigned to a London of shadows and darkness, a city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, that exists entirely in a subterranean labyrinth of sewer canals and abandoned subway stations. He has fallen through the cracks of reality and has landed somewhere different, somewhere that is Neverwhere.
For this is the home of Door, the mysterious girl whom Richard rescued in the London Above. A personage of great power and nobility in this murky, candlelit realm, she is on a mission to discover the cause of her family’s slaughter, and in doing so preserve this strange underworld kingdom from the malevolence that means to destroy it. And with nowhere else to turn, Richard Mayhew must now join the Lady Door’s entourage in their determined–and possibly fatal–quest.
For the dread journey ever-downward–through bizarre anachronisms and dangerous incongruities, and into dusty corners of stalled time–is Richard’s final hope, his last road back to a “real” world that is growing disturbingly less real by the minute.
If Tim Burton reimagined The Phantom of the Opera, if Jack Finney let his dark side take over, if you rolled the best work of Clive Barker, Peter Straub and Caleb Carr into one, you still would have something that fell far short of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. It is a masterful debut novel of darkly hypnotic power, and one of the most absorbing reads to come along in years.
Neverwhere started out as a TV show in the 90s. The show’s awesome too, but read the book first before you give it a go. Be nice to the show, as well–it’s from the 90s, after all.
The Graveyard Book
And now we come to my favorite Neil Gaiman book. Think Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book but take Mowgli out of the jungle and put him down in the middle of a graveyard populated by ghosts and a lone vampire. This is my favorite of Neil Gaiman’s works because it imagines the innocence of childhood, but in a much darker environment than the manicured lawns and tire swings we usually associate childhood with.
The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens (or Bod, as the other ghosts call him), the only living resident of a graveyard. His family was murdered, and he only managed to escape because he crawled out of his crib and into the street while the murderer was otherwise occupied. He managed to find himself in a graveyard and, therefore, in the care of the ghosts. The book is mostly a collection of stand-alone short stories about the life of Bod in the graveyard and the hardships that come with living on the bridge between life and death.
It’s the perfect coming-of-age book, with a twist. Your kids are gonna love it. And I’m not gonna blame you if you enjoy it too.
I’m not exactly sure how to end this quasi-review, so I’ll just leave you with a link to another brilliant Neil Gaiman work. It’s entitled I Cthulhu or, simply, What’s A Tentacle-Faced Thing Like Me Doing In A Sunken City Like This (Latitude 47° 9′ S, Longitude 126° 43′ W)? It’s a re-imagining of the quintessential Lovecraft monster that both fans and non-fans of Lovecraftian lore would surely appreciate. I know I did.