Primer: Neil Gaiman, Storyteller
Here’s the thing about Neil Gaiman-- he’s a great writer, but an even better storyteller. It's not a skill-mix that all writers have, but it's one that Gaiman has perfected; the ability to tell a tale, spin a yarn, weave a story no matter the place, the time or the medium. Which is not to say that it's effortless--a lot of work goes into his projects to be sure--but he often makes them feel effortless. He taps into that ancient ritual of mankind-- telling one another stories-- whether they be legends or myths or fairy tales. It can be a ghost story around the campfire or a folk tale warning you not to go into the wood.
Gaiman has written for comics, novels, television, and film. His writing has appeared in anthologies, music programs, liner notes, and more. He is as adept at writing a story as he is at telling one live, in front of an audience. Hell, I learned how to read stories aloud by watching him do it. He is a gifted and talented writer and has produced a wonderfully rich body of work. Here, then, are some of the highlights.
For a long time, Gaiman’s name was synonymous with this comic series published by DC Comics (and later Vertigo) beginning in 1989. While this may seem unremarkable, aside from putting Gaiman on the map, it was the first time, in my experience, that the comics medium was able to reproduce the feel of a novel. Sandman is a dense and layered work which stood apart from many of its fellows by lasting 75 issues and having a beginning, middle, and end.
Sandman tells the story of Dream of the Endless, a personification of that very concept, also known as Morpheus or the titular Sandman. The series begins with Morpheus’s capture by a human magician who imprisons him for 70 years. Morpheus escapes and must regain some of his lost strength and put his kingdom back in order. Sounds simple enough, but Morpheus ends up facing threats from both without and within. Perhaps even more disturbing, the Lord of Dreams must learn how to change. Dream is often a distant, unrelatable protagonist, but I came to sympathize with, and maybe even understand him as the series went on.
Sandman also rewards multiple reads and you’ll likely pick up connections that you didn’t make the first time if you go back to it. It blends characters from history and from myth, and draws something new and vital from its mix of influences. It's definitely worth checking out if you are interested at all in comics or fantasy.
American Gods and Anansi Boys
My favorite of Gaiman’s books has to be American Gods, which is soon to be an HBO series. Aptly named, American Gods tells the story of the gods brought over to America by colonists and immigrants and are now tied to the country. Specifically, it focuses on a man named Shadow, an ex-con who is released from prison early because of the death of his wife. A man named Wednesday wants to hire Shadow and he soon finds himself traveling across America, helping to gather the old gods so they can wage war against the new.
American Gods draws on some of the things Gaiman explored in Sandman--the old gods and their power being defined by belief, for example. Mythologies feature prominently in the book, though not just the Greco-Roman and Norse gods that people are familiar with. It also deals with issues of identity, from the immigrants who bring their gods to the U.S. to Shadow himself.
An “author’s preferred edition” of American Gods was released for its 10th anniversary and includes 12,000 words cut from the original text. And if you’re reading American Gods for the first time, or rereading it, you may want to check out this re-read over at Tor.com.
"Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.
The best thing--in Shadow's opinion, perhaps the only good thing--about being in prison was a feeling of relief. The feeling that he'd plunged as low as he could plunge and he'd hit bottom. He didn't worry that the man was going to get him, because the man had got him. He was no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, because yesterday had brought it.
It did not matter, Shadow decided, if you had done what you had been convicted of or not. In his experience everyone he met in prison was aggrieved about something: there was always something the authorities had got wrong, something they said you did when you didn't--or you didn't do quite like they said you did. What was important was that they had gotten you.
He had noticed it in the first few days, when everything, from the slang to the bad food, was new. Despite the misery and the utter skin-crawling horror of incarceration, he was breathing relief.
Shadow tried not to talk too much. Somewhere around the middle of year two he mentioned his theory to Low Key Lyesmith, his cellmate.
Low Key, who was a grifter from Minnesota, smiled his scarred smile. "Yeah," he said. "That's true. It's even better when you've been sentenced to death. That's when you remember the jokes about the guys who kicked their boots off as the noose flipped around their necks, because their friends always told them they'd die with their boots on."
"Is that a joke?" asked Shadow.
"Damn right. Gallows humor. Best kind there is."
"When did they last hang a man in this state?" asked Shadow.
"How the hell should I know?" Lyesmith kept his orange-blond hair pretty much shaved. You could see the lines of his skull. "Tell you what, though. This country started going to hell when they stopped hanging folks. No gallows dirt. No gallows deals."
Shadow shrugged. He could see nothing romantic in a death sentence.
If you didn't have a death sentence, he decided, then prison was, at best, only a temporary reprieve from life, for two reasons. First, life creeps back into prison. There are always places to go further down. Life goes on. And second, if you just hang in there, someday they're going to have to let you out.
In the beginning it was too far away for Shadow to focus on. Then it became a distant beam of hope, and he learned how to tell himself "this too shall pass" when the prison shit went down, as prison shit always did. One day the magic door would open and he'd walk through it. So he marked off the days on his Songbirds of North America calendar, which was the only calendar they sold in the prison commissary, and the sun went down and he didn't see it and the sun came up and he didn't see it. He practiced coin tricks from a book he found in the wasteland of the prison library; and he worked out; and he made lists in his head of what he'd do when he got out of prison.
Shadow's lists got shorter and shorter. After two years he had it down to three things.
First, he was going to take a bath. A real, long, serious soak, in a tub with bubbles. Maybe read the paper, maybe not. Some days he thought one way, some days the other.
Second he was going to towel himself off, put on a robe. Maybe slippers. He liked the idea of slippers. If he smoked he would be smoking a pipe about now, but he didn't smoke. He would pick up his wife in his arms ("Puppy," she would squeal in mock horror and real delight, "what are you doing?"). He would carry her into the bedroom, and close the door. They'd call out for pizzas if they got hungry.
Third, after he and Laura had come out of the bedroom, maybe a couple of days later, he was going to keep his head down and stay out of trouble for the rest of his life.
"And then you'll be happy?" asked Low Key Lyesmith. That day they were working in the prison shop, assembling bird feeders, which was barely more interesting than stamping out license plates.
"Call no man happy," said Shadow, "until he is dead."
Anansi Boys isn’t really a sequel to American Gods, but happens to feature a character who appeared in it. Different in tone to American Gods, Anansi Boys follows Fat Charlie Nancy, the son of Anansi (Mr. Nancy), the spider-god. When his father dies, he becomes aware of his brother, Spider, a far cooler character than Charlie, and one who seems to have inherited Mr. Nancy’s divine powers. I had this to say when Anansi Boys first came out.
It begins, as most things begin, with a song.
In the beginning, after all, were the words, and they came with a tune. That was how the world was made, how the void was divided, how the lands and the stars and the dreams and the little gods and the animals, how all of them came into the world.
They were sung.
The great beasts were sung into existence, after the Singer had done with the planets and the hills and the trees and the oceans and the lesser beasts. The cliffs that bound existence were sung, and the hunting grounds, and the dark.
Songs remain. They last. The right song can turn an emperor into a laughing stock, can bring down dynasties. A song can last long after the events and the people in it are dust and dreams and gone. That's the power of songs.
There are other things you can do with songs. They do not only make worlds or recreate existence. Fat Charlie Nancy's father, for example, was simply using them to have what he hoped and expected would be a marvelous night out.
Before Fat Charlie's father had come into the bar, the barman had been of the opinion that the whole karaoke evening was going to be an utter bust; but then the little old man had sashayed into the room, walked past the table of several blonde women with the fresh sunburns and smiles of tourists, who were sitting by the little makeshift stage in the corner. He had tipped his hat to them, for he wore a hat, a spotless green fedora, and lemon-yellow gloves, and then he walked over to their table. They giggled.
"Are you enjoyin' yourselves, ladies?" he asked.
They continued to giggle and told him they were having a good time, thank you, and that they were here on vacation. He said to them, it gets better, just you wait.
He was older than they were, much, much older, but he was charm itself, like something from a bygone age when fine manners and courtly gestures were worth something. The barman relaxed. With someone like this in the bar, it was going to be a good evening.
There was karaoke. There was dancing. The old man got up to sing, on the makeshift stage, not once, that evening, but twice. He had a fine voice, and an excellent smile, and feet that twinkled when he danced. The first time he got up to sing, he sang "What's New Pussycat?" The second time he got up to sing, he ruined Fat Charlie's life.
Together, American Gods and Anansi Boys, in my opinion, are the strongest of Gaiman’s novel-length work. But there are other contenders...
Neverwhere and Stardust
As mentioned, one of Gaiman’s strengths as a writer is to tell stories regardless of the medium used. Aside from comics and novels, Gaiman has worked in television and film. Neverwhere, for example, began as a television series from the BBC. Unfortunately, it was only six episodes, and the quality of those episodes wasn’t the best. Gaiman, however, later wrote the story as a novel.
Neverwhere is about the secret, magical side of London, London Below. Gaiman takes the city and turns it into a place of hidden secrets and powers. Richard Mayhew, an otherwise normal businessman, discovers the world of London Below when he helps a bleeding girl named Door. He helps her escape a pair of assassins only to realize that he has faded from the world of London Above. He sets out for London Below, encountering a bizarre array of individuals, magical tube trains, and even an angel.
Neverwhere is what I think of when I think of urban fantasy--not a kick-ass supernatural protagonist taking on vampires and werewolves, but a fantasy about a city, about all the hidden, secret and magical places that exist in it.
Mr. Croup had hired Ross at the last Floating Market, which had been held in Westminster Abbey. "Think of him," he told Mr. Vandemar, "as a canary."
"Sings?" asked Mr. Vandemar.
"I doubt it; I sincerely and utterly doubt it." Mr. Croup ran a hand through his lank orange hair. "No, my fine friend, I was thinking metaphoncally -- more along the lines of the birds they take down mines." Mr. Vandemar nodded, comprehension dawning slowly: yes, a canary. Mr. Ross had no other resemblance to a canary. He was huge -- almost as big as Mr. Vandemar -- and extremely grubby, and quite hairless, and he said very little, although he had made a point of telling each of them that he liked to kill things, and he was good at it; and this amused Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. But he was a canary, and he never knew it. So Mr. Ross went first, in his filthy T-shirt and his crusted blue-jeans, and Croup and Vandemar walked behind him, in their elegant black suits.
There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelery; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.
A rustle in the tunnel darkness; Mr. Vandemar's knife was in his hand, and then it was no longer in his hand, and it was quivering gently almost thirty feet away. He walked over to his knife and picked it up by the hilt. There was a gray rat impaled on the blade, its mouth opening and closing impotently as the life fled. He crushed its skull between finger and thumb.
"Now, there's one rat that won't be telling any more tales," said Mr. Croup. He chuckled at his own joke. Mr. Vandemar did not respond. "Rat. Tales. Get it?"
Mr. Vandemar pulled the rat from the blade and began to munch on it, thoughtfully, head first. Mr. Croup slapped it out of his hands. "Stop that," he said. Mr. Vandemar put his knife away, a little sullenly. "Buck up," hissed Mr. Croup, encouragingly.
"There will always be another rat. Now: onward. Things to do. People to damage."
Stardust was similarly transformed, first from an illustrated book into a novel, and later into a movie starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert DeNiro. Stardust tells the story of Tristran, a young man who lives in the village of Wall which lies on the border of Faerie. Tristran sees a falling star and vows to recover it to bring to his love, Victoria. He heads beyond the wall, into Faerie itself and finds that the fallen star is Yvaine, a living creature, a faerie woman, pursued by enemies. The book chronicles these adventures and what lies beyond.
Stardust sees Gaiman again tackling themes that he first visited in Sandman, but delves deeper into the land of Faerie. It’s a fantasy in the vein of Dunsany, told with typical Gaiman charm. The illustrated version has artwork by the incomparable Charles Vess.
The events that follow transpired many years ago. Queen Victoria was on the throne of England, but she was not yet the black-clad widow of Windsor: she had apples in her cheeks and a spring in her step, and Lord Melbourne often had cause to upbraid, gently, the young queen for her flightiness. She was, as yet, unmarried, although she was very much in love.
Mr. Charles Dickens was serializing his novel Oliver Twist; Mr. Draper had just taken the first photograph of the moon, freezing her pale face on cold paper; Mr. Morse had recently announced a way of transmitting messages down metal wires.
Had you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr. Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfully.
People were coming to the British Isles that spring. They came in ones, and they came in twos, and they landed at Dover or in London or in Liverpool: men and women with skins as pale as paper, skins as dark as volcanic rock, skins the color of cinnamon, speaking in a multitude of tongues. They arrived all through April, and they traveled by steam train, by horse, by caravan or cart, and many of them walked.
At that time Dunstan Thorn was eighteen, and he was not a romantic.
He had nut-brown hair, and nut-brown eyes, and nutbrown freckles. He was middling tall, and slow of speech. He had an easy smile, which illuminated his face from within...
The Graveyard Book and Coraline
As you can tell, Gaiman is a proverbial Neil of all Trades, at least when it comes to writing, successfully able to traverse the worlds of literature, film, television and comics. But he also tackles different audiences as well. He’s had a lot of success with children’s books, for example. And while the target audience for those books is probably far younger than you, his children’s work has that rare quality of also appealing to adults.
His first huge children’s book was Coraline (which was turned into an animated film that you may have seen). Coraline is quirky and dark and scary, but also heartwarming. It tells the story of a young girl, Coraline, who moves into a new house with her parents. In the house is a strange little door that she finds leads to another world where things seem much better than in her world. Only, as we all know but often forget, appearances are rarely what they seem.
Gaiman, like Roald Dahl and others, realizes that children like the dark and creepy. The Other Mother in Coraline has black button eyes, and traps her parents in a mirror. The movie is a decent adaptation but removes some of Coraline’s power and agency and so suffers from some inferiority.
"Coraline discovered the door a little while after they moved into the house.
It was a very old house – it had an attic under the roof and a cellar under the ground and an overgrown garden with huge old trees in it.
Coraline's family didn't own all of the house, it was too big for that. Instead they owned part of it.
There were other people who lived in the old house.
Miss Spink and Miss Forcible lived in the flat below Coraline’s, on the ground floor. They were both old and round, and they lived in their flat with a number of ageing highland terriers who had names like Hamish and Andrew and Jock. Once upon a time Miss Spink and Miss Forcible had been actresses, as Miss Spink told Coraline the first time she met her.
"You see, Caroline," Miss Spink said, getting Coraline's name wrong, "Both myself and Miss Forcible were famous actresses, in our time. We trod the boards, luvvy. Oh, don't let Hamish eat the fruit cake, or he'll be up all night with his tummy."
"It's Coraline. Not Caroline. Coraline," said Coraline.
In the flat above Coraline’s, under the roof, was a crazy old man with a big moustache. He told Coraline that he was training a mouse circus. He wouldn't let anyone see it.
"One day, little Caroline, when they are all ready, everyone in the whole world will see the wonders of my mouse circus. You ask me why you cannot see it now. Is that what you asked me?"
"No," said Coraline quietly, "I asked you not to call me Caroline. It's Coraline."
"The reason you cannot see the Mouse Circus," said the man upstairs, "is that the mice are not yet ready and rehearsed. Also, they refuse to play the songs I have written for them. All the songs I have written for the mice to play go oompah oompah. But the white mice will only play toodle oodle, like that. I am thinking of trying them on different types of cheese."
Coraline didn't think there really was a mouse circus. She thought the old man was probably making it up.
The darkness is perhaps even stronger in The Graveyard Book, which begins with the murder of a family, and the attempted murder of a baby. Luckily, the baby escapes and makes his way to a graveyard where the resident ghosts and the enigmatic Silas keep him safe and decide to raise him. Naming him Nobody Owens, he learns many of the skills the graveyard residents teach him, but he is forced to remain there lest his pursuers find him. Of course nothing is ever quite so easy and as Nobody (or Bod as he’s called) grows, he must learn how to be a living boy in a place of the dead, all the while avoiding those who want him dead.
Gaiman based the book loosely on Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and yet makes the story fully his own. I couldn’t help but like Bod from the beginning and the book has become one of my favorites of his works. Like Coraline, The Graveyard Book is set to be made into a movie directed by Henry Selick (the director of Coraline).
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.
The knife had a handle of polished black bone, and a blade finer and sharper than any razor. If it sliced you, you might not even know you had been cut, not immediately.
The knife had done almost everything it was brought to that house to do, and both the blade and the handle were wet.
The street door was still open, just a little, where the knife and the man who held it had slipped in, and wisps of nighttime mist slithered and twined into the house through the open door.
The man Jack paused on the landing. With his left hand he pulled a large white handkerchief from the pocket of his black coat, and with it he wiped off the knife and his gloved right hand which had been holding it; then he put the handkerchief away. The hunt was almost over. He had left the woman in her bed, the man on the bedroom floor, the older child in her brightly colored bedroom, surrounded by toys and half-finished models. That only left the little one, a baby barely a toddler, to take care of. One more and his task would be done.
He flexed his fingers. The man Jack was, above all things, a professional, or so he told himself, and he would not allow himself to smile until the job was completed.
-The Graveyard Book
I would be remiss in writing about Neil Gaiman if I didn’t mention his short fiction. It receives less attention in mainstream audiences, but it has won plenty of awards, and he’s written some truly excellent stories in the field. His stories have been collected in a couple of collections - Smoke and Mirrors, featuring his earlier fiction,, and Fragile Things. Gaiman's short fiction has many of the same qualities as his novel-length work, though it allows him to experiment more and to comment on other works. "The Problem of Susan," for example, deals with characters from C. S. Lewis' Narnia books. "A Study in Emerald" riffs on both Sherlock Holmes and Cthulhu. Rather than give an exhaustive list of Gaiman's short fiction, I've linked to a few of his stories available online for your perusal.
As mentioned, two of Gaiman’s works have been turned into films to date--Stardust and Coraline. He’s also worked on other people’s films, though. He adapted the script for Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke, wrote the short film MirrorMask with Dave McKean, and co-wrote the script for the animated Beowful film.
Gaiman has also written a few episodes of television for various shows. Aside from Neverwhere, his first was an episode of Babylon 5 called “Day of the Dead.” He recently wrote an episode of Doctor Who called “The Doctor’s Wife”, for which he won a Hugo award, and has announced that he will be writing another for the current series.
This is not a comprehensive list of Neil Gaiman's work by any means. I didn’t even mention Good Omens, his collaboration with Terry Pratchett, his other comic work, or his other children’s books like Wolves in the Wall and Odd and the Frost Giants, or the many other projects he's worked on. But this is a good place to start, a collection of his major works, where you can get a sense of the man and his storytelling.
Gaiman's next novel will be The Ocean at the End of the Lane and will be released in June of next year.
I'd love to hear what you think of Neil Gaiman and his work. Which are your favorites? Which just don't work for you? What would you like to see him try to tackle next?
Header artwork by Adrien Deggan
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