Thursday, October 26, 2017

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman

Reviewed by Jeanne

Let me start off by admitting that I am somewhat intimidated by Mr. Gaiman.  I often have the feeling that I am just too dense to understand some of his work.  Also, most of it has at least a trickle of darkness (if not a flood!) and I have to be in a certain frame of mind to read it.  For me, I find that his shorter fiction appeals to me a bit more.  Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it can’t pack a wallop.

And while there’s always a bit of darkness, that doesn’t mean humorless.  Gaiman has a great deal of wit and sly humor glimmering between the lines.

Smoke and Mirrors, as he explains in the don’t-miss introduction, refers to methods that stage magicians have used to fool viewers into believing impossible things.  Stories do the same thing; they appear to present a truth; but do they? Readers should be prepared to question everything as they fall through the author’s rabbit hole.

Or they can just enjoy the ride.

The collection includes poetry as well as stories, but the poems are just as haunting.  The fiction ranges from very short—just a smidge over a page—but most are around ten pages.  Some knowledge of Lovecraft will enhance appreciation for a couple of stories, but knowing a bit of folklore will almost always help. I find them all to be very visual, a veritable marathon of “Twilight Zone” or “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes. In the introduction itself, Gaiman briefly discusses each entry.  I bookmarked that section and would go back to read what he’d said about a particular work after I had read it.  Then sometimes I would read the story again.  Most of the stories were written for particular themed anthologies (fantasy erotica, retellings of Grimm folktales, computer fiction, etc.) while others came from more general suggestions—cats and angels are popular, so why not write a story about a cat who is an angel? (The resulting story didn’t appear for some years and then in quite a different form.)

There’s really not a clunker in the whole collection, but for me the standouts were:

·         The Wedding Present which appears as part of the introduction is a tale Gaiman intended to write as a wedding gift for friends until he decided that perhaps they’d rather have a toaster. What would happen if, as a wedding gift, you received a book which wrote the story of your marriage—or rather, a story? One that might or might not be true?

·         In Chivalry, Mrs. Whitaker finds the Holy Grail.  It was right there under a coat in the thrift shop and quite pretty it is, too, but this young man keeps coming up and asking for it so he can fulfill his quest….

·         The Price is an unforgettable tale of a black cat and his devotion to his family.  By all means, though, go back and read Gaiman’s comments on the story in the introduction. It made me feel a lot better about the whole thing.

·         Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar is a bit of a cautionary tale in which one can be led astray by relying too much on guidebooks.   The first sentence is a delight, and I thought the story just got better from there. I forced a colleague to listen to me read parts of it aloud because I thought it was so funny.

·         The structure of Murder Mysteries gave me pause because I made the mistake of starting it and then not finishing it the same day.  Our narrator meets a man in the park who tells him a story in return for a cigarette, and his story so dominates the plot that after my break I had forgotten that he was telling the tale to someone else.  He was, he says, an angel—Raguel, to be specific, the Vengeance of the Lord, and it was his job to investigate the death of another angel.  It’s a mesmerizing tale and one indeed to consider long after the last page has been turned.

As I said at the beginning, I find Mr. Gaiman’s work to be a bit of a challenge so I sort of take a deep breath before I plunge in—but it’s definitely worth it.  I shivered, I laughed, and I pondered.  That’s more than I can say about a lot of stories.

1 comment:

  1. Posted for Sandra:

    He is a wonder, sometimes best taken in small bits. I've been reading myth/saga/fairy and folktales most of my life, so those connections are always a delight to see, and they range quite widely. Some I like better than others, true, but that's to be expected. And never skip the introduction or notes in his books; sometimes the best stuff is there.