- The Good: Short story collection that perfects a fantasy and horror mix
- The Bad: Lots of different things here; it’s best to give a little time between each piece of fiction
- The Literary: Many re-tellings of common myths and stories written in the style of other authors
Neil Gaiman’s first book of short stories showcases a wide array of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and even poetry.
I’ve read some of these before in other collections, but this is my first read of this grouping of short fiction, and it’s a joy to read some of the early stuff. The book is wide-ranging in both form and substance, reminiscent of other lasting works that redefined the self-imposed boundaries of literary genres, like classics by Bradbury, Borges, and Chaucer. What I mean to say is that some authors, like Kafka, Vonnegut, Carver, or Saunders, find their niche and perfect it, but Gaiman is a master of multiple forms and genres all at once.
There are several stories that stick with me, with a few common characteristics. First, I love the way a fantasy is actually the exploration of something quite serious and mundane, the same way the novel Neverwhere, a story about a Londoner journeying through the magical world of the underground, is actually about homelessness. Along those lines, I love the longer stories in this collection that take their time to work around a theme:
- The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories — A writer visits Hollywood to adapt his novel into a screenplay. It explores the short memory of goldfish and television, while also mulling on the magic trick of turning something of substance into something that is based on almost nothing, something for which the audience still happily pays and claps at the end.
- Looking for the Girl — A teenager finds a perfect girl in a dirty magazine and resolves to find her. Years later, she appears again in the same magazine but hasn’t aged a day. I love this female god who is the epitome of the male gaze, who goes by whatever name you want to call her. The story is about an obsession with a single face, but it juxtaposes the real life women who come and go so fast when there are always new faces and younger bodies to showcase on large shiny pages.
- Murder Mysteries — A young man meets an old crush, fools around with her, and after she tells him she loves him, he says thank you and leaves. He then meets a man on a public bench who exchanges a cigarette for a story about the first death in heaven, and how he solved the murder and dispensed justice. Love is fleeting.
Second, I love when magical realism seamlessly slips between reality and fantasy, and Gaiman especially does so in a way that re-tells our common mythology in a more modern and accessible way. There are three stories towards the beginning of the collection that are perfect examples:
- Chivalry — While shopping at the local thrift shop, an elderly lady picks up a antique goblet and a romance paperback. She’s confronted with the extraordinary when Sir Galahad visits, questing for the Holy Grail. It’s a story about growing old and the importance of special objects in our lives.
- The Price — After a stray cat adopts a family, the father notices a trend for bad luck when the cat is not allowed to live on the front porch. When he stays up all night to spy, he discovers that evil is closer than he thought and some battles are not meant to be known.
- Troll Bridge — Many of the stories in this collection are re-telling of famous fables, and this one does Billy Goats Gruff. The troll is immediately the antagonist—he wants to eat the boy who crosses into his path. But as the boy grows up, he makes several selfish decisions, until he’s not a hero anymore. It’s about playing in a wilderness as a child and seeing it as someplace magical, then in a few years hating your hometown. The kid convinces the troll to let him go because when he’s bigger he’ll be a better meal, but it’s the act of growing up that spoils his soul.
Third, there’s a lot of stories with provocative sex sprinkled throughout. I appreciate the craft of these much more now than I would have a few years ago. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think it has something to do with a younger version of myself who wanted a purer story, one that wouldn’t use cheap tricks.
- Foreign Parts — An abstinent lonely man contracts a venereal disease and goes to a doctor to get it treated. The disease could be considered the best or worst thing to ever to have happened to him, so long as you have loose definitions of identity and what makes a life worth living.
- Tastings — A male prostitute who intuitively knows what his clients secretly want in bed is delighted to be hired by a famous female celebrity. Unfortunately, his powers don’t seem to work on her. This one is explicit, but the dialogue is purposefully uncomfortable. This is reminds me of Bilquis, featured in American Gods, but it’s even scarier.
- Snow, Glass, Apples — This is my favorite of the re-tellings, in which Snow White is evil and it’s the stepmother who is trying to keep the kingdom from falling under the sway of a vampire who killed her father the King. Unfortunately, a prince with a fetish for necrophilia enters the scene and they become and unstoppable duo. Dark, macabre, and wonderfully interpreted.
Here’s one more for good measure. We Can Get Them For You Wholesale is a story about unrequited love and not being able to turn down a great deal.
Highly recommended for fans of Gaiman, horror, and dark fantasy!