Short Fictions and Wonders
By Neil Gaiman
Morrow. 360 pp. $26.95
You've maybe heard some academic theory about how fairy tales weren't composed by any single author, that they somehow knitted themselves out of folk-consciousness. Baloney. To be sure, the tales might have been improved here and there over the years. But if you want to know the kind of person who would have made up the prototype classic fairy tale or even those urban folk tales doing the rounds, it would be someone like Neil Gaiman. He's a one-man story engine. He could fall out of a tree, reach for a passing branch and land with a fable in his hand. If you dusted him down and turned out his pockets, you'd find three fresh yarns and a horse chestnut.
Puckish, restless, Gaiman moves across all available media. After making a name for himself with the miraculous "Sandman" series in the world of the graphic novel (Norman Mailer referred to his work as "a comic strip for intellectuals"), he has turned his hand to novels, short stories, film scripts, children's stories, poetry and numerous collaborations.
His new collection, Fragile Things, is a delightful compendium rather than a straightforward story collection, but it's a fine sample of the author's versatility. Gaiman writes in different registers: comedy, satire, pastiche, deadpan, lyrical or whimsical, but almost invariably dark. It all depends on whichever sooty, fantastic spirit drops down the chimney of his Minneapolis writing room on any given day.
In fact, part of the fun of Gaiman's writing is in recognizing the nods and winks to the antecedents in the fantasy tradition, and a lengthy introduction is given over to notes on the background to each of the stories. Most were commissioned over the past 10 years for various anthologies. While some of the references might be elusive to readers unfamiliar with the dark genres, for those who tread that ground, the introduction is a bonus tour of the fertile orchard of this unique author's mind: a hybrid Sherlock Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft story; an M.R. James/Robert Aickman-inspired tale; a story triggered by the artwork of Frank Frazetta; an argument with C.S. Lewis. All the influences and precursors are laid bare, and the introduction reveals both the original plan for the story and the (usually inevitable) departure from that plan.
Gaiman's talents and interests lend themselves -- perfectly, in fact -- to the short form, and there are gems in this collection. Ever felt a shot of sympathy for poor Susan, banished from heaven in the Narnia Chronicles for being "too fond of lipsticks and nylons and invitations to parties"? Here is an exploration of the elderly Susan's last moments, created out of dissatisfaction with Lewis's priggish treatment of his female characters. Or if you're partial to the club story, then "Closing Time" is a lovely addition to the species: The frame of the drinking-club cronies drops back into a nostalgic piece of Gothic gloaming as a lonely boy is drawn by three older lads into a mysterious garden. But what seduces you is Gaiman's conversational style, rippling with acute lines, such as, "Being a boy, I was also a burglar of sorts."
These stories run from light-as-a-feather whimsy to the very dark and the deeply disturbing. "How Do You Think It Feels" is a brilliantly unsettling piece about the act of choking back a broken heart, a fine study of emotional repression through recourse to the Fantastic. "Feeders and Eaters," with its clever set-up and freak-out payoff, is not for the faint-hearted either.
You just don't know what you are in for from one story to the next. One of the pleasures of Gaiman's stories is how often they announce that "this is a true story" or that "this happened to a friend," though the book's introduction never confirms that any of these things actually happened. But you don't care because the story has already entered the chain of fairy/folk/urban tales, and the vulgar truth is merely academic.
Ah, that Neil Gaiman. Oddly enough, the novelist William Gibson described him as "an American treasure." He's not. Though he is indeed a national treasure, he's a British one. The Brits would quite like him back, please. ·
Graham Joyce's most recent novel is "The Limits of Enchantment."