The Short Version: Ghosts, witches, human statues, Black Shuck, Sleeping Beauty, David Bowie, and even Shadow grace the pages of Gaiman’s latest short story collection – 25 tales and poems written in his singular voice, about things that might just shake you to your core.
The Review: Short story collections often have it rough – crammed full, nearly always read too quickly, never quite as satisfying (to me) as a novel – but I think few have it harder than collections by Neil Gaiman. The man’s oeuvre is so rapaciously consumed by his fans (of whom I am absolutely a near-rabid one) that a collection is often just… well, a collection of things you’ve already seen. Sure, there’s a proper NEW story to bait the hook… but is there enough to make it worthwhile?
For me, a surprising amount, actually. For one thing, I don’t think I’ve previously read a poem by Mr. Gaiman – so what a delight to discover that the first piece in the collection is a poem and that there are several more scattered throughout. And Gaiman’s lengthy introduction provides insight into some of these stories that I might’ve missed otherwise, like the fact that he’s tipping his hat to Jack Vance and Arthur C. Clarke in addition to the obvious nods to Bradbury and Conan Doyle. And, of course, that new story (which ties in intriguingly, or at least I think it might, to that initial poem) – but we’ll get to that.
The collection is, as any collection tends to be these days, still a little over-stuffed. 25 pieces is quite a stack of stories, even if you’re parceling them out as best you can, and the glut makes some of the later stories land a little less strongly than they might’ve – but this is also often my own personal failing with short story collections, so bear this in mind. And I think Gaiman is aware that some of these stories are, if not exactly throwaways, certainly minor additions. There’s a story here that he’d included in the book of “Who Killed Amanda Palmer”, a short story he wrote for the Guardian – little stories, meant to take up only a little time. That’s not to say that his little stories don’t pack a punch (“Click Clack the Rattlebag” is short and absolutely terrifying – like, ‘turn the lights on and sit nervously curled up on the couch’ terrifying – and it runs less than 5 pages. It’s just that some of these stories seem to flicker by, flashes beyond the edge of the road as you drive past. They are interesting but only for the moment that they’re in your presence, then they’re gone.
Luckily, the collection has a preponderance of stories that DO maintain your attention beyond the end of the page. “A Lunar Labyrinth” sees a strange little town with a terrifying secret – the action nearly all taking place after the story ends. And “The Thing About Cassandra” takes a fun concept (that girl you invented to tell your friends you were dating back in grade school) and runs with it, only to turn the screw not once but twice before the end. That one might actually be my favorite story in the collection, just because of the sheer wham-bam of those twists.
Some of these stories will be familiar, as we’ve already discussed. “‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…'” is a story that was published on its own with illustrations and was also performed with an orchestral backing a few times over the last year or so. And “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” appears in Shadow Show, a collection celebrating Bradbury – and, I’d argue, a more interesting place for that story to appear. See, here’s the thing: that story is tied so directly to Bradbury that, surrounded by other Bradbury-inspired tales, it takes on a deeper meaning. Whereas here, it’s just another Gaiman story – still engaging, still interesting, but without that added layer of understanding. Heck, if you skipped the introduction (as I’m sure some people did), you might have zero context for any of these stories. For my money, that makes them less powerful.
Speaking of power, let’s talk about “Black Dog”. American Gods is, as faithful readers will know, the book that made me come up with the ‘6’ rating for this blog; it is one of my all-time favorite books and an inspiration to me in countless ways. The prospect of a sequel has been dangled before us often enough – and “Making a Chair” might hint at it, it’s unclear – and with “The Monarch of the Glen”, we know that Gaiman is still interested in telling Shadow’s story. So here we find him passing through a small English town and getting… shall-we-say waylaid and ending up involved with the great British legend of Black Shuck. (“BLACK SHUCK, BLAAAAAACK SHUCK – that dog don’t give a fuuuuuuuck!”, as the song by The Darkness goes.) The black dog is iconic in England – Churchill described his depression as such and that gets referenced here – but the story felt oddly… it felt like it was actually killing time. We get to visit with Shadow again, which is delightful, and there are some throwbacks to the novel – Bast appears, in a way – but I wondered as I read the story whether or not Shadow could survive in this new world. It’s only near the very end, when the black dog is connected to [redacted SPOILER], that I realized that Gaiman is just building up his courage: he’s getting ready to bring Shadow back to the States. Yes, in the intro he mentions one more story – Shadow finally making it to London – but I think that’s just a foregone conclusion now. The story ambled on, no more exciting than any other tale, until the very end when I felt that same magic that’d swept me off my feet several years ago.
I should’ve known. After all, you can always rely on Neil.
Rating: 4 out of 5. It’s a little too over-stuffed a collection, unfortunately, and as a result some of the stories suffer in comparison to others nearby. But the individual pieces themselves are often delightful – I had no idea that Neil was a poet, even on just an occasional level – and some of them are among the best shorts that Neil has ever written. Still, between this and Ocean, there is a sense looming in the back of your mind that there is something big coming. He’s been working in the shorter form, which I don’t think anyone minds, for some time now – but it’s like the master running through his spellbook for practice before attempting something far more difficult. I can’t wait, as ever, to see what comes next.