Neil Gaiman is probably the only “modern” (as in post-1950) author whose entire canon I have not only read (well, most of it… there’s a few recent “kids’ books that I’ve resisted the temptation of) , but actually keep displayed on a bookcase in the dining room. The others, sad to say, are tucked away in boxes, or buried behind my George Orwell collection, for fear that friends might flick through the pages and denounce them as pretentious crap. A lot of Gaiman’s work is pretentious crap, too, I expect. And Orwell is just a leftist curmudgeon who didn’t much like Billy Bunter. But no, there he sits in all his glory… Gaiman, that is, not George… and I’ve quite forgotten where I was going with any of this. So I’ll shut up, and leave you with a pair of reviews, from 1997 and 1998, from the pages of Alternative Press.
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
First published in Alternative Press, 1997
Over the course of the last decade, Neil Gaiman has emerged as one of the best fantasy writers of a generation which is literally overflowing with the things. Via the epochal Sandman comic (now available in monthly reprint form); across the course of sundry graphic novels; and onto Good Omens, a full length novel written with Terry Pratchett, Gaiman mines a British childhood with the passion of a preacherman.
Stray memories surface in most of his works: the vague dread conjured by the Punch and Judy puppet show; the saga of the Lancashire Witches; the wrinkly old guy who once paraded around London in his raincoat and cap, bearing a placard warning “less lust from more protein.” Childhood obsessions with a certain brand of candy, a comic book or TV show… self-conscious “I was there”-isms? Or nostalgic touchstones which ground the electricity of fantasy? Gaiman, who left Britain a few years back for his present home in Minnesota, isn’t saying. But unlike, say, Stephen King, for whom odd rock’n’roll lyrics once fulfilled many of the same requirements (now, of course, they’re simply trademark cliches), such moments serve a greater purpose. They let reality get a look-in when all is else is turning to madness.
Neverwhere (Avon Books, $24) is the dark haired, black Tee-d Gaiman’s latest work. It is also his greatest.
Set in modern day London, with a modern day hero, it draws from modern day culture for the basics of its plot – an underworld lurking beneath the streets of London, just a door away from the city above, but beyond the realm of imagination anyway. Half CS Lewis, half Dr Who (catch what’s left of Web Of Fear on the Hartnell Years video collection), it is a place of stygian blackness, with its people and culture alike blithely crossing time and space, myth and modernity.
The disenfranchised homeless of London today know it; so do the monsters of the city’s legendary past. Convoluted geographical puns establish its center-points; disused subway stations focus its events; and when Richard Mayhew, a normal city slicker, falls into this world, it is through the ensuing assault on his sense of logic that the reader himself comes to know how things work.
Neverwhere itself is based on a BBC TV series which Gaiman created last year. Where the show was widely regarded as confused, however, the novel is absolutely captivating, one of those “start it at bedtime, and you won’t sleep till dawn” adventures which simply never lets up. Some brilliant characterization leaps out, none so much as Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar, a pair of disreputable 18th Century dandy graverobbers with a nice line in human suffering. Their malevolent presence speeds the story as much as it speeds the book’s nominal heroes.
In ten words or less, the story itself is simply yer basic dungeons-and-dragons type quest: find the key, kill the fiend, and we can all live bizarrely ever after. Over 336 pages, however, it is a treasure trove of ideas and in a way, idealism; many of Neverwhere’s most prominent denizens are primitive, crude, and savage, but within their twisted morality, there is a sense of order and honor which is shocking in its commonsense.
Such philosophizing, of course, cannot be allowed to obscure the true value of Neverwhere, nor that of Gaiman himself. As a master storyteller, of course, he has long since proven himself with Sandman. Neverwhere, however, confirms what that earlier epic could only suggest; that the only pictures his words really need are those which they conjure in the reader’s mind.
Stardust by Neil Gaiman
First published in Alternative Press, 1998
The problem with Neil Gaiman is, he rarely tells you anything you don’t already know. Or at least, that you couldn’t have guessed. “My early influences were probably fairy tales, folk stories, myths,” he reveals. “As a kid I’d get my parents to drop me off at the local library and I’d read my way through it, starting with the A’s.” And there we were, the loyal legions who’ve hung onto his every word since the beginning of the Sandman series at least (at LEAST), convinced he was brought up by gibbons, who forcefed him Barbara Cartland.
It’s a useful talent, though, and for a writer of Gaiman’s abilities, an indispensable one. If, after all, every thought in his head came tumbling out, every time he opened his mouth, then where would he be? Certainly not celebrating the near simultaneous publication of two new books – the Smoke And Mirrors collection (Avon, $24) at the end of last year; and his second full-length novel, Stardust (Avon, $22) early in this one. Or maybe he would be, because – as he himself acknowledges – “I always had a soft spot for anything that was both patently untrue” (which, of course, contradicts just about every word he actually speaks), “and that felt right.”
Neil Gaiman’s guardedness feels right.
Smoke And Mirrors we can brush aside really, not because it’s a lesser work (which it isn’t), but because a lot of fans have probably already read a lot of it, turning up in fanzines and anthologies over the years, and confirming Gaiman’s reputation as THE master of modern fantasy with every turn of the page. There are a couple of tales you will probably pass unread, and his poetry’s probably rather good, if you can stand to read poetry. But the bulk of the book, from the reworking of the Billy Goats Gruff story, to the “what I did on my summer vacation”-esque essay, “When We Went To See The End Of The World,” is pretty unputdownable.
Stardust, on the other hand… Stardust is a little more problematic. We’ve already established that Gaiman rarely tells you anything you don’t already know. What that means here is, he doesn’t tell you that Stardust is a fairy story until the first fairies have already appeared; he doesn’t let on that the town of Wall in this book got its name, for the same reasons as Door in Neverwhere (his last novel) got hers’; and he doesn’t admit that Lord Dunsany’s The King Of Elfland’s Daughter was a mighty, major, and at times overwhelming influence on this book, until you read the last page of his acknowledgements, which are the last page of the book.
First published in 1924, and in and out of print since then, Elfland is probably best-known today from its not-quite-abortive translation into a folk-rock opera in the late 1970s, by sundry members of Steeleye Span. It was actually worth a lot more than that, though, as Gaiman admits – Dunsany, after all, is one of a select handful of authors whom he credits with “showing me that fairy stories are for adults as well.” And that’s worth bearing in mind while staring at Stardust on the bookshop shelf, and wondering whether you really want to be out in public, carrying a modern Mother Goose beneath your arm. Because you wouldn’t want your children reading Stardust, or if you did, you’d need to be prepared to answer a lot of peculiar questions after, questions which aren’t necessarily born of Stardust, but are certainly derived from the experiences therein.
So it’s a moral tale (sort of), and a love story (kind of), and one of those odd voyages of self-discovery which every author likes to take at some point or another. (In a way.) And that’s not a bad thing. Neither is its distance, physically, geographically, and psychologically, from Neverwhere; in its own way, Stardust is more in the tradition of Sandman than anything else Gaiman’s written, because that, too, was concerned with issues beyond the there and then of the here and now. Or, as G.K. Chesterton once said, and Gaiman is fond of repeating, “fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
There are dragons in Stardust. But they’re not necessarily the dragons you might be expecting.