2008-09 Gathering of Voices

The Fantastic and Horrifying World of Neil Gaiman

Laurel Harris

There are some people in the world who are quite happy to go about their day never wondering about the possibilities of “what if?” What if the guy bouncing at the bar was actually Thor? What if there was a whole world hidden in the sewer? What if the bricked up door in that house led to a tiny dimension ruled by a woman who lured children in to be her pets? What if behind that wall was the portal to the entire realm of Faerie and all one had to do was walk through it? Some people never wonder about these things, but some people do. One of these people is Neil Gaiman. Gaiman uses the backdrop of the everyday to create fantastical worlds full of angels, demons, gods, and much worse into which the reader can easily become lost making it hard to come back to reality, as it can be argued Neil Gaiman himself would like to abandon in favor of these other worlds.

Gaiman began life in Portchester, England on November 10, 1960. Many years later he began a short career in journalism, publishing a few articles in a publication called Knave magazine. During this time in his life he wrote a little known biography for the pop band DuranDuran, though its presence is notably missing from most of his self published bibliographies. Later Gaiman collaborated with artist Dave McKean to create two graphic novels: “Violent Cases” and “Signal to Noise.” Due to the success of these graphic novels, Gaiman was given a job at DC Comics. This would lead to his most ambitious work ever, the Sandman series. This 75 issue meta-narrative was to be the groundwork upon which Gaiman’s reputation as an author would be built. After Sandman, Gaiman wrote a much more obscure comic miniseries called “The Books of Magic,” as well as a handful of other comic issues for other well established comic series such as “Hellblazer” and “Swamp Thing.” While Gaiman is best known for his comic books, he has written many novels which have cemented his name among the general population. These include Anansi Boys, Coraline, Stardust, The Graveyard Book, his best known novel American Gods, and Good Omens which he coauthored with Terry Pratchett. He also has many short stories, plays, screenplays, poems, children’s books, and songs to his credit (Neil Gaiman Biography).

In his writings, Gaiman explores many different themes. Sometimes his writings can be quite ominous and challenging, such as his Sandman series which follows the personification of human dreams as he undertakes a quest at the end of which he knows he will meet with his ultimate disaster. However sometimes Gaiman is not so serious with his writings, sometimes he can be quite playful. In the short story “Chivalry” he writes about an older woman, Mrs. Whitaker, who goes to an Oxfam shop, which is a chain of charity shops in England much like Goodwill, and buys herself a little treat. One fateful day she finds “…the Holy Grail; it was under a fur coat (Chivalry, 40).” The next day a young man shows up at her door and tells her he is on a quest to find the Holy Grail. When she asks for identification, as it is “unwise to let unidentified strangers into your home when you are elderly and living on your own (Chivarly, 43).” The young man returns with an elaborate scroll identifying him as Sir Galaad, as signed by King Arthur himself. He requests the Grail, but Mrs. Whitaker refuses to give it to him. Galaad returns often to have tea and plead with Mrs. Whitaker for the grail, he is however refused every time, though he is usually set to some task about the house. Finally Galaad offers her a phoenix egg, the Philosophers Stone and an apple which has the power to restore youth and health and can grant eternal life, in exchange for the grail. Mrs. Whitaker declines saying “ ‘You shouldn’t offer things like that to old ladies. It isn’t proper.’ (Chivalry, 53).” However she finally gives in to the knight and sends him on his way with the Grail. She is not without the mystical for too long as she finds Aladdin’s Lamp on her next Oxfam visit. In this story Gaiman shows off his playful side as he plays with a “What if?” Here he is postulating what would happen if major religious and historical relics could be found in little second hand shops.

A more serious side of Gaiman can be seen in the best example of the world according to Neil, his novel American Gods. In this book the reader follows Shadow Moon, a man newly released from prison as he tries to rebuild his life after finding out that his wife is dead. His first taste of freedom is his wife’s funeral. On the way he encounters a man by the name of Mr. Wednesday. This dubious man offers Shadow a job which, in time, he accepts as a bodyguard of sorts, protection for Mr. Wednesday . As the novel unfolds the reader discovers that the whores, barflies, morticians, strippers, little old ladies, cats, even employers Shadow meets are all gods of times gone by who have been abandoned in America by their followers and are now trying to find their own way in life. This is how Gaiman presents the wild story of an old forgotten god who wants to be worshipped again and his quest to recruit other old gods who have been forgotten to wage a war against the new gods in America. If the story of Mr. Wednesday were presented from his own perspective or even from the perspective of one of the other gods, the impact of the novel would be lost. Gaiman instead chooses to relay the tale through the eyes of a simple man, Shadow, making the entire story much more potent and interesting, as every person who picks up the book can find something in Shadow to identify with. It is Shadow’s presence that makes this unlikely world interesting and accessible for the reader, even though the presence of the gods is familiar to many readers with a working knowledge of mythology. This is an excellent example of how Gaiman uses the stark contrast between fantasy and reality to make the fantastical more interesting and appealing.

Sometimes in his writings Gaiman uses familiar tales to ask his readers to reevaluate the finite nature of reality; not only the inevitability of it, but the validity of it. In “Murder Mysteries,” Gaiman presents the possibility that God set Lucifer up to fall by way of a noir detective story surrounding the death of an angel at the beginning of creation. This can be seen when the angel Raguel explains to the Lord his theory on why the events in question were set in motion: “ ‘…perhaps it was needed that I destroy Saraquel, in order to demonstrate to Lucifer the injustice of the Lord.’ (Murder, 410)” Since, as modern people, we were not there at the beginning of creation, Gaiman is suggesting that we should not blindly accept the events we know nothing about. History is written by the winners, so the old saying goes, maybe we should question it sometimes.

While history may be written by the winners, destiny can be altered by the foibles of a few major players. This can be seen in another example of Gaiman interpreting a familiar story in another light in Good Omens which tells the story of the Christian apocalypse as heralded by the coming of the antichrist. In the book the antichrist is indeed introduced to the world, however through the follies of Sister Mary Loquacious, a satanic nun, the antichrist ends up with a middle class family in rural England, as far from the political realm as possible, which was to be the original home for “the Adversary, Destroyer of Kings, Angel of the Bottomless Pit, Great Beast that is called Dragon, Prince of This World, Father of Lies, Spawn of Satan, and Lord of Darkness (Good Omens, 28),” also known as Adam Young. Without the evil political training he was supposed to receive, Adam Young finds the end of the world to be a bit premature, “ ‘ The world is full of all sorts of brilliant stuff and I haven’t found out all about it yet, so I don’t want anyone messing it about or endin’ it before I’ve had a chance to find out about it’ (Good Omens, 354).” So as the coming of the End draws near, Adam goes in search of the four bikers of the apocalypse to try to stop the whole production. When Adam says he would like it to not proceed Death replies “SURELY YOUR VERY EXISTENCE REQUIRES THE ENDING OF THE WORLD. IT IS WRITTEN (Good Omens, 353).” To which the unlikely antichrist retorts “I dunt see why anyone has to go an’ write things like that, (Good Omens, 354). After which a scraggly gang of young English misfits takes on The Four and win, in effect stopping Armageddon. Here Gaiman again asks his readers to question the inevitability of life, or death. In this novel Gaiman has set up a charming situation wherein one can never take anything for granted, even the end of the world.

While many of his works take place in a world similar to the one most people inhabit, but with a twist, not all of them do. In his short story “Other People” Gaiman proposes what would happen to the bad apples of the world after they died. Relying again on Christian mythology, Gaiman proposes a Hell worse than any other imaginable. In Gaiman’s version of the fiery pit, a man is tortured first physically, then emotionally and mentally as he is forced to relive all the sins he acquired during his stay on this plane. By creating such a horrible set of consequences for a life led frivolously, Gaiman shows that being a member of the real world can have terrible consequences to those who live it without thought.

Every lie he had told-told to himself, or told to others. Every little hurt, and all the great hurts. Each one was pulled out of him, detail by detail, inch by inch. The demon stripped away the cover of forgetfulness, stripped everything down to truth, and it hurt more than anything. (110)

By the end of the torment, the man comes to to find that he has become the demon and another man has entered the room. The story ends as the new demon begins as the other had “ ‘Time is fluid here,’ he told the new arrival.” (112) Here Gaiman leaves the fate of the characters to the reader’s imagination. He never explains what happens to each character. However with the opening and closing lines regarding the fluidity of time, it can be imagined that the man we follow through the initial torture is caught in an endless loop wherein he plays every part in turn. He is simultaneously the demon and the man being tortured, in effect punishing himself over and over again throughout eternity. This realization adds a new level of horror to the story, which asks reader’s to reevaluate just how great living your life in the real world is if a fate similar to this may be waiting on the other side.

As a general rule, Gaiman seems to favor the idea of the fantasy worlds he creates to be preferable to the one inhabited by the sane among the population. While some of his creations are terrifying, such as the Hell in “Other People”, there are many worlds which are quite welcoming despite the horrors present in them. One example of this is London Below which is described in Neverwhere, a book which recounts the adventures of an average man, Richard Mayhew, as he travels through the subterranean version of London in search of an angel who can return him to his old life. In this place there are beautiful women who steal your warmth, vile angry angels, a real Piccadilly Circus, vicious warriors, and a cult of people called Rat Speakers who always prostrate themselves before the sewer rats who are royalty to them. While this may seem distasteful to some, the main character Richard Mayhew finds it to be familiar and comfortable after dwelling there for a time. After being put to innumerable and unpleasant tests in order to get back to his home in London Above, Richard realizes that the fantastical world of London Below was far more preferable to the one into which he was born. The novel ends after he packs his bags and goes in search of a way back below. It can be argued that Gaiman himself sees the world of the unseen to be preferable and he lives out his fantasy through Richard. This can be seen with the closing lines of the book as Richard tries to contact his friends from Below. The Marquis de Carabas, who had been a companion on his subterranean adventure, appears to him and

Then Richard nodded, without trusting himself to speak, and stood up. And they walked away together through the hole in the wall, back into the darkness, leaving nothing behind them; not even the doorway. (387)

In another example of Gaiman’s heroes choosing the fantastical world over the one they know is Stardust. In this novel a young village boy, Tristan Thorne, goes into the kingdom of Stormhold which is on the border between England and Faerie, in search of a fallen star has pledged to find for his love. Upon finding the star he discovers, instead of a hunk of rock, a beautiful woman, who he persuades to come with him back to his village of Wall so that she may meet his love and he may marry her. However by the end of the story Tristan has found his true love actually dwells in the star he set about to find, along with his history and his identity. It turns out the Tristan is the only surviving male heir to the royal Stormhold line and by the end of the book he has taken his rightful place as King. In this story the hero finds a place as fantastic as any imaginable and after finding his footing in this new environment, decides to stay there forever.

He looked upon the lights of Wall for what (it came to him then with certainty) he knew was the last time. He stared at them for some time, and said nothing, the fallen star by his side. And then he turned away, and together they began to walk toward the East. (209)

Sometimes Gaiman’s message to question the nature of reality and weigh the benefits of reality and fantasy can extend to other authors works. In the story “A Study in Emerald” Gaiman recasts the familiar world of Sherlock Holmes into an H.P. Lovecraft story. In this world Gaiman sets the renowned detective and his assistant about the task of discovering who killed a member of the royal family, who are in turn all members of Lovecraft’s Old Ones. It is still Queen Victoria who reigns in this imaginary world, but no Queen Victoria who has ever graced our history books.

She was called Victoria, because she had beaten us in battle, seven hundred years before, and she was called Gloriana, because she was glorious, and she was called the Queen, because the human mouth was not shaped to say her true name. She was huge, huger than I had imagined possible, and she squatted in the shadows staring down at us, without moving (Emerald, 11).

If this were not enough of a twist for most readers, Gaiman goes one further by dropping little hints throughout the story which climax at the end when the reader realizes it is not Holmes and Watson he has been following, but the nemesis of each man, Professor James Moriarty and Colonel Sebastian Moran, respectively. This means that the villains of the tale then become Holmes and Watson, which would never happen! In “A Study in Emerald” Gaiman has demonstrated the flexibility, possibility, and desirability of life in the fantasy world by meshing different familiar characters into his own creation.

In another similar story, “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire” Gaiman imagines a world in which the deepest darkest opium dreams of Edgar Allen Poe are a reality and any dark deed is possible. “From the forbidden room at the top of the house an eerie, ululating cry rang out, echoing through the house. The young man sighed. ‘You had better feed Aunt Agatha, Toombes.’ (Forbidden, 53).” In this story a man is trying to write a serious piece of literature about a young woman who inadvertently stumbles onto the horrible legacy left to her by her father, yet is vexed by humor and irony trying to creep in. Throughout the story the young man distracts himself by battling a long dead brother for birthright, and taking in a new maid who has shown up to the house under suspect circumstances which are purposefully left mysterious. At one point during his procrastination, a raven asks him, rather casually, “ ‘Do you like writing that stuff?’ (Forbidden, 60).” This causes the man to reevaluate his creation. Finding it lacking, he turns to fantasy writing and tells a short story about a woman who, while making breakfast for her husband, realizes just how miserable her life is. This is where the story ends. Because of the way it is written, the story takes a couple of reads to decipher, but in the end the reader comes to the conclusion that even within a world of fantasy and horror, a person may wish for the escapism offered by a well crafted piece of completely unrealistic literature. Perhaps here Gaiman is pointing out that no matter your surroundings, escape from them is preferable, at least for a while, to the day to day operations.

It can definitely be argued that regardless of whether Gaiman is drawing from history, religion, other authors or his own mind, he often times provided his readers with something new, interesting, and preferable to the mundane world inhabited by most people. He is a creator of fantasy and fairy tales, horror and humor. Within his writings can be found doorways to many other worlds, one only has to open to access.

Works Cited

Gaiman, Neil. American Gods. New York: HarperCollins Publishers Inc., 2001. Print.

---. “A Study in Emerald.” Fragile Things: Short Fiction and Wonders. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 1-25. Print.

---. “Chivalry.” Smoke and Mirrors. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1999. 40-56. Print.

---. “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire.” Fragile Things: Short Fiction and Wonders. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 49-64. Print.

---. “Murder Mysteries.” Smoke and Mirrors. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1999. 378-414. Print.

---. Neverwhere. London: Headline Book Publishing, 1996. Print.

---. “Other People.” Fragile Things: Short Fiction and Wonders. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. 110-112. Print.

--- (w), Vess, Charles (i). Stardust: Being a Romance Within the Realms of Faerie. New York: Vertigo [DC Comics], 1998. Print.

“Neil Gaiman Biography.” Biographybase. 2002. Web. 16 Aug. 2009.

Pratchett, Terry and Neil Gaiman. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. New York: HarperTorch, 1990. Print.

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