Published by Gollancz, September 2006
366 pages. ISBN: 0755334124
Review by Hobbit, October 2006.
OK – let me put my cards on the table here. After years of self-contemplation and deliberation, as well as being cajoled by many whose views I respect, I think I am not the biggest fan of Neil Gaiman’s writing.
Let me explain further.
I have met Neil and found him to be a thoroughly nice bloke: an intelligent, bright, knowledgeable individual, who is clearly a fan of the genre, thoroughly self-depreciating, who has done and regularly does more for the genre than I will ever do and is conversely loved by many in return. His talks are thoughtful and thought-provoking, his love of the fantastique writ large. When the man speaks, whether through his blog, through his writing or when giving speeches, many (including me) listen. He is erudite, literate, charming and genuinely modest.
And yet… and yet… I have to say, with hand on heart, that although I really admire his skill, his variety of interests and deeply envy him his talents, though I usually like his work a lot, it is rare that I can truly say I love it.
I have tried – really, really tried. I have read quite a few of his books now, but for some undefined reason, though I never regret reading them, I often feel short-changed at the end. I have tried to work out why, and frankly, I am still at a loss – and judging by the opposing weight of evidence to the contrary, it is clearly my loss.
So what has all of this got to do with Fragile Things, Neil’s latest short story collection, his first in eight years (see Smoke and Mirrors for his earlier collection)?
Well, I guess what I’m trying to do here is start with an open mind but letting you who read this be aware of my perspective. I’m trying to say that I was prepared to like this collection. And there is here a lot to (possibly) like. The first story, A Study in Emerald, is a Victorian Sherlock Holmes Lovecraftian horror story, first encountered in Shadows over Baker Street, edited by Michael Reaves and John Pelan and winner of the Hugo for best short story in 2004. The final story, The Monarch of the Glen, is a sequel to American Gods (written before Anansi Boys), which was first published in Legends II (2004), edited by Robert Silverberg. And so the list goes on. There are stories here that have won the Locus Short Story Awards for 2004, 2005 & as well as the Hugo Award for Short Story (for 2004). Surely, I mused, if they’re worth that, then as I usually like the Hugo and Locus recommendations, there would be more to like here?
Yes. And yet…. And yet….
I think what further confuses me is that, despite my reservations, Neil’s work seems to work best for me in the short format. I did not like American Gods, nor have managed to enjoy Anansi Boys, unlike many. Having said that, I enjoyed Neverwhere (when many seemingly did not) and Stardust, as well as what I’ve read of The Sandman; but his short stories in particular seem to show his enormous breadth of knowledge without padding and unneeded detail, stripped to the essentials, and that works better for me.
And there certainly is an eclectic variety here, written in a pleasing assortment of styles: stories in an alternate metafiction, creepy ghost stories, horror stories, weird tales type stories, sexual shenanigans – quite a broad range of material to work with. It is no coincidence that the book is dedicated to Robert Sheckley, Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison; Bradbury and Ellison, in particular, are two writers who I also admire – even love.
I can see the same love, care and interest that those two have given to speculative fiction in Neil’s work. And yet, with Neil’s work for me there is still often an ‘mmmph’. Though I often enjoy the parts, the completed construction (for me) falls flat.
To try and explain, let me return to the story I expected to enjoy most – the aforementioned A Study in Emerald. This is a story written with love and respect for Sherlock Holmes, set in an alternate world where Lovecraftian elements are part of the mundane. Ah ha, I thought – Gaiman does Kim Newman-esque metafiction! How could it fail? And yes, I loved the little adverts for products such as Victor’s Vitae and the sly ritualistic habits of our never-named hero; and yet, at the end, I was left with a deflated feeling of ‘so what’? The ideas were great, the characterisation brilliant, but I felt there could be so much more.
I did really like Closing Time, a ghost story told by the bar in one of those late-night clubs reminiscent of M R James (something Neil freely admits, though prefers Robert Aickman.) It won the Locus Award for Best Short Story in 2004. Creepy and unsettling, rather what I hoped the rest of the collection would be like.
October in the Chair I thought was OK, and very-Bradburylike, something which Neil happily admits to. Imagine a campside tale, with all the months of the year personified around it.
I also liked Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire, though in the end thought it was too slight a tale to really be memorable.
Of the stories I found least enjoyable here, clearly there are wheels within wheels, but sometimes I guess there I miss the point entirely. Coffee Grounds, a story of ghosts and identity, finished flatly for me, with two many unresolved elements for me to like. And I still am unmoved by the American Gods stuff, even when I can see the skill and admire the idea.
Perhaps it is this which makes Neil’s work hard for me – as much as I love the sly genre references, the little things that a fan may get, to understand and, yes, love Neil’s writing, you have to be able to unlock the code: for those who don’t get it, it is an impenetrable mystery. For me, as shown above, even when I do get it, my anticipation is often not met by the finished article.
So – let me try and simplify. This is, on balance, a fine collection by Neil. It is clear to me that fans of his earlier work such as Smoke and Mirrors will love this, though the sheer variety of stories and poems inside may mean that they do not love it all. For me, I enjoyed most of it, though the American Gods stuff still leaves me strangely unmoved. I think that, on balance, this may be a stronger collection than his previous one; despite my own personal (and rather mysterious) reservations, that should be enough for many to go and buy.
Hobbit, October 2006.