Neil Gaiman made comic books cool before…well…. before comic books were cool. Three years after DC Published The Watchmen, Gaiman’s The Sandman came out on the Vertigo imprint, and helped pull the medium out of adolescence and into the realm of serious literature. (It was also one of the first comic books to attract a loyal female readership). The 75 book series was different from the standard superhero and mutant fare. It immersed its readers in fantasy, mythology & literary history, – overlapping an archetypal past onto the modern world. William Shakespeare, Orpheus, Lucifer, and Cain & Abel were all recurring characters. It was in many ways the introduction of the graphic novel to the “literary” world.
So it was no surprise that when Gaiman moved away from comic books and into writing novels that he stayed with the fantasy genre. Good Omens (co-authored with Terry Pratchett), Neverwhere, Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boyes , and of course Coraline, are all wonderful and I can’t recommend them enough. But on a 5 hour trip to Pittsburgh I decided to purchase Fragile Things: Short Fictions & Wonders from Audible.com. I saw the collection of short stories, poems and prose as a return to Gaiman’s comic book roots; where each issue was an installment in an overall story arc. While I don’t regret my selection, I do have mixed feelings about it.
At 10 hours and 51 minutes long, read by the author, I didn’t finish the whole download during the round trip . I could have, but frankly it would have been a bit much. These stories were much bloodier and heavier than I expected. (There was also quite a bit of sex… Not a bad thing – just unexpected). They are on the whole haunting. Days after reading one it will linger in your mind. Frequently, even though you’re pretty sure you can read between the lines or predict what happens after the story ends – you realize that you can never really be sure, can you? I mean, he never actually tells you… does he? All this adds up to an unsettling collection with too little humor, and what humor there is being pitch black. Gaiman creates a mood wonderfully, but in this case he has used his powers for evil. After each sitting I turned off my ipod feeling rather bleak.
Don’t misunderstand, I enjoyed Fragile Things. A few stories are quite funny (I only wish there had been more). I particularly liked one with a nice twist about an author’s struggle to write a terrible, and unintentionally hilarious, Gothic novel entitled Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire (also the title of the story). Another favorite was about a pair of boys crashing a party and attempting to pick-up girls, which has an interesting take on the Men are From Mars & Women from Venus phenomena – quite literally. Two more stories which gave me chills (in a good, ghost-story-told-around-the-campfire-with-a flashlight-under-your-face kind of way) were about young boys meeting eerie playmates, featured the same red door knocker, and were both told using frame stories. (Probably not a coincidence). I’d strongly recommend skipping the story entitled Feeders & Eaters altogether if you have a delicate stomach.
These stories are probably more palatable read in a book, one at a time with long breaks between sittings… but I highly recommend the audiobook. Gaiman’s readings are inspired – they transport you into the story. His vocal expression may be what makes the experience so unsettling. (He does the voices!) For those of us who always loved Gaiman’s writing, its nice to know that he is a true storyteller in every sense.
Do NOT make the mistake of thinking that just because it feels like being read a bedtime story, these stories are suitable for young ears. And I wouldn’t recommend them before bed. I can’t imagine anything creepier than driving into Pittsburgh at 11PM listening to The Flints of Memory Lane, but hearing it right before attempting to go to sleep probably would make the cut.
Is it BookSexy? Will it help to make you a more interesting person? Well, yes… and no. There is beautiful writing in Fragile Things, and beautiful stories. You’ll find alot to talk about. As a collection, though, it gets to be disturbing. I suppose the same can be said about taxidermy. One stuffed dead animal in a room can be an interesting conversation piece. Twelve or fifteen is the Addams Family Mansion.
My advice: It’s best to err on the side of moderation. Parcel out these stories. They’ll be easier to enjoy and the reading will last that much longer.
And should you ever come to a door with a scarlet door knocker in the shape of a demon’s face?… Don’t knock.