Neil Gaiman makes you believe in magic—fairy tales and swords and sorcery sometimes, but mostly, and in what I’ve decided is my favourite genre of fantasy, corner-of-your-eye magic. Magic that coexists and overlaps with the everyday world that we know, but magic that simply chooses not to reveal itself, or we choose on some subconscious level not to notice because we’re content to go on with the lives we’ve deemed sensible. A hidden world in the cracks and forgotten places of London? Gods and spirits eking out a living in modern day America? Ancient spirits residing in the hill of an overlooked and overgrown graveyard? It’s all there, and you really do believe that these things can exist and we can all be walking straight past them every day.
I haven’t read Sandman or any of his graphic novels, but mostly ended up in his novels and short stories and the interweave of bizarreness and normalcy within. The fact that he won an award for an Arthur Conan Doyle/H.P. Lovecraft crossover fanfiction (A Study in Emerald) should tell you on its own that his imagination is versatile, playful, somewhat macabre, and has no problem magpie-ing other people’s creations and toying with them until they’re made into something new. Gaiman’s recently released a Sleeping Beauty retelling, and it’s not the first time he’s played with fairy tales either, given Snow, Glass, Apples, a chilling reimagining of Snow White from the stepmother’s point of view, Snow White being a vampiric creature she’s trying to stop from sucking the life out of her husband and kingdom; and Stardust, his own ‘fairy tale for adults’.
Does this mean he’s one of those ‘let’s take well-known pre-established and much-loved ideas and make them into something gritty and mature and horrifying’ authors? In some ways, yes, but he manages not to be so overt about it, and you always get a sense of fun as an undercurrent to even his most serious works (yes, even you, American Gods). The same way he blends the magic with the mundane, he manages to blend things we recognise with his own original ideas, which purees together into a beautiful creative smoothie that’s very interesting to read.
Whether or not you know London intimately, you may just get a sense of déjà vu walking through Neverwhere, which takes the reader to London Below, the secret (at least, it’s something everyday people don’t know of or notice) underworld ‘between the cracks’ and in the sewers and rooftops and shadows of the city. There’s a childlike sense of fun with wordplay, with an earl’s court in a train carriage in Earl’s Court, black friars guarding ancient secrets at Blackfriar’s Bridge, and an angel named Islington who’s hanging out behind an interdimensional door that’s neither here nor there in the British Museum.
Actually, there’s a childlike sense of fun to a lot of his work, if not through content (the bounciness of Neverwhere is somewhat offset by the timeless, sadistic assassins, though their dialogue is equally and a little eerily fun to read and sounds wonderful voiced by Anthony Head) then through the writing style. There’s a bounce in a lot of his turns of phrase and description that highlights his fondness for fairy and folk tales and the spirit you can give a piece through its narration. Gaiman can create an atmosphere very well—dark, chilling ones, but also light-hearted adventures in the odd, and as always a mix between the two that somehow works seamlessly. His children’s books, especially Coraline, are an excellent example of this, but Anansi Boys and Neverwhere, again, also really shine with this easy switch between humour and horror, the everyday and… well, someone else’s version of the everyday, which just might involve ghosts, monsters, or blood magic.
The worlds he constructs are all incredible and can suck you in to get lost there (which may be fun or may be frightening), but on the character front unfortunately he’s not quite as strong. Richard Mayhew and Charlie Nancy are cut from the same cloth of ‘ordinary men who want more but are too content in their ways to really go get it, but find it and their inner strength when drawn into supernatural adventures’. Which is not a bad cloth, except that it’s a mite overused, and they can swing from feeling like convincing, likeable people to semi-blank reader inserts at the drop of a hat. The Graveyard Book’s Nobody Owens fades from memory like the ghosts he lives with have trained him to, though unfortunately I’m not sure that was the effect the author wanted him to have on the readers.
Can you successfully trade similar-feeling, lovable-but-pancake-textured characters for originality of plot and world-building? Do Everymen like Richard and Charlie work better as a reader connection than hard-headed, ominous ex-criminal Shadow? Is there a message here about how anyone can be a hero? Gaiman doesn’t seem as concerned, for the most part, with good and bad (though the morality is less grey when aimed at younger readers; see the man Jack and the Other Mother. Yikes) not so much as watching the way characters interact and bounce off each other. It’s all in the choices that you make and the things that you want.
Sometimes it’s about Doing the Right Thing (Shadow prevents a war between gods, for instance), but often it’s simply about saving your own ass or the asses of those you’ve come to care about. At the core of all these bizarre and eerie adventures you have to admit there’s a human heart we as readers can empathise with: these characters, heroes or otherwise just want to survive, and often, get out. We have the luxury of being able to close the book on ancient brotherhoods of assassins or demons that dwell in the gaps between train platforms. These ordinary people have been changed by their adventures and will carry them with them for the rest of their days, sometimes right back into the world they wanted to get out of.
Though as I said before, there’s something entrancing and believable in the way Gaiman brings his magic into the real world. Well, it hasn’t been brought in there at all, it’s always been, simply out of sight and out of mind. Who’s to say that roadside attractions aren’t the modern equivalent of fairy rings, or a windswept seaside town couldn’t be worshipping Cthulhu? We shall never know unless we stumble into them, and if anything, these fantastic books convince you to watch your step, and keep your focus in the corner of your vision. Much more fun, as urban fantasy goes, than teenaged vampires, if I do say so myself.