Neil has produced some of my favourite short story collections over the years. He always has a knack for giving the reader a wide selection of tales that vary in style, genre and mood while still retaining the hallmarks that make Gaiman, well, Gaiman. And this collection is no different. In his introduction, Gaiman claims these shorts are far too random and unconnected to form an effective collection – but I’d beg to disagree. Several small connections hide beneath the surface, as little threads spider about linking seemingly disparate stories together. More than one story deals with the power of memory, and a couple use the idea of people buried alive as a starting point. Even the seemingly offbeat tales share themes, feeling cohesive without risking repetition.
Most are well written and atmospheric ghost stories that are topped off with a twisting bait-and-switch punch-line. He’s also slipped in a couple of poems for good measure. There are charming and lyrical odes to Ray Bradbury and David Bowie in The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury and The Return of the Thin White Duke respectively, while the slightly claustrophobic Jerusalem looks at a bizarre and real affliction that can cause tourists to break out in a case of “the Prophets.” One of my favourites is the surreal and charmingly disjointed Orange which tells the story of alien possession, fake tans and sibling rivalry in the form of one sided replies to redacted questions. It’s hilarious, weird and unlike anything else in this book.
A Calendar of Tales is an interesting exercise, where Gaiman wrote a tiny nugget of a story for each month of the year in response to prompts from Twitter fans. There is a Sherlock Holmes story tucked away in the form of The Case of Death and Honey that will grab you in its strange and otherworldly grasp. It dispenses with the usual rational world that we are used to seeing in Conan-Doyle’s works and gives it a supernatural edge that works quite effectively as we follow the lives of an aging Holmes and an elderly Asian beekeeper.
Here is the point where some of you will turn away in disgust. I am here to make a confession: I stopped watching Doctor Who during the first series with Matt Smith, disappointed with the direction the show had begun to take during the last few years of David Tennant’s iteration. (I am bracing myself for the hisses and projectiles.) It had all got a bit predictable and seemed loaded with annoying catchphrases, the same old monsters and a goofy atmosphere. Luckily, the Doctor Who story that Gaiman presents here is fantastic. It’s tighter, sharper and more intriguing than the last batch of episodes I’ve watched, and manages to tone down the forced quirkiness that can surround the Doctor. The monsters themselves are the right side of creepy, flirting with the uncanny valley like Coraline‘s Other Parents, and the punch line is fitting and showcases the darker side of the Time Lord.
Of the four larger stories, two were released last year in deluxe formats. The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a gripping tale of greed and revenge set in the bleak and foreboding Scottish mountains. The edition released last year was a lavishly illustrated and produced affair, with art by Eddie Campbell that blurred the lines between graphic novel and short story. While I prefer the short story in its 2014 incarnation, there is no denying just how fabulous a tale this is – even stripped back to just the text as it is here. It’s a grim and portentous bit of mythmaking that is loaded with dread and a crushing feeling of inevitability. If you don’t already own the story, this is almost a reason in itself to pick up this anthology. The other is The Sleeper and the Spindle, also released in 2014, with illustrations by Chris Riddell that helped enhance its fairy tale credentials.
The final short in the collection is the longest, and probably the one that will grab the most attention, as it reintroduces us to Shadow; the mysterious protagonist of Gaiman’s masterwork American Gods. Shadow is slowly moving through the UK, and by Black Dog he has reached a quiet American Werewolf in London-esque village that hides secrets, a couple of old reunions and a dash of the supernatural. I don’t want to spoil this story in any way, so we shall just leave it at this:
1.) It’s a great tale.
3.) It’s wonderful to see Shadow again.
4.) I can’t wait to read more about his travels.
4.) Please can we have some more, Neil?
The reason I’ve given the collection four stars instead of five is that it feels perilously close to double-dipping for Gaiman fans. If you are anything like me, you will already own half of the book, as the larger tales were released last year on their own, and to great fanfare. If you already picked up everything he released last year, it might be worth holding off to the paperback for this one. If you don’t already own them, GRAB THIS NOW. QUICKLY. GO.