Sunday, September 16, 2007

In Praise of Neil Gaiman

So, a while back I wondered in a post if in his script for the forthcoming BEOWULF movie, which from preliminary accounts is grossly unfaithful to the original story yet pretends otherwise, Gaiman had 'jumped the shark'. While I still have very low expectations about the BEOWULF movie (other than a fervent hope that at least it's better than the last one, BEOWULF & GRENDEL --which shdn't be hard, but you never know), in the weeks since I've seen STARDUST and, just this past week, re-read the book (STARDUST, that is) as well as for the first time reading CORALINE (the only one of his novels I'd missed) and just last night finishing up ADVENTURES IN THE DREAM TRADE (a collection of nonfiction pieces).

First, STARDUST the movie. Great fun. Not really in the tradition of PRINCESS BRIDE, to which some had compared it, being far less snarky and self-conscious; more like the old Aladdin and Sinbad movies with better effects, better story, and better acting. While full of humor it succeeds by taking itself seriously, rather like the old DOCTOR WHO. They changed the story a great deal, but for the most past for the better (the final battle with the witches was too long and drawn out for my taste, and I wouldn't have minded the airship section, while charming, being shortened by about half). It's been a long time since Peter O'Toole has played an out and out villain (THE RULING CLASS, maybe?), and it was great to see he hasn't lost his touch. Both the leads were great, as was Michelle Pfeiffer as the villain and all the supporting cast. Plus, of course, a witty script, less gritty and more light-hearted than the novel. And here's one case where no one can blame the moviemakers for "ruining the author's book" since Gaiman himself is the film's producer. Highly recommended.

Second, STARDUST the novel. I'd read this with my local fantasy reading group (hey folks) a while back and been vaguely disappointed -- nothing to complain about, but I'd just read some of his excellent short stories and had much higher hopes. I'd found in the year and more since that the book's story and characters had almost entirely vanished from my memory, which is very unusual for me -- I remembered it much less than any of his other books I'd read. Re-reading it now after seeing the movie I think the film's better; the book reads like a novelization rather than a stand-alone fantasy novel or fairy tale. There are some Dunsanian echoes in the book that I'd be sorry to miss, the Stormhold bits are v. good, and his practical approach to Faerie works v. well, but overall I'd rank it at the bottom of his fiction, alongside AMERICAN GODS. Not bad, just not as good as I expect from Gaiman. As an added bonus, the edition I read this time has a bonus short story at the end: while I didn't particularly like its frame story, the story within that frame was superb.

Third, CORALINE. Not having read this one before, I was delighted to find it his best novel yet, fit to rank alongside the best of his short stories and his two pictures books (THE DAY I SWAPPED MY DAD FOR TWO GOLDFISH and THE WOLVES IN THE WALLS -- CORALINE has definite affinities to the latter). Don't want to give any of it away in case others haven't read it yet, so I'll stop at just saying it's distinctively Gaiman, yet Ray Bradbury would I think have been proud to write this one. It's that good.

Fourth, ADVENTURES IN THE DREAM TRADE is a NESFA collection of introductions, afterwords, and appreciations Gaiman wrote for books and authors such as Fritz Leiber, Lord Dunsany, Hope Mirrlees, and others. It also has several poems, three of them excellent ("A Writer's Prayer", "Neil's ThankYou Poem", and "How to Write Longfellow's Hiawatha"), several song lyrics ("A Girl Needs a Knife" seems to combine Dorothy Parker with "Sunny Came Home", v. effectively), a few short-shorts, and (providing more than half the book's bulk) a blog about AMERICAN GODS, covering the period between when the book was finished and when he finished the various book-signing tours, a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at all the seemingly endless things that have to be done once a book is "finished". Like CORALINE, I'll definitely have to track down and buy a copy of this; it's something I want on my shelves.

So: while I'll suspend judgment on Gaiman as a screenwriter until I see BEOWULF, this bout of reading has reaffirmed just how good a writer of fiction he is (if there's a better fantasy short story writer living, aside from Ray Bradbury, I'd like to know about him or her) and introduced me to extended amounts of his nonfiction for the first time. I'd say rather than jump the shark he made the old cartilage-fish sing, dance, and jump backflips. In short, an impressive performance.

--John R.

1 comment:

SESchend said...

Hi John.

Just curious--which edition of STARDUST did you read? I tried to read the prose novel version but gave up, having far fonder memories of the original graphic novel with Charles Vess' marvelous illustrations gracing every page-spread. It was actually written to be an illustrated novel rather than just a novel, so it works better that way. At least, that's my opinion.

I do have a copy of the NESFA AitDT book, but I've yet to read much of it as I've still not yet gotten to AMERICAN GODS. Sigh.

If you're looking for another fantasist who works equally well in short and novel form, have you tried Charles de Lint? Sarah and I both love his writing unequivocally. If you're looking for good examples of the sorts of stuff he does, try out DREAMS UNDERFOOT as a short story collection and either TRADER or FORESTS OF THE HEART as one of his novels. He's been writing his Newford (think fantasy-laden Ottawa) stories for more than 20 years. His website's

and luckily for you, he's going to be a guest of honor at Foolscap in Bellevue this coming weekend (along with Charles Vess, if I'm remembering correctly). I think it'd be worth the trip and cost of admission, certainly.

Well, hopefully I'll see you soon (assuming nothing keeps me from joining you in Milwaukee). Take care, man.