I can already detect a collective gnashing of teeth as Gaiman’s legion of fans leap to his defense, their counter-attack, predictably, hysterical, vitriolic and ad hominem. Shoot the messenger and deal with the actual, y’know, message later.
I know what I’ve just said might seem a tad critical and extreme at first glance but, as my hero Bill Hicks would say, hear me out.
Clearly, Neil Gaiman is effective at what he does. He sells a ton of books, has earned a bevy of prizes and a significant number of people await each new Gaiman release with genuine pleasure and anticipation.
All to the good.
And speaking for myself, I’ve found Gaiman’s stuff, for the most part, diverting, and he writes in a straightforward, unpretentious style. But upon opening any Neil Gaiman offering I’m immediately struck by the realization that this is not a tale set on Earth Prime—there is an unworldly feel to the material. Indeed, nearly everything I’ve read by the man distinguishes him as someone who, in one way or another, is a purveyor of modern day fairy tales and moral fables. But no one truly believes fairy tales or thinks they have any basis in reality. Do they?
And therein lies the problem.
That lack of credibility produces, I would argue, an emotional distance, a safety margin from which readers can observe the action without being unduly concerned with the fate of the characters. When your audience is granted that kind of dispensation, they stop closely identifying with the people at the heart of the story, stop caring. A potentially gripping yarn becomes merely entertaining. Good, escapist fun.
Doesn’t that pretty much sum up the Gaiman oeuvre?
While he tells a decent story, there’s not the kind of intimacy and closely observed detail that ramps up our emotional investment to another level. Think of the work of masters of the macabre Richard Matheson or Charles Beaumont. They frequently dealt with fantastic subject matter but in their best efforts (see: “Matheson’s “Mute” or Hell House) there is an unnerving sense that this creepy account could be real…and our concern for what the characters are enduring becomes all the more genuine and heartfelt.
Give him credit, Neil Gaiman is conversant with contemporary cultural touchstones, borrowing shamelessly from mythology (Old Gods and Sandman) or re-imagining familiar standards (Coraline). But, to me, none of his work succeeds at suspending disbelief. And while I see a lot of archetypes—vampires, werewolves, ghosts, the usual suspects—I don’t, frankly, detect much innovation or originality. Tropes and stock monsters, employed in a standard story arc, with (almost invariably) happy, satisfying resolutions. Gaiman’s approach to writing is quick, punchy, visual; perfect for graphic novels. Illustrative but not particularly deep or insightful. His characters speedily sketched, unceremoniously thrust into peril, even mortal danger.
There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife…
(First line of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book)
Ah, yes, The Graveyard Book. In that 2008 novel Gaiman presents us with the story of a young human child raised in a cemetery by a variety of well-meaning ghosts and supernatural creatures. Clever, but by Page 50 my interest in the central character, Bod, was purely academic: how would he be successfully re-integrated into human society? The rest of the book zipped past in a blur.
Likewise, I was almost immediately turned off by The Ocean at the End of the Lane. A more recent effort (2013), it’s told (mostly) from the point of view of a child whose observations are so mature and thoughtful as to defy credulity. I disliked the book from its initial pages and it never really caught on with me. Finished it out of a sense of obligation, not joy.
It strikes me that Neil Gaiman is a perfect author for our sped up, ADHD-afflicted society. He writes moderately well, with visual acumen, setting the table quickly, not bothering with niceties like realism or verisimilitude. His fans will say I’m being unfair—after all, with fairy tales the effect is more important than the nuts and bolts of narrative (and perhaps they’re right).
But there’s a fine line in dark fantasy and horror literature, a point where the author must create the impression that what we’re reading is actually taking place, expend every effort to ensure we’re fully immersed in the story, crying and bleeding along with the protagonist, experiencing their dread as the knob starts turning, the door inching open. If we have no faith in their ordeal, no stake in what’s happening to them, the writer has failed us, failed to devise a scenario that is, at once, dramatic and nerve-rending and, despite our best efforts to think otherwise, believable and authentic.
Personal, intimate horror. What really goes on in the dark.
That’s what scares us and leaves a permanent mark on our psyche.
Fairy tales are fine for children, but surely adults require narratives of more depth—aesthetically sound and literate and, at the same time, unrelenting and provocative, seeking to exact an emotional toll, while defying and frustrating expectations.
It’s time Neil Gaiman started writing for grownups.
People old enough to know that in life there are no happy endings…and no such thing as a great artist who stoops to please.
Our youngest kid has now flown the coop and we are, officially, empty nesters. The house seems damn strange without our boys pounding up and down the steps, blasting music or bellowing at their video games in their basement hidey-hole. The silence, as they say, is deafening. But they’re both ready to be out in the world, anxious to be on their own. They’ll have their tough days, intervals when it seems like the whole universe has lined up against them. But they’ll make it. They’re tough and resourceful and bloody smart. Which gives them a leg up in any society.
So we begin 2014, Sherron and I, somewhat sorrowful, missing the lads but eager to get on with the next phase of our lives; back to being a couple again, exploring the world together, seeing where our dreams take us.
I’m fifty years old, as of last October, and that’s also made a difference. I thought any change or transformation would be largely symbolic but turning fifty combined with our sons’ departure has put a whole new slant on things. I feel like another man.
To start with, I realize that more than half my life is gone and if I’m lucky I could have twenty or twenty-five healthy years ahead of me (with my genetics, that might be pushing it). That’s not a lot of time. As a result, I’m not going to waste any of it on stupid discussions, movies, books, music, feuds or anything that doesn’t further my pursuit of wisdom, joy and matters relating to the spirit.
I did a considerable amount of writing in 2013 (not unexpected) but I also found myself exploring other media, employing a variety of means to express myself. As a result, I created more visual pieces than ever before: acrylic paintings, charcoal drawings, lots of photographs, ambient soundscapes, even a short film. Will this trend continue in 2014 or were all these non-literary ventures merely an aberration? Experiments, nothing more.
We shall see.
I know that for some time I’ve occasionally experienced a certain amount of frustration with the limits of language and wish to communicate via non-narrative, non-linear means. Abstraction invites collaboration, interpretation, input from the audience/viewer. The vast majority of my visual work frustrates literal-mindedness—the equivalent of Rorschach Tests, shapes demanding speculation and discussion.
Not for everyone.
Obviously, one of the high points of 2013 was the release of my short story collection Exceptions and Deceptions. The book features what I think is our best cover thus far and includes a batch of stories drawn from the past fifteen years, a couple of them previously unpublished and available nowhere else. Every time I glance up and see it on my shelf, I get a tingle. Fans of Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Jonathan Carroll, Neil Gaiman take note: this one’ll rock your socks off. Trust me.
Another fun experience was collaborating with my son Sam on an instrumental number which he then incorporated into a short film for Sherron’s “Agassiz” mask/puppet production, debuting later this month. Sam’s film is a gem and as soon as he uploads it to YouTube or Vimeo, I’ll post a link.
Let’s see, what else…in November I was astonished to learn my volume New & Selected Poems (1984-2011) was shortlisted for a ReLit independent press award. My bizarre verse? Really?
Managed to read one hundred books in 2013, though at one point I didn’t think I’d make it to #80. A big surge in November-December put me over the top. The 100th book, completed December 30th? Italo Calvino’s Under the Jaguar Sun. What a way to finish off the year.
I’ve been noticing how much my reading tastes have changed over the past number of years—hardly any genre stuff these days, except for a bit of SF and the odd mystery/thriller by LeHane or Philip Kerr. Much less fiction, overall. Gimme a fat, juicy history book any day.
We don’t have cable, so we don’t watch television. Have no idea what shows are popular on the boob tube and couldn’t care less. Ditto with movies. By far the best movie I saw last year was Peter Strickland’s “Berberian Sound Studio”. Haven’t heard of it? Tsk, tsk. Grab it off NetFlix, buy or rent it from Amazon, do not miss this flick.
Music? The new Queens of the Stone Age, as well as Nine Inch Nails (live), Steven Wilson, Mogwai, Benjamin Britten and Gene Autry’s Greatest Hits. Keepin’ it diverse.
Looking ahead: I’ll be working on my new novel, as well as prepping…ah, well, mustn’t give too much away. Let’s just say that Black Dog Press has a number of releases pending in the next eighteen months and there will be further information announced in the days to come.
All the best in 2014.
Thanks, as always, for dropping by and hanging out awhile.