Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, by Neil Gaiman

smoke-and-mirrors-short-fictions-and-illusions-by-neil-gaiman cover iamgeGenre: Mixed Genre Anthology
Publisher: Harper Trade
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: fivestars
Book Review by Paul Kane

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Beginning with a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass and ending with a reinterpretation of Snow White, Neil Gaiman’s collection of short stories and narrative poems is without a doubt one of the best books I’ve ever read. The title, as I’m sure you’re aware, is derived from the magician’s art. But the illusions Gaiman presents for our delectation here are a thousand times more spellbinding than anything to be found in a David Copperfield stage show. But then, what else would one expect from the award-winning writer of Neverwhere, Stardust and the Sandman series?

No two tales are alike, ranging from the comical ‘Chivalry’ (in which a pensioner finds the Holy Grail in an Oxfam shop and is soon after visited by a Knight of the Round Table keen to barter for its trade) to the incredibly imaginative ‘Murder Mysteries’ (an angelic detective story following Raguel: The Vengeance of the Lord as he investigates the very first murder) — yet all are quintessentially Gaiman. Naturally many of the stories read like latter-day fables or fairy tales, ‘Troll Bridge’ for example which reworks ‘The Three Billy Goats Gruff’ or ‘Nicholas Was…’ — the true story of Father Christmas. And several are semi-autobiographical: My favorite piece ‘The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories’ relates a visit to Los Angeles to discuss a film deal — I defy anyone to read this and not be moved; ‘One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock’ is a poignant portrait of a boy who escapes into fantasy books; ‘The Price’ features a family that take in stray cats (just read the biography at the front); and ‘The Facts in the Case of the Disappearance of Miss Finch’ stars a couple who sound suspiciously like Jonathan Ross and his wife, Jane Goldman. However, it’s this verisimilitude that allows Gaiman to take you in, before changing the rules of our world entirely. In his reflections of reality people really do vanish during magic acts, photographic models live forever, catching an STD can have bizarre consequences and taking out a contract on someone can lead to the end of the universe as we know it.

But if it’s horror you’re after then there’s plenty to choose from. Nosferatu abound in ‘Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot’, ‘Vampire Sestina’ and ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’. A werewolf adjuster (he adjusts your problems — like the Equalizer only with fur) crops up in no less than two stories back-to-back, ‘Only the End of the World Again’ and ‘Bay Wolf’. An American backpacker runs into Lovecraftian acolytes (based on Peter Cook and Dudley Moore according to Gaiman) in a very English Innsmouth. We meet the ‘Sweeper of Dreams’ who tidies away the debris from a good – or bad – night’s sleep (so be nice to him or he might just leave the nightmares in your head). A heart-gargoyle takes away one man’s ability to love, at his own behest. And in ‘Babycakes’, surely Gaiman’s most chilling story, he does in two pages what most authors can’t manage in an entire novel.

Gaiman’s style is so unique – a blend of mellifluous storytelling and hard-boiled contemporaryness, with a dash of wonderment thrown in to boot – that you find yourself almost in awe of his talent; desperate to get to the climax, the pay-off, but at the same time savoring every word and paragraph, wishing it would never end. Even his experiments with poetry and famous writers’ techniques are like a breath of fresh air (particularly his John Aubrey imitation for ‘The Daughter of Owls’ — “It was prognosticated that ye babe would dye, wch she did not doe…”). But Gaiman is also a writer’s writer. In his introduction he takes the trouble to go through each story and tell us where it first appeared, what inspired it, what was going through his mind at the time and even on occasion how long it took him to write it. (His explanation for ‘Bay Wolf’ is hilarious: a retelling of Beowulf as a futuristic episode of ‘Baywatch’ for an anthology of detective stories. “Look, I don’t give you grief over where you get your ideas from.”) Oh, and don’t miss the extra tale he’s ferreted away in the intro ‘The Wedding Present’, a Dorian Gray-esque yarn which also appears in Mammoth Book of Best New Horror.

I can’t recommend this book highly enough and no self-respecting horror, sci-fi or fantasy fan should be without a copy. As they say in the trade: it’s all done with smoke and mirrors, you know.

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