Fantasy literature

Happy birthday, Neil Gaiman: We made a starter kit for those who, unbelievably, haven’t read you yet

There’s more to the master of fantasy than ‘The Sandman’ (although you really shouldn’t miss that either).

There are very few readers of fiction written in English who haven’t heard of Neil Gaiman. If you’re a lover of comics, The Sandman series is a must-read. If novels are more your thing, Gaiman has enough to satiate even the most straightjacketed reader. And that’s just the beginning – from Dr Who scripts to song lyrics, the man seems to have done it all. Once you’ve entered the Gaiman universe, there’s little chance of being bored. The fantastical mingles with the familiar to create a heady mixture that rarely fails to delight.

For those who have yet to sink their teeth into Gaiman’s work, the big questions is – where does one begin? I was a latecomer to the world of comics and read Gaiman’s novels before moving on to The Sandman. Yet many die-hard Gaiman fans swear by his graphic novels, relegating his novels to second place. There’s enough to Gaiman’s work to dive in unaided but for readers who like a map, here is a trail to discover the author’s world.

A modern fable

A quiet masterpiece, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, is a great introduction to the world of Neil Gaiman. The novel revolves around a nameless middle-aged narrator who returns to the town where he grew up to attend a funeral. Once he’s there, memories come flooding back as he sits by a duckpond that his one-time friend used to call an ocean...

The narrative travels back in time to when the protagonist was seven and befriended a strange eleven-year-old girl, Lettie Hempstock. Gaiman’s deceptively simple prose goes on to take the reader on a journey through homemade wands, a shape-shifting monster parading as a seductive nanny, creatures called varmints, mandrakes and shadows dissolved in vinegar. And that’s just the half of it. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a modern fable meant for adults and children alike. An ode to the imagination of childhood, it is both terrifying and wonderful – and that is where Gaiman’s forte lies. As Lettie says to the young narrator:

“I’m going to tell you something important. Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they always did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one in the whole wide world.”

The definitive graphic novel

Of course, no guide to Gaiman is complete without The Sandman series – available in the form of ten paperbacks, any of which are worth picking up. However, the first trade paperback (Issues 1 to 8), Preludes and Nocturnes, is a fascinating road trip into the mind of one of the best fantasy writers out there. It doesn’t take long to be drawn into the story and Gaiman manages to weave a plot that is beautifully complex and engaging. Add to that some of the finest illustrators from DC Comics and the result is a graphic novel that’s hard to forget.

Preludes and Nocturnes follows the imprisonment of Dream/Morpheus by the magician Roderick Burgess who originally intended to capture Death and gain immortality. Dream spends seven decades in captivity and escapes the clutches of Burgess’s son, Alex, cursing him with perpetual nightmares. Once free of his chains, Dream returns to his realm only to find that his totems of power (a helm, the Dreamstone and a sand pouch) are missing.

Thus begins a quest to regain the totems that pits him against formidable foes such as the demon Choronzon and Doctor Destiny. The eight issues in this opening paperback are darker than the rest that follow and they show Gaiman’s ability to use classical mythology, Bible-based fiction (Gregory, a gargoyle that belongs to Cain and Abel) and characters from the DC universe (John Constantine) to create a story that is gripping from start to finish.

Not only for children

After this detour through Gaiman’s world of comics, a return to his novels is best facilitated through two books that go really well together – Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

Coraline is the story of an adventurous young girl who moves into a new flat with her parents. Her quirky neighbours are a retired performer who claims to be training mice for a mouse circus and two retired actresses who live in their flat with a large number of dogs. Coraline’s adventures begins when she finds a mysterious door and enters a parallel world where she meets The Other Mother.

“A woman stood in the kitchen with her back to Coraline. She looked a little like Coraline’s mother. Only her skin was white as paper. Only she was taller and thinner. Only her fingers were too long, and they never stopped moving, and her dark-red fingernails were curved and sharp. “Coraline?” the woman said. “Is that you?” And then she turned round. Her eyes were big black buttons.”

Some critics say Gaiman’s novels are mainly intended for children but his modern fairy tales cater to both adults and children. Yes, the main characters are sometimes kids but their adventures are never the ordinary kind. Darkly fantastical, the danger in Gaiman’s novels is real and the monsters are deadly and oddly attractive.

On the surface, The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, an orphan who grows up in a graveyard, looked after by ghosts (and a vampire) – think Mowgli growing up in a graveyard instead of the jungle. Yet Gaiman manages to elevate this simple storyline and make it a natural metaphor for growing up and taking on the big, bad world. As Mother Slaughter, a ghost, tells Nobody towards the end of the book:

“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

A match made in fantasy heaven

More than three decades ago, when Gaiman was a young journalist, he was assigned to interview a writer for a little-known magazine called Space Voyager. When he met the writer in a Chinese restaurant, he described it as “that weird thing where you sit down with somebody and realise that the Venn diagrams of your minds overlap. You share headspace.” What started out as an interview blossomed into a long-lasting friendship with the master of fantasy fiction, Terry Pratchett. And that friendship gave us Good Omens. As Gaiman put it, “it’s like Michelangelo calling you up and asking if you’d like to paint a ceiling together.”

A collaboration between Pratchett and Gaiman, Good Omens is a unique take on the apocalypse and the Antichrist. The book is a laugh riot from start to finish – the Antichrist has been misplaced, a demon and an angel work to prevent the end of the world because they’ve gotten used to their comfortable lives on Earth and Pestilence, one of the Four Horsemen, retires once penicillin is discovered. There are a number of similarities between the works of Gaiman and Pratchett and Good Omens is a collision of the best of both worlds.

Don’t forget the short stories

While his comic book series and novels have earned him the reputation he enjoys today, not enough is said of Neil Gaiman, the short story writer. However, there are quite a few charming pieces of short fiction that really stand out.

How to Talk to Girls at Parties starts out with a couple of guys heading to party. When one of the character says early on, “I do not know what to say to girls”, his friend Vic replies, “They’re just girls. They don’t come from another planet.” But as it turns out in this Locus Award winning story, they do.

A detective story where the main character, Jack Horner, sets out to investigate the death of Humpty Dumpty, The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds is hilarious, cleverly-written and was Gaiman’s third-ever story to be published. It has all the signs of a writer sharpening his tools for his later work.

Then there’s The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains, a fable that could easily have been at home in a Roald Dahl collection. Gaiman is known for borrowing heavily from myths of old and this one reads like a story you may have heard before, but its unmistakeable style set it apart.

This by no means is a definitive guide to the world of Neil Gaiman and he shows no signs of stopping anytime soon, gaining in popularity with each new piece of writing. Readers queue up for hours at book signings and readings and obsessively follow his words on social media, where he reaches out to fans regularly. As another wielder of the fantasy pen George R R Martin puts it, “there’s no one quite like Neil Gaiman.”

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