Neil Gaiman understands the macabre and mysterious; American Gods saw him skilfully integrate old and new deities into modern-day American culture; in The Sandman he explored the mysterious dreamscape, giving it meaning and purpose; his works are submerged in the fantastic and blur the line between what is real, unreal, and what can be construed as both.
In Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions, a novel-length collection of 36 of his short stories and poems, Gaiman seeks to entertain the reader by the means of horror, fantasy, perversion and dark humour.
The title – a reference to a magician’s misdirection – plays out by challenging a reader’s perceptions and expectations; in Chivalry, an old lady decorates her house with the Holy Grail, not because of its sanctity or of her religious beliefs, but just because it looks nice; in The Price, a black cat, usually identified as a symbol of malevolence and unluckiness, protects a family from an unimaginable evil; and in Murder Mysteries, the question is asked “how does one investigate a murder prior to the existence of love and death?”.
If nothing else, the confidence with which Gaiman writes is his greatest strength, plus the astonishing amount of research he does shines through with every detail; from the angel Lucifer’s assistant Azazel in Murder Mysteries who “would follow you anywhere”, to the nature of an obsessed gamer in Virus, Gaiman displays an awareness and understanding of his topics that other writers would aspire to. Simply put: he makes writing look easy.
Gaiman is not afraid to explore taboo – including incest, necrophilia and bigotry – but his unique and unbiased perspective makes for an objective and captivating read. He writes in a variety of styles, with a penchant for experimenting with more unconventional methods; in When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼ he takes the perspective of an eleven year old girl, who travels with her dysfunctional family to the end of the world; Dawnie’s view of an otherwise chaotic event makes for an interesting comparison between how a child sees the world compared to that of an adult.
But with Eaten (Scenes from a Moving Picture) – a narrative poem in the style of a film script – his unorthodox writing style, in combination with the confronting subject matter – pornography and cannibalism – makes for a confusing and overly-uncomfortable read. If his intention was to bewilder and disturb a reader (which is very possible) then he achieves it here. But this particular story’s strength lies in its ability to condition the reader into thinking a certain way; an unnerving mindset to prepare them for the rest of the book.
Ultimately, Smoke and Mirror: Short Fictions and Illusions is a remarkable and distinctive read; one that will leave you troubled, amazed, appalled and wanting more. Gaiman is the magician to his book’s disappearing assistant; only instead of reappearing normal and unharmed, she is a changed woman: more grotesque, with altered convictions or perhaps brandishing a new soul.
Author: Neil Gaiman
Title: Smoke and Mirrors
Publisher: Headline Review
UK £7.99 / 400 pages / paperback