Ghastly Beyond Belief: The Science Fiction and Fantasy Book of Quotations – Neil Gaiman and Kim Newman

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I got this from the Neil Gaiman Humble Bundle, and the book itself is so rare that there’s not much point in reviewing it. Ghastly Beyond Belief is a collection of amusing quotes from speculative fiction. The first half, covering prose, was vastly superior to the half that dealt with movies. Still, the whole thing was worthwhile.

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The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman

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Read this book.

The Sandman is the point of Neil Gaiman; I feel that everything else he does is merely extra curricular activities. As a whole, The Sandman tells the story how the Lord of Dreams learned that value of humility and changed. This new prequel, this overture, tells us how a mad star and a lost girl set him on that path.

The art is gorgeous. The art is diverse. The art alone would justify buying this book, if I was the sort of person to buy books.

I don’t know if you should read this book first, or read the other eleven and come back to this one. To be perfectly honest I think I worry too much about that sort of thing, and I’ll admit that I didn’t read this series in a linear order. But I’ll tell you this.

Sandman is the essential comic. Read this book.

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains – Neil Gaiman

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A short story, a graphic novel and a children’s picture book had a threesome in Neil Gaiman’s head and The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is the result. By that I mean that this story heavily relies upon prose and pictures to get its point across, but occasionally these will join together in minicomics where the characters interact through speech bubbles. It’s an effective and arresting mix.

You may remember Eddie Campbell from Alan Moore’s historically dense comic From Hell. Happily for him The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is far more cheery, although admittedly it does get extremely dark at times. Just no gore or murderous psychopaths. These pictures are either drawn with watercolours or some sort of pencil. (I’m not an artist.)

This story is set on one of those enigmatic islands north of England. You know, like the Isle of Man. For Neil Gaiman this means kilts and sheep. Could well be like that, for all I know.

The story of The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains itself is intricately coiled upon itself like a tiny clock. (Or one of those spring-loaded toy snakes in a can). A dwarf hires a reticent farmer to help him find a mythical cave filled with magical gold, with which he intends to help a foreign king invade his island home. Of course, with this sort of scenario nothing is as it seems at first glance.

Sometimes I suspect that Neil Gaiman rests on his laurels, although he has one hell of a set of laurels, and releasing an illustrated short story like this supports my suspicion. (I probably just haven’t forgiven him for not focusing purely on comics, going down the Grant Morrison route of becoming a bigwig over at DC Comics.) But The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains‘s innovative mixture of prose, illustration and comics may just be what it takes to foster public interest in picture books aimed at adults.

Usually at this point in a review I cheap out and describe the sort of people I’d recommend it to. Besides the scores of adults with too little time to enjoy a short novel, yet are reluctant to buy a short story anthology, and also really like watercolours, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains would make a good present for a young person stuck between complex picture books and simple novels, especially if they have a ghoulish bent.

Sandman: Book of Dreams – Various Authors

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Sandman: Book of Dreams is a short story collection edited by Neil Gaiman and Ed Kramer, based on Gaiman’s best-selling Sandman comic. Effectively it is a licensed fanfiction anthology, in the best possible way.

The premise of the Sandman franchise is difficult to describe in one paragraph. The main character is the personification of dreams and fiction, and as such is called Dream. Dream and his six alliterative siblings, names all beginning with D, are responsible for the emotional and psychological facets of every plausible universe. Besides Dream, the most important Endless person is Death, who is consistently written to be the Coolest Woman in the World. The video clip for ‘The Killing Moon’ best encapsulates the creepy feeling of the Sandman.

Sandman is a really great comic, encompassing a veritable smorgasbord of genres and expectations. The main theme is the necessity and inevitability of change. My guess is that Book of Dreams was commissioned by DC Comics to lure those who see Literature and Comics as distinct into reading the Sandman.

On the back of the book’s dust-jacket there is a list of authors, most of whom I don’t recognise. Clive Barker is listed as a contributor, although all he contributed was a picture of Death. Now it was a very nice picture, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t a creepy Barker story. I know one of his stories would have fitted right in, I’ve read Abarat. Another familiar name is Gene Wolfe. I haven’t read any of his books, maybe I’ve read him in a Year’s Best SF anthology. His story, ‘Ain’t You Most Done’, was enjoyable in the protagonist’s dreamlike acceptance of a suddenly becoming a successfully country singer.

‘The Writer’s Child’ by Tad Williams was another notable story. It was a two-streamed story, about a pedophile’s fantasy about his daughter and how her teddy bear rescues her. (This IS the Book of Dreams we’re talking about here!) What made this story great was the dread that the father would get what he wanted, and the relief when the girl escaped. I detected similarities in the girl’s first person narration to Christabell Sorenson, a character from William’s Otherland series. The first Otherland book was published the same year as the Book of Dreams, so maybe Williams was just in the habit of writing from a young girl’s perspective at the time. I guess most authors have stock characters that they can use in different scenarios, and a convincing young girl is one of William’s.

Another story worth mentioning is Susanna Clarke’s ‘Stopp’d Clock Yard’. I didn’t like it all that much. The style reminded me of Johnathon Strange and Mr Norrell, which I just couldn’t get into. If you liked Clarke’s first book, I’m confident you’ll like her story in the Book of dreams.

Other memorable stories include George Alec Effinger’s ‘Seven Nights In Slumberland’ which is a Little Nemo crossover, Barbara Hambly’s ‘Each Dark Thing’ which is focalised through the psychotically vindictive Cain, and Will Shetterly’s ‘Splatter’ which takes place at a convention for Serial Killers.

I understand that DC Comics weren’t all that super towards the authors who submitted stories for the book. Many stories were withdrawn, including ones by Harlan Ellison and Jane Yolen. The book’s Wikipedia page provides a few terse details and links to two stories that didn’t get into the final product. Michael Berry’s ‘Merv Pumpkinhead’s Big Night Out‘ does a really good job of capturing the voice of the handyman, but I haven’t got round to reading Karawynn Long’s ‘The Voice of Her Eyes.’ If I were DC Comics I’d send fruit baskets to all the authors alienated by the project mismanagement, and beg to have their stories included in some sort of anniversary edition.

The Book of Dreams will be best received amongst fans of horror, fantasy and maybe even science-fiction. I’d recommend reading the complete Sandman series before this book, in order to understand the characters and their context. The foreword gives a very general synopsis of what’s going on, but you’ll enjoy the book more if you’ve read the series. I say go read all of the Sandman, and then read this.

The Game – Diana Wynne Jones

This is a children’s novel about an orphan girl who is raised by her grandparents, until circumstances force her to live with her cousins and aunts. There she plays a secretive game, where the children fetch magical objects from mythical worlds.

Reading this, you can easily see why Diana Wynne Jones was friends with Neil Gaiman. The novel makes a number of literary allusions, but main ones are to Roman gods. Roman gods are a bit of an odd choice, because everyone’s accepted that Greek culture is just classier, but it fits well with an astrological theme. The whole thing reminded me of Eight Days of Luke.

It’s a short book, and given how much I enjoyed it, I think it was worth the effort.