Call it fantasy, sci-fi, horror, you name it, Neil Gaiman at his unique best is terrific

The Baltimore Sun

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders

Neil Gaiman

William Morrow / 392 pages / $26.95

Neil Gaiman writes in so many different styles and aggregates of styles it is difficult to classify his work with any succinctness.

Some might call it fantasy, others horror, still others sci-fi or speculative fiction - he writes in each genre, equally well. In his latest collections of stories, poems and novellas, Fragile Things, his first book since the best-selling Anansi Boys, Gaiman combines all these bits and pieces for a compelling and dreamy, if not always successful, whole.

One thing can be said for certain: Gaiman at his best is terrific and much of what is included here is thoroughly engaging. In his characteristically odd and discursive introduction, he explains the genesis of many of the stories and poems, most of which were written for various anthologies edited by the likes of Michael Chabon, Peter Straub, Al Sarrantonio and Jonathan Strahan. Some he began years ago and finally finished for Fragile Things, others began as something else and became what they are here through a metamorphosing for this collection. At least one story dates back years and was found in the attic. Several pieces were written as complements to the CDs of Gaiman's friend the lyrically obscurantist poet and singer Tori Amos. Others were inspired by the work of one or another artist, including Frank Frazetta. Another answers his irritation with a character in the otherwise perfect Narnia series by C.S. Lewis. Thus even the history of these stories has the element of fantasy attached.

In his introduction, Gaiman explains that the genesis of the collection came to him in a dream and that "stories, like people and butterflies and songbirds' eggs and human hearts and dreams, are fragile things, made up of nothing stronger or more lasting than twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks." He also asserts that fairy tales have tremendous importance and takes issue with those who claim they just evolve out of the ethos or ether, when, as he reminds the reader, they were first and foremost someone's idea.

Like everything else in this collection, these statements are both ineffably true and tragically false, as readers and characters each discover soon enough as the otherworldly touches them through Gaiman's expert renderings. (And I do mean renderings: Some stories have a cannibalistic element that is not for the faint of heart.)

Gaiman begins with one of the best pieces, "A Study in Emerald." This Hugo-award winner is a horror tale which successfully melds Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes formula with H.P. Lovecraft's thing at the top of the stairs to terrific effect. In this Jack-the-Ripper-ish murder tale set in London in 1881, the tables are turned: Rather than the presumed killer being an errant member of the royal family, it is the victim who is. Except the royal family is, well, different than we've come to expect - most particularly Queen Victoria. The narrator, predicated on but in many ways unlike Conan Doyle's Dr. Watson, has been in a war and returned mangled, despondent and wholly altered until he meets up with the unnamed consultant detective to Scotland Yard.

"A Study in Emerald" isn't played for laughs, although the ironies of ignorant civil servants run through it as they do through all of the Holmes stories, but each section is prefaced with a signboard or advertisement for what ails one and some are absolutely hilarious for the insider who gets things like "exsanguination brought from Romania by V. Tepes, for what ails you."

Other stories are equally good, gruesome and filled with ironic touches. "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire," "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" (a superb little coming-of-age story with a succubus twist), "Harlequin Valentine" (which will make one think twice before volunteering to come to the stage at the next Cirque du Soleil-style event) and "Bitter Grounds" are worth the price of the book. For those intrigued by the American Gods stories by Gaiman, there's a new one here: a novella, "Monarch of the Glen," where Shadow returns for an engagement on the Scottish heath Gaiman so loves and depicts so well.

The Amos stories, "Strange Little Girls," are creepy yet charming, much like Amos' songs themselves, and detail a range of intriguing women. And, while the poems seem utterly out of place, they are good.

Those for whom poetry pales - particularly of the Yeats mythos style ("The Fairy Reel") or the Rosetti "Goblin Market" approach ("The Hidden Chamber") - can just skip this extra added attraction.

The singular characteristic tying each of these very disparate tales together - the whimsical and the grisly, the satirical and the profane, the outer space aliens and the literary (and literal) carnivores - is that they all come from the realm of the deeply dark. Readers will be reminded most in these stories of that master craftsman yet to be superseded, Ray Bradbury, to whom Gaiman dedicates this book (and his tale "October's Chair," in which the months of the year come to life, pays homage directly to Bradbury). Bradbury had the ability to cruise seamlessly between fantasy and sci-fi, horror and ghost tale. Few who have read him will forget such classics as The Martian Chronicles (Gaiman does a nice twist on that with "Girls at Parties"), The Illustrated Man or Something Wicked This Way Comes. Gaiman has that same ability to move from one genre-within-a-genre to another and not leave the reader who prefers horror to sci-fi, fantasy to realism, in the dust.

There is a commingling of styles and outre vignettes in Fragile Things that demands that the reader try yet another, then another, like alien canapes at a Trekkie party. These are gothic tales of high caliber and with Fragile Things, Gaiman appears to have yet another best-seller in the making.

Victoria A. Brownworth is the author and editor of more than 20 books. Her most recent collection of horror tales is "Day of the Dead and Other Fictions." Her story "Violation" appeared in the 2005 award-winning collection "Women of Mystery," edited by Katherine V. Forrest. She teaches writing and film at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

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