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The books and comics of British author Neil Gaiman craft a weird, nightmarish, but incredibly enjoyable ...
2021-07-05 09:00:00

The King of Fantasy
The World of Neil Gaiman

Photo by Sasha Maslov/The New York Times/East News
The King of Fantasy
The King of Fantasy

“There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary,” says British author and comic book creator Neil Gaiman. In his opinion, we love horror stories because they constantly remind us that we are alive.

Read in 8 minutes

Even as a boy, Neil Gaiman made up stories. He imagined coming home from school to find his parents were gone, or replaced with perfect copies so accurate that little Neil wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from his real parents. He liked the emotions that scary and tense stories evoked in him. Years later, he began to write them himself.

Gods and monsters

His books and comics have sold millions of copies and won countless prizes, and his book signing events are attended by hundreds of readers. One of the questions he hears most often is: “Why tell ghost stories?” He claims it’s a fascination rooted deep in our past. “We have ghost stories from Ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome, along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches. We’ve been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most importantly, remind us that we live,” he said during a TED Talk in Vancouver in 2014. “Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. […] It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us,” he added.

Most of his works are stories about the clash between the real and the incredible, the mundane and the magical, about the border between reality and dreaming – thin as a spider’s web, yet wide enough to contain even our innermost desires and worst nightmares. It is often our world – ordinary, grey, boring – but you need only look from a different angle to see that gods and monsters reside among the humans, that a different level of reality exists, available to just a few. A space governed by the logic of dreams, where characters from literary classics meet mysterious mythical creatures from fairy stories and folk tales, spectres born in the subconscious of both the author and the readers. It is a world where – as in Sandman – nightmares get out of hand. In The Graveyard Book, an abandoned child is raised by ghosts, like the animals in The Jungle Book, while in the short story A Study in Emerald, the British throne is ascended by the Great Old Ones from H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, who are being pursued by Sherlock Holmes.

Yet Gaiman cannot be easily pigeonholed as a horror writer, even though ‘serious critics’ have tended to dismiss his work. His writing transcends the limitations of genre. The author bends the rules, refuses to succumb to market trends, and avoids fashionable topics. According to Roger Zelazny, the legendary fantasy author who wrote the introduction to Gaiman’s The Books of Magic, reading Gaiman’s work never fails “to return more than the price of admission to his worlds.” It is “a journey worth taking.”

And although Gaiman has not written a new novel in a long time (Norse Mythology, published in 2017, is merely a collection of Scandinavian myths in his own interpretation), he remains one of the most widely read contemporary writers. His books and comics are constantly being reprinted, and their successful screen adaptations have also raised interest in his work.

The truth of fiction

Neil Richard Gaiman was born in 1960 in Portchester on the outskirts of Portsmouth. He was a compulsive reader from a young age, absorbing everything he could get his hands on. He recalls that he selected the books that interested him from his parents’ library, which sometimes resulted in confiscation by schoolteachers who considered certain books inappropriate for a child. As a boy, he considered a career in music; he sang in a punk rock band (“Punk changed everything in my life,” he said years later) and wrote song lyrics. His dreams of a rock star lifestyle were knocked out of his head – literally – by a can of beer thrown during a concert by an audience member. Soaked in blood, young Neil decided music wasn’t his destiny after all. He later admitted that this was the moment that determined his life. He finally decided to try his hand at writing. In fact, he’d known he wanted to be a writer even before he could write. In the documentary Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, he emphasized that he would never have forgiven himself if he didn’t try. “I’d be in my 80s, 90s […] and I would think, ‘I could’ve been a writer […] I could’ve been a really good writer […].’ That’s what would kill me.”

He has described how certain ideas have haunted him since childhood. As a boy, he fed his imagination with fantasy literature and dreamed of creating it himself – he imagined an alternative reality in which he, not Tolkien, was the author of The Lord of the Rings. But the beginning of this path was paved with journalism and books dedicated to Duran Duran and Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. This didn’t last long. “I fled […] journalism because I wanted the freedom to make things up. I did not want to be nailed to the truth; or to be more accurate, I wanted to be able to tell the truth without ever needing to worry about the facts,” he wrote in the introduction to his collection of short non-fiction texts, The View from the Cheap Seats. And because he believes that every good story must have some truth in it, he often employs his own memories, fears, dreams and experiences, transforming them into fiction.

First, he stormed the world of comics: Sandman, published between 1989 and 1996, made him one of the greatest writers in the history of the genre. Along the way, he proved what a wide-ranging art form comics can be. In his stories about the Lord of Dreams, he mixed Shakespeare and ancient plays with Freudian psychoanalysis, esotericism and pop culture, creating his own eclectic mythology. Sandman is an outstanding work of art, eluding explicit interpretations, revealing new layers with each reading. Then came prose: Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett, and novels adapted into TV series screenplays: Neverwhere and American Gods, set in a community of pagan deities hiding among ordinary people. There were also numerous children’s books – with Coraline and The Graveyard Book at the helm – though Gaiman doesn’t like this categorization because he believes one should write with the same attention to detail for readers of all ages. When asked if his books might be a little scary for a young audience, he repeats that children like to be afraid of made-up stories; it’s a natural state that we often forget as adults. “There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary,” he says.

The awards that Gaiman’s work has received make an impressive list: 15 Eisner Awards for his comics, several dozen fantasy literature prizes (including the most prestigious: the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the World Fantasy Award), the Bram Stoker Award, a Carnegie Medal, and many other distinctions. He received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews, Scotland’s oldest university. Finally, when the awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature was postponed in 2018 due to a sex scandal, the New Academy awarded an ‘alternative Nobel’. Neil Gaiman – described as “a true superstar in the fantasy community” – was one of the four nominees alongside Haruki Murakami, Kim Thúy and Maryse Condé (who eventually won the award).

Homer Simpson reads fantasy

Gaiman has something of the rock star about him: dressed in black, with a mop of curly, slightly greying hair, often wearing sunglasses. Confident, calm, polite. He listens carefully in interviews and seems prepared for every question. When I had the opportunity to talk to him during his visit to Poland, readers approached our table in the hotel café several times asking for autographs. He didn’t turn anyone away. Even Homer Simpson knows him – in one episode of the animated series, he calls Gaiman “the king of fantasy novels”.

Despite turning 60 last year, the writer still has a youthful energy and contrariness about him. In any case, readers treat him like a star: all his signing events attract hundreds of attendees, who are not only prepared to pay for the meeting (in the UK and US, author events are often ticketed, and there’s never a lack of willing participants), but also to stand in a seemingly endless queue of fans to get an autograph. He exchanges at least a sentence with every fan, allows them to take photos, and signs autographs on the strangest objects – in the documentary Neil Gaiman: Dream Dangerously, one scene shows him signing a huge plastic cactus.

The author of American Gods has never fenced himself off from fans with bodyguards and literary agents. Writing is a solitary activity, but according to Gaiman, literature cannot be a monologue, but must instead be a dialogue to which new interlocutors are continuously invited. He is addicted to interactions with others. At some point, however, he felt he’d had enough. In 2013, he set off, as befits a rock star, on his final signing tour. He claims he owed it to his fans. Some meetings were attended by over a thousand people and Gaiman estimates that he signed around 75,000 books on that tour alone. During breaks he had to plunge his hand into an ice bucket, otherwise his fingers would refuse to cooperate. Sometimes you have to pay a big price for popularity. But he’s not yet ready to give up on one-off meetings – currently, like the rest of the world, he organizes them online.

On his blog and social media accounts, in his press interviews and lectures for the MasterClass platform, he willingly discloses the secrets of his writing techniques. He can talk for hours about how he works, analyse the different stages of creating a novel, explain how his ideas have matured and what has inspired him. He is a pleasure to listen to as well as to read. Speaking with unwavering confidence, Gaiman is someone who can openly share insights about his writing, safe in the knowledge that few can rival him.

In 2012, in a lecture at the end of the academic year at Philadelphia’s University of the Arts, he said: “Sometimes life is hard. Things go wrong in life, and in love, and in business, and in friendship, and in health, and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art.” This is a lesson for our (post)pandemic times – and it’s one that not only artists should take to heart.


Translated from the Polish by Kate Webster

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