The Essential Neil Gaiman

In his stories of horror, humanity and uncomfortable truths, Neil Gaiman is never afraid to go into dark places looking for the light.

But while he earned an early reputation as an author of dark fantasy, Gaiman can’t be pigeonholed in any one genre. His writing explores a recurring theme: The past is never dead, no matter how old it is. As he once said, “You know myths and legends still have power; they get buried and forgotten, but they’re like land mines.”

Wading through Gaiman’s vast bibliography — more than four dozen books — can be intimidating, to say the least. Since he read his way through his local library as a child, skipped college and went straight into professional writing about 40 years ago, Gaiman has written biographies, comic books, graphic novels, screenplays, novels and essays. His work for younger readers — picture books, middle-grade and young adult novels — could fill a whole separate guide, so we’re sticking with his adult books here. (If you do venture into the children’s section, though, check out “Coraline” and “The Graveyard Book” first.)

“What we read as adults should be read, I think, with no warnings beyond, perhaps: Enter at your own risk,” Gaiman wrote in “Trigger Warning,” a story collection. “We need to find out what fiction is, what it means, to us, an experience that is going to be unlike anyone else’s experience of the story.”

With that in mind, here’s a highlights tour through the work of Neil Gaiman.

What should I read if I’m totally new to his work?

Start with “American Gods” (2001). The novel was published the same year as the final fizzle of the original dot-com boom and the arrival of the iPod, sticking the zeitgeist landing as consumer technology was becoming entrenched in the mainstream. Gaiman sets the book in a world in which the gods brought over by true believers from the old countries are challenged by the new gods of technology, media and other contemporary concerns. The book follows Shadow Moon, a quiet ex-con who takes a bodyguard job with an enigmatic employer. The colorful cast of characters includes Shadow’s walking dead ex-wife, whom he accidentally reanimates after tossing a gold coin from a rowdy leprechaun into the open grave at her funeral.

The novel is Gaiman’s Americana fantasia of a road-trip novel, written with a modern immigrant’s eye less than a decade after he moved from England to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. And if you like what he does with gods here, try “Anansi Boys” (2005) and “Norse Mythology” (2017).

I need a sharp shock to my literary senses.

“Adults are content to walk the same way, hundreds of times, or thousands,” reflects the narrator of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” (2013). “Perhaps it never occurs to adults to step off the paths, to creep beneath rhododendrons, to find the spaces between fences.” The discovery of new and unexpected spaces drives this surreal fantasy — as do confrontations with deeply embedded memories on the uneven ground from childhood to adulthood. The book is one of Gaiman’s shortest adult novels and it can be consumed in one sitting if nobody bothers you. However, there may be several things in the novel that bother you, as common childhood fears (parental rejection, school bullying, a sinister housekeeper, invasive worms) are blended into a taut plot about a lonely boy in rural England who befriends the girl next door as evil entities encroach on their world.

Nothing scary, please.

Gaiman’s reworking of myths and legends has resulted in plenty of gentler tales. Take “Stardust” (1999), which had earlier permutations as a comic and illustrated book with the artist Charles Vess before its release as a straightforward novel.

Set in the mid-19th century, the book’s breezy narrative recalls William Goldman’s “The Princess Bride,” but burrows into rural English folklore. The story unfolds in the village of Wall, a border town that straddles the human world and the realm of Faerie, and follows a besotted young man named Tristran Thorn, who promises to retrieve a fallen star to impress a woman. As with most quests to strange lands, there are complications along the way, but compared to some of Gaiman’s other work, “Stardust” is a light adventure.

Give me an epic, mind-bending adventure.

How about immersing yourself in 75 issues of a moody fantasy/horror comic? Gaiman’s run as the writer of “The Sandman” from 1989 to 1996 shows off his storytelling chops as he reboots a mostly forgettable character from the DC Comics universe into the ethereal Dream (also known as Morpheus), a brooding godlike being who rules the somnolent realm of fantasies and fears.

Dream is part of a family called the Endless that also includes Death, his older sibling who’s usually depicted as a black-clad goth girl sporting Doc Martens boots, a silver ankh necklace and strong sisterly opinions (she once tells him, “You are utterly the stupidest, most self-centered, appallingest excuse for an anthropomorphic personification on this or any other plane!”).

The series can be pitch-dark at times, but its sharp dialogue and deeply woven story arcs tie it all together.

How about some cheeky demons and jokes
about cassette tapes?

“Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch” (1990) is Gaiman’s first, and arguably funniest, published novel and was written with Terry Pratchett, the creator of the Discworld series of British fantasy novels. In the book, a wrench is thrown into the well-trod Armageddon scenario after a mix-up with the baby Antichrist. The main characters are Aziraphale, an angel and part-time rare-book dealer, and the stylish demon Crowley, described as “an Angel who did not so much Fall as Saunter Vaguely Downwards.” The two have become friends over the millenniums and are quite comfortable with the persistent standoff between good and evil. The tone of the book is very Monty Python-meets-“The Omen,” with snarky footnotes — a nice escape from the current state of the world.

I’m deep into urban fantasy.

Many of Gaiman’s books have been adapted for stage and screen, but “Neverwhere” (1996) began as a television script, becoming a novel after Gaiman found the limits of TV production didn’t let him tell the story he had envisioned. Richard, a somewhat hapless Scot, has been transplanted in the U.K.’s capital, where he discovers a parallel world underneath the city called London Below. Its residents? Those forgotten by history, the homeless and “the people who fall through the cracks.” Richard’s adventures with a girl named Door as they dodge assassins in London Below feel like a gritty mash-up of Alice’s Wonderland and the London Underground map.

I’m indecisive and would like a literary sampler.

Gaiman has published several collections of stories and poetry since the 1990s, but for the cream of the crop, pick up “The Neil Gaiman Reader: Selected Fiction” (2020). It’s an overflowing buffet that rounds up his best stories (as voted on by his fans) into one chunky but convenient volume, topped off with an introduction by Marlon James. Highlights include “Chivalry,” an impish story about an elderly woman who finds the Holy Grail in a thrift shop; “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” about a foreboding legend from Scotland’s Isle of Skye; and “The Case of Death and Honey,” a Sherlock Holmes riff with bees.

How does Gaiman get all these ideas?

Grab a copy of “The Art of Neil Gaiman: The Story of a Writer, With Handwritten Notes, Drawings, Manuscripts, and Personal Photographs” (2014), by Hayley Campbell. As the title suggests, the book takes the “show, don’t tell” approach to biography and packs its slickly designed pages with visuals that go beyond book covers and author photos. For those curious about Gaiman’s background and writing process, the volume is peppered with scanned journal pages full of doodles, sketches and scribbles that show his ideas crackling to life.

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