(Tales of the Universe's Weird & Wicked Sense of Humor #3)
I'm going to tell you a secret: I hated Neil Gaiman.
This was back in college when I was teaching computer classes in my alma mater. One of my students mentioned a popular comic book he was reading.
"What?" I asked my student.
"Sandman, the comic book series," he said.
"Who?" I asked, meaning both the character and the author.
"Neil Gaiman. Don't you know him?"
"I don't." I shook my head and started secretly hating Mr. Gaiman then. Of course, I was jealous. At that time, I already knew I wanted to be a writer but I didn't have the confidence to share my dream with anyone. Something about talking about a famous author bruised my stupid ego. (Boom, boom, boom)
Fast forward many years later...
I'm going to tell you another secret: I no longer hate Neil Gaiman. In fact, I've become a fan.
Isn't it funny how the universe flips things around sometimes?
Smoke and Mirrors, Mr. Gaiman's collection of short stories, was a big influence and inspiration to my previous book Walden and Hyde (and Other Short Stories). A few months before that project began, I found myself standing in front of the book in a bookstore I frequent to. "It's time to find out if your hate for Mr. Gaiman is warranted," I told myself as I grabbed a copy by impulse.
The answer to that non-question question was, of course, NO. My hate for Mr. Gaiman was unwarranted. Blame it on my early post-youth phase jealousy. Right after reading Chivalry I knew I made the right purchase. Mr. Gaiman and Xeno's jealousy-free author-reader relationship started that moment.
Below, I list my personal top 10 Neil Gaiman short stories, taken from Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things. I confess that I have not read the entirety of his bibliography (Sandman included). But I have the rest of my life to do that. This list is intended for those who have read Mr. Gaiman's short stories, for I will not go into too much detail about my choices. If you haven't read his stories, then I hope that my vagueness of varying degrees intrigue you to check his work. You shan't regret it! Here we go:
#10 - Harlequin Valentine
Love story? Yes. Unrequited affection? Yes. Unexpected ending? Yes. This story presented a sucker punch that grossed me out after. I should've seen it coming with the word Harlequin in the title.
#9 - Tastings
This is a story about sex but it's not the sex that's intriguing. When I finished, I was left with questions that weren't sex-related at all. Surprise! While I was no stranger to reading smutty works of fiction (blame the tabloids I had easy access to when I was a teen), it was initially uncomfortable reading a story with sex in a book by a famous author. But I'm uncomfortable with that no more. In fact, this and Neil's other sex-flavored stories became my unofficial teachers that helped me craft my very own Mrs. Vaughn and the One That Got Away.
#8 - October in the Chair
Three things fascinated me with October in the Chair. First is the story-within-a-story setup. Second is the personification of the 12 months. Who doesn't love personification? Raise your hand and jump off a building. Third is because I'm an Octoberian. Hence, I'm biased. I wish the other months got more time though but perhaps that's another story for Neil to write.
#7 - Sunbird
The best phoenix story EVER is the X-Men comics' Phoenix Saga. Despite the butchering the X-Men films did to it, it has not tarnished my good memory of it in any way at all. While Gaiman's Sunbird could not top that (and I don't think it even tried to), the quest-for-the-phoenix story kept me glued paragraph per paragraph until I reached the surprising ending. I will not even try to spoil it for you.
#6 - Looking for the Girl
Similar to Harlequin Valentine, it's a love story about unrequited affection. Unlike Harlequin Valentine, this one was longer and its mystery was more subtle. Unlike Harlequin Valentine again, I felt more empathy for the protagonist and his sad plight to find the enigmatic girl he fell in love with.
#5 - Foreign Parts
"Simon Powers didn't like sex. Not really."
That opening alone justifies this story being in my Top 5. While this teases sex right away, it's not the main theme of this one (at least not in my interpretation). Sex was just an instrument used to push us into the narrative and into intimacy that would later be invaded by horror.
#4 - How to Talk to Girls at Parties
Teens, girls, and parties, this story felt grungy and dirty to me. Of course, I waited for the sex. I waited, I waited, and I waited. Neil's other sex-flavored stories teased sex but I didn't care whether they showed it or not. With this one, I wanted to read about it and let's just leave it at that. The ending boggled me.
#3 - Chivalry
The greatest use of the Holy Grail in any work of art was in the anime Sailormoon S, also arguably the series' best season. While the Holy Grail is an element in this story, it's not the sole reason for Chivalry's charm. Rather, the fun and adorable interaction between Mrs. Whitaker (who found the Grail) and Galaad the knight (who wanted it from her) was the story's main appeal.
#2 - Snow, Glass, Apples
Before I read this, I had a hint it would be a version of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves based on the title. I was right. This creepy one left a lasting impression and served as the perfect closer for Smoke and Mirrors.
#1 - Closing Time
Closing Time possesses most of the traits I love most about Neil Gaiman's short stories: the story-within-a-story setup, flavors of sex, enigma and intrigue, and the perturbing questions in the end. Incorporating all those elements made for a charming yet terrifying fiction. If I have to pick one Neil Gaiman story to read for the rest of my life, this will be my choice.
What about you? What are your favorite Neil Gaiman short stories?