Short stories are a tricky business. When done well, just a few pages of text can offer a tantalizing glimpse of another world, or immerse you in a scenario so familiar it feels claustrophobic. Creating a brief narrative that contains depth and nuance is a significant accomplishment. I’d venture to guess that only a few writers have managed to master the craft. For several years, my dependable favorites have been Ray Bradbury, Raymond Carver, Miranda July, Flannery O’Connor, and Etgar Keret. Since reading Smoke and Mirrors, this list now includes Neil Gaiman.
Smoke and Mirrors brings together a wide variety of Gaiman’s short pieces. In the introduction, Gaiman writes that “Stories are, in one way or another, mirrors. We use them to explain to ourselves how the world works or how it doesn’t work. Like mirrors, stories prepare us for the day to come. They distract us from the things in the darkness.” I’d like to think that most of Gaiman’s stories live up to such lofty ambitions.
One of the most popular works included in this collection is “Snow, Glass, Apples,” a re-telling of the Snow White fairy tale. Gaiman’s version follows the perspective of a “Wicked Queen” who is desperately trying to save her people from a monstrous creature with porcelain skin and dark, lovely hair. As fans of Gaiman’s other works (especially the Sandman series and American Gods) are well aware, he has a virtuosic talent for reinterpreting mythology, fairy tales, and other sources of lore. However, his forte extends beyond allusive re-imaginings. As Smoke and Mirrors demonstrates, Gaiman also excels at allegories, satire, speculative fiction, and dark humor.
Gaiman’s sense of humor is especially prominent in “Chivalry.” In the story, an average British woman named Mrs. Whitaker purchases the Holy Grail for 30 pence at her local Oxfam thrift store. As noble Sir Galahad tries to convince her to relinquish the Grail, she is faced with a serious dilemma: if she parts with her treasure, what will she do to fill the spot on her mantle that the Grail occupies so perfectly?
It’s difficult for me to choose a favorite story from Smoke and Mirrors, but “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” is definitely a contender. After Peter Pinter is jilted, his gentlemanly composure gives way to blood lust. At first, Peter just wants to eliminate one person: his romantic rival. The assassins he finds listed in the phonebook under “Pest Control” offer him a bulk discount, however. And we all know how difficult it is to pass up a bargain. The story’s conclusion is both clever and eerie.
Life just seems a little bit better when I’m reading a Neil Gaiman book. Even when the subject matter at hand is dark or macabre, Gaiman’s writing makes every bizarre twist and gothic turn truly enjoyable.