Authors of the Amorphous: Neil Gaiman
Apotheosis (Checking Off Boxes Without Trying)
Navigating the Bleeding Edge: Gaiman’s works don’t smack you in the face and tell you they’re “weird and cool.” Instead, they show you their weirdness in a search for meaning. Don’t be surprised if you’re riveted to his works; if Gaiman finds something interesting enough to write about, chances are it’s fascinating, horrifying and breathtakingly…
A few decades ago, I was a perpetual student at Rowan University. Like most college students, I had a small crowd of like-minded folks I hung around with between classes. In my case, those were the folks from the commuter lounge, roughly half of whom were commuters. Among those who were not, there were three young women with as much mental similarity as they had physical diversity: The Collective Karen. I bring them up because at one point, when trying to differentiate between Karen, Karen, and Karen, a friend turned to me and said, “No, not that Karen, the one who looks like Death.”
Upon seeing the blank look on my face, she asked me if I’d read any Sandman comics. Seeing further blank looks, she dragged me back to her dorm room and had her wicked way with… wait, wrong story. At any rate, I wound up spending the next few days reading every Sandman comic she could dig up for me. I was hooked, fascinated by the complex interweaving of a reality not-of-earth, beings more in tune with meaning than substance, and a Death that made Thanos’ infatuation completely understandable. Then I realized I’d missed every class that week and had to get back to school.
Around 10 years ago, I’d taken to reading everything I could find by Terry Pratchett, because I was a huge Pratchett fanboy. Not to say I’m not still, but that’s not the point of this article, is it? At any rate, I found a few books not covered by his Discworld series, among them one called Good Omens. Where Terry’s normal books focus on very personal tragedies in a world where magic just happens to be real, showing how those affect the world as a secondary notion; Good Omens is different, told in a “real” world where the things out of the ordinary are hidden just out of sight of prying mortal eyes. The style reminded me of something, and when I looked, I saw that name once more; Neil Gaiman.
I went looking for other books he’d written and found American Gods. For the next few days, I dove into a world of old gods and new gods, of mysteries and wars and hidden identities, one that most people have just now gotten to know via the Starz television adaptation of the series [ 1 ]. Then work got busy, and once more I got lost in the everyday world of the mundane.
Then, Gaiman’s star would rise in my night sky once more. A few years back, a friend convinced me to give the new Doctor Who a try. As a kid, Star Wars had spoiled me, and I never gave the series a chance, so by the time I got into it, Matt Smith was The Doctor. I binge-watched multiple seasons, and right as I was about to catch up, I saw a familiar name as the writer of The Doctor’s Wife. Again, Gaiman spun me through a tale in which everything I knew wasn’t quite as I thought it had been, only this time he did it in an entirely fictional universe while managing to make the same impact. This was doubly interesting to those who’d watched the series thus far, and even more so for “Classic” Who fans who might ponder the implications of Gaiman’s narrative on their overall continuity.
This was my tripartite introduction to the weird, engrossing writing of Neil Gaiman. This introduction echoes the works he has created; they don’t smack you in the face with, “Hey, look at me, I’m cool and weird!” Instead, they go about their weirdness in an endless search for meaning, and when you stumble across them, they look up and say, “Oh, hey there, I was just looking at this thing, isn’t it odd?” At that point, whatever it is he’s laid his hands on, you can easily find yourself riveted to it, because if Gaiman finds something interesting enough to write about, odds are it’s fascinating, horrifying, and breathtakingly beautiful in equal measure.
The Ultimate New Weird Author
While this point can be argued, Gaiman is, in many ways, the ultimate New Weird author. He spins tales that have you questioning what you know to be true, typically by positing a world not quite like the one you are familiar with. Often, that world lies overlapped with our own mundane reality in such a way you can believe you’ve just never been in the right place at the right time to notice it. He’s set up shop right at the intersection of Clarke and Third Law, disguising science as magic and vice versa [ 2 ]. Above all, he does all these things without intending to check off tick boxes in some imagined “New Weird trope checklist;” in every case it’s simply the best way to tell the story he’s trying to tell.
To take them in reverse order, save that last about the checklist, the intersection of science and magic (or more commonly the mystical and the mundane) is one of the most interesting aspects of Gaiman’s works. In Sandman, as I’ve spoken of in other articles, he mixes the two by treating characters of myth and legend as people as well as implacable forces of the universe [ 3 ]. In the case of the titular Sandman, Dream of the Endless, it is the sense of ennui with the unending cycles of dreams and storytelling, shown when he meets other Endless, or when dealing with powers beyond mortal ken. Somehow Gaiman manages to evoke a sense of wonder even as his main character is so obviously not feeling that same sense of wonder but instead treats the wondrous as the everyday. Of course, that same intersection of Endless anthropomorphic personification and mundane, approachable humanity created what may be Gaiman’s most fan-beloved character, Death. Without ever losing her sense of finality or remorseless implacability, she manages to be a caring, kind, even gentle person, even as she takes the souls of those that have expired their allotted time. “You get what anybody gets,” Death says, not unkindly, in Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes. “You get a lifetime” [ 4 ].
In American Gods, the mix of science and magic repeats that same technique of merging the mundane and the mystical by giving each of the gods a mortal seeming eerily in tune with their deific portfolio. Beyond this, Gaiman goes one step further by doing the reverse of what might be considered “normal.” Instead of describing super-tech as “magical” or explaining away magic by means of high technology, he instead describes technology we have come to take for granted as magical, or even divine in nature. His “new gods” are anthropomorphic personifications not of concepts mankind has struggled with for aeons, but of myths and urban legends we’ve only come to believe in within the last half century [ 4 ].
Finally, it goes without saying that any episode of Doctor Who blends magic and science (the former masquerading as the latter, of course) so seamlessly one might as well forget there is a difference between the two. In The Doctor’s Wife, Gaiman takes a concept which is referenced in many an episode, that the TARDIS is alive and has a soul, and uses that as the basis for an episode which allows the exploration of both facets of one of the least appreciated characters of the series, the TARDIS herself [ 5 ]. There’s been a lot of fan fiction on the concept of the TARDIS as an interactive character (and yes, I know some of you consider New Who to be fan fiction in and of itself), but those are, of course, not canon. By definition, like certain, ultimate universes, they can’t take place in the same reality.
This leads us into the idea of “alternate realities;” while The Doctor’s Wife primarily takes place in a “bubble universe,” that isn’t the only reference, nor even the most important one, to altered perceptions of reality in the episode. The personified TARDIS, throughout her existence, is constantly dropping one-liners that on their face are just funny but on further inspection reveal a profoundly insightful and possibly disturbing view. The banter of “You can’t archive something that hasn’t happened yet” followed by “You can’t” is just that when you hear it: witty banter. There’s no time to stop and think about what it means to be a thinking being able to see all of time and space more clearly than it can the here and now, but when you do stop to think about it; there goes the good grip on reality again.
In both Sandman and American Gods, Gaiman uses a subtler, yet no less disturbing method of delivering the same concepts. In both cases, gods and anthropomorphic personifications are portrayed as humans, with all the quirks and foibles one might expect of humans. The realities they inhabit aren’t our own but lie contiguous to the one we inhabit, so no matter where you are, you’re never far from a place that might be home to a god, a devil, a dream, or death itself.
That leads us back to the core of the genre, the thing Gaiman does, if not better than, then at least with more élan than any other author I can think of. Without ever seeming to intend to, he makes his readers or viewers question what they think they know; to look at reality with new, unjaded, perhaps less comfortable eyes. Whether it’s knowing that the TARDIS stole the Doctor, realizing that the butcher in that rundown deli might be willing and able to sacrifice you to his own greater glory or even continued existence, or even just the simple thought that “you get what everyone gets; a lifetime,” Gaiman makes you think, whether you want to or not, even whether you realize you’re doing it or not.
Gaiman’s body of work is, of course, much vaster than these three examples. Novels like Stardust take the typical fairy tale love story and turn it on its head, while children’s novels like Coraline harness the horror of mirror universes where things perhaps look better than your own at first glance but turn out to be horrifying if you dig a bit deeper. Modern, urban fantasy like Good Omens and the adaptation of the Neverwhere television serial are deeply satisfying and genre-defining in ways reminiscent of Clive Barker. Even his retelling of Norse Mythology is infused with his signature approach to storytelling.
That’s how you know you’re taking in a story that’s been worked on at the “base” first. The setting, the references to events existing outside the fiction, the little quirks of world building; these are not the story. The characters and their motivations are the true tale every time, and the rest is window dressing. Gaiman’s style and method show through, regardless of whether the inspiration was a Greek temple or a Brooklyn subway. The thought process is the same, regardless of the surroundings. The characters are the same, whether they’re a god or a bum (or both).
So, next time you know you ought to be thinking, but can’t quite convince yourself to do so, go looking for some Neil Gaiman, and I’ll see you next time as we Navigate the Bleeding Edge.
- “Prolific as he is, Gaiman is considered one of the modern masters in almost any genre.” Source: https://www.shutterstock.com/image-photo/neil-gaiman-european-premiere-beowulf-vue-10096030 (“Neil Gaiman at the european premiere of ‘Beowulf’ at the Vue cinema on November 11, 2007, London, England.”) Shutterstock. Entertainment Press.
- “Gaiman’s Sandman saga, featuring Morpheus and his siblings as a troubled series of immortal quasi deities, defies any one genre or distinction, bridging often into existential questions.” Source: Gaiman, Neil, et al. The Sandman. Volume 4, Season of Mists. Dc Comics, 2010.
Having wandered through multiple careers, hobbies, and educational paths over five decades of life, Robert’s body of work has ranged from systems analysis, work a butcher, a baker, a professional educator, and published author. A regular speaker at PhilCon and other events, he’s been a force multiplier for community youth outreach. Steam-Funk Studios senior creative staff, his insights helped shape both The Unconventional and The Living Multiverse punctuated by his dry pronouncement, “Boom.”
- Polo, Susana. “American Gods, Explained.” Polygon, Vox Media, 17 Apr. 2017, polygon.com/tv/2017/4/17/15277640/american-gods-explained.
- “Clarke’s Three Laws.” New Scientist, New Scientist, newscientist.com/definition/clarkes-three-laws/. Accessed 22 Apr. 2021.
- Clough, Rob. “DC’s Sandman explained.” Looper, Static Media, 6 Aug 2020. looper.com/234039/dcs-sandman-explained/. Accessed 2 Nov 2020.
- Gaiman, Neil et al. The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes. DC Comics, 1991.
- McLaughlin, Helene. “Doctor Who: The Doctor’s Wife—A Recap.” Wired, Condé Nast, 21 May 2011. wired.com/2011/05/doctor-who-the-doctors-wife-a-recap/. Accessed 8 Nov 2020.