This anthology’s title was an exciting promise of boundary-pushing stories, but what I actually found was, as the foreword admitted, a motley collection of works spanning more than a decade and with no real unifying theme. All the same, if you enjoy Neil Gaiman’s work, you’ll find something to enjoy here.
Here are the ones that touched or scared me:
Down to a Sunless Sea: an excellent example of a concise horror story. I’ll go ahead and quote the heart of it (spoiler!), because it’s such a good quote:
“They said they drew lots fairly, but I do not believe it. He was smaller than them. After eight days adrift in the boat, they were so hungry. And if they did draw lots, they cheated.
“They gnawed his bones clean, one by one, and they gave them to his new mother, the sea. She shed no tears and took them without a word. She’s cruel.”
My Last Landlady: this story is more impressive via Gaiman’s delivery, reading it aloud, than it would be reading it oneself, I think. He did a brilliant job with the pace and rhythm, illuminating the poetry in the prose.
Orange: this was a delightfully creative format (only the answers recorded in a police interview), most inspirational.
A Calendar of Tales: the ones closing out the year really messed me up. I liked October’s, about the woman who had no use for a genie’s wishes (not even to help the world, if not herself??), and he ended up just moving in with her.
But November. When Neil asked Twitter, “What would you burn in November, if you could?” and someone replied, “My medical records, but only if that would make it all go away.” The resulting story drove the breath from my chest, stinging my eyes, made it hard to leave my car to enter my office building. It felt entirely too real, and too likely: the solitude and finality of approaching death.
December’s tale, about the homeless girl struggling to survive another winter day, was utterly heartrending too.
The Case of Death and Honey: A+ Sherlock Holmes fanfic. I really liked the (super-tragic) final conversation with Mycroft on his death bed, especially:
“You know, if I were to live, the British Empire might last another thousand years, bringing peace and improvement to the world.”
In the past, especially when I was a boy, whenever I heard Mycroft make a grandiose pronouncement like that I would say something to bait him. But not now, not on his death-bed. And also I was certain that he was not speaking of the Empire as it was, a flawed and fallible construct of flawed and fallible people, but of a British Empire that existed only in his head, a glorious force for civilisation and universal prosperity.
I do not, and did not, believe in empires. But I believed in Mycroft.
An Invocation of Incuriosity: this story left imprints of images greater than the story itself: the beginning of the world, the end of the world, and Nothing lifting the father into the air before swallowing him whole in the blink of an eye. And our present, the time in between.
“And Weep, Like Alexander”: the concept of an uninventor was pretty upsetting to me. I’m a big fan of technology and progress. Not a fan of an arbitrary, omnipotent judge wiping things out of existence because they’re subjectively perceived as an inconvenience.
Nothing O’Clock: a Doctor Who episode! I haven’t watched Doctor Who, but even so, I found this an awfully good and terrifying story. For me, one of the most disturbing moments was realizing why the overcrowded are hotels, and how absolutely nothing is for sale. And just the idea of shipping all these people — no, the world’s population — to the remotest areas, and how humanity would go extinct in a matter of weeks or months of struggling to make sense of it, to organize, to fight the inevitable panic and riots — it’s very, very upsetting. But I liked the Doctor’s solution.
Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale: another subverted fairy tale, this time featuring Cinderella, her step-mother and step-sisters, and a dog that rewards you by matching the merit of your actions to what falls from your mouth. I liked it.
The Return of the Thin White Duke: a beautiful tribute (he even calls it “unabashedly fan fiction”) to David Bowie, written in 2004.
The Sleeper and the Spindle: another revised fairy tale, this time combining Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. Really well done with excellent twists.
Black Dog: a wonderfully evocative story that reacquaints us with Shadow, of American Gods, on his migratory journey across the UK. He runs into a small town, an odd couple — and what Neil Gaiman does best, with slowly escalating levels of unease, of wrongness, of horror.