In the deft hands of Neil Gaiman, magic is no mere illusion . . . and anything is possible. In Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman’s imagination and supreme artistry transform a mundane world into a place of terrible wonders—where an old woman can purchase the Holy Grail at a thrift store, where assassins advertise their services in the Yellow Pages under “Pest Control,” and where a frightened young boy must barter for his life with a mean-spirited troll living beneath a bridge by the railroad tracks. Explore a new reality, obscured by smoke and darkness yet brilliantly tangible, in this extraordinary collection of short works by a master prestidigitator. It will dazzle your senses, touch your heart, and haunt your dreams.
Smoke and Mirrors by Neil Gaiman is a collection of “short fiction and illusions,” originally published in 1998. From what I gathered reading it, most if not all of these stories had been published before as part of different collections or anthologies. I’ve been a rather big fan of Gaiman for a number of years now, but admittedly this is the first time I’ve read any of his short fiction outside of comic books. I was interested to see just how much a departure in format would change his style of writing, as I have recently been noticing common trends in his novels. As it turns out, his short fiction varies quite widely in terms of subject matter.
Despite this variance, there is a familiar narrative voice at the core of these stories, and this is by no means a bad thing. He has a writing style as an author that I’m continually engaged by, and while I’m not entirely confident that I could recognize a story as his without knowing beforehand, they always feel familiar to me. It continues to amaze me not just how well Gaiman can tell stories, but how well he can tell stories with such differing perspectives. From a thrifty old lady, to a hardboiled lycanthrope, to an 11-year-old girl having a picnic at the site of the End of the World, each feels like a distinct individual with a unique take on the world.
Nearly every tale has an element of the fantastic to it, though some are a lot more grounded than others. There are numerous retellings of fairy tales contained within, often with a dark(er) twist, while others feel more cemented in the real world with an element of magic or the otherworldly sprinkled in. Sometimes the more grounded tale is a retelling of a fairy tale. The stories I enoyed most were his takes on the world of Lovecraft in “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar” and “Only the End of the World Again.” He injects these stories with just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek whilst staying true to disturbing nature of the source material. The latter of the two stories introduced the seemingly immortal werewolf Larry Talbot, who also appeared in a near-future detective story called “Bay Wolf,” a wonderful retelling of the poem Beowulf.
There’s actually a surprising amount of horror to these stories, despite the author’s assertion that many of these stories are about love (though rarely positively). While I would not call this a horror collection, many of them are rather nightmarish. Even those that are otherwise more whimsical can take a turn toward the harrowing, such as the anxiety inducing conclusion to “Queen of Knives”. While he doesn’t shy away from being violent, dark, or graphic, what makes these most effective is his ability to tell stories that simply get upsetting. It makes me really want to see him tackle horror in a full-length novel, which I’m not sure that he’s done before. I know the macabre creeps into his stories at different levels quite often, but I’d really like to see a fully committed approach to it.
Surprisingly, the introduction was a section that left a significant impression on me. I at first bemoaned a 30-page intro to the book, wanting to get to the stories, but was delighted to find he had hidden a story within it, playfully remarking that it is for people who don’t skip introductions. The tale within was beautifully poignant and definitely worth the lengthy “introduction.” The only thing that prickled me a little about it is he then goes on to give commentary for every story that will follow in the book. While it didn’t ruin anything for me, I’m puzzled as to why this was put at the front of the book. Having no context for any of the stories just made it all forgettable information. In hindsight I could have skipped over and come back to it all, but I naturally want to read cover to cover, not jump around. It’s a nit pick, but it bothered me nonetheless.
Smoke and Mirrors is a great collection of poetry and prose for fans of Gaiman and newcomers alike. They’re not exactly uplifting stories, but they’re wonderfully written throughout. They’re thoughtful, nightmarish, and capture the imagination in sometimes delightful, other times haunting, ways. There isn’t a single one I didn’t enjoy reading, though some have left more of an impression on me than others.