Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders is a 2006 collection of short stories and poems by Neil Gaiman. Most of the pieces contained within are actually reprints, previously having appeared in anthologies, literary magazines, music albums, and in one case paired with a picture in a photography book. Most relevant to some, perhaps, is the final novella-length story The Monarch of the Glen, which is a sequel to the novel American Gods that takes inspiration from the story Beowulf. This book also contains the story “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” which was adapted into a film in 2017.
I’ve always viewed this book as a sort of sibling to his 1998 collection Smoke and Mirrors, as that book also brought together previously published works. I recall that book feeling more thematically similar throughout however, whereas this collection was a bit more of an assortment. They are still Gaiman stories though, so I don’t mean to suggest you should expect them to be hugely different. I only mean that the earlier collection left more of a distinct impression of horror on me in terms of tone and genre, whereas this book felt more varied, with some stories being mostly straightforward fiction, others more firmly in the realm of magic realism, and even a few cases of science fiction.
There are, unsurprisingly, a good number of stories that do flirt with horror and nightmarish ideas, particularly as ghost stories. There was an interesting pattern of stories early on in the collection that told of children having haunting experiences with abandoned properties, often involving entering a building and not returning. I found these quite effective in their simplicity, and I especially enjoyed the motifs that spawned from them popping up in other stories. I cannot quite cite all the places this is referenced, but the image of a door knocker shaped like a red impish figure appeared in a number of stories after it was introduced in “Closing Time.” There’s actually a surprise crossover of characters between two stories too, which I really enjoyed. If you pay attention a lot of details actually seem to cross-pollinate throughout the collection.
Something I could take-or-leave about this book were the poems. It’s not that they were badly written—I especially liked “Locks,” a conversational poem about sharing stories—but most of them were very forgettable for me. As an amusing consolation, however, according to Gaiman in the introduction all of the poems contained within the collection are “free.” The book would cost the same with or without them, and while he meant for the book to be all prose he liked some of these poems too much not to include them. Most of the poetry may not have stuck with me that much, but I found this little backstory to their inclusion really endearing.
The Monarch of the Glen was an excellent story and a great way to close out the book. It catches the reader up with what Shadow Moon has been doing since the end of American Gods, finding him in a remote area of Scotland. I really liked how it expanded upon the world as we know it from the novel, giving a closer look at the place the monsters of the old myths have in it, not just the gods. It also reveals some of Shadow’s true nature as well, the end of the novel having revealed he is more than just a mere mortal man. It was in this novella that two characters of a dubious character from the story “Keepsakes and Treasures” appeared as well, which appreciably grew out this fictional world and shed more speculative light onto that short story for me.
If you’re a fan of Neil Gaiman, this collection is a no-brainer. It’s an excellent assortment of stories and poems, with The Monarch of the Glen almost being worth the price of admission alone. If you’re just starting to check the author’s work out, this would be a perfect place to start if not for the fact that you really ought to read American Gods first, just for the sake of that closing story. It is nevertheless a refreshing selection of stories that includes great pieces of fantasy and magic realism, ghostly tales, more mundane and thoughtful fiction, and a few science fiction additions that includes a poignant tale set in the world of The Matrix.
My Rating: 4 out of 5