Now that I own copies of Neil Gaiman’s three short story anthologies, I re-read Fragile Things and then tackled this one, Smoke and Mirrors. As with Fragile Things this earlier collection has a description of each story’s origin in the introduction. Unlike the other collection, Smoke and Mirrors’ introduction also comes with a bonus short story embedded. So, yeah. There’s that.
I have to say that the more I read Gaiman’s stories the less unexpected or surprising they seem, if you know what I mean. Gaiman is a writer who loves to play with and subvert tropes, but he does it in very obvious ways. When there are twists, you can often see them coming. Smoke and Mirrors is rife with examples like this: “Snow, Glass, Apples” reimagines Snow White as a vampire child and the Queen as a heroine protecting her realm—it all ends poorly for her, still. There’s a story about a troll who wants to “eat the life” of a victim, which essentially means … well, I’ll let you guess.
This unsurprising quality is not bad, just different. I’ve always appreciated Gaiman on a stylistic level. In particular, he often writes protagonists who are—or at least start off as—vaguely unsympathetic. I was never much a fan of Richard Mayhew from Neverwhere, and many of the characters in these stories share that quality of being a less-than-stellar human being. It’s as if Gaiman is trying to say something….
My favourite story is, by far, “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale,” and I’ll tell you why: I thought this was a Harlan Ellison story.
I read this story a long time ago somewhere else—I don’t recall where now. I want to say it was in Grade 12, because that’s when I read a big anthology of Harlan Ellison’s works, but maybe I’m only claiming it was then because I was under the impression, for the longest time, that this story was written by Ellison. All I could remember was the premise: guy tries to take out a contract killing, but he gets up-sold by the marketing person until they agree to … well, I’ll let you guess. This is another example of where the twist is not so much surprising as almost stupefying in its logical progression, but I feel like it’s a very satisfying story.
Anyway, for the longest time I’ve been going around telling people that one of my favourite short stories is this one by Ellison, not remembering what it was called. Turns out it’s actually by Neil Gaiman. So it goes.
So for entirely personal reasons, “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” is my favourite (and it is a very good story besides). The stories collected herein are all pretty good, actually. Some are so short it’s hard to really enjoy them—they are like a small candy you put in your mouth that melts just as it starts to release its flavour. “Chivalry,” the modern-day spoof on the quest for the Holy Grail, is a fantastic opener. I loved Gaiman’s characterization of Mrs Whitaker; she reminded me a lot of the types of older women I would meet in England or see on television there. “Murder Mysteries” reminds me a lot of Supernatural.
But if it weren’t for that personal anecdote, then the best story of the collection has to be “The Price.” This story is heart-breaking. It’s about a heroic Black Cat fighting the forces of evil in a very visceral way, and I love every word of it. It’s simply and starkly written but powerful in the images it evokes and a reminder of the bond we have with our animals.
I’ll echo the opinion I shared at the end of my review of Fragile Things: this is not where I would start with Gaiman. Encountering one of these stories alone in the wild might be compelling; so many all together like this feels too artificial. That’s the trouble with short story collections, isn’t it? Short stories are meant to be appreciated and savoured by themselves, but keeping them separately is inefficient and impractical. Collecting them takes them out of context, and reading such a collection robs them of some of their spontaneity.
Be that as it may, Smoke and Mirrors is another good Gaiman read. It’s an excellent example of what he does best, which is take the familiar and look at it from a different perspective. In his introduction he says that all fiction is ultimately a form of fantasy. He’s not the first to make this observation, but I feel like he’s one writer in particular who takes such an observation to heart. A lot of Gaiman’s fantastic stories are set in a world like ours—a world where strange things happen, but unlike in this one, the people there get a little more idea of what’s going on. As if that’s ever a good idea.