Some people are born storytellers. They can take an idea or instance, which if left to you or me would be an anecdote at best, and use it to perform downright miracles. They build worlds with language, both dazzling and frightening. They entrance us, confuse us, make us think and wonder. Ray Bradbury is such a master, and so it's appropriate that Neil Gaiman mentions him in a book so reminiscent of science fiction's poet laureate.
In his introduction, Gaiman points a finger at Bradbury and the inspiration he gave, especially in the short story collections S is for Space and R is for Rocket. Gaiman says he wanted to write something similar, but with fantasy as the central idea, trading aliens for trolls, as it were. He even called Bradbury to get his blessing for the copycat title. Gaiman did well to mention all this, because the similarities are magnificently clear. Not that the younger author has stolen a thing, but the influence and admiration is like a scent trapped between the pages. As Bradbury has descended into his vale of years, a gap has opened up in American letters, and, through this collection, Gaiman takes a respectful step into the void.
The book is made up of ten short stories and a closing poem that present the reader with a balanced variety of styles, tones and attitudes. Given the title, I was pleasantly surprised by the lead-off choice. Rather than sword, sorcery, or fairy, "The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds" is a sort of fairytale noir. Little Jack Horner (a midget P.I.) gets drawn into a seedy scandal when he agrees to look into the case of one Mr. Dumpty. This pairs up well with the fourth story "How to Sell the Ponti Bridge," which recounts an over-the-top confidence scheme on a far away planet. There's lightness in the collection as well: "Chivalry" finds Sir Galahad just beaten to the Holy Grail by an old woman who buys it from a thrift shop, while the narrator of "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" gets involved with some complicated women. And as near as I can tell, the point of "Don't Ask Jack" is simply to freak people out.
The stories in which magic is most overt, however, are arguably the collection's most potent. "Troll Bridge" walks that hazy line between the real world and the otherworld, sometimes literally. It plays on an old, old motif, but does it with a refreshing melancholy. "October in the Chair" recounts a meeting of the months of the year (which is probably best read in autumn), while "The Witch's Headstone" is a great piece of youthful adventure that also appears in The Graveyard Book. "Sunbird," the penultimate story, is mysterious and intriguing throughout, and even though it goes exactly where you think it will, it does so in a perfectly satisfying way. Finally, there is "The Price." I found this story the most powerful and the most Bradburyesque in execution. It's not hard to see why it was given graphic form in Creatures of the Night. When a stray cat turns up on a family's doorstep, they don't think much of it, but as it becomes covered with mysterious wounds, concerns rise. This story lulls you into a sense of normalcy, until you learn why the cat is so constantly hurt. The ending is both haunting and hopeful, written in a concise, artful way.
Ostensibly, this is a book for kids, but the writing makes it so much more. These are good stories, thoughtful stories, which often ask more questions than they answer. Unlike real life, however, they're the right sorts of unanswerables. They're chilly thoughts from an autumn midnight and hopeful sighs that the world isn't so concrete as it appears. The stories open with great lines like "My favorite Rogue's Club is the oldest and still the most exclusive in all the Seven Worlds," and they give us "Instructions." That's the title of the book's conclusion, and I'll leave you with two lines which I think sum up the its great promise and its best advice.
"Touch the wooden gate in the wall you never saw before …. Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story."