Do you remember when you were young and there were certain short story writers whose tales always made you feel good? They could be scary, they could be funny, or they could just be about things that made you think. But whenever you read a book of their stories you felt as comfortable as if you were tucked into bed in a warm comforter on the coldest night of the year.
It might be a howling blizzard outside but inside the comfort of those pages you were long gone and safe. You could be staring down the biggest, ugliest, and hairiest monster known to all human and non-human kind and feel right at home. These worlds of the imagination kept away the reality of the test you hadn't studied for tomorrow, or the fact that you had made a fool of yourself at school (again) today and were going to suffer for it for at least the next week.
You wished that you too could really climb aboard that rocket ship to go off and encounter strange places and even stranger beings. In my opinion Ray Bradbury was the past master of these stories, and it appears I'm not alone in that thought. Neil Gaiman's latest collection of short stories isn't titled M Is For Magic by accident. He says in his forward that he phoned Ray Bradbury and asked his permission to tip his hat to Ray's wonderful collection of short stories R Is For Rocket.
Neil Gaiman is of course the author of an incredible body of work ranging from graphic novels, The Sandman series, and movie scripts (MirrorMask), to a multitude of books and short stories for adults and children. His books can scare you half to death and leave you delighted and smiling. But mainly, just like the man he admires so much, opening a book of his short stories is the surest way to forget yourself and the troubles of your day for as long as you're able to keep the book open.
Nominally for young people M Is For Magic is like Bradbury's collection before, a compilation of stories culled from previous works that Mr. Gaiman felt younger readers would like. The book appeals to the place inside of us that yearns for stories of less than earth-shattering importance. Somewhere inside us are still those kids who loved to listen to ghost stories around the camp fire, to look up at the night sky and wonder who might be living up there, and who knew there were stranger things living in the woods than foxes and rabbits no matter what our parents said.
True to the spirit of their predecessors the stories of M Is For Magic stand ready to whisk you away into the arms of the mysterious and wonderful worlds they contain. Although each story is a gem in its own right, there are a couple whose sparkle really caught my eye.
To adolescent boys, girls seem to be from another planet. So when Enn and his friend Vic crash a party full of girls it seems only natural to him that they are incomprehensible. But gradually it dawns on him that even for girls they are remarkably different in their manners and ways of being. "How To Talk To Girls At Parties" takes the fear all young men experience when dealing with the opposite sex and turns it on its head. It's all right that you don't understand them – they really are from another planet.
"Troll Bridge" does a different type of headstand, as it plays a strange twist on the evil troll under the bridge story. Oh it's still big, ugly, hairy, scary, and waiting to eat the life out of you, but he's also willing to make bargains. But sometimes it's hard to tell with bargaining who is getting the better side of the deal. Besides, once you get away from the troll, who would really keep their side of the deal and come back later? Would you?
Gaiman's wonderful humour, cracked and bent like an old willow tree, comes to the fore in "Chivalry", a very strange and modern take on the Holy Grail quest. Galaad, of King Arthur's court in Camelot (at least that's what his I.D. says), and his horse drop by unexpectedly for tea at Mrs.Whitaker's to try and trade her for the Grail. She had picked it up for forty pence at the thrift store just down the block from the butcher's.
She's awfully loathe to part with it though, because it looks so good up there on the mantel piece between the photo of her late husband and the little porcelain dog. But Galaad is such a nice young man and keeps offering such nice gifts in exchange –the famed Philosopher's Stone that will turn lead into gold, a Phoenix Egg, and an apple of Hesperides with the power to make one young again.
Well, the last isn't proper for an old lady now, is it, causing her to think such thoughts and at her age, so she sternly admonishes him to put it away. But the other two, well two for one, you can't say fairer than that, now can you? And Galaad rides off on his horse happy with his grail, and Mrs Whitaker is quite content with her stone and her egg. Even though the egg does have to lean on the porcelain dog to stand up, they still fill the space on the mantel piece nicely.
There's an old fashioned quality to the way Gaiman writes his stories, but not such that it makes them dated. Perhaps it's an air of nostalgia to them, a reminder of something that seems to have gone missing from our lives in recent years. We can't quite put our finger on what it is exactly, but reading his stories seems to fill an emptiness that you didn't even know you had.
Part of it is the sense of whimsy that drifts though each story; the wistful air of knowing that the innocence that allows these stories to exist is quite alien to our world. Galaad is no more likely to ride up and park his horse in one of our kitchen gardens then Superman is of dropping by for coffee. The balance I'd say lies in the title of the collection, M Is For Magic.
Just as in Bradbury's day, when he compiled R Is For Rocket, space seemed remote and inaccessible, today magic has all but vanished and doesn't exist outside of books and movies. In movies we know that it's all special effects so magic has been reduced to technology, taking away the mystery and the whiff of danger.
The only place we really find any magic at all is in the minds of a few writers who remember what it was like to pretend and imagine what if… What if you could buy the Holy Grail in a thrift shop? Wouldn't it follow that Sir Galaad of the Knights of the Round Table would show up at your door looking for it?
M Is For Magic is published by Harper Collins and is available at various online and regular retailers around the world. A little magic in a life never hurt anyone, and M Is For Magic is one of the best sources you're likely to find for a while. Buy it for a child you love; better yet, buy two copies, one of them just for you.