Misdirection, sleight of hand, and smoke and mirrors are all means said to be employed by stage magicians in order to “cast their spell” of illusion. Most of the time those terms are employed in such a way as to be both dismissive of the performer’s talent and to explain how it is possible for someone to saw a person in half or make them disappear altogether. The real intention is to deny that anything magical took place during the performance. Of course that depends on what someone’s definition of magic is, doesn’t it?
If they go through life expecting to see someone waving a magic wand and miraculously making things happen, they are doomed to be disappointed. Yet, what is it they are seeing on stage when the “illusionist” makes someone disappear if it isn’t magic? What does it matter that it’s only a “trick”? Isn’t it still magical to see a body that’s been cut in two behaving as it would under normal circumstances no matter how it came to happen?
Magic is where we find it, and it comes in all sorts of shapes and sizes. It’s simply a matter of being able to recognize it when we see it. In his introduction to his collection of short stories, Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions, Neil Gaiman talks about the history of stage magicians using smoke and mirrors to change our perceptions. While a mirror can be used to reflect an image accurately, he says, set it the right way and it can show you anything you can imagine, and some things you can’t. An illusionist can use one to convince us that a box full to bursting with paraphernalia is empty or that something empty is full.
Some people talk about art holding a mirror up to society as a means for the creator to express his or her opinion on the state of things. There are many forms a reflection can take, and sometimes the form is as much a commentary upon the world as is the content. When it comes to writing, an author can alter the nature of the reflection in quite a number of ways. There are the genres at his or her disposal, from realism to fantasy, and the option of writing in prose or in verse.
No matter what they do, their mirror will hopefully offer a perspective that’s unique to them. Isn’t that why we read an author, for the perceptions and insights they can offer?
Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions was first published in 1998, re-issued by Harper Collins as a Perennial Edition in 2001, and again in 2007 with the addition of a P.S. section containing an interview with Mr. Gaiman talking about some of the stories in this collection.
While a couple of the stories have appeared elsewhere since, quite a number of them I had never read before. What’s also nice about this collection is that there are more than just standard short stories. He also included poems, short prose pieces under 100 words, and some things that are words put together to tell a story of some sort or another. What they are aside from that is hard to say – except maybe magic.
There is something inherently magical about the quality of Gaiman’s work. Whether he’s writing prose, poetry, short, or long fiction, it doesn’t matter – there’s something about the way he uses words that feels like he’s casting an enchantment over you, and that reading him transports you out of yourself. At the same time, his writing is about us. Even when he’s writing about werewolves and other denizens of our darker nature, the characters are all too human with characteristics and traits we can see in ourselves if we only know where to look.
The smoke and mirrors of fantasy, horror, and science fiction hide the reality that lurks in his top hat, and while we are watching him pull the rabbit out, he’s also opening a window into our world. It may not be obvious, you may not even notice it while you’re reading the piece, but sometime later something will click into place and you’ll realize that odd story about the troll under the bridge was about much more than you first thought.
“Cold Colours” is a long free verse/prose poem that depicts a world where we’ve sold our souls to the devil for technology – literally. Where the London Underground used to be is the pits of hell. If you look down into them you can always find a demon willing to sell you various peripherals for your system, but you can also see those who have been consigned to the pits of hell, suffering their eternal damnation.
There’s a chill of true horror that runs through the story, because how different from reality is it? What have we bartered away in our quest for technological perfection as a species? Which of us hasn’t made jokes about performing a sacrifice to try and ensure better performance from our technology – but our study’s floor is not stained with the blood of pigeons we’ve offered up on a daily basis to ensure the quality of our performance. Incrementally, with each step we take down the road of faster, stronger, smaller, and more of everything, we move further away from our connection to the planet we live on. Selling your soul can come in all shapes and sizes.
Of course not everything has to be about something, and in those cases the magic is the way in which Gaiman’s mirror changes the image of a story we are all familiar with. What would you take in trade for the Holy Grail if Sir Galahad came calling? For Mrs. Whitaker, who picked it up for a bargain price at the thrift shop in the story “Chivalry”, it would have to be something that would be appropriate for an old lady and fit on the mantle nicely.
Or how about if, as the new queen in “Snow, Glass, and Apples” discovers, your stepdaughter is a vampire? Wouldn’t you send her off into the woods to have her heart cut out in the hopes that you would rid the world of a horror such as she? When you scried in your mirror and found that somehow she still lived, even though her heart was cut out, and was terrorizing the people of the forest, wouldn’t you gather your courage together to hunt her down and feed her an apple that would steal her life in order to protect your people from her?
In Smoke And Mirrors: Short Fictions And Illusions Neil Gaiman shows us just what can be done by a master illusionist who knows how to use the tools of his trade to perfection. Some people may tell you that illusions are only smoke and mirrors and not magic, but perhaps they’ve never come under the spell of a real wizard.