Home > Smoke and Mirrors(5)

Smoke and Mirrors(5)
Author: Neil Gaiman

(For the curious: Eventually a young lady fell in love with the Black Cat, and he went to live with her, and the last time I saw him he was the size of a very small mountain lion, and for all I know he’s growing still. Two weeks after the Black Cat left, a brown tabby arrived and moved onto the porch. As I write this, he’s asleep on the back of the sofa a few feet away from me.)

While I think of it, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my family for letting me put them in this story, and, more importantly, both for leaving me alone to write, and for sometimes insisting I come out to play.

Troll Bridge

This story was nominated for a 1994 World Fantasy Award, although it didn’t win. It was written for Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s Snow White, Blood Red, an anthology of retellings of fairy tales for adults. I chose the tale of “The Three Billy Goats Gruff.” Had Gene Wolfe, one of my favorite writers (and, it occurs to me now, another person who hid a story in an introduction), not taken the title many years earlier, I would have called it “Trip Trap.”

Don’t Ask Jack

Lisa Snellings is a remarkable sculptor. This was written about the first of her sculptures I saw and fell in love with: a demonic jack-in-the-box. She gave me a copy of it and has promised me the original in her will, she says. Each of her sculptures is like a story, frozen in wood or plaster. (There is one on my mantelpiece of a winged girl in a cage offering passersby a feather from her wings while her captor sleeps; I suspect that this one is a novel. We’ll see.)

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories

The mechanics of writing fascinate me. This story was begun in 1991. Three pages were written and then, feeling too close to the material, I abandoned it. Finally, in 1994, I decided to finish it for an anthology to be edited by Janet Berliner and David Copperfield. I wrote it higgledy-piggledy on a battered Atari Portfolio palmtop, on planes and in cars and hotel rooms, all out of order, jotting down conversations and imaginary meetings until I was fairly sure it was all written. Then I put the material I had in order and was astonished and delighted that it worked.

Some of this story is true.

Triptych: Eaten (Scenes from a Moving Picture), The White Road, Queen of Knives

Over a period of several months a few years ago, I wrote three narrative poems. Each story was about violence, about men and women, about love. The first of the three to be written was a treatment for a  p**n ographic horror movie, written in strict iambic pentameter, which I called “Eaten (Scenes from a Moving Picture).” It was fairly extreme (and, I’m afraid, is not reprinted in this volume). The second was a retelling of a number of old English folktales called “The White Road.” It was as extreme as the stories it was based on. The last to be written was a tale about my maternal grandparents and about stage magic. It was less extreme, but—I hope—just as disturbing as the two stories that preceded it in the sequence. I was proud of all three of them. The vagaries of publishing meant they were actually published over a period of years, so each of them made it into a best of the year anthology (all three of them were picked up in the American Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, one in the British Year’s Best Horror, and one, somewhat to my surprise, was solicited for an international best erotica collection).

The White Road

There are two stories that have both haunted and disturbed me over the years, stories that have attracted and repelled me ever since I encountered them as a small boy. One of them is the tale of Sweeney Todd, “the demon barber of Fleet Street.” The other is the tale of Mr. Fox—it’s a sort of English version of Bluebeard.

The versions in this retelling of the story were inspired by variants on the tale I found in The Penguin Book of English Folktales, edited by Neil Philip: “The Story of Mr. Fox” and the notes that follow it and a version of the tale called “Mr. Foster,” where I found the image of the white road and the way that the girl’s suitor marked the trail down the white road to his gruesome house.

In the story of Mr. Fox, the refrain “It was not so, it is not so, and God forbid it should be so” is repeated as a litany, through the recounting of each horror that Mr. Fox’s fianceé claims she saw in a dream. At the end she throws down the bloody finger, or the hand, that she took from his house and proves that everything she said was true. And then his story is effectively over.

It’s also about all the strange Chinese and Japanese folktales in which, ultimately, everything comes down to Foxes.

Queen of Knives

This, like my graphic novel Mr. Punch, is close enough to the truth that I have had, on occasion, to explain to some of my relatives that it didn’t really happen. Well, not like that, anyway.


Lisa Tuttle phoned me one day to ask me for a story for an anthology she was editing about gender. I have always loved SF as a medium, and when I was young, I was certain that I would grow up to be a science fiction writer. I never really did. When I first had the idea for this story, almost a decade ago, it was a set of linked short stories that would have formed a novel exploring the world of gender reflection. But I never wrote any of those stories. When Lisa called, it occurred to me that I could take the world I’d imagined and tell its story in the same way that Eduardo Galeano told the history of the Americas in his Memory of Fire trilogy.

Once I’d finished the story, I showed it to a friend, who said it read like an outline for a novel. All I could do was congratulate her on her perspicacity. But Lisa Tuttle liked it, and so do I.

The Daughter of Owls

John Aubrey, the seventeenth-century collector and historian, is one of my favorite writers. His writings contain a potent mixture of credulity and erudition, of anecdote, reminiscence, and conjecture. Reading Aubrey’s work, one gets an immediate sense of a real person talking from the past in a way that transcends the centuries: an enormously likable, interesting person. Also, I like his spelling. I tried writing this story in a couple of different ways, and I was never satisfied with it. Then it occurred to me to write it as by Aubrey.

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar

The overnight train to Glasgow from London is a sleeper that gets in at about five in the morning. When I got off the train, I walked to the station hotel and went inside. I intended to walk down the hall to the reception desk and get a room, then get some more sleep, and then, once everyone was up and about, I planned to spend the next couple of days at the science fiction convention that was being held in the hotel. Officially, I was covering it for a national newspaper.

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