Robert Louis Stevenson once said that a necessary part of being a writer was "playing the sedulous ape." He wasn't referring to a Jane Goodalllike partying with our simian cousins, of course; he simply meant that all authors go through periods when they write like the authors they most admire. Occasionally, authors will lapse back into it later in life by imitating their own early writing, as Hemingway did. Other writers, such as Max Beerbohm, have such a good time aping that they never really outgrow it. Smoke and Mirrors
by Neil Gaiman
Avon Books, $24 Such, I fear, is the case with Neil Gaiman. Like a lot of genre writers, Gaiman is incredibly well known to a certain section of the populace, and almost entirely unknown outside of it. He is the author of the popular Sandman comic book of a few years ago, in which the Master of Dreams was portrayed as a moody Goth guy with strange powers involving the shaping of stories. (The image was a sly self-portrait of Gaiman, who's looking a bit more shorn and humorous these days.) Gaiman's writing did not really revolutionize the comic book. While his literary references ranged from fairy tales to the Apocrypha, from fantasists like G.K. Chesterton to books about serial killers, his plot lines were more directly inspired by the old E.C. Horror Comics of the '50s, where unsavory characters would meet an especially grisly and usually deserved end. But Gaiman did bring to the medium a deep understanding of the power of metaphor and of how giving flesh to an idea (as fantasy often does) can bring a charming frisson to an otherwise mundane story. In one early comic, for example, he imagines the Greek muse Calliope held as a prisoner by a succession of amoral writers to whom she must give her inspiration as well as her body. When she seeks help from the Lord of Dreams, he gives her jailer an overload of story ideas that drives him mad. When Gaiman killed off his Sandman and ended the series, there were unbelieving howls from legions of fandom. There was also much hope that his decision to pursue four-color-pictureless fiction would prove fruitful. Alas, his recent novel, Neverwhen, proved to be a painfully slight excuse of a story that read like the novelization of a ho-hum TV series—which, in fact, it was. The book petered out a quarter of the way through, making Gaiman look like an impressive sprinter trying to run a marathon. Smoke and Mirrors, a collection of the author's short stories and poetry from the past 20 years, contains many superb pieces—clever fantasies that seep subversively under what we take for reality. "Nicholas Was . . . ," for example, reimagines Santa Claus as a damned titan sent on his annual trip around the world as punishment. In "The Price," a stray cat's mysterious wounds are caused by its nightly battles with the devil. And in "We Can Get Them for You Wholesale," a meek clerk courts disaster when an assassination service offers great bargains if he'll just add a few more names to the list. GAIMAN'S HUMOR IS best when it's dark. His lighter pieces, such as "Chivalry," in which the Holy Grail is entrusted to an elderly woman who finds it in a thrift store, feel forced, as does "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar," a Lovecraftian parody that reimagines cosmic horrors as just another topic of conversation among the working classes. This isn't the only work to explicitly reference other writers. "The Daughter of Owls" is both written and given eccentric spelling to evoke the 17th-century antiquarian John Aubrey, and "Mouse" is a dark tale about a couple facing an abortion, written explicitly in the style of Raymond Carver. The few pieces that are truly Gaimanesque are mostly autobiography with a light supernatural overlay. The slightest among these stories still show an admirable economy for effect that is rare in fantasy writing. But the poetry! Could these adolescent scribblings possibly have made it into print without the author paying for it himself? A former professor of mine once said that for some writers, poetry is all about the amount of margin space, and Gaiman proves the point with a series of "prose poems" sprinkled through the book on such themes as computer games, mystical wanderers, and (I am not making this up) Beowulf rewritten as a cyberpunk epic. Perhaps this is his revenge on all those English teachers who rolled their eyes at him when he turned in adolescent essays detailing Moorcock's Elric cycle. But Neil, just because the convention crowds clamor for your every burp doesn't mean you have to indulge them.