Neil Gaiman, known primarily for his comics work and novels, is a master of creating short stories. Long-time Gaiman readers should recognize the stories that inspired these four shorts, two adapted from prose and two from poems, while those new to his writing outside of the world of comics are introduced to these four pieces that celebrate the power of story and storytelling.
The first entry, “The Problem of Susan,” was originally published as text in Flights: Extreme Visions of Fantasy Volume II, edited by Al Sarrantonio (2004) and has been republished several times since then in various collections of horror and fantasy tales. Here, the story is brought to life by illustrator P. Craig Russell with colors by Lovern Kindzierski. An elderly woman, Professor Hastings, is being interviewed about her academic work with children’s literature when she reveals that she is still in mourning for her entire family, who died in a train crash when she was much younger. Although her first name is never mentioned, there are numerous hints in her conversation that imply that she is Susan Pevensie from the Narnia books. While Susan and Narnia are highlighted in the story, there is also a strong focus on the reading of children’s literature through time. This storyteller appreciates the inclusion of conversation fragments such as “…the Grimms’ stories were collected for adults and, when the Grimms realized the books were being read in the nursery, were bowdlerized to make them more appropriate” (16). The fantasy and dream sequences are in bright and vivacious colors, while the scenes with the older woman are in earthier tones. Facial expressions in both realms are exquisite.
“Locks,” an adaptation of a poem, continues the pattern of children’s literature and storytelling. In this reworking of the familiar nursery rhyme, Gaiman offers insight on the storytelling ritual between a father and his young daughter and how the two have quite diverse perceptions of the plot line. Russell was responsible for the illustrations and Kindzierski for the coloring in this adaptation of a story first written for Gaiman’s two-year old daughter (1999).
The third tale, and my favorite, is dedicated to Ray Bradbury. There is a strong echo of the folktale of “The Twelve Months” at the beginning of “October in the Chair,” illustrated by Scott Hampton. The months, in human form, have regular meetings to tell stories. October has the chair and relates the sobering adventures of a young boy, Runt, who runs away from home and is befriended by a young male ghost. The tale of a story within a story, first published in 2002, was written to explore Gaiman’s idea of writing about two young boys, one living and the other a ghost, and preceded his successful novel, The Graveyard Book. The story won the Locus Award for Best Short Story (2003). The illustrations here are much darker and not just because much of the action takes place around the campfire at night. Hampton provides a frightening vision, which adds to the authenticity and effectiveness of the tale and the storytelling session. “And they touched hands as they walked away from the fire’s orange embers, taking their stories with them back into the dark” (68).
The final entry, “The Day the Saucers Came,” with artwork by Paul Chadwick, is a poem comprised of seven splash pages with blocks of text nestled among the fanciful and exotic illustrations. Alien invasions, zombies, Ragnarok, and other calamitous events all go by unobserved by the young woman awaiting a phone call from the individual reciting the poem. Each of the full page illustrations have a great deal to unpack, offering a visual feast and diverse interpretations. Highly recommended for Gaiman fans and those who appreciate the power of story and storytelling regardless of the format!
The Problem of Susan and Other Stories
By Neil Gaiman
Art by P. Craig Russell Scott Hampton Paul Chadwick
Dark Horse, 2019
Publisher Age Rating: 14+