by Tonia Shoumatoff
The Fisher Performing Arts Center at Bard was filled with a panoply of young people, some with Tolkien elf ears, who came to hear Neil Gaiman, a cult figure for the new generation of DC Comic aficionados. His talk was billed as a series of “lectures on writing in which [Gaiman] will explore his creative strategies, sharing stories and offering advice.” The first lecture, attended mostly by students was called “Why become a Bard?”
The second lecture also mostly directed to students was called String of Pearls, after the Penny Dreadfuls, the sensational serialized novels in the 1800’s that were printed on cheap paper and were often thinly disguised knock-offs of contemporary Victorian literature. Gaiman described how they gave rise to popular pulp fiction and British comics. He referred to the plagiarized versions and ongoing appeal of Sweeney Todd which even gave rise to the Lady Barbers of Drury Lane who sought to disreputably “consort” with their customers leading to other sordid London urban legends and knock-offs.
“If you see a fact repeated, there is nothing to prove its veracity, but it doesn’t matter whether it is true if it is part of the story…often we touch magic when we write and pass it on like candles lit—or like a string of pearls.” Or as my grandmother used to say, “If that’s not how it was, that is how it should have been.”
Some of Gaiman’s work comes across as pulp fantasy horror with nightmare images and psycho-mytho-religious themes. He told the story about how he wrote Coraline originally as a gothic story for children and that his editor said was too scary for children to be publishable. Gaiman asked his editor to read it to her children, who loved it, despite its terrifying themes. She then submitted it and it was published by Harper-Collins as a ‘dark fantasy horror children’s novel’ which then became a popular animated movie directed by Henry Selick whose “Nightmare before Christmas” is also a cult classic.
Gaiman recounted the story of his genesis as a writer, starting by taking out large collections of science fiction and fantasy from a traveling bookshelf in libraries at age 7. He said he was disappointed by Dracula which he found prosaic. As a child brought up in England, Victorian gothic influences are unmistakable in his work. The Victorians loved to scare children and so, seemingly does Gaiman, who said, however, that he always ends his stories for children with a hopeful if not happy ending.
After embarking on a brief career as a journalist he came to the realization that the “grit of a fiction story” was his true calling. Having lied about where he worked to get journalism jobs, mentioning many well-known magazines, he later compensated for his lies by actually working for and getting published in those magazines. He explained how in the early days he did not have his own voice and had to try on the voices of other writers. “But I knew I wanted to write fiction, and that later led to writing comics…which led to DC Comics which led to Sandman,” his 75-installment masterpiece which has been filmed as a 10-hour series for Netflix.
Gaiman described how forgetting the name of a close friend became the inspiration for a story he wrote called “The Man who forgot Ray Bradbury.” His friend, who had died, was a reviewer of Sandman. When he could not remember the man’s name even though they had been close, “it scared me.”
When Gaiman read the story out loud, some of the adults in the audience nodded in recognition of the phenomenon of forgetting words:
“I am forgetting things and it scares me…I am losing words-but not concepts-I look for words as as if someone had stolen them in the middle of the night…things are missing from my mouth…I am lost in the forest and do not know where here is. I learned your books, but I can’t remember your name. I worry that I am the person keeping the stories alive…perhaps God delegates things…but then you forget the things that God has delegated you to remember. I have forgotten the name of the author…I fear I am going mad…I cannot just be growing old…there is an empty space in the bookshelf of my mind.”
He described how he read all of Bradbury. He was particularly affected by The Homecoming, a macabre story of a little boy who does not fit in with his supernatural family of ghouls, vampires, and witches. Having met Bradbury at his 70th birthday, Gaiman gave Bradbury the story he wrote for him on his 91st birthday when the writer was no longer able to read. He was moved by the video that Bradbury had filmed of himself saying thank you to Gaiman for the story. He said he sometimes listens to it when he needs cheering up.
Tonia Shoumatoff is the author of Tales of the Harlem Valley published by The History Press.