Sunday, September 18, 2011

Fragile Things ~ Neil Gaiman, Week Two

Welcome to week two of the Fragile Things Group Read, hosted by Carl at Stainless Steel Droppings in honor of RIP VI.  If you missed week one and/or have no idea what I'm talking about, go check out my post from last week!

Okay, I'm just going to say it up front: I did not love this week's selections.  Nor did I like them very much.

This week's chunk of readings started with a poem, "The Hidden Chamber."  Unlike "The Fairy Reel," which we read last week, "Chamber" lacked a specific structure.  I want to call this a prose poem, but according to Janet Burroway in Imaginative Writing*, a prose poem is actually "A poem that is not written in lines but continues to the margins of the page like prose" (359).  I suppose it's actually free verse, but to me it seems more like prose with odd line breaks.  There's very little apparent rhythm and it doesn't lend itself to reading aloud, which is generally a feature of poetry that I enjoy.  In terms of content, it's a bit gothic, replete with ghosts hidden away and dead butterflies.  I like ghosts, but this did nothing for me.  Overall, the poem was a somewhat meh experience.

Though I didn't love the "The Hidden Chamber," I did appreciate its relationship with the story that followed it.  "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire" (yes really) is a very gothic tale, including ghosts and sword fights and things that go bump in the night.  Structurally, it is a story within a story: we first see a woman running out of the dark up to the door of a creepy house; it is only later that we learn that her story is being written by a writer struggling with his craft.  I loved how the themes continued between the two and how the story almost seemed and extension of the poem, but I found the scariness in "Forbidden Brides" overdone.  What I did appreciate about it, was that in the story goblins are a reality and the world of stockbrokers and toasters is the fantasy.  However, for me this wasn't enough to save it.  In fact, it seemed a little gimmicky - I both enjoyed the cleverness and questioned its integrity.  Plus, the title is just way too long.

Up next is "The Flints of Memory Lane," in which a teenage boy sees a ghostly woman with a scary smile at the end of his driveway, freaks out, and runs across town to his friend's house and calls his parents to pick him up.  That's it.  It's about three pages long and wholly underwhelming.  I suppose it's also about an insecure narrator, since he questions whether his ghost story is really a ghost story, but rightly so.  In terms of interesting connections making stories somewhat more interesting, "Flints" is connected to the next story in that both feature a building sold to property developers, which also did very little for me.

"Closing Time," this week's final story, is yet another ghost story, this time told to the narrator's companions at a bar.  The narrator recalls his youth, when he had formed an instantaneous yet temporary friendship with three brothers over several pages from an old, girly magazine.  They stumble into a poorly described fairy world and upon a little house with a demonic red knocker, into which the three brothers disappear.  I actually liked this story, as it demonstrated the interesting bond that strange children are able to form so easily, and evoked a creepiness that the blatant gothic style of the poem and "Faceless Brides" lacked and "Flints" couldn't hope for.  However, the outer story in which the tale of the fairy world was nested is distracting and weird, and not in a good way.  The narrator tells about the background of the bar - okay.  Then he describes the specific night on which the story is told and mentions that there were four customers there, including himself.  He repeats a few ghost stories that were told and follows that with, "And then one of us said," refusing to name the customer who tells the story of the fairy world.  Based on the end of the frame, it can only be the narrator who tells this story, yet he refused to admit to it.  Why?  This conundrum is not interesting to me, as perhaps Gaiman intended, but confusing and irritating, and ended up tainting the only ghost story I enjoyed this week.

I read all of the stories on different days, so I don't think it was something I brought to them that made them so disappointing.  Gaiman seems to lean pretty heavily on the story-within-a-story trope, as all three of these stories rely on it.  While I loved his use of it in "October in the Chair," this time around Gaiman disappointed me.  The frames were uninteresting and largely unnecessary, except perhaps in "Faceless Brides."  Overall, I found that these stories didn't at all live up to the expectations that last week's built in me.  I'm hoping that next week's redeem the collection in my eyes.

*This is a creative writing textbook that I really like - enough so that I actually bought the author's book devoted entirely to fiction writing as well.  I definitely recommend it!


  1. I feel the same way about Forbidden Brides and Flints. Both were disappointing for me.
    In the case of Forbidden Brides, stories about writing always comes off as very gimmicky to me. I rather expected more from Gaiman on that front.
    With Flints, I had the same kind of "that's it" reaction to it that you did.

    I also hope next week's stories are much better!

  2. I loved all of the stories but Flints, even more than last week's selections. I did have the same reaction as you to Flints though.

    I think the story-within-a-story works well for Gaiman, and I'm excited to see if there's more of that next week.

  3. "but to me it seems more like prose with odd line breaks"...I felt the same way about The Hidden Chamber and had to re-read the introduction to recall that it was a poem. Like The Fairy Reel it is enhanced by hearing Neil read it (also enhanced when you know it is a Bluebeard story). Neil reads it with such calm, almost emotionless tone that it is much more chilling. Still it doesn't seem poem-like to me.

    Ah, but one of the biggest points of Forbidden Brides is the fact that it is overdone, and the title is part of the joke, a wink to the audience, a remembrance of those classic stories which had short names followed by a much more lengthy additional title. It is gimmicky, and if you like the gimmick, like I do, it is a wonderful story and if you don't it is not one of those stories that has a lot to offer.

    Flints of Memory Lane is a really important story to know what Gaiman's point was in writing it. For some it makes all the difference in it being a "meh" story and a really good one. I'm trying not to act like the parental host, reminding folks that I assigned the introduction from experience, knowing that the "why" of why a short story was written sometimes makes all the difference. LOL!

    I'll be interested in talking about next week's stories because this next section is not my favorite. I'm looking much more forward to stories in Week 4.

  4. Funny, a friend of mine just told me that he doesn't read much contemporary fantasy because he finds it to be too "gimmicky." I found myself wondering if he'd find Gaiman to be so, and decided that Gaiman stays just this side of "too gimmicky." But maybe I'm just too enamored of old Neil, since you found Fobidden Brides gimmicky. My feeling is that he has so much going on that he sort of transcends gimmicks and distinguishes himself as someone who can't quite be pegged down. Also, I think I much preferred the outer story of Closing Time than the inner one, because I loved the idea of sitting around a pub telling ghost stories and finding all the faults with the old urban legends we all told as kids.

  5. I agree with you, last week's reading was better than this week's. The four pieces we read this time around felt thrown together (I mean in terms of organization in the collection), and they were also too gimmicky for me. I'm not a fan of the story within the story structure and didn't know Gaiman relies on it as heavily as he does; I hope that structure makes fewer appearances in the rest of this collection.