M Is For Magic
Neil Gaiman

Harper Collins
Hardcover, $16.99
Reviewed by Sheila Merritt

Neil Gaiman does not discriminate: Not by age, genre, or medium. He is the “everyman” of the netherworld. This collection of stories is described on the inner flyleaf as being for “ages 10 up.” This short-changes the volume. These are twists on fairy tales, science fiction with a soul, and heart breaking horror stories that are for all ages. The average 10 year old will be challenged here; Gaiman, as always, never deals with the “average.”

He reminds the reader in the tale entitled “Troll Bridge” that “It is good for children to find themselves facing the elements of a fairy tale — they are well equipped to deal with these.” Yet this particular story deals with a life that is never fulfilled; a youth who keeps postponing fully living life well into his adult years. He procrastinates until the time he must assume the place of a troll who resides under a bridge. Unlike his predecessor, he has no desire to escape his position. He will never again venture forth into the world. This work addresses a midlife or late life crisis that the young will not understand. Yes, a precocious “10 up” may very well appreciate this fairy tale, but it is a reader of more advanced years who will fully comprehend its resonance.

On the flip, or more flippant, side, “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds” is a pastiche/parody of the hardboiled detective story via nursery rhymes. Who caused the demise of Humpty Dumpty is this riff on the noir genre. It is highly amusing, but again, will the average 10 year old get the allusions? Probably not, but think of this as watching one of the “Shrek” movies: while fun on a basic level, the viewing is enhanced by understanding the references and subtext.

The total take of the book is reminiscent of Stephen Sondheim’s musical “Into the Woods,” which adapted the tales of the Brothers Grimm and tweaked the premises into life lessons: One must defy interdictions, leave home, meet wondrous creatures, and, above all, grow as a person.

In his introduction, Gaiman salutes the short story writers who inspire him. He calls them “Close-up conjurors, who, with just twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuations marks, could make you laugh and break your heart, all in a handful of pages.” In this collection, Neil Gaiman proves himself equal to those writers he so respects. The title of this volume is a tribute to one of Gaiman’s inspirations, Ray Bradbury, who wrote R Is for Rocket and S Is for Space. In “Instructions,” the last work in the book, the author urges the reader to respect the rules and premises of fantasy. One passage presents excellent guidelines to reader and writer, alike: “Trust dreams. Trust your heart, and trust your story.”

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