Neil Gaiman: A Night of Incredible Stories
Neil Gaiman, author of American Gods, Good Omens and many more.
Photo by Beowulf Sheehan
The Wortham Center was packed to the rafters and swelteringly hot Saturday night, when author Neil Gaiman came to H-town for a little chat with his fans and admirers. A good portion of the audience streamed in at the last minute, most of them soaking wet from the sudden monsoon that hit the middle of the city just half an hour before Gaiman was to take the stage; my Facebook newsfeed lit up with desperate ticket holders praying they'd make it on time. To judge by the sardine-can seating, most of them did.
Gaiman is probably one of the most visually recognizable authors in America. His hair is more grey than black now, and he’s long since shed his leather jacket for a black suit coat, but he is otherwise the same wild-haired magician I first saw staring out at me from the back of Alice Cooper: The Last Temptation. When he took the stage looking like the last page of so many Houstonians’ favorite books, the eruption was deafening.
It was an evening of stories, which is what you’d expect from the man they call the Prince of Stories. His delivery style was puckish and warm, with a penchant for snark that never devolved into pettiness or meanness. He opened with the story of how he escaped a winter in Wisconsin, where it was minus 40 degrees, to come to Galveston and finish several writing projects. It was essentially the same story he told me over the phone in June when I interviewed him, but, free from the time limits imposed by a busy interview schedule, he was allowed to embellish it with flourishes, like how he would take a thermos of boiling water on his daily dog walks and then throw it into the air to watch it instantly turn to steam in the frigid weather.
"It literally never got old," he said.
The format of the show was as close to perfect as could be expected. Having covered a lot of fan convention-type events, I've come to dread the concept of the live Q&A and the lack of forethought or etiquette on behalf of the people briefly granted the microphone. Sure, sometimes you get incredible moments, like that famous exchange between a fan and Patrick Stewart at Comicpalooza 2013, but you also get way too many opportunistic, ignorant or openly antagonistic randos.
Instead, Gaiman selected from a set of around 1,000 handwritten questions, allowing the man we came to see to control the pacing and content of the interactions without relying on the performance of unknown factors in the crowd. As far as I am concerned, every speaker should operate this way.
Some were banal to the point of hilarity. The first one simply asked "how's it going?" to which Gaiman replied, "Pretty well so far." The rest were a combination of advice for writers and looks into the life of a man famous for the warmth and openness with which he treats his fans. He told a few of his old favorites, such as comforting Neil Armstrong at an event where both men felt like frauds and impostors among greater talents. He offered practical and simple advice to potential authors, such as the importance of finishing a work rather than just beginning several new ones and how to deal with the days when writing feels more like a trip to the dentist than the creation of art.
He also spoke about getting older. Now in his fifties, Gaiman said being the father of a new toddler has given him a greater appreciation for childhood moments and their fleeting nature, even down to the preciousness of projectile vomiting in the middle of the night. He described the degeneration of memory from the days when retrieving information felt like having a state-of-the-art robot at his beck and call to having it now seem more like an old inventory worker who arthritically takes four days to help him find the word "crepuscular."
Other tales were more playful. Gaiman had two childhood dreams that never came to fruition. The first was to be a werewolf (years ago, I fell in love with Sabine Baring-Gould's scholarly book on werewolves thanks to Gaiman's recommendation on Livejournal). The second was to carry a copy of The Lord of the Rings on him at all times, so that if he was lucky enough to sideslip into an alternate dimension where J.R.R. Tolkien had never existed, all he would have to do was copy the book out and become the man who wrote The Lord of the Rings.
"That fantasy kept getting dark, though," he joked. "I realized I would have to kill the adult I would need to type it up. You can't leave any witnesses."
And then there were the readings.
Gaiman brought an eclectic selection of short works to display; if I had to pick a true winner, it would have to be "Orange" from Trigger Warning. It's a strange story told in an experimental manner — in the form of answers to a questionnaire a teenage girl has filled out following a strange event. Her sister, addicted to tanning cream, slathers herself with an orange dye of unknown origin her inventor mother had received in the mail. It begins to transform her into a powerful, antagonistic being made entirely of light. The plot and style is a bizarre combination of silliness and utter terror, and the story benefits well from Gaiman's sonorous voice and penchant for comedic delivery.
Also on the story list were "April," about a man who gets into trouble trying to gamble with a flock of ducks, and a selection from his recently released Norse Mythology. The latter brought the house down, as Gaiman amicably wove the tale of Thor and Loki trying to retrieve Thor's stolen hammer through a combination of cross-dressing, gluttony and violence.
The event went on for two hours, but it was clear that the audience would have stayed there listening to Gaiman forever if he'd obliged. When he announced it was time to wrap things up, there was an audible groan, and when he said his goodnights, people jumped to their feet demanding just one more story. Gaiman obliged with his poem "In Relig Odhran."
"In Relig Odhran" is a dark but oddly hopeful recounting of the lives of Saints Columba and Oran. Both came to the island of Iona, and, as saints tend to do, they built a chapel. The chapel, though, kept falling down, and the obvious solution was for Columba to bury Oran alive in the foundation. This worked, and three days later Oran was dug up, miraculously alive. Free of the earth, he claimed there was no heaven or hell and that "god is not what you imagine." Fearful of heresy, Columba stopped Oran's mouth with mud and had him re-interred, permanently this time.
It's a gruesome story, one of those weird legends that spring up all over Europe where the Christians came and clashed with the gods of the pagans. In Gaiman's voice, though, Oran turns from a tragic figure into a true prophet, one whose spirit lives on on the island as a protector and bearer of truth. Like much of his work, it's, well, crepuscular. It's a twilight meshing of light and dark, of horror and hope, of humor and loss, and of gods and monsters.
I've never seen anything like the man on the page or in person. It was something to behold, on a rainy day in Houston.
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