It’s always hard for me to pick a favorite Neil Gaiman story, but it’s easy for me to pick a favorite collection: Fragile Things wins, hands down.
Included in that book is “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire.” As you can guess from that mouthful, it’s a very tongue-in-cheek (ha) story, and when I heard it was being made into a graphic novel from Dark Horse, with art by Shane Oakley and (occasional) colors by Nick Filardi, I really hoped they’d stay true to the spirit (ha again) of the story.
(Minor spoilers below.)
If you haven’t read the story (and you really should) it’s actually a story-within-a-story. We see Amelia, a raven-haired beauty, running through dark woods to a gothic castle. It’s a tale of ghouls and secrets, cryptic butlers and ancient curses. And despite all the doom and gloom, sometimes it seems a little funny.
We meet the author of the story, and he’s furious at himself. He’s trying to write something serious, and he doesn’t know why he keeps making little jokes.
And while he’s complaining to his butler about how hard it is to write serious literature, the crazy aunt in the attic is howling, strange eyes are looking out from the portrait, and unearthly creatures in the shadows whisper incantations that everyone tries to ignore.
He’s trying to write a slice-of-life story! Why can’t he just buckle down and be serious about it!
So, if you missed it, it’s a story about doing what you think you should be doing, what everyone else says you should be doing, instead of maybe doing what you love. Years ago when I read the resolution to the story (and a little twist) it was one of those moments when you smile and give the last few lines a little pat. It’s immensely satisfying.
And it turns out, Shane Oakley was the perfect choice for the art. It’s got the feeling of cut-paper designs in places, all sharp lines and silhouettes and beautifully detailed. A lot of the expressions really jumped out at me: the author’s tears of frustration, Amelia’s wistful sigh as she remembers the woodcutter, the crazy-happy face on the last ghoul, all of them are excellent. And the color pages are wonderfully rich, especially after several stark black-and-white pages, the images just leap off the page.
But if you’re familiar with the story (and, if you’re like me, you’ve got a recording of Neil reading the story aloud and you match the graphic novel page for page with the reading, because why wouldn’t you?) you’ll see how brilliantly the images are paired with the story. Oakley doesn’t write out every line of description, he puts all those details in the pictures.
He makes every panel gorgeous, but if you’re paying attention you see the seemingly insignificant details: the white light of the fire reflecting in the chambermaid’s face, the mysterious brother handing him the sword hilt-first, the fight that careens around the room and swings off the curtains, the title of the book he pulls off the shelf, the frantic search for the button that opens the secret compartment…every description from the story is there in the pages. You can enjoy them on their own for how beautiful they are, or if you’re like me you can play a fantastic game of seek-and-find to see how mind-bogglingly faithful he was to the story. It’s excellent, is what I’m saying.
As for the meaning behind the story itself, at a reading in 2006 in Berkeley, Neil Gaiman mentioned that when he’d first written the story he showed it to two people. One person sniffed and handed it back, another called it “facetious twaddle.” Years later he dug it back up, and he liked it.
And it was printed and it won a Locus award for Best Story of the Year. Which, I suppose, if I’d been mean and cruel and vindictive I would have actually hunted down one of the people who told me not to publish it and said “..just won a Locus award!” But instead I think I learned a very valuable lesson about listening to other people. Which is…not worth the effort. Ha. No: different people like different things.
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