Neil Gaiman, Two Plays For Voices [audio] (Harper Audio, 2002)

It's by Neil Gaiman. it was originally produced by the Sci-Fi Channel and presented by Seeing Ear Theatre and Brian Smith; and it's on a pair of CDs from Harper Audio. You know going in, it's got to be good.

Snow Glass Apples

But my soul and my story are my own and will die with me.

A Queen has bars installed on the windows of her own chamber. As a widow, she hangs a beating heart above her bed, with sausages and drying apples. Is she wicked, demented, or afraid? A pale little girl of whom we are wont to say, "What sharp little teeth you have." A prince who is certainly "charming," but he does not like live women. Is the tale familiar, or something truly weird... or is it both?

The narrative lets you know from the first that it's a fairy tale. It's got the formula language -- though it's been reinterpreted by Gaiman the way a Pasolini reinterprets the traditional representations of Jesus Christ, and has the storyteller's tone provided by Bebe Neuwirth (She played Lilith on American television's Cheers and Frazier). Short of Angelica Huston, one could hardly have chosen a more convincing narrator, and Neuwirth adds a unique driven-to-disturbed quality to the telling.

It also has that trademark of contemporary 'retellings' of fairy tales... the assertion that we've got the story wrong, somehow... that our traditional version is the apocrypha and the new presentation is the gospel. When the narrator of Braveheart said, "Historians in England will say I am a liar..." and the narrator of Mists of Avalon said, "No one knows the real story. Most of what you've heard... is nothing but lies," they could only have anticipated the way in which Gaiman weaves the announcement of revisionism into the story itself with both a light and a deft touch. The wicked stepmother says in the solitude of her own mind that they've got it wrong... that in fact they've lied. The heart continued to beat... "I did NOT eat it." Her assertion is given further life and plausibility with accusations we've not in fact heard before: "...truly my first lover, no matter what they say."

Gaiman's mastery here is in genre-flicting use of the media. He twists narrative and dialogue and dramatization into a cord that ties together Victorian fairy tale inhibition with the candid vulgarity of urban fantasy and comic book immediacy. You don't hear "male member" and "his manhood," or "pleasured him" in contemporary lingo. It's fairytale-speak from a euphemism-prone time that never was, and you don't find "slut," "piss" and "nipple" -- or bite marks on that "male member" -- in Victorian fairy stories. The tension and interaction between two literary languages, one of a stylized genre, one of urbanity, lets you know that something new is afoot. If that isn't enough, there is also the media-flicting intersection between a short story narrative, dialogue that sounds like a graphic novel, soliloquy that represents the current thought on the archetypes in fairy stories, and the dramatization of an old-time radio play updated for an audience become used to the collision of technology, folk material, gender issues and the slang of Oz.

A monologue on the forest -- "border to many kingdoms" -- tells us all about the archetypal portal of worlds and repository of fears without pedantic language, but rather in the considerations of a Queen about to enter that forest and risk her very life to put an end to a monster, one that kills outcast dwarves, robbers, and lecherous monks. It is as if Beowulf could tell us, straight out, what it means to face his doom as an old man. Anyone who's read Stardust can tell you that Gaiman loves to give new life to "The Forest Folk," "The Fair," "The Witch," the succubus, the vampiric... for Gaiman, they're not "old standby's" of the genre... they're resources of literary power. Humor, horror, or sadness rise to the top as Gaiman renders the fat from a dreamscape of archetypes and traditional settings.

The aural 'text' syncretizes traditions... scrying and casting a glamour; it's a tour de force of idiosyncratic fantasy, not of fastidious categories. It plays fast, rhythmically, and especially loose... running the sexual gamut from fellatio to necrophilia to descriptions of the prince's "manhood" as a "tiny slippery thing." It touches sex, magic, and religion with equal enthusiasm, even chalking up a seeming allusion to Thomas a'Beckett.

Murder Mysteries

The first thing I remember was the Word... and the Word was God.

Murder Mysteries begins with the same violent aural intensity as Snow Glass Apples. The narrative is genuine and detailed, full of an Englishman's insight on American urbanity and cogent impressions of Los Angeles. The narrator characterizes his time in L.A. as a series of "rides in other people's cars." Fittingly, it is during a late night walk in this City of Angels that he gives a stranger a cigarette and is paid with a story about an angel. What is unusual... this story is in the first person.

There is a subtle intersection of fantasy and modernity, tradition and cosmopolitanism, in the very structure of the play. After all, not only is it common folk practice and frequent in fairy stories to pay for goods with one's craft... such as storytelling or song... but where else in the contemporary U.S. than Los Angeles is this practice still likely to be found? Similarly, the myth continues to be told, from the angels visiting Abraham before the destruction of Sodom, to the angel appearing in the dust-shrouded wreckage of the Oklahoma City disaster (another Bram Stoker Award winner, Brian Hopkins, has retold that story, in fact). There's a sense of the plentitude of possibilities even when one realizes very quickly that this is an angelic encounter. Perhaps it is because each encounter with the heavenly on earth is unique, is an entirely different opportunity for mythic impression. Gaiman seems to know this, and so neither hurries his tale toward the punch line, nor fears that he has already revealed it.

A man who gives an angel a cigarette. A kindness. The stranger begins his tale... Someone has murdered an angel. In the end, we must wonder if it is kindness that our narrator will receive in return. And, like the double edge of kindness and brutality in a cigarette, will any such kindness be likewise but one such edge?

Murder Mysteries has just the penumbra of humor, very dry... "I was taller then, and I had wings...," but it's not tongue in cheek. "That's that thing English do; they say something like it's a joke even though they mean it."

Similarly, there are neat quasi-sci-fi elements... "the use of individual perspective to define dimension"... the architecture of the universe is, after all, a thing of technology. And the ending is just what might be deeply wished of a radio drama, something of the Twilight Zone. True to the premise of his tale, as only Gaiman can engineer it, he gives us a satisfying ending but still leaves us tantalized enough to draw our own ultimate conclusions.

It's an oddity that the murdered angel is repeatedly referred to as alternately "it" and "him" by the same character in the same conversation. This results from the difficulty, perhaps, of dealing with angels as sexless while, in this tale, they are all referred to with male pronouns. One likes to think, though, that this ambiguity is intentional. It fits with the theme of ambiguities in the 'problem of evil.' So, perhaps what seems like a bit of confusion is actually an extension of that theme, after all. As such, the device is brilliant rather than annoying.

When the question is 'what is justice, after all...' and 'what do you do with a modern Jack the Ripper... and with God,' one might expect a heavy, indigestible story. What Gaiman does is sweep the listener up in the romance and fascination of it, and move one to ask one's own questions.

The quality of the sound effects on these CDs is superb... thrashing percussion giving a sense of alarm and, in Murder Mysteries, Halloween-esque music-box melody meeting a piano-pounding dramatic soundscape.

The sex in both pieces is the sex of despair, of defeat, or of degradation... No one makes love in these stories. It's not that one can draw conclusions from that, but it is an element that is repeatedly laid bare. These are both stories of violence and of judgements, just and unjust... with enough ambiguity to allow the listener a mind.

It will be said, with some amount of cliche, that Gaiman has once again given us the fairy story with 'an edge.' If so, Two Plays For Voices is a serrated edge. It isn't the clean, almost painless knife to which one is used at the table; these stories are much too jagged to dine on so peaceably. Sometimes one craves a rough meal, and Gaiman has served it up with style.

Neil Gaiman's Web site is as much
a literary work as anything he has in print.