Green Man reviewers are terribly fond of Neil Gaiman and his writings. I have worked me way through every one of his wonderful novels and short story collections, and now I'm reading the Sandman graphic novels.
Neil, who looks like someone fresh from an urban fantasy with his black leather jacket, black jeans, and mirror shades, writes novels with characters that fall into unbelievable but somehow real situations -- situations where reality itself is turned inside out. Just read his new novel, American Gods, where Thor and the other older gods fight the newer gods of America to see who will dominate in the present age, or Neverwhere, with its incredibly detailed portrayal of a London Below that feels like it should exist. Hell, even his script, Day of the Dead: an Annotated Babylon 5 Script, is fine reading. And no one denies that he has created a memorable universe.
As noted in Gaiman's Season of Mists: a prologue, '...What you need to know before you start: There are seven beings that aren't gods. Who existed before humanity dreamed of gods and will exist after the last god is dead. They are called The Endless. They are embodiments of (in order of age) Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium.'
Now imagine that Gaiman asks a group of terrific writers to jump into his created universe and show him what they as creators can do there -- a premise that sometimes works and sometimes doesn't. (I remember an anthology set in the Lord of the Rings milieu that was just plain awful!)
What you would get is The Sandman Book of Dreams, a collection of stories set in the Sandman universe by some of the finest writers you could hope to encounter. There are stories here by Steven Brust, Susanna Clarke, Brenda W. Clough, Nancy A. Collins, George Alec Effinger, John M. Ford, Lisa Goldstein, Colin Greenland, Karen Haber, Barbara Hambly, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Mark Kreighbaum, Robert Rodi, Lawrence Schimel, Delia Sherman, Will Shetterly, Tad Williams, and Gene Wolfe. Even Tori Amos is represented here with an odd coda that speaks of her relation to Neil.
However, what's amazing to me is not that this anthology was commissioned, as Gaiman was selling well even six years ago, but that it's a more than decent collection of stories, which can be thought of as either horror or dark fantasy. (OK, I won't try to define the difference -- suffice it to say, Clive Barker's Weaveworld is dark fantasy, but almost everything else he's written is full-tilt horror. Neil, on the other hand, writes dark fantasy.) Of the group of writers here, I'd say only Nancy A. Collins and Barbara Hambly can be said to write horror, the rest are dark fantasists.
One story you won't find here is 'Shining Nowhere but in the Dark'. As noted by Jayme Lynn Blaschke in our review of Charles de Lint's Moonlight & Vines: '[e]ventually published in Realms of Fantasy, "Shining" was originally written for Neil Gaiman's Sandman: Book of Dreams anthology, but was withdrawn when Time-Warner demanded full copyright ownership -- which conflicted with de Lint's already-established copyrights on Newford and various characters.' Too bad! But there's lots of bloody interesting material here for many a night of good reading.
Usually I will read an anthology (of various authors, that is, as opposed to a collection of just one author's work) and find the stories of varying and oft times maddeningly uneven quality, as was the case in the aforementioned anthology set in the Lord of the Rings milieu. But in this case, there is not a single story that I did not thoroughly enjoy. I will admit that for some of them, being firmly set within the Sandman universe requires that one be familiar with that universe, making them slightly less accessible to the average reader. I will also admit that, more often than not, the more strongly the stories rely on knowing Gaiman's storyline, the less enjoyable they are in their own right. Nevertheless, they are all quite good, with a few being simply brilliant!
It's no secret that I like dark fantasy -- why else would me band be named Danse Macabre? So I'll single out as an example of great dark fantasy John Ford's 'Chain Home, Low', which is set in the horrors of WWI, a story which proves that Ford is a great writer, which his novel The Last Hot Time did not. His story suggests a chilling tie between an onslaught of sleeping sickness and the fate of WWI fighter pilots.
Also particularly well done is Will Shetterly's 'Splatter', which is about a fan convention of serial killers who lead their favorite novelist (famous for his depictions of psychopathic murderers) into the all too real world of serial killing. (Perchance to dream is to make real....) And Karen Haber's very chilling tale, `A Bone Dry Place', centres around a suicide crisis help line that connects directly from the ranks of the Endless. Everything here is well worth reading, period. Keep the lights turned bright, get comfortable in your favourite reading chair, and settle in for many hours of reading pleasure.
A note to the publisher -- do release this in a trade paper edition. The mass edition paperback is so bleedin' awful that I purchased the hardcover edition from a used book dealer via the American Book Exchange!