Darrell Schweitzer, ed., The Neil Gaiman Reader (Wildside Press, 2007)

It strikes me as somewhat odd that the "literature of the fantastic," which can as easily be construed to include The Odyssey, La Morte d'Arthur, and Macbeth as anything involving rocket ships and repulsive aliens or wicked sorcerers and magic rings has, until relatively recently, been treated as a red-headed stepchild among literary cognoscenti -- unless, of course, one is considering the works mentioned and, for that matter, almost all literature (at least in the West) written before about 1750. (Magic rings seem to get an exception to the general rule, having, as it were, a foot in both camps.)

Fortunately, that has changed in the past generation or two, so that we now have not only serious critical studies of both science fiction and fantasy, but the recognition of genre fiction as a legitimate branch of culture. What is particularly delightful, however, reading through the pages of Daniel Schweitzer's The Neil Gaiman Reader, is the possibility that scholars and critics are beginning to treat genre boundaries as cavalierly as writers do.

This is particularly relevant to Neil Gaiman because I don't think anyone can reasonably call him a "fantasy writer" and let it go at that: his resources are deeper, his reach wider, and his impact much more pronounced than that term implies.

The reasons for this are implicit in the first section of the book, "Sandman Studies," which firmly links Gaiman's epic graphic work to the foundational concepts of the Western imagination. The Sandman illustrates beautifully just how Gaiman incorporates commonly recognized elements such as fantasy, horror, satire, and myth into one overarching "meta-genre" that weaves the strands of what have become separate lines of development -- whether we choose to call them "genres," "disciplines," or "areas of inquiry" -- back into the seamless whole that underlay literature at its beginnings.

Stephen Rauch's essay on "Campbell and The Sandman" puts a firm footing under this idea by linking Gaiman's work not only to the foundational elements of myth, but leading us, if only by implication, into the realm of human psychology. (Maybe it's just me, but when Joseph Campbell is made the mainstay of any discussion of myth, I can't quite escape the image of Carl Jung standing in the background, smiling a little.)

The second section, "The Rest of Gaiman," brings us farther into this territory with examinations of his earlier stories and his post-Sandman novels. (I should point out that full credit is given in several places in this book to Gaiman's facility with any medium that involves words -- graphic novels, narrative fiction, television and film scripts, and any permutations of those that you can think of.) Several of the essays discuss his explorations of the joys and terrors -- mostly the latter -- of childhood, with special attention to Violent Cases and Coraline. These two works, in fact, form a focus for several of the essays as well as illustrating how Gaiman transgresses the borders between fantasy and horror.

That Gaiman has a masterful ability to construct metafictions should come as no surprise to anyone who has read The Sandman, which is, after all, a series of stories within the overall story of Morpheus and the Endless. Perhaps the most concrete example of this is Gaiman's use of A Midsummer Night's Dream within a story arc that involves a Faustian bargain (well, nearly so) and an audience composed of the characters in the play. (Keep in mind as well that Morpheus is, among other things, the Prince of Stories.) As Chris Dowd points out in his essay, "An Autopsy of Storytelling: Metafiction and Neil Gaiman," many of Gaiman's stories are about stories.

There is, of course, much more to Gaiman's work, and fortunately for us, there is much more to this book. There is an amazing amount of information and insight packed into less than 200 pages, plus a bibliography that, although exhaustive, can't hope to be complete, given Gaiman's level of activity. Best of all, there are two interviews with the man himself.

Far from being a book for students, although I certainly won't count them out, I think anyone who is interested in Gaiman, the state of contemporary genre fiction, the relationship between myth and contemporary society, or any other aspect of life that Gaiman's work touches on (which seems to be most of the important ones), this one is a must.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

Neil Gaiman does, indeed, have a Web site. And so does Wildside Press.