I used to hate London.
An odd way to introduce Neil Gaiman, you might think, but it’s true – the noise of the crowds, the smell, that particular level of physical and social discomfort that can only be found on a packed tube, everything about the place seemed hateful and dark. Throughout childhood and adolescence I could find nothing positive to say about that great sprawling city, nothing that cast it in a more pleasing light… and then I read Neverwhere.
Where before there had been only urban sprawl and smoke, I could now see the magic that animated it, hear the secrets whispered behind it. Empty tube trains moved through silent, shifting tunnels, connected by stations named after major arcana in an obscure hidden Tarot. Rats and the cults that serve them conducted arcane business in a shadow London ruled over by figures both familiar and deeply alien. Mystical London is not a unique concept, and Neil Gaiman was neither the first nor the last to write about it, but in my opinion he is the most successful, his vision of London Below simultaneously simple and charged with energy. Through his writing I was finally able to see a different London, a London transformed by hidden meaning into a place of magic, and it’s still his London Below that I see every time I take a tube, or walk past a piece of obscure graffiti, or catch a pigeon staring at me from the corner of my eye.
Like his literary heroes Michael Moorcock and Alan Moore, Gaiman’s great strength is to shine a light just behind the surfaces of our mundane world, and allow us to see beneath. He spent his childhood devouring mythology, fantasy and science-fiction, but rather than simply regurgitate them in familiar shapes he’s processed them into something simultaneously more mundane and more profound. He takes us to places we have seen a hundred times before, and shows us the danger and beauty we had never thought to see in them. In his stories, a conversation over a cup of tea can have repercussions that change the nature of reality, mundane daily items and places are charged with occult significance beyond a thousand Holy Grails. He pulls the mask away from life and reveals that it’s every bit as strange as we’ve always secretly hoped.
It has been said that the finest achievement any writer can aim for is to write something that is never forgotten – I have no doubt that my favourite passages of Neil Gaiman will stay with me until I die. The Angel Islington singing to himself in an empty room. The narrator of Murder Mystery piecing together those last broken fragments of memory, in the presence of a being beyond his ability to ever understand. Shadow finally realising who his old cell-mate was, in a piece of word-play so subtle that we’re applauding Gaiman for tricking us at the same time as wandering how we didn’t notice. The entirety of Snow, Glass, Apples, which will forever change a classic story beyond recognition in the mind of anyone who reads it. These moments – and the many equally powerful ones that can be found throughout American Gods, Anansi Boys, his short-fiction and the towering, genre-changing masterpiece of his Sandman comic series – combine comedy, beauty and genuine horror in a way that the greatest stories always have.
Put simply, and with great risk of hyperbole, Neil Gaiman is one of the best Fantasy writers of his generation, and the strengths of his writing are precisely the reason why Fantasy should be liberated from those who would turn it into a ghetto for Elves and Dwarves so that the approved fiction can glory in some other name. Like all true Fantasy, Gaiman’s stories are about humans, that strange synthesis of the animal and the divine who stands at the threshold of eternity and complains about the weather. Even the most mundane of his stories are ablaze with real magic, the magic which can be found in a discarded wrapper or comfortable living-room as readily as in a ruined castle – the magic which, at its core, is a reflection of the people who observe it. Allow yourself to see the world through the filter these stories provides, and you’ll see a world which is more frightening, more beautiful but, ultimately, only more human.