“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon
Greetings and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Every two weeks (well, roughly), Ensley F. Guffey and I use this space to take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Viewed as a whole, Sturgeon was, sadly, right – the vast majority of movies, television, writing, art, and so on really is crud (trust me on this, I just saw Baywatch for the movie show I co-host) – but there has always been that slim li’l piece of heaven. The Ten Percent crosses genre boundaries, mostly because these rare gems are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than just passive reception.
In my last column, I discussed Neil Gaiman’s American Gods which, at the time, was just about to begin its run on the Starz network. I am currently caught up on episodes and am also avidly following the comic version. American Gods just makes me smile and the high quality of the work in multiple Media (hi, Gillian Anderson!) is a revelation of how magnificent storytelling can completely transcend genre. The show has already been renewed for a second season, which reassures me that they’ll take their time telling this convoluted tale.
Much of Gaiman’s work belongs in the Ten Percent.* The last column touched on his best-known work, Vertigo’s Sandman, and if you haven’t read that (slowly, thoughtfully, and with great deliberate intent), you have an amazing treat in store for you and I’m jealous that you get to experience the Endless for the first time. However, I wanted to bring your attention to several other works of Gaiman’s that you might not know about. Yes, he’s written for Babylon 5, Doctor Who, and several of his works have been adapted for the silver screen with more on the way. But why wait?
I suggest beginning with Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman’s first collection of short pieces. Early in his career, Gaiman would write for just about anyone who would help him pay his rent and he was honing his craft. Good short stories are actually devilishly difficult to write, because you don’t have the space and word count to mess around. Smoke and Mirrors actually contains several of my favorite pieces, including a fascinating story about one of Arthur’s knights who finds the Grail in the least likely (and most English) of places. There’s also an incredible story of old Hollywood, magic, and the grind of writing for the movies that’s not to be missed.
If you’re ready for a longer work, try starting with Neverwhere. I much prefer the book to the BBC adaptation or any of the other versions. (It’s been a comic and both a radio play and a stage play.) If I were being hard-nosed about it, I could argue that Neverwhere is very, very good, but not Gaiman’s best work. However, it is my favorite and this tale of the colorful denizens of London Below likely always will be. It helps that Gaiman has recently announced that his next work, The Seven Sisters, will be a sequel to Neverwhere. And I’m glad to the point of splitting – I’ve got a fistful of questions I want answered.
If you loved Sandman want to stay in the world of comics, pick up the four-issue version of Stardust. This was made into a film that gave Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer some juicy roles to play with, but honestly – the film is only so-so. While you could read the novelized version, I suggest the comic, which features exquisite painted illustrations by Charles Vess, a longtime Gaiman collaborator. His style perfectly complements Gaiman’s Victorian-era fairytale of a boy, a girl, and a fallen star.
Gaiman’s first novel was actually a two-person effort. Written with the late, truly great Sir Terry Pratchett, Good Omens will delight fans of Pratchett’s twisted Discworld as well as Gaiman folks. Imagine what would happen if those two got together, got silly, and decided to take a crack at The Omen and you’re ready to get started. An adaptation of this retelling of the misplaced Antichrist of the Apocalypse is coming to Amazon in 2018, so go ahead and brush up on it now.
Gaiman is a devourer of tales and myth (his latest book, Norse Mythology, is a retelling of the legends of that part of the world) and his love for these tales permeates his work. (I often wonder what a dinner party involving both Gaiman and Joseph “Monomyth” Campbell would be like, then I shake my head and decide that’s just too bizarre.) He has the rare gift of being able to write in a variety of styles and use source material without coming across as a mere copyist. Nowhere is that more evident than in his retelling of Kipling’s Jungle Book. This book, simply titled The Graveyard Book, restores the eerie qualities inherent in a tale of a child being raised by benevolent, yet unnatural, guardians that was Disney-fied out of the original Kipling. (Hey, I love “Bare Necessities” as much as the next gal, but Kipling had something far darker in mind.) Gaiman’s story never feels as if he was forcing a point to make it “fit” the Kipling version – he’s content to let his story spin on its own axle and the result is dreamlike in its perfection.
There’s more, of course. Gaiman has written for a variety of audiences, including the youngsters – even down to the picture book level. My First Big Book of Gaiman will vary by the age of the reader – for very small ones, try Chu’s Day; for the slightly older, Coraline. That one will probably be read under the covers by a few children and result in a couple of evenings with a higher electric bill than usual as the young fry keep the lights on – just in case.
He’s a treasure and Hollywood is finally discovering his unsettling, yet oddly moral, works so soon the rest of the world will be claiming they’ve been fans of his since Woodstock. Beat the rush and start reading him now. You won’t be sorry.
*Plus, he’s just a good guy. Patient and funny with his fans, and willing to do strange things for a good cause. Case in point, his willingness to read the entire Cheesecake Factory menu to raise money to help displaced refugees. Really, you want to donate to that – and you have about three weeks to do so.
Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Bad, and of the forthcoming A Dream Given Form: The Unofficial Guide to the Babylon 5 Universe (September 2017). You can find Dale online at her blog “Unfettered Brilliance“ and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.