Title: M Is for Magic.
Author: Neil Gaiman.
Genre: Fiction, literature, short stories, horror, fantasy, YA.
Publication Date: 1985-2006 (this collection 2007).
Summary: A collection of 11 stories of young-adult friendly horror and fantasy. In The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1984), a seasoned private detective of Nurseryland is tasked in solving the mystery of Humpty Dumpty's demise, by someone claiming to be his sister. In Troll Bridge (1993), a young boy meets a troll under a bridge, and makes an usual deal with him that changes the rest of his life. In Don't Ask Jack (1995), a sinister jack-in-the-box haunts the lives of the children who own it. In How to Sell the Ponti Bridge (1985), sceptical members of a Rogues' Club are treated to a story about a man who once sold an invaluable piece of public property in a perfect scam. In October in the Chair, the seasons of the year get together for an annual bonfire, and October tells a tale of a bullied and unhappy boy who runs away from home only to make a strange and mysterious friend in a graveyard. In Chivalry (1993), an elderly lady purchases the Holy Grail in her usual used charity shop, and immediately begins to be pursued by a knight on a quest to possess it. In The Price (1997), a stray cat fights a nightly battle to protect his adopted family from a terrible evil. In How to Talk to Girls at Parties (2006), a teenage boy who has trouble talking to girls finds himself at very strange party, filled with girls that seem quite... otherworldly. In the Sunbird (2005), members of the Epicurean Club that strives to taste every type of animal, mythical and not, follow one of their more mysterious members to Egypt to capture and taste the legendary Sunbird, although some of the members have a funny feeling this journey had taken place in the past. In The Witch's Headstone (2007), a boy raised in a graveyard by ghouls and ghosts makes a new friend, and to help her, finds himself forced to confront the troubling world of the living for the first time. Instructions (2000) is a story written as a set of instructions to the magical land of fantasy and imagination.
My rating: 8/10.
♥ Stories you read when you're the right age never quite leave you. You may forget who wrote them or what the story was called. Sometimes you'll forget precisely what happened, but if a story touches you it will stay with you, haunting the places in your mind that you rarely ever visit.
Horror stays with you hardest. If it brings a real chill to the back of your neck, if once the story is done you find yourself closing the book slowly, for fear of disturbing something, and creeping away, then it's there for the rest of time. ...
...Fantasy gets into your bones. There's a curve into your bones. There's a curve in a road I sometimes pass, a view of a village on rolling green hills, and, behind it, huger, craggier, grayer hills and, in the distance, mountains and mist, that I cannot see without remembering reading The Lord of the Rings. The books is somewhere inside me, and that view brings it to the surface.
And science fiction (although there's only a little of that here, I'm afraid) takes you across the stars, and into other times and minds. There's nothing like spending some time inside an alien head to remind us how little divides us, person from person.
♥ "I'm Jill Dumpty."
"So your brother was Humpty Dumpty?"
"And he didn't fall off that wall, Mr. Horner. He was pushed."
Interesting, if true. Dumpty had his finger in most of the crooked pies in town; I could think of five guys who would have preferred to see him dead than alive without trying. Without trying too hard, anyway.
"You seen the cops about this?"
"Nah. The King's Men aren't interested in anything to do with his death. They say they did all they could do in trying to put him together again after the fall."
♥ I got that old feeling you get in my life of work. Two little brain cells rub together the right way and in seconds you've got a twenty-four-karat cerebral fire on your hands.
~~The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds.
♥ It was time to go home. I was not lost; all I needed to do was follow my path home once more.
There was a troll waiting for me, under the bridge.
"I'm a troll," he said. Then he paused, and added, more or less as an afterthought, "Fol rol de ol rol."
♥ "I heard you, Jack," he whispered, in a voice like the wind. "I heard you trip-trapping over my bridge. And now I'm going to eat your life."
I was only seven, but it was daylight, and I do not remember being scared. It is good for children to find themselves facing the elements of fairy tale—they are well-equipped to deal with these.
♥ "Can you tell all that from smell?" I asked, amazed.
"Trolls can smell the rainbows, trolls can smell the stars," it whispered, sadly. "Trolls can smell the dreams you dreamed before you were ever born."
♥ I've been here every since. Hiding. Waiting. Part of the bridge.
I watch from the shadows as the people pass: walking their dogs, or talking, or doing the things that people do. Sometimes people pause beneath my bridge, to stand, or piss, or make love. And I watch them, but say nothing; and they never see me.
Fol rol de ol rol.
I'm just going to stay here, in the darkness under the arch. I can hear you all out there, trip-trapping, trip-trapping over my bridge.
Oh yes, I can hear you.
But I'm not coming out.
♥ The children did not play with the Jack-in-the-Box. And when they grew up and left the great house, the attic nursery was closed up and almost forgotten.
Almost, but not entirely. For each of the children, separately, remembered walking alone in the moon's blue light, on his or her own bare feet, up to the nursery. It was almost like sleepwalking, feet soundless on the wood of the stairs, on the threadbare nursery carpet. Remembered opening the treasure chest, pawing through the dolls and the clothes and pulling out the box.
And then the child would touch the catch, and the lid would open, slow as a sunset, and the music would begin to play, and Jack came out. Not with a pop and bounce: he was no spring-heeled Jack. But deliberately, intently, he would rise from the box and motion to the child to come closer, closer, and smile.
And there in the moonlight, he told them each things they could never quite remember, things they were never able entirely to forget.
♥ Years have passed, and the girls are old women, and owls and bats have made their homes in the old attic nursery; rats build their nests among the forgotten toys. The creatures gaze uncuriously at the faded prints on the wall, and stain the remnants of the carpet with their droppings.
And deep within the box within the box, Jack waits and smiles, holding his secrets. He is waiting for the children. He can wait forever.
~~Don't Ask Jack.
♥ "Let us examine the ingredients of a good scam." He ticked off the points on the fingers of his left hand as he spoke. "Firstly, the scam must be incredible. Secondly, it must be simple—the more complex the more chance of error. Thirdly, when the sucker is stung he must be stung in such a way as to prevent him from ever turning to the law. Fourthly, the mainspring of any elegant con is human greed and human vanity. Lastly, it must involve trust—confidence, if you will."
"Surely," said Gloathis.
"So you are telling me that the sale of the Ponti Bridge—or any other major landmark not yours to sell—cannot have these characteristics? Gentlemen. Lady. Let me tell you my story."
~~How to Sell the Ponti Bridge.
♥ "It's fine," said October. His beard was all colors, a grove of trees in autumn, deep brown and fire orange and wine red, an untrimmed tangle across the lower half of his face. His cheeks were apple red. He looked like a friend; like someone you had known all your life.
♥ June, hesitant and clean...
♥ "Sometimes," said June, "sometimes I think somebody's watching us from the woods, and then I look and there isn't anybody there. But I still think it."
April said, "That's because you're crazy."
"Mm," said September to everybody. "That's our April. She's sensitive, but she's still the cruelest."
♥ A name like the Runt can be infectious, so pretty soon the only person who called him Donald was his grandmother, when she telephoned him on his birthday, and people did not know him.
Now, perhaps because names have power, he was a runt: skinny and small and nervous.
♥ He had read books, newspapers, and magazines. He knew that if you ran away you sometimes met bad people who did bad things to you; but he had also read fairy tales, so he knew that there were kind people out there, side by side with the monsters.
♥ The Runt was a thin ten-year-old, small, with a runny nose and a blank expression. If you were to try and pick him out of a group of boys, you'd be wrong. He'd be the other one. Over at the side. The one your eye slipped over.
♥ There were dozens of stones of all sizes in the small meadow. Tall stones, bigger than either of the boys, and small ones, just the right size for sitting on. There were some broken stones. The Runt knew what sort of a place this was, but it did not scare him. It was a loved place.
♥ Everything waited. The night was ending. The world was holding its breath, preparing to begin again.
♥ "Your turn in the chair next time," said October.
"I know," said November. He was pale and thin lipped. He helped October out of the wooden chair. "I like your stories. Mine are always too dark."
"I don't think so," said October. "It's just that your nights are longer. And you aren't as warm."
~~October in the Chair.
♥ She was down on her knees, wearing thick green gardening gloves, weeding, and picking out slugs and putting them in a plastic bag.
Mrs. Whitaker was very tenderhearted when it came to slugs. She would take them down to the back of her garden, which bordered on the railway line, and throw them over the fence.
♥ Tramps and vagabonds have marks they make on gateposts and trees and doors, letting other of their kind know a little about the people who live at the houses and farms they pass on their travels. I think cats must leave similar signs; how else to explain the cats who turn up at our door through the year, hungry and flea-ridden and abandoned?
♥ He looked like a small panther, and he moved like a patch of light.
♥ And there was indeed something coming down the driveway toward the house. I could see it through the binoculars, clear as day.
It was the Devil.
I had never seen the Devil before, and, although I had written about him in the past, if pressed would have confessed that I had no belief in him, other than as an imaginary figure, tragic and Miltonian. The figure coming up the driveway was not Milton's Lucifer. It was the Devil.
♥ I could not have told you how old she was, which was one of the things about girls I had begun to hate: when you start out as kids you're just boys and girls, going through time at the same speed, and you're all five, or seven, or eleven, together. And then one day there's a lurch and the girls just sort of sprint off into the future ahead of you, and they know all about everything, and they have periods and breasts and makeup and God only knew what else—for certainly I didn't. The diagrams in biology textbooks were no substitute for being, in a very real sense, young adults. And the girls of our age were.
♥ "But there was no reasoning with it, and I came to world. Parent-teacher engulfed me, and I was here, embodied in a decaying lump of meat hanging on a frame of calcium. As I incarnated I felt things deep inside me, fluttering and pumping and squishing. It was my first experience with pushing air through the mouth, vibrating the vocal cords on the way, and I used it to tell parent-teacher that I wished that I would die, which it acknowledged was the inevitable exit strategy from the world."
There were black worry beads wrapped around her wrist, and she fiddled with them as she spoke. "But knowledge is there, in the meat," she said, "and I am resolved to learn from it."
♥ Understand me, all the girls at that party, in the twilight, were lovely; they all had perfect faces but, more important than that, they had whatever strangeness of proportion, of oddness of humanity it is that makes a beauty something more than a shop window dummy. Stella was the most lovely of any of them, but she, of course, was Vic's, and they were going upstairs together, and that was just how things would always be.
♥ "You're a poem?" I repeated.
She chewed her lower lip. "If you want. I am a poem, or I am a pattern, or a race of people whose world was swallowed by the sea. ... We knew that it would soon be over, and so we put it all into a poem, to tell the universe who we were, and why we were here, and what we said and did and thought and dreamed and yearned for. We wrapped our dreams in words and patterned the words so that they would live forever, unforgettable. Then we sent the poem as a pattern of flux, to wait in the heart of a star, beaming out its message in pulses and bursts and fuzzes across the electromagnetic spectrum, until the time when, on worlds a thousand sun systems distant, the pattern would be decoded and read, and it would become a poem once again."
"And then what happened?"
She looked at me with her green eyes, and it was as if she stared out at me from her own Antigone half-mask; but as if her pale green eyes were just a different, deeper, part of the mask. "You cannot hear a poem without it changing you," she told me. "They heard it, and it colonized them. It inherited them and it inhabited them, its rhythms becoming part of the way that they thought; its images permanently transmuting their metaphors; its verses, its outlook, its aspirations becoming their lives. Within a generation their children would be born already knowing the poem, and, sooner rather than later, as these things go, there were no more children born. There was no need for them, not any longer. There was only a poem, which took flesh and walked and spread itself across the vastness of the known."
I edged closer to her, so I could feel my leg pressing against hers. She seemed to welcome it: she put her hand on my arm, affectionately, and I felt a smile spreading across my face.
"There are places that we are welcome," said Triolet, "and places where we are regarded as a noxious weed, or as a disease, something immediately to be quarantined and eliminated. But where does contagion end and art begin?"
♥ She began to whisper something in my ear. It's the strangest thing about poetry—you can tell it's poetry, even if you don't speak the language. You can hear Homer's Greek without understanding a word, and you still know it's poetry. I've heard Polish poetry, and Inuit poetry, and I knew what it was without knowing. Her whisper was like that. I didn't know the language, but her words washed through me, perfect, and in my mind's eye I saw towers of glass and diamond; and people with eyes of the palest green; and, unstoppable, beneath every syllable, I could feel the relentless advance of the ocean.
♥ I saw Stella, though, at the top of the stairs. She was staring down at Vic, and I saw her face.
This all happened thirty years ago. I have forgotten much, and I will forget more, and in the end I will forget everything; yet, if I have any certainty of life beyond death, it is all wrapped up not in psalms or hymns, but in this one thing alone: I cannot believe that I will ever forget that moment, or forget the expression on Stella's face as she watched Vic hurrying away from her. Even in death I shall remember that.
Her clothes were in disarray, and there was make-up smudged across her face, and her eyes—
You wouldn't want to make a universe angry. I bet an angry universe would look at you with eyes like that.
~~How to Talk to Girls at Parties
♥ "I have extreme misgivings about all this," said Jackie Newhouse. "My ancestors and I have a finely tuned sense of personal preservation, one that has often left us shivering on roofs and hiding in rivers—one step away from the law, or from gentlemen with guns and legitimate grievances—and that sense of self-preservation is telling me not to go to Suntown with you."
"I am an academic," said Professor Mandalay, "and thus have no finely developed senses that would be comprehensible to anyone who has not ever needed to grade papers without actually reading the blessed things. Still, I find the whole thing remarkably suspicious."
♥ "You're playing with fire," she warned him.
"That's how I know I'm alive," said Zebediah T. Crawcrustle.
♥ Zebediah T. Crawcrustle was not always poor. Sometimes he was rich, but he had difficulty in holding on to his wealth, and whenever he had become wealthy he discovered that the world frowned on rich men eating in hobo jungles at the back of the railroad, or consorting with the winos in the park, so he would fritter his wealth away as best he could. There were always little bits of it here and there that he had forgotten about, and sometimes he would forget that he did not like being rich, and then he would set out again and seek his fortune, and find it.
♥ Professor Mandalay spent time translating the hieroglyphics he had noticed were incised upon the clay bricks in the barbecue. He said that a foolish man might believe that they proved the barbecue in Mustapha Stroheim's backyard was once sacred to the Sun. "But I, who am an intelligent man," he said, "I see immediately that what has happened is that bricks that were once, long ago, part of a temple, have, over the millennia, been reused. I doubt that these people know the value of what they have here."
"Oh, they know all right," said Zebediah T. Crawcrustle. "And these bricks weren't part of any temple. They've been right here for five thousand years, since we built the barbecue. Before that we made do with stones."
♥ The beers of the ancient Egyptians were flavored with cardamom and coriander, for the Egyptians had no hops; their beers were rich and flavorsome and thirst quenching. You could build pyramids after drinking that beer, and sometimes people did.
♥ "It is perfect," said Jackie Newhouse. "It tastes like love and fine music. It tastes like truth."
... "It is the best thing I have ever eaten. It tastes like my youth. It tastes like forever."
♥ "It is the Phoenix of Heliopolis," said Zebediah T. Crawcrustle. "It is the bird that dies in ashes and flame, and is born again, generation after generation. It is the Bennu bird, which flew across the waters when all was dark. When its time is come it is burned on the fire of rate woods and spices and herbs, and in the ashes it is reborn, time after time, world without end."
... "Crawcrustle," said Jackie Newhouse, aflame, "answer me truly. How long have you been eating the Phoenix?"
"A little over ten thousand years," said Zebediah. "Give or take a few thousand. It's not hard, once you master the trick of it; it's just mastering the trick of it that's hard. But this is the best Phoenix I've ever prepared. Or do I mean, 'This is the best I've ever cooked this Phoenix'?"
"The years!" said Virginia Boote. "They are burning off you!"
"They do that," admitted Zebediah. "You've got to get used to the heat, though, before you eat it. Otherwise you can just burn away."
"Why did I not remember this?" said Augustus TwoFeathers McCoy, through the bright flames that surrounded him. "Why did I not remember that this was how my father went, and his father before him, that each of them went to Heliopolis to eat the Phoenix? And why do I only remember it now?"
"Because the years are burning off you," said Professor Mandalay. He had closed the leather book as soon as the page he had been writing on caught fire. The edges of the book were charred, but the rest of the book would be fine. "When the years burn, the memories of those years come back." He looked more solid now, through the wavering burning air, and he was smiling. None of them had ever seen Professor Mandalay smile before.
"Shall we burn away to nothing?" asked Virginia, now incandescent. "Or shall we burn back to childhood and burn back to ghosts and angels and then come forward again? It does not matter. Oh Crusty, this is all such fun!"
♥ "And there are always people who find their lives have become so unsupportable they believe the best thing they could do would be to hasten their transition to another plane of existence."
"They kill themselves, you mean?" said Bod. He was about eight years old, wide-eyed and inquisitive, and he was not stupid.
"Does it work? Are they happier dead?"
Silas grinned so wide and sudden that he showed his fangs. "Sometimes. Mostly, no. It's like the people who believe they'll be happy if they go and live somewhere else, but who learn it doesn't work that way. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you. If you see what I mean."
♥ It was dark in that tomb, dark as a deep mine, but Bod saw as the dead see and the room gave up its secrets to him.
♥ He was eight years old, and the world beyond the graveyard held no terrors for him.
♥ She sniffed. "Well," she said, "you should get on back to the graveyard."
"I can't. He locked me in."
"Course you can. Just slip through the wall—"
He shook his head. "I can't. I can only do it at home because they have me the freedom of the graveyard when I was a baby."
~~The Witch's Headstone.
♥ Remember: that giants sleep too soundly; that
witches are often betrayed by their appetites;
dragons have one soft spot, somewhere, always;
hearts can be well hidden,
and you betray them with your tongue.
♥ Remember your name.
Do not lose hope—what you seek will be found.
Trust ghosts. Trust those that you have
helped to help you in their turn.
Trust your heart, and trust your story.
♥ When you reach the little house, the
place your journey started,
you will recognize it, although it will seem
much smaller than you remember.
Walk up the path, and through the garden
gate you never saw before but once.
And then go home. Or make a home.