Neil Gaiman


Review of October in the Chair by oldsoundroom Something for Halloween. Oldsoundroom, a theatrical troupe consisting of recent Yale School of Drama MFAs, has mounted a creepy collection of tales from popular fantasy writer and comics artist/author Neil Gaiman. October in the Chair and Other Fragile Things plays through Sunday afternoon at The American Theatre of Actors on W. 54 Street in New York as part of the Araca Project.

Directed by Michael McQuilken and assistant director Jennifer Harrison Newman, the show abounds in energy, atmosphere, and macabre situations. The framing tale comes from a story called “October in the Chair” wherein the months are to take turns telling stories to one another. The OSR production takes this basic premise and incorporates other Gaiman tales for select months to tell. Presided over by October (William DeMeritt) in a great horned mask and an islander accent, the interactions amongst the months are quite diverting in their own right, as August (Jackson Moran) interrupts often, and May (Laura Gragtmans) cowers and blubbers, and February (Elia Monte-Brown) acts imperious and disdainful, while March (Michael McQuilken) acts as “tune-maker,” providing the incidental music to the tales by the others.

The star of the production is Moran (the only actor present not a founding member of OSR) whose August is an obstreperous figure, with a Tom Waits-like voice full of malevolence toward others. He complains when February tries to retell a story she previously told, and generally criticizes. The troupe of five players transform themselves to play the roles in the different stories, and Moran gets many choice moments—first, he’s in his own tale (“Feeders and Eaters”) as its jaundiced narrator, then he provides expressive mime movements and clown acting as Harlequin in the tale February tells, “Harlequin Valentine.” He’s also the sad and sweet ghost-child in October’s tale, a clever rascal in “Sunbird” (March’s tale), and a stagey interlocutor who challenges his brother (Gragtmans) to swordplay in May’s tale (“Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dreams”), in which he also creates the voice and manner of a rather self-effacing raven (a fascinating puppet devised by Elizabeth Barrett Groth).

The stories, in Groth’s design, make the most of the space—its height, with catwalk, its dark recesses, its ramshackle appearance. Each story also commands an entirely different tone as Gaiman is a writer who likes to “write in the manner of” when he chooses—a tactic made much of in “Forbidden Brides” with its high-toned, well-heeled British author, under a curse, attempting to churn out another story, only to have the well-meaning raven suggest he write “fantasy,” conceived as mundane, real-world fiction. The pastiche quality of the story makes it the busiest enactment, with plenty of comic asides and extremes of horror-movie acting from Monte-Brown and DeMerrit. “Harlequin,” as well, shifts the dominant mood, this time toward Romance, though with a grisly detail (and great use of Foley effects), and “Sunbird,” with the whole troupe gathered around March’s piano, takes on the manner of a rollicking send-up of the Epicurean Club, a gathering of decadents who search the world for some delicacy yet uneaten, though the set-up is a bit long and its tone is more music hall than Grand Guignol.

Eating is a recurring theme in these tales—and why not, don’t kids on Halloween go about demanding “something good to eat”?—and nowhere more strikingly than in August’s rather unsavory story-within-a-story as a hapless former acquaintance, played with striking conviction in an Irish accent by DeMerrit (indeed, it's fun to count the accents as the night wears on, particularly from DeMerrit and Monte-Brown), narrates his rather ominous tale. As the first story in the play, August’s becomes a tough act to follow, though its arguably bested by October’s plaintive tale with Gragtmans (who provides the more sympathetic roles) as a family’s put-upon “Runt” who steals away into a creepy forest made agreeable by a boy who got sick and died.

A running joke throughout the play is provided by the fact that each storyteller in turn gets to demand “terms”—a form of payment that entails a demand about a future state of affairs. Doomsday scenarios and their anecdotes get offered in a one-upmanship that keeps something at stake in the tale-telling.

With its atmospheric lighting by Solomon Weisbard, Groth’s moody set—featuring skeletal trees provided by Gaiman himself—and McQuilken’s sound design and score, October in the Chair will keep you in yours, even if the Chechuchin Theater leaves a bit to be desired in comfortable accommodation.

oldsoundroom October in the Chair & Other Fragile Things Based on the short stories of Neil Gaiman Directed and scored by Michael McQuilken Adapted by the Ensemble

Ensemble: William DeMeritt, Laura Gragtmans, Elia Monte-Brown, Jackson Moran, and Michael McQuilken

Production design / puppets: Elizabeth Barrett Groth; Lighting design: Solomon Weisbard; Masks and Sunbird puppet: Michael McQuilken; Clothing donated by Nicholas K; Stage management: Catherine Costanzo; House management: Xaq Webb; Producer and assistant director: Jennifer Harrison Newman

The American Theatre of Actors 314 W. 54th Street New York, NY

October 29-November 2, 2014

Death Bird Spotting

In an earlier post I had mentioned Neil Gaiman’s presence at a conference I had attended, where he was putting in time signing books (at that moment his young adult fantasy The Graveyard Book). I first encountered Gaiman’s work when I selected for a local book club I was running at the Mitchell branch of the New Haven Public Library. It was, and still is, his best novel, even though I have enjoyed some of his other ventures (particularly his early novel Neverwhere). But American Gods differed from the rest by virtue of its bold topic, drawing on ideas first broached in his Sandman series. In brief, American Gods is an adventure yarn and con game of, quite literally, mythological proportions, as well as a meditation on the Voltairean dictum “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him." And, yet, as thematically bold as the novel is, its topic is not by any means original. As literary renderings of this philosophical conundrum go, it stands on the shoulders of giants. I note this because the clash it depicted between the older gods of ethnic legend—from the Norse Odin to Africa’s Ananzi—and the modern deities of the Almighty Dollar and All-Consuming Computer, came back to me with renewed vigor after re-reading Harlan Ellison’s remarkable Deathbird Stories.

Devoted to the gods of modern urban life, each tale in Ellison's story cycle was an experiment in writing and consequently a literary effort to knock the stiffness out of science fiction itself. Bound too long by the traditions of pure pulp and space opera, American science fiction found in Ellison the American answer to the New Wave of British SF flowing from the pens of Brian Aldiss, Michael Moorcock, and John Brunner. His editorship of Dangerous Visions broke new ground by giving a distinctively literary turn to this much put-upon genre. His follow-up eight years later in The Deathbird Stories did no less.

Like American Gods, Deathbird Stories is a full-frontal assault on our many species of worship and obsession—the distance between the two never that great to begin with. Each tale is an act of literary transgression blessed by modernist rage. They experiment with time, place, voice, language, symbol, pattern, and even when they fail, the failure strikes us as epic as short stories go.

Yet amid the dark brilliance seams have begun to show, breaks that have grown more prominent with the passing of years, a matter that becomes ever more interesting for me in my study of the reading experience over time. When I first read the Deathbird Stories, I was “blown away,” which, notwithstanding the overblown-ness of that hackneyed, was quite apropos then. My experience was in keeping with Ellison’s tongue in/not-in cheek warning:

CAVEAT LECTOR It is suggested that the reader not attempt to read this book at one sitting. The emotional content of these stories, taken without break, may be extremely upsetting. This note is intended most sincerely, and not as hyperbole. H.E.

Now as I read these tales, despite the vibrancy, their 1970s-ness shines through, dampening that potential to upset. The unhappiness of this decade in America—white flight, urban crime, oil embargoes, cocaine trafficking, Christmas bombings, failed presidencies—is deeply felt throughout. “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” is a literary reworking of the Kitty Genovese tragedy (immortalized as well in the first verse of Phil Ochs’ “Outside of a Small Circle of Friends”). “Neon” is an ode in prose—quite literally—to that flashing light that infuriatingly blinks outside our windows at night but which we love to no end on darkened streets when thinning crowds deprive us of that nocturnal protection in numbers. “Basilisk” places the horrors of war on a collision course with the hypocritical inanities of American chest-thumping patriotism (a story that weirdly resonates in today's climate with current debates on torture and its consequences). And on it goes, with dark-tinted paeans to drugs and free love, the automobile, business and religion.

Among my favorites is “Pretty Maggie Moneyeyes,” an encomium to the selfishness and loserdom that typify gamblers on the downhill side. I especially enjoyed Ellison’s mind-bending depiction of Maggie’s dissolution into a slot machine:

A moment out of time | lights whirling and spinning in a cotton candy universe | down a bottomless funnel roundly sectioned like a goat’s horn | a cornucopia that rose up cuculiform smooth and slick as a worm belly | endless nights that pealed ebony funeral bells | out of fog | out of weightlessness | suddenly total cellular knowledge | memory running backward…

The classic of the collection, however, remains “Along the Scenic Route,” which upon rereading holds up surprisingly well only because it is one of the few stories that does not situate itself within the 1970s. Where most of the tales read like magic realism gone awry, this literary gem is a true work of “science fiction.” It is also his least experimental: the telling is straight, the weirdness stripped away. But there is an O Henry-like twist ending that will forever make this story a dark pleasure, which is my superfluously literary way of saying that I had as much fun reading it this time as when I first encountered it.

As life experiences go, I was never one for bird watching, preferring to run my eyes across bookshelves than search the branches of unidentifiable trees in strange parks. So let's just say this time I was glad to spot this rara avis once more and, taking it down from its perch, worship at its altar. For before there were American Gods, there were The Deathbird Stories.

Near Famous

About three weeks ago, while attending the annual convention of the American Library Association in Chicago, I was passing through the HarperCollins exhibit when, lo and behold, who should be sitting behind one of those fake little barstool-high white tables signing books but one of my favorite science fiction-fantasy authors . Gaiman was signing copies of his most recent novel, the young adult fantasy . I didn’t bother getting in the long line that had grown in response to his presence since I already had a copy at home and wasn’t inclined to shell out more money for a second. Let’s just say autographs and celebrity-chasing never did all that much for me, something I learned through an unusual set of circumstances.

When I was in high school, my father had become very close friends with Isaac Asimov. Now you may be asking: what did a garment district salesman and an internationally famous author of science fiction, mystery stories and a slew of nonfiction titles have in common? I certainly asked. But I was quickly set straight. Apparently both had been yeshiva bochers in Brooklyn in the 1930s, who shared a deep-seated love of Borscht Belt-style joke telling.

Ironically as a high school student I was a committed science fiction reader who had swiftly worked his way through Asimov’s remarkable and his then equally fascinating . While by no means the greatest of writers within the genre, he was still one of its major figures, so I was more than happy to take up my father’s invitation to join him and Asimov at Sardi’s one autumn or winter afternoon or evening—I no longer recall.

In the end, the meal was memorable for how disappointing the whole affair was. Unbeknownst to me, Asimov was famous for his lecherous sensibility, which was on full display for this less than fateful encounter. Dining with this giant of science fiction proved one of the more painful experiences of my so-called high school life. Truly the scales fell from this pair of eyes. For while I love crude irreverence as much as the next native New Yorker, there is a difference between that and boorish behavior—and Asimov was all boorishness.

I turned down the next invitation to dine with my father and Mr. Asimov and the one after that. Once the pattern of polite refusal became apparent, my father inquired as to why I was so coyly avoiding “Isaac.” My father had, after all, kept me mindful of Mel Brooks’ quip that there are two types of people in the world: the famous and the near famous. The “famous” are your typical celebrities; the “near famous” are all the rest who want to sit next to the famous. Alas, lunch (or dinner?) with Asimov had put me in that great unwashed third group. Why I was avoiding ol’ Isaac? As I put it to my father in the form of my newfound credo regarding celebrity: “Forgive me if I prefer the creation to the creator.”

Of course, this does not apply universally to the many talented actors and directors, writers and poets, painters and musicians out there. In general, I’d like to think that most celebrities are actually okay folk, irrespective of their achievements. But whether they are or aren’t doesn’t really matter if what I’ve invested myself in is their work and not their social selves.

…which is just the long of way bringing me back to Neil Gaiman’s presence at that conference. I was not particularly interested in his autograph or even in meeting him, except maybe to bring back evidence of the encounter to my teenage daughter, who still believes in the magic of these things. I’d be more than happy if he just manages to keep producing work of reasonable quality and to my taste. It’s all we ought ask of our artists.