Fragile Things (re-read)

I’ve been interested to notice in the book-blogging world that it seems to be a quirk to like short stories. I see a lot of people who read them but don’t get on with them, claiming that the form is too short and unsatisfying, that it doesn’t go anywhere, that it doesn’t offer what a novel offers. Others choose not to read them at all.

Personally, I love short stories. I have a shelf full of anthologies of them, both collections like Best American Short Stories and collections from extremely varied authors like Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, Sherman Alexie, John Cheever, M. R. James, Henry James, Jhumpa Lahiri, Edith Wharton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jincy Willett, Laurie Colwin, Connie Willis, and a monstrous tome by T.C. Boyle that, genius though it was, Boyled me out (over?) for years. When I was younger, I used to read short stories like eating peanuts, one after another. Of course they don’t offer what a novel offers. Neither does Hamlet. Neither does Paradise Lost. That doesn’t mean they aren’t worth reading. You just have to find the good ones, like anything else.

Neil Gaiman’s collection of short-form fiction, Fragile Things, is mostly full of the good ones. The content and tone of these pieces varies a lot, from the slightly creepy to the gently humorous to the outright horrifying. Some of them are wonderful, but only if you inhabit the same world Gaiman does. For instance, the piece that introduces the collection, “A Study in Emerald,” is a mash-up of the universes of Sherlock Holmes and H.P. Lovecraft. If you know both universes fairly well, you will love this story (I did; I have read it several times and never fail to find it amazingly clever in every tiny detail.) If you don’t know either universe, or only know one, you’re likely to find the story baffling or even irritating. A few others are like this (though not depending so heavily on previous knowledge) : a story about the Haitian coffee girls, for instance, is delicate and hallucinatory, but leans on zombie mythology not everyone will know. The final novella, “The Monarch of the Glen,” will be more successful if you’ve read Gaiman’s novel American Gods, which I seem to be the only person on Earth to have loved.

However. There are stories in Fragile Things that are marvellous (in the original sense, to be marvelled at) even if you’re not usually a fan of fantasy, or horror, or even of short-form fiction. “Closing Time” is perhaps my favorite of the entire collection, a story that reminds me of Robert Aickman’s “strange stories” and lingers in the mind. “Diseasemaker’s Croup” packs an original punch. Anyone who has ever heard of a Gothic novel or seen any horror movie ever will love “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire”. And “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” is just real enough, and just strange enough, to be the perfect balance: did Miss Finch want to go? Was that her heart’s desire? Or was that another unintended consequence of that night’s strange circus?

All in all, most of these stories are worth your while (there are a few I’d skip — I think Gaiman should leave Narnia to Philip Pullman, and since I hate what Philip Pullman has to say about it, that’s saying something). Some are worth reading and re-reading. All are worth trying. After all, how do you know whether it’s a live mine or a dud unless you throw yourself at it headlong? It might blow your whole day.

* Note: Nymeth has a wonderful list of some of her favorite short stories on her home page. I encourage you to check them out if you’re dipping your toe in the waters. Among those she has listed, the Boyle recently blew my tiny mind.

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25 Responses to Fragile Things (re-read)

  1. Eva says:

    I love short stories too! And American Gods! :)

    I don’t think Fragile Things was as strong a collection as Smoke and Mirrors, but there were definitely some incredible stories in it. My very fave was “October in the Chair.” Unlike you, I really enjoyed the one about Susan. heehee

    • Jenny says:

      Eva, I’m so glad there’s someone else who loved American Gods! I was starting to think there was something wrong with me. :)

      I agree with you that Smoke and Mirrors was better. And I liked “October in the Chair” very much, though frankly thought the frame story could have been cut without harming it much.

      I thought the story about Susan was preachy and pointless. Not much of a story. I take his point that Susan is problematic, and I know he wanted to be disturbing, but the story was just… meh to me. But I could easily overlook it for the sake of the other good ones! :)

  2. Priscilla says:

    I love short stories. In fact, I am looking right now at a stack of One Story “magazines” that I need to read, and may go ahead and review on the blog. I don’t know why I tend to think nothing short of a novel or collection deserves attention…That said, I have not read any of Neil Gaiman’s short stories, and in fact did not know he wrote them! I did laugh out loud at your T.C. Boyle remark, though, because I have that same tome, and it had the exact same effect on me. :)

    • Jenny says:

      Priscilla, do review the short stories! Choose the ones you love best and tell us about them!

      So glad you had the same experience with that Boyle collection. I couldn’t look at a Boyle novel for years afterward. :)

  3. fleurfisher says:

    I love short stories. But only since I realised I don’t have to read each volume end to end, and that I am allowed to dip in and out. Obvious to some maybe, but for a long time it wasn’t to me.

    And I have this on my shelves, but I tend to think it’s an autumn book.

    • Jenny says:

      I know exactly what you mean about it being an autumn book — I usually feel the same about scary stories — but this one spans the seasons, in my opinion. The zombie story in particular is a summer story. Just for instance. So dip into it when you like!

  4. Vasilly says:

    Over the years, I’ve found myself reading less short stories. I don’t know what happened but it hasn’t stopped me from buying short story collections. Fragile Things is a collection I really enjoyed. I love A Study in Emerald but October in the Chair is my favorite story especially now after having read The Graveyard Book by Gaiman.

    • Jenny says:

      Vasilly, I’ve read fewer short stories, too, but one thing that’s kept me reading them is that so many of my favorite authors of novels ALSO write short stories!

  5. Marieke says:

    I love short stories too! And I’ve taken another look at Neil Gaiman after just finishing and loving The Graveyard Book. Some of my fav short story authors are Sherman Alexie, Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson – irreverant, insightful and creepy-good in that order. Oh, Gina Ochsner is amazing too.

    • Jenny says:

      We have some of the same favorites. I just love Alice Munro and Shirley Jackson. Oh, and I can’t believe I forgot to mention Tobias Wolff or Cynthia Ozick! Absolute genius. I’ve never heard of Gina Ochsner. I’ll have to put her on my list.

  6. christina says:

    Oooh, I am one who loathes short stories. Er, well, perhaps *loathe* is a wee bit too strong of a word. But I more surely don’t run to the bookstore to peruse through their shorts collections.

    ‘Course, I don’t have a real reason why. Maybe I want more? Maybe because the shorts that I’ve always found ran longer than what I wanted when I wanted a short story? Maybe I’m just odd.

    I do like Gaiman though. Mainly his YA stuff. Didn’t like American Gods. :/ Soooo wanted to, though. Does that count? Have a few more of his stuff on my shelf to read…

    • Jenny says:

      Christina, I think your approach is definitely NOT odd. But I encourage you to pick up a good collection by a writer you like (like Gaiman) and give it a shot. Short stories can be a lot of fun. And like fleurfisher says, give yourself permission to pick it up and put it down.

  7. I’ve always wanted to read this because of “Monarch of the Glen”- American Gods is one of my absolute favorite novels. :) I’m glad to see there’s more to enjoy than just that story.

    • Jenny says:

      Oh, there is! And I’m so glad to see I have company. Usually whenever I see American Gods mentioned, it’s disparagingly. Hooray for us fans!

  8. Jenny says:

    I always say that my problem with short stories is I can’t read a whole bunch of them at once; but they come in collections. And I always feel I’ve been slovenly if I don’t read them all, but then I get burned out on them and it just confirms me in believing I hate short stories. I wish I could have some sort of email subscription to Good Short Stories and get sent one every two days.

    Though I often enjoy Gaiman’s short stories. “The Problem of Susan” bothered me, but I liked a lot of the ones in this collection.

    • Jenny says:

      Jenny, you should definitely give yourself permission to pick collections up, dip into them, and put them down. They make good bedside or bathroom reading in that way. I read poetry that same way — if I had to read a whole collection at a sitting I would probably never read poetry!

  9. I’ve been saving this for a readthon but I may have to breakdown and read it sooner. I love Neil Gaiman, though I didn’t care much for American Gods — in my opinion Anansi Boys is far superior, one of my favorite books EVER (I highly recommend the audio narrated by the brilliant Lenny Henry.) And lately I’m really into short stories — besides Gaiman, my favorite writers are Wharton, Chekhov and Saki.

    • Jenny says:

      See, it all depends on taste — I liked American Gods better than Anansi Boys in a lot of ways. Maybe because I *didn’t* listen to it on audiobook, though, which I did with American Gods? Anyway, yes — Chekhov! Saki! More I didn’t mention! Thanks, Karen!

  10. Nymeth says:

    I agree with you and Eva that Smoke and Mirrors is better, but there are some real gems here too. “Sunbird” is my favourite, but there were so many I loved. Also, you’re not the first I see comparing Gaiman’s short fiction to Robert Aickman’s (I think he has acknowledged the influence himself), and for that reason I got a copy of Cold Hand in Mine a while ago. I really ought to read it rather than just let it sit on the shelf.

    Also, you’re not the only one to have completely loved American Gods! And I’m so glad you loved the Boyle short story too.

    • Jenny says:

      Ana, I am really curious to see what you think of Aickman. Normally I don’t think Gaiman is similar to Aickman at all. Aickman can be very obscure indeed, to the point where you wonder exactly what happened in the story (though you’re sure something did) and has a very weird sense of humor. I LOVE Aickman’s stories, but usually wouldn’t compare him to Gaiman. But that one story, “Closing Time,” did bear the comparison.

      Thanks for the Boyle story! It was AMAZING. I’m still thinking about it.

  11. Naomi Thiers says:

    Thanks for this review–I’m another reader who loves short stories, and had no clue they were kind of out of fashion w/ some book reviewers. I highly recommend Mavis Gallant and Eudora Welty as two masters of the short story. “Moon Lake” by Welty is kinda a masterpiece. …It’s nice to read about Neil Gaiman’s collection–I’m sharing this post with my daughter b/c she’s a bigger Gaiman fan than me–although I LOVE the Sandman series–and I think she read American Gods .

    Your blog reviews are always a treat!

    • Jenny says:

      Thanks, Naomi! I’ve read some wonderful Gallant stories, but (oddly) very little Welty. I will have to put her on my list immediately!

  12. Sara says:

    I like short story collections (Gaiman’s in particular spring to mind), but I seldom find individual stories memorable as novels.

    • Jenny says:

      Sara, I’d agree with that “seldom.” Some short stories are more memorable than some forgettable novels, and vice versa, in my experience.

  13. rebeccareid says:

    I love short stories but I get distracted by the novels calling to me. Thanks for this. I still haven’t read much Gaiman but maybe I should read more some day.

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