In the Cabinet of Dr. Gaiman

Neil Gaiman weaves the threads of fairy tales, mythology and archetypes throughout his fiction, which, combined with a writing style that’s simple and adorned with elegant turns of phrases, has made him one of the leading figures in fantastic fiction.

“Fragile Things,” his collection of short stories and poems, contains excellent stories about desire and loss, a few wonderful riffs on genre fiction, a bunch of middling stories and poems and a few bones for Gaiman completists and Tori Amos fans.

The gulf between the stories can be described by comparing two of them: “October in the Chair” and “Good Boys Deserve Favors.” Dedicated to Ray Bradbury, “October” reinvents Bradbury’s wonderful mingling of the fantastic with the bitter reality of childhood. The personifications of the months of the year gather to tell stories, and 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”) describes the short, bitter life of Runt, a boy who’s bullied by his elder twin brothers and pitied by his parents. He runs away from home and, on the edge of town, by an abandoned farmhouse, befriends the ghost of a boy. It’s a sad tale, with a sad ending that could also be thought of as a happy ending.

“Good Boys” is a nicely written story about another boy, at public school, who takes up the double bass because he has to learn an instrument, and he likes the notion of a small boy playing a big instrument. He neglects his lessons, preferring to read, and then one day, while not practicing, he’s visited by adults who ask him to play. He simply plays, and plays beautifully. Later, he accidentally breaks the bass, but the repairs have drained it of whatever magic it held. He transfers to another school and stops playing the bass (“The thought of changing to a new instrument seemed vaguely disloyal, while the dusty black bass that sat in a cupboard in my new school’s music rooms seemed to have taken a dislike to me.”). Puberty hits, and that’s the end of it.

“Good Boys” may be a simple story about a block-headed student who encounters a magic that leaves him unmarked. Gaiman’s men in several stories share that indifference. Bizarre things happen to people they to encounter (the waspish guest in “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch”) or barely know (the long-ago co-worker encountered again in the gruesome “Feeders and Eaters”), and their response is a blank stare followed by a “well, that was interesting.” It’s English understatement bordering on ennui.

Gaiman mentions in his introduction writing stories “told in the first person and were slices of lives,” so “Good Boys” may be meant to start and end without really going anywhere.

In my nastier moments, I’d think that he had the germ of a better story and couldn’t be buggered to finish it.

“Fragile Things” contains some excellent stories as well. Fans of “American Gods” will appreciate Shadow’s return in the novella “The Monarch of the Glen.” “A Study in Emerald” crosses Sherlock Holmes with H.P. Lovecraft and the result is rarely encountered after generations of Holmes pastiches: a clever tale that’s worthy of Alan Moore. “Goliath” is a better “Matrix” story than most of the films. “Harlequin Valentine” and “How Do You Think It Feels?” are memorably twisted love stories and “Keepsakes and Treasures” a surprisingly nasty tale to those who’ve forgotten “Sandman” stories like “24 Hours.”

Reading “Fragile Things” brought to mind a comment by Gaiman’s editor on “Sandman” (which DC has begunrepublishing in an Absolute edition) that the book grew better when Morpheus began revealing shades of humanity. That applies here. The better Gaiman tales are inhabited by the human heart, with all its passion and pain. His stories are better when his people bleed.