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Filtering by Tag: Neil Gaiman

Cue the Fairy Tale Characters, Please

Jill Reid

jill-reid_fairy-tales-nov-16-post My sister once bought a Dollar Store Snow White wig for my daughter. Three-year-old Ellie used to drag it behind her the way Linus clung to his blue blanket. She donned it at breakfast and slept in it at naptime. Day after day, wigged and rapt, she caressed the cheap dark locks with sticky toddler paws as Disney’s Snow White’s soprano pierced the thin walls of our apartment.

Symbols are powerful. Even sticky old wigs have their magic, and in retrospect, the season of the Snow White wig was thick with both fairy tale and curse. Disney’s Rapunzel and Sleeping Beauty and Snow White played on loops on the living room TV, their Technicolor endings a crescendo of orchestra music, ball gowns, and satisfying conclusion. Meanwhile, I re-read passages for literature classes in which the dragon killed Beowulf, and Othello murdered Desdemona. Mr. Hyde overcame Dr. Jekyll, and poor tentative Alfred J. Prufrock measured out his “life in coffee spoons.”  

Those stories, in contrast to the fairy tale, were as fragmented as the world my child and I lived within. During the season of the Snow White wig, my own life experience with single parenthood, toddler potty training, and exhaustion dug in its heels against the “simplicity” of fairy tales. Really, how do you embrace the enchantment in Snow White’s story, when what you have read and lived and survived suggests that in your own story, should you ever bite into one of life’s poison apple, you will have to drive your own poisoned self to the ER?

That was also the season when, in the middle of a week sopping with the weariness of cynicism, my notebook became a revelation. I sat at my desk writing the word “Loss” over and over without even realizing the path my pen was taking. And next to that, I jotted down a statement by C.S. Lewis that, prior to that moment, had existed only as a lovely sentiment I intended to quote to students.

“Loss. Loss. Loss,” my notebook read. "Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again,” C.S. Lewis told me. And just like that, after months of rolling my eyes at Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, I saw the wisdom in Ellie’s beautiful, tangled Snow White wig. “What,” I could almost hear Snow White whisper, “has ever been easy about overcoming a curse?”

Perhaps when C.S. Lewis talks about growing old enough to read fairytales again, he alludes to the slowly re-gained wisdom in believing in the possibility of the cursed truly overcoming their curses  - even on this side of heaven. Rather than a curse that divvies itself out over a lifetime in wrinkles and mortgage payments, the fairy tale offers one pure cup of concentrated curse, potent as Snow White’s apple, for us to swallow and overcome all at once. There is a special kind of relief in knowing exactly what curse you’re up against , how to defeat it, and that it can be defeated at all.

Of fairy tales, Neil Gaiman, in a paragraph of G.K. Chesterton’s longer explanation, wrote, “Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.” Each day, the dragons gather.  They show up in the latest news cycle.  They loom when I sit down to pay the bills or comfort a sick child.  In class, I spend hours discussing all the gray spaces where the heroes fall to dragons or where, sometimes, there are no heroes at all. But, as I grow older, I believe more and more that in a world full of dragons, there is a special wisdom in embracing the fairy tale, matted and familiar as a Snow White wig, as a place of empowerment, where we can, at least for the breadth of a story, watch the dragons fall.

Honeycomb and Cream

Jessica Brown

ocean-at-the-end-of-the-lane-gaiman-BETTER “I held on to Ginnie Hempstock. She smelled like a farm and like a kitchen, like animals and like food. She smelled very real, and the realness was what I needed at that moment.” –Neil Gaiman, The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The novel, like many fantasy novels, is about good and evil. But masterfully—pointedly?—Neil Gaiman casts the large-scale drama of frightening, abusive forces against the forces of kindness and sacrifice in the little theatre of domestic life. It’s all on one lane, this drama, set in a family house, a farmhouse, and the little patch of land in between. It’s a seven-year-old boy who participates in the fantastical adventure, too: there’s a kind of little theatre there, in a narrator who still needs looking after.

As I read the book and just after, that’s what impressed me most—the scale. It was the drama of fantasy-novel proportions set in a family story. The wily, scary tactics of the antagonist are aimed at breaking up a family. And the savior who saves this boy and his family? It’s three generations of Hempstock females living on an old-fashioned farm: an ancient granny, a strong middle-aged woman, and a young girl. And it’s not only their mystical powers and heroic care that saves the boy. Their home is a place of sanctuary and salvation.

And that’s what, after I returned the book to its place on the bookshelf, emerged as most precious about the story. All the scenes in the Hempstock farmhouse had warm, rich hues in my mind, even brighter and more memorable than the bizarre, fascinating elements. It was the farmhouse with its whitewashed walls, jug of daffodils, flagstone floors, and warm hearth that I took away from the book and held close. Like the young boy observes, as he finds refuge in the house after a horrible escape, “I felt safe. It was as if the essence of grandmotherliness had been condensed into that one place, that one time.”

Maybe I remember the farmhouse scenes because of the meals served there. I don’t think this is accidental (or because I happen to love food). Gaiman crafts the description of food that these ladies serve with extra, superb detail; it’s as if the camera slows so that we can take in every loving dish that the Hempstock ladies made. The boy’s first meal is paper-thin pancakes, rolled up with lemon juice and plum jam. Before he leaves, granny Hempstock slips him what must be one of the most comforting treats imaginable, a little saucer of honeycomb and cream. Another time the young boy—arriving to the house freezing wet—drinks hot, rich broth in a warm bath. How comforting does that sound, liquid warmth within and without? Another meal is roast beef and potatoes, buttered nettles, “blackened and sweet” carrots, and a gorgeous, homey apple pie with thick yellow custard. After a breakfast of toast and homemade blackberry jam, thick porridge with cream, and rich black tea, the young boy feels like he could purr, as the kitten beside him does—the feeling of utter contentment.

Why would Gaiman spend such care describing the homey details of hospitality? I think it’s because, when epic fantasy unfolds in the reality of a domestic drama, hospitality—genuine, caring, expressive hospitality—emerges as a primary force of goodness that does defeat evil. Making a safe, cozy, cheerful space in the dark, cold, abusive world is not a small thing. It’s kindness at its most practical and welcoming. It’s refuge for those—and that’s all of us—who need a touch of looking after. Like the boy realizes, as evil forces whip and howl around him, as he’d held close by the middle-aged Ginnie Hempstock, her kitchen and the food made there, are real things. That’s sometimes exactly what we need to provide, and what we need to receive. In the big drama of evil and good, a place at the table is, truly, sanctuary.

I pass by the novel on my bookshelf, and it reminds me of all this. May the “essence of grandmotherliness” thrive in my Los Angeles apartment.

The One You Know vs. The One You Need

Chrysta Brown

10 Chrysta Brown I had a really good idea a few weeks ago. I was going to dance, teach dance, and sell brightly-colored spandex thereby reinventing and mastering the concept of a triple threat. I was already doing the first two, and was spending the few minutes before a job interview meandering around a store of overpriced workout attire so I could accomplish the third. The hiring manager rounded up two other hopefuls and led us to an empty table in front of a Nordstroms Cafe.  

Did you know this was going to be a group interview?one of them asked quietly. I had no idea,she said. But maybe well all get hired together.”  

That would be so cool.The other girl said. I smiled and nodded wondering just how many positions there were to be filled. 

So this is a super casual interview,the manager said smiling. As you guys probably know we are all about helping all types of women. We really want every woman to feel comfortable from the outside in, and we just want to get to know and figure out where youd fit within the company. So just go ahead and introduce yourself and just tell us why you want to work here.”  

That is a question I have always hated. "I like to eat food, and my landlord won't let me pay him in experience and bragging rights," though perfectly true, isnt exactly the answer potential employers want to hear. 

During a mock group interview, in college, the presenter posed a question, If you could be any type of tree what kind would you be and why?”  

"I'd be a Christmas tree,I said, because it's a symbol that represents a time of year that makes a lot of people happy regardless of whether celebrate the actual holiday."   

The boy next to me answered, Id be a carrot tree because Im unlike other youve ever seen.”  He was pleased with himself, and the workshop leader thought his answer was memorable and clever. I disagreed. The reason you have never seen a carrot tree is because carrots do not grow on trees, and if they did it would be an entirely different plant. The fact that he didnt know this mean that he either did not absorb or retain information or didnt eat vegetables which would result in a host of health problems and neither of those things would be very useful to the company. 

That, however, is the type of thing we do in those situations. We try to be remembered and impressive. We paint a picture of ourselves that adheres to what we think people want to see. Id argue that one of the most detrimental things you can do in an interview is believe them when they say,We want to see that real you.”  In most cases, what they really want is to see if you fit into the strangely snapped box they created before they knew that you ever existed. And we want to fit. No one seems to grow out of the elementary school need to fit in with the kids who have what we dont, and so, like the line of dancers, in the musical, A Chorus Line, we step-kick-kick and smile on cue all while singing I really need this job. Please, God, I need this job. Ive got to get this job!

Tell us about a time when you received great customer service at. It can be at any store. It doesnt have to be here," said the manager.

Starbucks,I said, automatically. I told them how the baristas knew my name, would notice when I hadnt been in for a while, and how they knew that something was wrong when I ordered a white mocha. I know they arent my friends,I said, but I would go out of my way to go to that Starbucks because it felt like they knew me.”  

The other girls nodded and hummed, and then they proceeded to say that they loved shopping at the very establishment that had gathered us together that afternoon for an interview. As an explanation, they both offered individualized versions of what sounded to me like Blah blah blah blah blah bloppity bloopity bloop bloop.”  The manager applauded the other applicants for their answers and said how their experiences were really what the company was about, We just want to help each person find that one item of clothing that makes them feel beautiful on the outside so they can start to make changes on the inside.”  

I felt so betrayed and annoyed, naming the company you are interviewing for as your favorite store is the equivalent of reminding your teacher that he forgot to give you homework. It is sucking up 101. It is deplorable behavior that warrants being ignored at recess, and for the life of me,  I cannot tell you why I didn't do it.

In the introduction of Neil Gaimans Trigger Warnings: Fictions and Disturbances, he writes, “I find myself, at the start of each flight, meditating and pondering the wisdom offered by the flight attendants as if it were a koan, or a tiny parable, or the high point of all wisdom.With a mother as a flight attendant and the Philadelphia International Airport on my list favorite places I grew up hearing the pre-flight instructions, but until that moment they had never been about more than oxygen. Secure your own mask before helping others. I think about the need to help others,Gaiman writes, "and how we mask ourselves to do it and how unmasking makes us vulnerable.He goes on to describe people who trade fictions for a living.He was talking about authors, but sitting in the group interview answering questions that aimed to prove that I would be of some value to this national corporation, Im pretty sure everyone does it. 

The manager rolled our applications into a tube and shoved them into the pocket of her jacket. “It was nice to meet you girls.We will call you by Monday if we have a place for you.Instead of walking back to my car, I rode up the escalator and walked to Starbucks.

Hey!the barista said pulling out sharpie and preparing to mark the familiar green and white cup. What are we doing for you today?”  

Hi,I said, Can I have a grande white mocha, please?”  he nodded, scanned my phone, and told my drink would be ready soon. When the cup came, I took a swig. On the white lid was the shape of my mouth printed in a wine-colored shade of lipgloss called "Desire."  I took another sip and sighed. 

Challenging Joe Hill (Stephen King's son) to a Battle to the Death!!!

Guest Blogger

Jason Hubbard Derr joins the blog to write about challenging another writer (who just happens to be the son of the Stephen King) to the death. When Chris Fisher asked me to do a blog post to help promote my story – "Live Nude Girls" – in the latest issue of Relief my mind jumped to several immediate possibilities. I felt I could talk on a range of topics like:

  1. The writing life
  2. How when someone like Neil Gaiman, fantasy author extraordinaire, goes on about not believing in God and then writes stories populated by Gods and uses them as a metaphor to explore human life and the human condition I immediately being to believe that his atheism is not at all what he thinks it is.
  3. On the nature of being a MA graduate with an MA in theology and most of a BA in creative writing but no job what-so-ever so if you want to hire me to do some freelance writing work please contact me.

Instead I have decided to challenge author Joe Hill to a duel to the death. Mr. Hill is the author of Heart Shaped Box and the forthcoming Horns and is the son of Stephen King.

In life – as both a human being and as a writer (not all human beings are writers, it’s a much longer process for us) it is important to have a nemesis. If possible one should indicate their nemesis in writing and make several public declarations of the relationship. I should point out that having a Grown-Up-Professional nemesis relationship and, say, a Deep-Wish-For-Harm-To-Fall-On-the-Guy-Who-Made-your-Life-Torture-In-Grades-4-And-5 are much different things.

I am sure that you have already begun to ask yourself: why be the nemesis of Mr. Hill. Because he is Stephen King’s son and had publishing connections from the earliest glimmer of a desire to publish? Is it because in ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ he took what could have been a clichéd King-esq horror novel and instead – through a truly unique lead character – gave us a story that was as much about growing old and taking stock of our lives as it was about past sin? Or is it because he is doing what I want to do with life – writing comics and books (the comic I created but was not allowed to write? Apparently it’s coming out soon!)?

Yes. It’s that one!

But I won’t belabor the point – part of the fun of having a secret nemesis is that you get to keep your funhouse mirror life justifications to yourself in, say, a journal or in mad midnight ramblings.

In the end I feel Joe Hill would be a good nemesis because he seems like a nice guy – that as he ridicules your work he may actually say something nice about it. And I feel he may not agree with my weird pre-Acclaim Valiant Comic book fascination but he would get it.

So, Mr. Hill I want to do what you do: write stories of wonder that plumb the depths of humanity. And I’m a few years behind you. But I will catch up. And, oh lets say in 10 years, I want to challenge you to a Duel-to-the-Death on the top of the empire state building.

But before that – can we get a beer? Maybe poke around a used bookstore and would you autograph my copy of ‘Heart-Shaped Box’?


Jason Hubbard Derr is a theologian, author and independent scholar living in Vancouver, BC with his lovely new bride. Jason is a contributor to, has been invited to submit to an academic journal and will soon see his MA thesis published. He has most of a BA in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and and all of a MA in Theology from the Vancouver School of Theology. Jason's story "Live Nude Girls" can be found in Relief Issue 3.2.