Neil Gaiman, Angels & Visitations: A Miscellany By Neil Gaiman (Dreamhaven, 1993)

Neil Gaiman, Warning: Contains Language [audiobook] (Dreamhaven, 1995)

Before there was an American Gods ... before there was a Neverwhere ... before even Smoke and Mirrors ... there was Angels & Visitations, Dreamhaven Press's collection of Neil Gaiman's early writing. Oddly enough, Gaiman no longer lists the collection on his site (perhaps he never did), but it would be a pity if newer Gaiman readers never discovered some of the book's more obscure gems.

Most of Gaiman's better known stories from Angels & Visitations have since been republished in his first Avon collection, Smoke and Mirrors. So faithful readers are likely already familiar with the skin-crawling, shiver-inducing cautionary tale "Babycakes," written for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. Or with the delightfully sweet and quirky modern Grail story, "Chivalry." Or with his bitter-sweet tale of a wasted life, "Troll-Bridge." And also with what is perhaps Gaiman's finest short story, "Murder Mysteries," an angelic (literally) tale of love, death and vengeance set against the so very unheavenly backdrop of early morning Los Angeles. Also appearing in both volumes are Gaiman's ode to eternal beauty, "Looking for the Girl," his bleak computer age poem "Cold Colours," and a few other other works ("We Can Get them for you Wholesale," "Foreign Parts," "Vampire Sestina," etc).

Unique to Angels & Visitations are a handful of Gaiman's non-fiction pieces, written for various English magazines in the late 1980s and early 1990s. "Six to Six," written for a special on London nightlife, is an amusing testimony to the utter ordinariness of a night out on the town for our intrepid, thrill-seeking journalist. "Gumshoe" is one of the most irreverent, giggle-inducing book reviews I've yet read. A must-read for stressed out, deadline-missing reviewers! "Being an Experiment Upon Strictly Scientific Lines" finds Gaiman becoming intimate with that legendary muse, alcohol, all for the sake of an article. It's a silly, funny sendup of the notion that a bottle of booze can inspire creative greatness. We also discover that Gaiman is rather fond of G.K. Chesterton's "Father Brown" (written for a book on fictional detectives) and just the kind of author you want writing the "Prologue" (in this case, for a collection of Mary Gentle's short stories) to your next book....

Readers are also treated to Gaiman's hard-boiled take on fairy tales — starring Little Jack Horner, the Queen and Cock Robin — in "The Case of Four and Twenty Blackbirds," wherein we find out what really happened to Humpty Dumpty. "Webs" is a very, very early science fiction story (published originally in 1977) featuring a female protagonist, Lupita, here seeking revenge on spiders for the death (and subsequent consumption) of her pet cat. The premise sounds a bit odd, but the execution is, of course, excellent. Gaiman also includes a set of song lyrics, "A Post-Mortem on Our Love," which has since been recorded by The Flash Girls (Emma Bull and The Fabulous Lorraine).

Even if you already own the more familiar stories, the collection is worth owning for its unique entries. Also, peppered throughout the volume are drawings by the likes of Charles Vess, Michael Zulli and Steve Bissette, added incentive to hunt down a copy for your shelves.

Published two years later, but very much a companion piece to the collection, is Dreamhaven's CD release Warning: Contains Language, a two CD recording of Gaiman reading several of the stories and poems from Angels & Visitations and Smoke and Mirrors. If you have never been fortunate enough to attend one of Gaiman's readings, this set is the next best thing — and if you have, it'll bring back many a pleasant memory.

With the exception of "Banshee," which is sung by The Flash Girls, each track is read by Gaiman, with musical accompaniment by illustrator Dave McKean (who also designed the booklet art) on keyboards, author Dick Jude on drums, and a violin sample by editor Clare Haythornwaite. Producing the whole affair is Adam Stemple of Boiled in Lead. If there is any quibble to be had with the CDs, it's that the framing musical bits (lead ins/fade outs) linger just a bit too long. We're here to hear Gaiman's words, not introspective musical noodling (at least, I know I am). It is but a minor annoyance, though.

Disc One contains several short pieces, opening with Gaiman's poem, "The Song of the Audience," followed by "Nicholas Was...," his decidedly dark and creepy Christmas card of precisely 100 words. "Babycakes" is made all the more chilling here by Gaiman's cold, emotionless delivery. The poem "Cold Colours" precedes "The White Road," which is a delightfully vicious twist on trickster kitsune stories. "Banshee," sweetly sung by The Flash Girls, closes out this disc. "Chivalry" and "Troll-Bridge," each nearly half an hour in the telling, fill the second disc. I can remember being introduced to Gaiman's prose via a reading of "Chivalry" at the 1992 Dragon Con. I was immediately hooked, and this rendition brought that first rush of enjoyment flooding right back.

Gaiman's voice is quite pleasant to listen to, and he knows his characters and stories well, breathing renewed life into them as he reads each. While no substitute for the real thing, Warning: Contains Language is a terrific addition to anyone's audio book collection. By the way, it's worth noting the "usual" CD disclaimer on the jacket:

Unauthorized Copying of this CD is not only forbidden, but will prey upon your conscience, spoil your sleep, destroy your complexion, and eventually will wind up turning you into the kind of person who drinks methylated spirits out of a bottle hidden in a brown paper bag, and who lives under bridges, burps noxiously, and prays day and night for release from the unsupportable burden their life has become. We thought you'd appreciate the warning.

Heh. So what're you waiting for? Go buy your own copy!

[April Gutierrez]