Neil Gaiman, Murder Mysteries: Two Plays for Voices (Biting Dog Press, 2001)
'Writers are liars my dear, surely you know that by now?'
It is not true that I collect vast amounts of fiction the personal library here in our house has only some thirteen hundred volumes of fiction in it, which includes the many, many collections of fairy and folk tales we've collected over the decades. That's far less than exist in the Green Man library; only Liath can say what's there at any given time. And it represents the collecting of both of us, not just me. It is true that one whole room of the third floor is devoted to fiction. The other two rooms are nonfiction of all sorts. And the guest bedroom is in the library. Really. Truly.
What is true is that there are certain authors of whom I do tend to collect as much as possible, as I always find them well-worth reading Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, Roger Zelazny, Jane Yolen, Charles de Lint, Ursula Le Guin, Larry Niven, William Gibson, Sharyn McCrumb, and, of course, Neil Gaiman.
You will note that most of these authors write fantasy and not science fiction. Very few science fiction writers do I find worth collecting, as even the best of them, such as Larry Niven and William Gibson, are maddeningly inconsistent. As regards the other genre, Gaiman certainly writes some of the finest contemporary fantasy that one can ever hope to read. Be it the Day of The Dead script he did for the Babylon 5 series, his Neverwhere novel and miniseries, the Sandman graphic novels, or his forthcoming The Wolves in the Walls work with artist Dave McKean, everything he does is both cool and simply amazing. What I, alas, did not have in the library were his two Biting Dog Press publications, Murder Mysteries and Snow Glass Apples, as they were exceedingly hard to find. A true pity, as the marriage of text and printing design are quite amazing. Now I have nothing against books from publishers such as Harper Collins, who do the mainstream releases of Gaiman's books; Coraline in the American release is a handsome book with cool illustrations by Dave McKean, a good, clean layout, and a nice compact size. (The promo poster of McKean's artwork for Coraline was awesome. It's now hanging in the library.) But publications from what can be called "boutique presses" are often much more interesting as works of art.
Now, let's note that these days it seems like everyone's doing something that qualifies as a "boutique press" production. For example, Charles de Lint does his annual chapbook around the Winter Solstice, and he has had any number of novels and collections published on Subterranean Press. (A Handful of Coppers, a collection of his early briefer pieces, is the latest from that press.) Even we here at Green Man have not one, but two chapbooks in the works as I write this review Emma Bull's prequel to her War for the Oaks novel, "A Bird That Whistles," and Jennifer Stevenson's "Solstice" story. Small presses are often the best place to find the really cool publications! What we get as readers are exceptionally well-crafted books containing material that the larger publishers often pass up on for various reasons too arcane for us mere readers to grasp. That small press publications are often pricey is true no one ever said that good things came cheaply!
(A side commentary of sorts ... I routinely receive kvetching about the cost of the Cats Laughing CDs that Green Man sells. I note every time that no one has to buy them. If you don't know what these CDs are, go read Maria Nutick's review here.)
Murder Mysteries and Snow Glass Apples came to Green Man for review from Dave Dinsmore at Biting Dog Press, who in a conversation we had earlier this year explains the relationship between Biting Dog and Gaiman this way: "Biting Dog Press is the handmade book line. The hand made books were created for artistic reasons more than anything else; we (George and myself) felt that we could accomplish great things with the handmade paper and the binding combined with the engravings that George does. The problem that we had was getting a great story to put into print. It so happened that I was reading Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman at the time and I mentioned to George that I found the images the story brought forth intriguing. Shortly after, I bought a copy of Smoke and Mirrors by Gaiman and read the stories 'Murder Mysteries' and 'Chivalry,' which I immediately fell in love with. After a quick phone call to George we agreed to ask Neil for a story to publish. I gathered some artwork, and some previously published handmade books that George had done under another imprint, and sent them off blindly to Neil's agent. Within a few weeks I received a call at home from Neil himself praising the work, and he offered to give us 'Murder Mysteries: A Play For Voices,' and as a bonus he wanted us to do his Christmas card of sorts by printing his poem 'A Writer's Prayer.'"
A knock on the mail room door here at the Green Man offices meant the Fedex delivery person needed something signed for. I signed as I looking at the piles of new books for review, including all three volumes of the British publication of The Histories of Middle-earth, and eagerly opened the package ... I drooled (figuratively, obviously, as getting these books soiled was not a good idea), and then I went up to my favorite chair in the Library to read Snow Glass Apples first. (No particular reason why, it just happened.) This is an adult and somewhat twisted in the manner that only Gaiman seems capable of retelling of Snow White that has published in Smoke and Mirrors, and in Datlow and Windling's The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror, Volume 8. In the form of Two Plays for Voices, the audio version of these two plays garnered this astute comment from Asher Black when he reviewed it for us: 'It's by Neil Gaiman. it was originally produced by the Sci-Fi Channel and presented by Seeing Ear Theatre and Brian Smith; and it's on a pair of CDs from Harper Audio. You know going in, it's got to be good.' (Asher's now off running his own literary 'zine, Mytholog.) And so it is, but what makes the Biting Dog Press edition better as a reading experience for me than when I first read "Snow Glass Apples" in Smoke and Mirrors? Ahhh, let's call it ambience. Huh? Ambience in a book? Yep.
I love a well-crafted book, as it enhances the reading experience in a rather significant manner. That does not mean that I will not read a novel in its raw, unproofed form as an "advance uncorrected proof." Right now, I'm having a hell-of-a-good-time reading the advance uncorrected proof of Charles de Lint's new Newford novel, Spirits in the Wires (see the review by Grey Walker, our excellent Book Review Editor). I think this is the seventh or eighth of de Lint's works I've read this way. However, 'tis fair to say that design certainly does to a great extent enhance my reading pleasure. No, good design won't make a shitty book good, but bad design can ruin a good book i.e., I haven't read Michael Ende's The Neverending Story because the only edition I've located has green and red type! Horrors! Yes, I like my type black and my pages white; call me a traditionalist, but you try reading white type on black paper! I will; however, admit that it works in Snow Glass Apples to have some of the type in red. But more on that later.
First a few words about these tales....
Ever heard Suzanne Vega's "The Queen & the Soldier"? (I was lucky enough to hear her do it live.) In the sparse lyrics of the song "The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye / She said, 'You won't understand, and you may as well not try'" Vega chillingly tells the story of a very young Queen and the soon-to-be very dead soldier who questions her authority. Gaiman, in the form of a play, uses the same level of sparse language to tell the tale of Snow White in terms that are clearly, as noted folklorist Jack Zipes puts it in his introduction, "about the contemporary world despite the fairy-tale setting." If you've read anything ''all by Gaiman, you've got a pretty good idea what that means in terms of this play. Yes, play, even though the version in Smoke and Mirrors is a conventional short story! And even odder is that Snow Glass Apples in that collection is written "Snow, Glass, Apples." I know. Picky, picky, but I was curious, so I asked David, and this is what he said: "That was a design preference for the cover and inside pages, George decided that we would dispense with the comma all thru the book and in any mention. I still use the comma when quoting, or talking about it via e-mail ... never thought it would come up though, very perceptive on your part."
The other publication, Murder Mysteries, can be explained this way: In this mystery noir set in heaven's own City of Angels just before the fall from grace, the first crime has been committed. It is an awful one: murders most horrific in a place where the concept of horror does not yet exist. While the angelic hosts labor to create the world and its workings, one of their number is mysteriously slain by one of their own. Raguel, Angel of Vengeance, is ordered by Lucifer to discover both motive and murderer in this holy dominion that had so recently known no sin in any manner what-so-ever. To say any more would be to spoil this wonderful tale.
(Jack just stepped into my Green Man office to share a bit of news about the folks that Spike had to remove from the Pub downstairs. Something about asking the Neverending Session to play "The Unicorn Song." While he was here, he noticed these two pubs sitting on my desk, so he picked them up and fell in love with them. He wanted you to know that any Gaiman fan, including him, would give an organ or two to own these books. I told him to be careful saying things like that around this old building, where the boundaries between the mundane and the magic are far too thin. He noted he didn't say whose organs he'd give. Bad lad been hanging out in the Pub with that surgeon chap from Whitechapel a little too often for his own good.)
David, in a later conversation, goes on to explain the different versions: "Both stories were originally written by Neil for various anthologies (actually, 'Snow, Glass, Apples' may have been done for Dreamhaven). Neil had just finished writing the plays for Sci Fi Channel's Seeing Ear Theater and had finished recording 'Murder Mysteries' with Brian Dennehy when we talked, and he thought it would be a great way to give us something original and it was also a great way to approach the story from a different direction. He sent me the script and I loved it. He had taken the story and added all the sounds and feelings that you hear in the play and it just made it that much better to read. I guess he leads you by the hand a little more that way, but he leaves nothing to chance, every nuance is contained in the written words that he put down on paper. George Walker was also really excited when he read the play; he felt that the way it was presented it gave him some great ideas for the engravings. Judging by the finished engravings, Neil must have put some kind of ideas in George's head. Oh, and to answer your question, no, there is no difference in the actual stories, but I think the flavor changed entirely when Neil re-wrote it as a play for voices."
He's right it feels better either as an audio play or as a reading script more signal, less noise.
(That, dear reader, is a Cats Laughing reference and an Eddi and the Fey reference, too. Listen to the Cats Laughing CDs, and read Emma Bull's War for the Oaks to fully appreciate it. There's even a connection between Emma and Neil.)
Which brings me all the way back to the matter of ambience in a book. First, please note that I will enjoy reading Spirits in the Wires even more when I read it in its final form, as the artwork and other design features will simply enhance a truly great text. Books are for me an aspect of civilization that shows that we are capable of truly great craft even in this age of increasing merde being passed off as excellence. Biting Dog Press is, if these two titles are a fair indication of what they publish, doing their part to reverse the tide of poorly made books. (Unfortunately, they can't do anything to reverse the tide of shitty CDs we get here. But that's a tale for another time. One with bloody pints of Dragon's Breath Stout to wash down the gory details. ) The joy of these works starts with their slipcases not shoddy slipcases as you so often see. You know that sort: they fall apart almost before you get them home. Cheap cardboard that looks like it's already going bad. Both slipcases here are black (surprise it is a Gaiman trait) with Murder Mysteries featuring a skeleton with wings, who I assume is an angel, and the all black Snow Glass Apples having a stylized apple with two small skulls where the seeds should be and the name of the tale on it.
Now come the publications themselves. The cover art is, I think, more successful on Snow Glass Apples, as it duplicates the tasteful all-black slipcase. Murder Mysteries has instead a white binding with a smallish egg-shaped piece of art containing the skeleton angel and the title over said angel. Not bad per se, just not as good as the other pub. Both books were, not surprisingly, printed on and I quote the colophon from Snow Glass Apples now: "archival paper using wood engraving, letterpress, and lithographic techniques. The engravings were impressed directly onto handmade Japanese paper by the artist from the original end grain wood blocks." Impressed yet? If not, you should be. I've seen a lot of nice books, but these are far beyond simply being books; they are works of art. Just consider these words for proof of that status: "The typeface used for the text is Garamond, the headings are set in Scrumbled. The binding is hand sewn and cased in cloth covered boards." Oh, Sweet Mab. These might well be the work of some mad fey member of the Summer Court. I think both of them are long since unavailable, but I suspect on you might be able to find them on abebooks.com. Let me look there now. You can get Snow Glass Apples as of this date (early June 2003) for a mere $130, but Murder Mysteries will set you back a cool $650. Expensive? Yes. Worth every penny of that price? If you're a Gaiman collector, I'd say yes. Hell, if you love fine books crafted with a sense of pride and intelligence, you'll want to hold these in your hands. This civilization would be a much better place if everyone took as much pride in their work as the folks at Biting Dog Press obviously do.
Let's down a pint of Dragon's Breath Stout to them. May they prosper for a long, long time to come so that they can continue to publish such cool books.