Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe, A Walking Tour of the Shambles (Little Walks for Sightseers #16) (American Fantasy Press, 2002; reprinted 2009)
 

There are times when a trifle is more satisfying than a full meal. If this weren't the case, Godiva wouldn't have a store in every upscale mall in the country. And so it is with A Walking Tour of the Shambles, a slight volume that nevertheless manages to pack more entertainment into its mere 57 pages than most full-length novels cram into their hundreds.

Purporting to be a travel guide to a little-visited area of Chicago, A Walking Tour runs down the historical attractions, local color and unique architecture of "The Shambles," offering droll detail and handy information (in many cases, this can be summed up as "run, and don't look back") that the adventuresome tourist will find useful. Why is the entrance to the Saunders Park Petting Zoo shaped like the open mouth of a python? What strange noise does the legendary Meat Clock make at regular intervals? When is it safe to trust one of the ghosts haunting the subterranean Chinese Burial Temple? (Answer: When he's holding one of the Little Walks guidebooks, of course.)

All of these questions and more are answered in rib-tickling fashion, as Gaiman and Wolfe take turns riffing on their basic theme. Their mythical Shambles is a little slice of Arkham slammed down in the center of Chicago, seasoned with true Chicago flavor and then allowed to marinate in the juices of those two gentlemen's extraordinary imaginations. What is most clear, though, is that Gaiman and Wolfe are having scads of fun. They riff on one another's creations outrageously, each upping the ante as often as they can. Think Eden Flamm's Blind House is demented? Wait until you check out the House of Clocks (which, of course, is not quite so absurd as Saunders Park, which in turn has nothing on Molly Graw's, which, well, you get the idea).

The book's illustrations, done by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier, provide suitably gleeful accompaniment to the macabre text. Even better is the cover illustration by the legendary Gahan Wilson, which depicts the authors mid-Shambles, as crocodiles, angry clocks and characters out of Lewis Carroll menace them.

The volume rounds out with a selection of "recipes" from noted Shambles eating establishment Molly Graw's, a short FAQ, and a bibliography. All are, of course, completely fictional (as is The Shambles itself, just in case you were wondering, and you know you were, just a little bit), and completely hilarious. I highly recommend the recipe for the Arctic horseradish (rumored to have finished several expeditions), though you might want to warn the local branch of the EPA before you try putting it into practice. Trust me, it's that sort of book.

While the relative hefty price ($15.00) might scare some off from such a slender volume, the pleasure derived from reading it makes the book well worth the price. If you can find it, get it. If you can't, beat the bushes and bribe your local bookseller until you can.

Under no circumstances should you even think of setting foot in the Shambles without this invaluable resource. Neither the management nor the authors will be responsible for what happens if you do.

[Richard Dansky]

You can order Shambles directly from the publisher!