31 Days of Halloween: Neil Gaiman Short Stories
Anyone who knows me knows that I love Neil Gaiman. I think he writes some of the most magical and unnerving stories out there, and he’s incredibly versatile. Not only has he written one of my favorite novels, “Coraline,“ but he’s also written some of my favorite “Doctor Who” episodes, including “The Doctor’s Wife.”
The three stories below are by no means a complete list of Gaiman’s works that are perfect for the Halloween season, but they are some of my favorites. They’re quick reads, so you can get in a chilling tale between studying and writing papers.
I hope you enjoy these stories as much as I do.
“Click-Clack the Rattlebag” – from Trigger Warning – pgs. 150-154
First line: “Before you take me up to bed, will you tell me a story?”
Favorite line: “Coke is very bad for you,” said the boy. “If you put a tooth in the Coke, in the morning, it will be dissolved into nothing. That’s how bad Coke is for you, and why you must always clean your teeth, every night.”
This is a very short story, but it has everything you could want from a Neil Gaiman story. A seemingly normal situation steadily becomes a lot less normal, and as a reader, you’re left wondering where the story’s going. It’s disturbingly ambiguous. What is actually going on here? Personally, this is my favorite kind of horror. I don’t really go in for gore; I like the slow burn of more psychological type of horror, and I think this story fits into that.
I also think it’s the perfect story to share with others, should you ever find yourself in need of a last-minute spooky tale to tell.
In this story, the narrator is babysitting his girlfriend’s younger brother. The boy asks the narrator, a writer, to tell him a story before bed. As they head up through the dark house to the boy’s room, the boy shares a story about monsters called Click-Clacks, which he says are scarier than vampires. I’d have to agree. The story ends on a cliffhanger, and depending on how you read it, you get to fill in the ending, but you’re always left wondering “what if…?”
Ultimately, it’s the ambiguity that’s truly frightening.
You can listen to Gaiman reading this story at New York Public Library here.
“We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” – from Smoke and Mirrors – pgs. 198-208
First line: “Peter Pinter had never heard of Aristippus of the Cyrenaics, a lesser-known follower of Socrates who maintained that the avoidance of trouble was the highest attainable good; however, he had lived his uneventful life according to this principle.”
Favorite line: “In all respects except one (an inability to pass up a bargain, and which of us is entirely free from that?), he was a very moderate man.”
All-around nice guy Peter Pinter wants to hire a hit man after he sees his fiancée enter the stockroom at work with a handsome coworker, and Peter assumes she’s having an affair. Peter’s only character flaw seems to be his inability to pass up a bargain, and so his desire to have the young man assassinated takes an unexpected turn as Peter gets swept up in a macabre negotiation. This story is the definition of “that escalated quickly.”
To date, this is one of my favorite Gaiman stories. I remember just sitting in awe of this story the first time I read it. Gaiman’s ability to take the ordinary and mundane and make it into something else entirely is fully on display here. Who knew the love of bargains and the Yellow Pages could be so dangerous?
The narrator in this story is a treat, with a subtle humor that shines through and makes the story feel light and funny. It’s only when you stop to think about it – and notice one very interesting detail involving a horse – that you notice how dark this story is.
“Don’t Ask Jack” – from Smoke and Mirrors – pgs. 69-71
First line: “Nobody knew where the toy had come from, which great-grandparent or distant aunt had owned it before it was given to the nursery.”
Favorite line: “It sat at the bottom of the old wooden toy box, which was the same size and age as a pirate’s chest, or so the children thought.”
This extremely short story is one that I find particularly unnerving. An ordinary (and, in my humble opinion, already creepy) object is rendered in such a menacing fashion that I would like to erase all Jacks-in-the-box from existence just to be on the safe side. The unanswered questions and ambiguities make this brief bit of fiction particularly terrifying, especially if you already dislike anything even slightly resembling a doll. (It just so happens that I hate dolls.)
In this story, the relationship between a group of children and an old Jack-in-the-box in their nursery takes center stage. There isn’t much of a plot here, you just have to infer one for yourself, but this story doesn’t need a plot to creep you out.