The brain of Neil Gaiman pops with ideas, probably more than can fit into its owner’s impressively media-hopping output of novels and graphic novels, short stories, TV and movie scripts and more. Some of the overflow can be found in The View from the Cheap Seats, a collection of Gaiman’s non-fiction ranging from an introduction to the novel Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell to various articles, speeches and stray thoughts.
Former journalist Gaiman’s fantasy writing is not of the traditional swords-and-elf-maidens kind. Gaiman marries an unadorned style with audacious and humorous twists on fairy tales and myths. His settings are as likely to be contemporary London or the American Midwest and they are as likely to be peopled by stockbrokers as by stars, gods or ghosts.
The attractively short essays in this collection “a love letter to books [and] to people” are mostly about the literature Gaiman admires and that shaped him, particularly science fiction, comics and fantasy. It also veers off into movies and TV, offering up his thoughts on The Bride of Frankenstein and Dr Who and music (Lou Reed, Tori Amos and Gaiman’s wife Amanda Palmer).
There’s an account of the young Gaiman’s first encounter with C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books, others of his friendships with beststelling writers Stephen King, Terry Pratchett and Ray Bradbury, as well as reflections on giants of the comics world Jack Kirby and Will Eisner.
Skipping between high, low and pop culture Gaiman waxes enthusiastic about authors who, though widely read, don’t get the sort of mainstream respect enjoyed by their brethren whose output has come to be known as “literary fiction”.
For fans this book is an insight into the master’s inspirations. For readers ready to range across genres Gaiman serves as a brilliant guide to obscure works such as Lud-in-the-Mist, written in 1926 by Hope Mirrlees or to better-known writing by Susanna Clarke, Ray Bradbury, C.K. Chesterton, Edgar Allen Poe, Douglas Adams and others. One of the most compelling pieces is about a strange painting in London’s Tate gallery titled The Fairy Feller’s Master Stroke. Gaiman, sharing a fascination with the work began in his youth, delves into the extraordinary life story of the artist, Richard Dadd.
Some chapters feel like an answer to fans and would-be emulators who ask: “Where do you get your ideas?” to which Gaiman strives to give helpful answers which are the least interesting parts of the book, despite Gaiman’s enthusiasm.
A great collection for dipping into, particularly for fans and anyone looking to widen their fantasy/sci-fi/comics reading list. But if you want Gaiman at his best start with his fiction. Novels such as American Gods and Stardust easily stand beside the best work of the writers he reveres in The View From the Cheap Seats.