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Posts Tagged ‘Neil Gaiman’

20 JULY, 2015

The Most Beautiful Illustrations from 200 Years of Brothers Grimm Fairy Tales

By:

Maurice Sendak, Lisbeth Zwerger, Edward Gorey, David Hockney, Wanda Gág, Shaun Tan, and more.

In his timeless meditation on fantasy and the psychology of fairy tales, J.R.R. Tolkien asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children.” The sentiment has since been echoed by generations of beloved storytellers: “Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White told The Paris Review. “You have to write up, not down.” Neil Gaiman argued that protecting children from the dark does them a grave disservice. “I don’t write for children,” Maurice Sendak told Stephen Colbert in his final interview. “I write — and somebody says, ‘That’s for children!’”

Perhaps more than anything else, this respect for children’s inherent intelligence and their ability to sit with difficult emotions is what makes the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm so enduringly enchanting. In their original conception, they broke with convention in other ways as well — rather than moralistic or didactic, they were beautifully blunt and unaffected, celebratory of poetry’s ennobling effect on the spirit. The brothers wrote in the preface to the first edition in 1812 that the storytelling between the covers was intended “to give pleasure to anyone who could take pleasure in it.”

Their beloved stories have pleasured the popular imagination for two centuries and have inspired generations of artists to continually reinterpret and reimagine them. Gathered here — after similar collections of the world’s most beautiful illustrations for Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit — are the finest and most culturally notable such Grimm reimaginings of which I’m aware.

EDWARD GOREY (1972–1973)

In the early 1970s, Edward Gorey — creator of grim alphabets, quirky children’s books, naughty treats for grown-ups, and little-known vintage covers for literary classics — brought his aesthetic of the irreverent fancy to Little Red Riding Hood and Rumpelstiltskin. The two beloved Grimm tales, along with the Cornish folk classic Jack the Giant-Killer, charmingly retold by James Donnelly and illustrated by Gorey, were eventually collected by Pomegranate in the 2010 gem Three Classic Children’s Stories (public library).

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

Little Red Riding Hood

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

Rumpelstiltskin

See more here.

MAURICE SENDAK (1973)

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the tales in 1973, exactly a decade after Where the Wild Things Are transformed Maurice Sendak from an insecure young artist into a household name, FSG invited the 45-year-old artist to illustrate a translation of the Grimm classics by Pulitzer-winning novelist Lore Segal. Sendak had first envisioned the project in 1962, just as he was completing Where the Wild Things Are, but it had taken him a decade to begin drawing. He collaborated with Segal on choosing 27 of the 210 tales for this special edition, which was originally released as a glorious two-volume boxed set and was reprinted thirty years later in the single volume The Juniper Tree: And Other Tales from Grimm (public library).

That Sendak should gravitate to such a project is rather unsurprising. His strong opinions on allowing children to experience the darker elements of life through storytelling were rooted in an early admiration for the Brothers Grimm, who remained an influence throughout his career. He was also not only a lifelong reader, writer, and dedicated lover of books, but also a public champion of literature through his magnificent series of posters celebrating libraries and reading.

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

The Goblins

Bearskin

The Goblins

To equip his imagination with maximally appropriate raw material, Sendak even sailed to Europe before commencing work on the project, hoping to drink in the native landscapes and architecture amid which the Brothers Grimm situated their stories. Aware of the artist’s chronic poor health, legendary children’s book patron saint Ursula Nordstrom — Sendak’s editor and his greatest champion — beseeched him in a lovingly scolding letter right before he departed: “For heaven’s sake take care of yourself on this trip.”

The Twelve Huntsmen

The Golden Bird

Many-Fur

The Devil and the Three Golden Hairs

Ferdinand Faithful and Ferdinand Unfaithful

The Goblins

See more here.

LISBETH ZWERGER (2012)

Austrian artist Lisbeth Zwerger is among the most celebrated children’s book illustrators of our time. She has lent her immeasurable talent to such classics as Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant in 1984, L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in 1996, and Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1999. Zwerger brings her singular vision to eleven of the Grimm stories in the absolutely gorgeous volume Tales from the Brothers Grimm: Selected and Illustrated by Lisbeth Zwerger (public library), published in 2012 and translated by Anthea Bell.

Zwerger’s distinctive pictorial language resonates deeply with the storytelling sensibility of the Brothers Grimm — there is a shared mastery of the interplay between darkness and light, subtlety and drama; a common quietude that bellows as the story breaches the surface of awareness and penetrates the psyche. There is something particularly wonderful about the juxtaposition of the tales’ unabashed strangeness, which lends itself more readily to stark black-and-white illustrations and literal visual narration, and Zwerger’s soft watercolors, full of delicate abstraction. What emerges is a dialogue — an embrace, even — between the sharp outer edges of the stories and their interior sensitivity, bespeaking their dimensional enchantment.

The Frog King or Iron Henry

The Brave Little Taylor

The Children of Hamelin

Hans My Hedgehog

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Wolf and the Seven Young Kids

The Bremen Town Musicians

Briar Rose

The Poor Miller's Boy and the Little Cat

See more here.

WANDA GÁG (1936)

Although the 1936 illustrations for the Grimm tales by Wanda Gág are not necessarily the most visually captivating by contemporary standards, they are perhaps the most culturally significant for a number of reasons. Gág was a pioneering artist, author, printmaker, translator, and entrepreneur, who began her life in poverty as an incredibly precocious child. By the time she was eleven, she was running a successful business selling her art to feed her seven siblings after their father’s death. By her early twenties, she was one of only twelve young artists in the entire United States to receive a scholarship to New York’s legendary Art Students League, at the time the country’s most important art school. She was soon making a living as a successful commercial artist, supporting herself by illustrating fashion magazines and painting lampshades, and even became a partner in a toy company. She would go on to be a major influence for such storytelling legends as Maurice Sendak.

By the time she turned to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, a year after she created the world’s first feminist children’s book, Gág was already an icon in her own right. But if being a financially independent young woman and female entrepreneur in the early 20th century wasn’t already daring enough, in 1923 Gág — who had just been given a one-woman exhibition by the New York Public Library, more than twenty years before Georgia O’Keeffe’s MoMA retrospective prompted the press to hail her as “America’s first female artist” — decided to give up commercial illustration and try making a living solely by her art. She moved to an abandoned farm in Connecticut and began to paint for her own pleasure, eventually turning to children’s storytelling. Her 1928 book Millions of Cats, which predated the internet’s favorite meme by many decades and earned Gág the prestigious Newbery Honor and Lewis Carroll Shelf Award, is the oldest American picture-book still in print and has been translated into multiple languages, including Braille.

But it was Gág’s retelling of that proto-feminist folktale, which she had learned from her Austro-Hungarian grandmother, that first sparked her interest in translating and reimagining folktales for children. The following year, she set out to translate and illustrate Tales from Grimm (public library) — a remarkable fusion of Gág’s own peasant heritage and her masterful skills as a fine artist.

Hansel and Gretel

Hansel and Gretel

In the introduction, Gág writes of her approach to these familiar stories, or Märchen, which she tells as her grandmother had told them to her over and over:

The magic of Märchen is among my earliest recollections. The dictionary definitions — tale, fable, legend — are all inadequate when I think of my little German Märchenbuch and what it held for me. Often, usually at twilight, some grown-up would say, “Sit down, Wanda-chen, and I’ll read you a Märchen.” Then, as I settled down in my rocker, ready to abandon myself with the utmost credulity to whatever I might hear, everything was changed, exalted. A tingling, anything-may-happen feeling flowed over me, and I had the sensation of being about to bite into a big juicy pear…

Cinderella

Cinderella

Doctor Know-It-All

Six Servants

The Three Brothers

Clever Elsie

See more, including Gág’s remarkably dedicated process, here.

SHAUN TAN (2012)

Shortly after the release of Philip Pullman’s retelling of the Grimm classics, which was published unillustrated in the UK and the US, a publisher approached Australian artist and author Shaun Tan — creator of such modern masterpieces as The Lost Thing and The Arrival — about creating a cover and possibly some internal artwork for a German edition of Pullman’s fifty tales.

Tan was at first reluctant — he had toyed with the idea of illustrating fairy tales over the years and had invariably ended up convinced that these highly abstract masterworks of storytelling, abloom at the intersection of the weird and the whimsical, didn’t lend themselves to representational imagery. In fact, Pullman himself notes this in the introduction, remarking on the flatness of the Grimms’ characters and the two-dimensional, cardboard-cutout-like illustrations of the early editions, which served as mere decoration and did little to enhance the storytelling experience.

But the challenge is precisely what captivated Tan. He found himself suddenly transported to his own childhood — a time when he was obsessed not with painting and drawing but with the imaginative materiality of sculpture. His long-lost love for clay, papier mache, and soapstone was reawakened and magically fused with his longtime interest in Inuit and Aztec folk art.

The result of this testament to the combinatorial nature of creativity is Grimms Märchen (public library) — a glorious German edition of Pullman’s retelling, illustrated in Tan’s breathtaking visual vignettes. Sometimes haunting, sometimes whimsical, always deeply dreamlike, these miniature handcrafted sculptures made of paper, clay, sand, and wax give the Grimm classics a new dimension of transcendent mesmerism.

Rapunzel

The Fisherman's Wife

The Golden Bird

Hansel and Gretel

The Story of One Who Set Out to Study Fear

Cat and Mouse in a House

The Frog King

See more here.

DAVID HOCKNEY (1970)

In 1970, the British Royal Academy of Arts published Six Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm with Illustrations by David Hockney (public library). Tucked between the beautiful red fabric-bound covers are the celebrated contemporary artist and pop art icon’s weird and wonderful drawings for The Little Sea Hare, Fundevogel, Rapunzel, The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear, Old Rinkrank, and Rumpelstilzchen.

What makes Hockney’s visual interpretation especially enchanting is that while traditional fairy tale images tend to rely on beauty and color to create magic and contrast the beautiful and the ugly to distinguish between good and evil, even the princesses in his black-and-white illustrations are unassuming, ugly even; where ornate, detailed imagery would ordinarily fill the traditional visual vignette, Hockney’s ample use of negative space invites the imagination to roam freely. Perhaps above all, his haunting, scary, architectural illustrations serve as a testament to J.R.R. Tolkien’s assertion that, even if they might appeal to the young, fairy tales are not written “for children.”

'The boy hidden in an egg' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The boy hidden in a fish' (The Little Sea Hare)

'The cook' (Fundevogel)

'The older Rapunzel' (Rapunzel)

'A black cat leaping' (The Boy Who Left Home to Learn Fear)

'Riding around on a cooking spoon' (Rumpelstilzchen)

See more here.

ANDREA DEZSÖ (2014)

What most of us know as the Grimm fairy tales today are actually the tales of the seventh and final edition the brothers published in 1857 — a version dramatically different from the one Jacob and Wilhelm first penned forty-six years earlier, when both were still in their twenties. The prominent Grimm scholar and translator Jack Zipes argues that the original 1812 edition is “just as important, if not more important than the final seventh edition of 1857, especially if one wants to grasp the original intentions of the Grimms and the overall significance of their accomplishments.”

Zippes brings that seminal first edition to life in The Original Folk and Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm: The Complete First Edition (public library), featuring breathtaking illustrations by Romanian-born artist Andrea Dezsö. Her delicate ink-drawing vignettes — intended to invoke the magical cut-paper sculptures for which Dezsö is known — illuminate scenes from the Grimms’ tales through an extraordinary interplay of darkness and light, both of color and of concept.

'The Frog King, or Iron Henry'

'The Three Sisters'

'The Wild Man'

'Hans My Hedgehog'

'The Devil in the Green Coat'

'Herr Fix-It-Up'

'Okerlo'

See more, including my interview with Dezsö, here.

SYBILLE SCHENKER (2014)

In her exquisite take on Little Red Riding Hood (public library), German illustrator and graphic designer Sybille Schenker blends the beauty of delicate papercraft with the Grimms’ original starkness of sensibility to produce something unusual and utterly beguiling — something partway between Kevin Stanton’s die-cut illustrations for Romeo and Juliet and the East-West masterpiece I Saw a Peacock with a Fiery Tail, yet something wholly original.

Ethereal layers of laser-cut and die-cut paper overlay Schenker’s graphic silhouette illustrations, making tangible the beloved story’s inherent duality of darkness and light from which its enduring enchantment springs.

See more here.

LORENZO MATTOTTI (2014)

Neil Gaiman thinks a great deal, and with great insight, about what makes stories last. It is hardly surprising, then, that the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm would bewitch his imagination both as a storyteller and as a philosopher of storytelling. More than a decade after the publication of his widely beloved book Coraline, Gaiman brings this spirit of dark delight to his magnificent adaptation of the Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library).

Accompanying Gaiman’s beautiful words, which speak to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, are befittingly beautiful illustrations by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti — the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

See more, including Gaiman in conversation with Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly on what makes fairy tales endure, here.

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16 JUNE, 2015

Neil Gaiman on How Stories Last

By:

“Stories … are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.”

Stories have shapes, as Vonnegut believed, and they in turn give shape to our lives. But how do stories like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm or Alice in Wonderland continue to enchant the popular imagination generation after generation — what is it that makes certain stories last?

That’s what the wise and wonderful Neil Gaiman explores in a fantastic lecture two and a half years in the making, part of the Long Now Foundation’s nourishing and necessary seminars on long-term thinking.

Nearly half a century after French molecular biologist Jacques Monod proposed what he called the “abstract kingdom” — a conceptual parallel to the biosphere, populated by ideas that propagate like organisms do in the natural world — and after Richard Dawkins built upon this concept to coin the word “meme,” Gaiman suggests stories are a life-form obeying the same rules of genesis, reproduction, and propagation that organic matter does.

Please enjoy, with transcribed highlights below.

Considering the scientific definition of life as a process that “includes the capacity for growth, reproduction, functional activity, and continual change preceding death,” Gaiman argues that stories are alive — that they can, and do, outlive even the world’s oldest living trees by millennia:

Do stories grow? Pretty obviously — anybody who has ever heard a joke being passed on from one person to another knows that they can grow, they can change. Can stories reproduce? Well, yes. Not spontaneously, obviously — they tend to need people as vectors. We are the media in which they reproduce; we are their petri dishes… Stories grow, sometimes they shrink. And they reproduce — they inspire other stories. And, of course, if they do not change, stories die.

On story being the original and deepest creative act:

Pictures, I think, may have been a way of transmitting stories. The drawings on cave walls that we assume are acts of worship or of sympathetic magic, intended to bring hunters luck and good kills. I keep wondering if, actually, they’re just ways of telling stories: “We came over that bridge and we saw a herd of wooly bisons.” And I wonder that because people tell stories — it’s an enormous part of what makes us human.

We will do an awful lot for stories — we will endure an awful lot for stories. And stories, in their turn — like some kind of symbiote — help us endure and make sense of our lives.

A lot of stories do appear to begin as intrinsic to religions and belief systems — a lot of the ones we have have gods or goddesses in them; they teach us how the world exists; they teach us the rules of living in the world. But they also have to come in an attractive enough package that we take pleasure from them and we want to help them propagate.

Gaiman illustrates this with the most breath-stopping testament to what we endure for stories as they in turn help us endure, by way of his 97-year-old cousin Helen, a Polish Holocaust survivor:

A few years ago, she started telling me this story of how, in the ghetto, they were not allowed books. If you had a book … the Nazis could put a gun to your head and pull the trigger — books were forbidden. And she used to teach under the pretense of having a sewing class… a class of about twenty little girls, and they would come in for about an hour a day, and she would teach them maths, she’d teach them Polish, she’d teach them grammar…

One day, somebody slipped her a Polish translation of Margaret Mitchell’s novel Gone with the Wind. And Helen stayed up — she blacked out her window so she could stay up an extra hour, she read a chapter of Gone with the Wind. And when the girls came in the next day, instead of teaching them, she told them what happened in the book.

And each night, she’d stay up; and each day, she’d tell them the story.

And I said, “Why? Why would you risk death — for a story?”

And she said, “Because for an hour every day, those girls weren’t in the ghetto — they were in the American South; they were having adventures; they got away.

I think four out of those twenty girls survived the war. And she told me how, when she was an old woman, she found one of them, who was also an old woman. And they got together and called each other by names from Gone with the Wind

We [writers] decry too easily what we do, as being kind of trivial — the creation of stories as being a trivial thing. But the magic of escapist fiction … is that it can actually offer you a genuine escape from a bad place and, in the process of escaping, it can furnish you with armor, with knowledge, with weapons, with tools you can take back into your life to help make it better… It’s a real escape — and when you come back, you come back better-armed than when you left.

Helen’s story is a true story, and this is what we learn from it — that stories are worth risking your life for; they’re worth dying for. Written stories and oral stories both offer escape — escape from somewhere, escape to somewhere.

Remarking on how Helen’s story changed him, he adds:

Stories should change you — good stories should change you.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'The Big Green Book' by Robert Graves. Click image for more.

On how Douglas Adams predicted ebooks in the early 1990s and in the same prophetic breath made a confident case for the perseverance of physical books (which I too, being no Adams but as staunch a believer in the tenacity of the printed page, contemplated on a recent episode of WNYC’s Note to Self):

Douglas Adams … understood media, understood change. He essentially described the first ebooks long before most commuter trains were filled with people reading on them. And he also perceived why, even though most commuter trains are a hundred percent people with ebooks, there will always be physical books and a healthy market for physical books — because, Douglas told me, “books are sharks.”

[…]

There were sharks back when there were dinosaurs… And now, there are sharks. And the reason that there are still sharks — hundreds of millions of years after the first sharks turned up — is that nothing has turned up that is better at being a shark than a shark is.

Ebooks are absolutely fantastic at being several books and a newspaper; they’re really good portable bookshelves, that’s why they’re great on trains. But books are much better at being books…

I can guarantee that copy of the first Sandman omnibus still works.

But stories aren’t books — books are just one of the many storage mechanisms in which stories can be kept. And, obviously, people are one of the other storage mechanisms.

Illustration by Jim Stoten from 'Mr. Tweed's Good Deeds.' Click image for details.

On how books, as much as they connect us to our all humanity, connect us to all humanity:

As individuals, we are cut off from humanity; as individuals, we are naked — we do not even know which plants will kill us. Without the mass of human knowledge accumulated over millennia to buoy us up, we are in big trouble; with it, we are warm, fed, we have popcorn, we are sitting in comfortable seats, and we are capable of arguing with each other about really stupid things on the internet.

Gaiman tells the story of how, in 1984, the Department of Energy hired the Hungarian-born American polymath Thomas Sebeok to devise a method of warning future generations not to mine or drill at repositories of nuclear waste, which have a half-life of 10,000 years — a method that would transmit information for at least as long:

Tom Sebeok concluded you couldn’t actually create a story that would last 10,000 years; you could only create a story that would last for three generations — for ourselves, for our children, and for their children.

But what we can do, I think, is try and create stories that are interesting enough and important enough that our grandchildren might want to tell those stories to their grandchildren — because that’s the purpose of stories, that’s what they’re for: They make live worth living and, sometimes, they keep us alive.

On how the internet is changing storytelling:

A lot more writing is happening because of the internet, and I think that bit is great — I just love the fact that more people are writing.

I think the biggest problem that we have … is that we have gone from a scarcity-based information economy to a glut information economy. In the old days, finding the thing that you needed was like finding the flower in the desert — you’d have to go out into the desert and find the flower. And now, it’s like finding the flower in the jungle — or worse, finding the flower in the flower gardens.

[…]

The task becomes finding the good stuff, for whatever your definition of “good stuff” is — and your definition of “good stuff” might be some horribly specialized form of Harry Potter slash.

On humanity’s long history of thinking with animals and why so many lasting stories feature animal characters:

Animals in fiction … are your first attempt to put your head into the “other” and to experience the other, the idea of another…

The most important thing that I think fiction does [is that] it lets us look out through other eyes … but it also gives us empathy. The act of looking out through other eyes tells us something huge and important, which is that other people exist.

[…]

One of the things that fiction can give us is just the realization that behind every pair of eyes, there’s somebody like us. And, perhaps, looking out through animal eyes, there’s somebody like us; looking out through alien eyes, there’s somebody like us.

Art by Maira Kalman from 'The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs.' Click image for more.

On his ultimate point about the symbiotic relationship between human beings and stories, both compliant with the same evolutionary laws of life:

You can just view people as this peculiar byproduct that stories use to breed. Really, it’s the stories that are the life-form — they are older than us, they are smarter than us, they keep going. But they need human beings to reproduce, much as we need food… we need things to keep ourselves alive. Maybe stories really are like viruses… Functionally, they are symbiotic — they give and give back…

The reason why story is so important to us is because it’s actually this thing that we have been using since the dawn of humanity to become more than just one person… Stories are ways that we communicate important things, but … stories maybe really are genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance.

Complement with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, his reimagining of Hansel and Gretel, his superb commencement address on the creative life, his advice to aspiring writers, and his eight rules of writing, then join me in supporting the Long Now Foundation’s vital and vitalizing work.

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28 OCTOBER, 2014

Neil Gaiman Reimagines Hansel & Gretel, with Gorgeous Black-and-White Illustrations by Italian Graphic Artist Lorenzo Mattotti

By:

“If you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up.”

J.R.R. Tolkien memorably asserted that there is no such thing as writing “for children” and Maurice Sendak similarly scoffed that we shouldn’t shield young minds from the dark. It’s a sentiment that Neil Gaiman — one of the most enchanting and prolific writers of our time, a champion of the creative life, underappreciated artist, disciplined writer, and sage of literature — not only shares, in contemplating but also enacts beautifully in his work. More than a decade after his bewitching and widely beloved Coraline, Gaiman returns with another terrific embodiment of this ethos — his adaptation of the Brothers Grimm classic Hansel & Gretel (public library | IndieBound), illustrated by Italian graphic artist Lorenzo Mattotti, the talent behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven.

The fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm have attracted a wealth of reimaginings over their long history, including interpretations as wide-ranging as those by David Hockney in 1970, Edward Gorey in 1973, and Philip Pullman in 2012. But Gaiman’s is decidedly singular — a mesmerizing rolling cadence of language propelling a story that speaks to the part of the soul that revels in darkness but is immutably drawn to the light, that listens for the peculiar crescendo where the song of the dream becomes indistinguishable from the scream of the nightmare.

With stark subtlety, Mattotti’s haunting visual interpretation amplifies the atmosphere that Gaiman so elegantly evokes.

In this wonderful short video, Gaiman discusses what makes fairy tales endure with legendary graphic storyteller Art Spiegelman and longtime New Yorker art director Françoise Mouly:

I think if you are protected from dark things then you have no protection of, knowledge of, or understanding of dark things when they show up. I think it is really important to show dark things to kids — and, in the showing, to also show that dark things can be beaten, that you have power. Tell them you can fight back, tell them you can win. Because you can — but you have to know that.

And for me, the thing that is so big and so important about the darkness is [that] it’s like in an inoculation… You are giving somebody darkness in a form that is not overwhelming — it’s understandable, they can envelop it, they can take it into themselves, they can cope with it.

And, it’s okay, it’s safe to tell you that story — as long as you tell them that you can be smart, and you can be brave, and you can be tricky, and you can be plucky, and you can keep going.

Hansel & Gretel is wholly enthralling from cover to cover. It is also available as a deluxe edition — a lavish large-format volume with a die-cut cover, and dog knows die-cut treats are impossible to resist.

Complement it with Gaiman on why scary stories appeal to us, Tolkien on the psychology of fairy tales, and the best illustrations of the Brothers Grimm tales. For more of Mattotti’s enchanting art, see his visual interpretation of Edgar Allan Poe.

Illustrations courtesy of Toon Books / Lorenzo Mattotti; photographs my own

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20 MARCH, 2014

Neil Gaiman on Why Scary Stories Appeal to Us, the Art of Fear in Children’s Books, and the Most Terrifying Ghosts Haunting Society

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“Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”

Neil Gaiman — prolific author, champion of the creative life, disciplined writer, sage of literature — is one of the greatest storytellers of our time. At TED 2014 in Vancouver, he hosted a semi-secret late-night event where he read a ghost story and a brilliant short essay titled “Ghost in the Machine,” contemplating the psychology of why scary stories speak to us so powerfully, followed by a brief Q&A. With Gaiman’s permission, here is his beautiful reading of a beautiful thought-piece. Special thanks to two friends: WNYC producer extraordinaire Alex Goldmark, who kindly helped edit the audio I recorded, and Gaiman’s better half, the amazing Amanda Palmer (yes, her). Please enjoy — transcribed highlights below.

Why tell ghost stories? Why read them or listen to them? Why take such pleasure in tales that have no purpose but, comfortably, to scare?

I don’t know. Not really. It goes way back. We have ghost stories from ancient Egypt, after all, ghost stories in the Bible, classical ghost stories from Rome (along with werewolves, cases of demonic possession and, of course, over and over, witches). We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive.

Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It’s always reassuring to know that you’re still here, still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It’s good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don’t exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.

And this time of year is best for a haunting, as even the most prosaic things cast the most disquieting shadows.

The things that haunt us can be tiny things: a Web page; a voicemail message; an article in a newspaper, perhaps, by an English writer, remembering Halloweens long gone and skeletal trees and winding lanes and darkness. An article containing fragments of ghost stories, and which, nonsensical although the idea has to be, nobody ever remembers reading but you, and which simply isn’t there the next time you go and look for it.

One of the things that makes Gaiman’s sensibility so singular is that he is among the few contemporary writers unafraid to explore darker psychoemotional themes in “children’s books” — I put this in quotations with the intended caveat that Tolkien so memorably articulated in asserting that there is no such thing as writing “for children”, which Maurice Sendak also expressed and which Gaiman himself has echoed. After the reading, I asked Gaiman how he relates to that adult construct of “children-appropriate” literature, in culture and in his own work:

In order for stories to work — for kids and for adults — they should scare. And you should triumph. There’s no point in triumphing over evil if the evil isn’t scary.

Gaiman’s retelling of Hansel and Gretel, illustrated by the great Lorenzo Mattotti — the artist behind Lou Reed’s adaptation of The Raven — will be released in October and is now available for pre-order.

In responding to the final question, Gaiman considers the things that terrify him, today. His answer couldn’t have been any more poignant:

The ghosts of today that terrify me mostly are actually ideas that are uninspected and continue to haunt us. It’s like the feeling, sometimes, that you’d start talking to people and you’re going, “I don’t know if what you’re saying is true. It may have been true once, a long time ago. But it died. And you don’t know. And you’re walking around being haunted by dead ideas… Look around and see where you are today.” I think those are the ghosts that haunt me the most.

Complement with Gaiman on where ideas come from and his sage advice on the creative life.

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