Something that has not happened in a thousand years is happening.
You are going to the City. There is only one City. It is only said
with a capital C. No one needs to bother saying the name of the City. It
is the City.
Certain members of the Council are displeased with your family’s recent actions.
A bard is providing occasional comic relief; no one hired or invited him and his method of earning a living is unclear.
The High Priest is not to be trusted.
Someone is eating an apple mockingly.
There is one body of water. It is called the Sea. The Great Sea, if you are feeling fancy.
You live in a region with no major exports, no centralized
government, no banking system, a mysteriously maintained network of
roads, and little to no job training for anyone who is not a farmer.
You have red hair. You wear it in a braid. Your father was a simple
man, and you don’t remember much about him – he died when you were so
young – but you remember his strong hands, as he fished or carpentered
or whatever it was that he used to do with them.
You’re going to have to hurry, or you’re going to miss the Fair – and you never miss the Fair.
There is trouble at the Citadel.
Your full name has at least one apostrophe in it.
It is the first page, and you are already late for something. Your
mother affectionately chides you as you gulp down a few spoonfuls of
porridge; she will be dead by page forty-two.
There are two religions in your entire universe. One is a thinly
veiled version of Islam. It is only practiced by villains. The other is
“being a Viking.” You are a Viking.
There are new ways in the land that threaten the Old Way. Your
grandmother secretly practices the Old Way, as do all of the people of
The real trouble began the day you arrived at court. Every last
nobleman hides a viper in his smile. How you long for the purity of life
in your village, which is currently on fire or something.
All animals are underfed, black, and vaguely eldritch. They all hate you.
You are a man. If you’re a woman, you are the love interest of the man, and you are dead.
All the women you know have died in childbirth. All the children you know are orphans. You are an orphan.
It’s foggy. If it’s not foggy, it’s smoggy. Or misty. Some form of particulate matter is in the air.
You are arranged to be married to someone sickly.
You tend to dismiss odd noises, prophetic ramblings of mad men, and the death of small animals en masse with a shrug and an offhand “It’s probably nothing.”
Everyone’s last name starts with “Van” or “Von Roth.”
One of your children is crushed to death by a humongous helmet on the day of their wedding.
Everything is gloomy, like that song “Blue” by Eiffel 65 but replace the word “blue” with “gloomy.” You are gloomy. Your life is gloomy and the castle you live in is gloomy. Your underfed black dog is gloomy.
Skulls feature prominently in all interior decorating.
You are in a small town. There is a deep dark secret that only the members of the town know. The outside world can never find out.
It is also a sleepy little town. “Nothing ever happens around here,” says one of the locals. It’s true. Only three people live there and they all died in childbirth.
You go wandering somewhere very cold, and almost freeze to death, but are saved by the fortuitous arrival of a crew of explorers.
You are in a monastery.
You are on a moor.
There is something in the walls (or the wallpaper, or the pipes, or the floors).
Your house has a garret, which is firmly locked for reasons you will not disclose.
You hate everyone, except for one woman you are incredibly attracted to. She hates you.
At least half of the people you know are mad. If you are not yet mad yourself, you are probably well on your way.
The other half are ghosts.
You have recently discovered an old document of some kind. Most likely a journal, but possibly a map or letters written by a dead family member.
All the portraits in your house have peepholes cut in the eyes.
Important events in your life are always preceded by a storm, or at least a stiff wind.
Your house is very dusty and there are cobwebs everywhere. Basically everything is either dust or a cobweb. There isn’t even anything under the dust anymore, just more dust.
You call your bedroom your “chambers.” There is something at your chamber door.
You are near, or on, the ocean.
Someone is keeping a captain’s log.
A book with a malicious spirit trapped inside was very well hidden somewhere no one should have ever found it, and definitely not ineffectually thrown in a chest or a tomb somewhere, but you found it anyway because you’re so curious and full of hubris.
The Evil Creature’s name is comprised entirely of consonants and punctuation.
There was a traumatic event in your childhood involving beach caves.
You are in love with your cousin.
Some form of Catholic imagery has just been appropriated and misused.
You have a love/hate relationship with a grotesquely malformed creature that you are repulsed by, but also pity.
You’re looking at something man was not meant to see. You can’t even comprehend it. It has parallel lines intersecting each other, and it goes on for infinity but you can see all of it, and other stuff that’s just really impossible. Like, think about M.C. Escher but then also scary and also your eyeballs are bleeding probably.
You have experienced unspeakable things. Everything has been resolved in the bleakest way possible. Your only hope is that you will take this secret to the grave.
These haunting little street sculptures by Isaac Cordal, which he leaves on the streets of San Cristóbal de la Casas (Mexico)…
…so small, so ordinary, so vulnerable, so commonplace, wearing suits or dresses, overcoats, standing together, sitting quietly, aging husband and wife, bald office worker, man kneeling and hunched as if exhausted, old woman clutching her purse—even the most dramatic of them, a pieta, seems a mother holding what may be a drug-overdosed son—in other words, a tragedy far too common, as ordinary as dirt in the street…
If you’ve started to suspect that the drafty cathedral your family has called home for countless centuries may in fact be the setting of a bona fide gothic novel, here are 13 spooky ways to tell for sure:
1. Either there are no clocks in your house, or your house is filled with clocks…but they’re all set to different times.
2. Also, though you refer to it as “your house,” it’s actually one of the following: a dilapidated mansion, a moldering manor, or a crumbling castle with no plumbing to speak of. Also, the wind is always howling outside.
3. People around you are regularly tumbling dramatically down stairs and breaking all of their bones.
4. You can tell that things are starting to get kind of serious with the guy you’ve been seeing because he’s started talking about how you two are actually one person and how if you’re ever separated by death he will throw himself into your open grave and be buried alive with you. Also, you suspect that the two of you might be somehow related. Best not to dwell.
5. Flickering candles everywhere.
6. Three or more friends or family members have wasted away from mysterious fevers, but always looked great doing it.
7. Instead of watching TV, you plot revenge.
8. Every time you’re about to finally fall into bed with the long-term object of your obsession, a gust of wind ablows the French doors open, a candle gutters out, and one of you immediately begins to waste away from a mysterious fever.
9. Your living quarters are no great shakes, but you’ve noticed that going outside is somehow always a bad idea.
10. 20% of the meals served and eaten in your house are laced with some kind of drug or poison.
11. People are constantly being locked in their rooms or locking other people in their rooms without anybody ever batting an eye over it.
12. Most of the marriages of the couples around you were motivated by vengeance.
13. An attic without an insane person chained up in it for years just doesn’t have that lived-in feeling. Same goes for cellars, and the odd cupola.
We begin with small bites. While his novels may be better-known,
Gaiman’s short stories are equally rich and layered and I think they
make a perfect starting point. Smoke & Mirrors is a
collection full of atmospheric storytelling in easily manageable
portions appropriately billed as “short fictions and illusions.
Standard practice would be to read the tales in order but if you
prefer to dip in recklessly I myself am particularly fond of “The
Price,” “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” and “Murder Mysteries.”
Now that we’ve established a flavor profile we should indulge in
something longer, but perhaps not too long as we don’t want to spoil our
appetites. Something sweeter, with a bit more whimsy.
So here we have a cake covered in buttons and beetles. I tried to get
the beetles to spell out “Coraline” but it is difficult to get them to
stay still in butterscotch frosting.
It is indeed a children’s book and I recommend it regardless of your
age. A deliciously creepy adventure that manages to be creepy and
adventurous in equal measure, Coraline takes the everyday world and
turns it into something Other, with shiny black buttons for eyes. Also,
there is a mouse circus. Perhaps I should have put the mice on the cake
instead. Ah, well.
So we’ve nibbled our short story petits fours and devoured our button-laden cake and now comes the time for an adult-market novel. You’re thinking it’s going to be American Gods because that’s the one everyone knows about but it’s not. Sorry.
I love American Gods, but I suggest reading something else
first when it comes to the novels for (mostly) grown-ups. Maybe I’m just
doing this to be contrary, maybe I’m pushing my personal favorite on
potential readers like a literature dealer in a back alley, but do
consider coming closer as I beckon you down this stairway and lead you
onto this subway platform and hand you a take-away cup for your tea
along with a copy of Neverwhere.
It’s a bit Alice in Wonderland; it’s a bit Hitchhiker’s Guide to the London Underground,
it’s something in between with its own history and myth lurking below
street level. Each of Gaiman’s novels are unique but I think this one
will treat you well as you start out, though you shouldn’t let the
Velvets get too close.