Neil Gaiman’s Calendar of Tales Review

’twas a special week indeed, for the great and venerable Neil Gaiman (my idol/role model/favorite author who will totally remember me from that one time I met him when we next cross paths) has produced some new fiction.

But this wasn’t anything so conventional as a book or TV episode—both of which, I might add, he also has due for release in the coming months—no, this is a weird artsy project sponsored by BlackBerry that I’m still not sure I understand in its entirety.

A few weeks ago Neil spent an entire day on twitter, asking a different question every sixty minutes about the months of the year. Twelve hours later he’d assembled a massive stockpile of inspiration for potential stories, and, selecting one for each month, wrote a dozen short stories in just three days in order to create a “Calendar of Tales.”

Earlier this week the stories were all released for the next step: People will read them, get inspired, and create their own art that Neil and BlackBerry or whoever’s in charge of this thing will select and combine with the prose to make the actual calendar. Fun stuff.

But my chief concern, of course, is that I just read a dozen new very short stories from Neil Gaiman and now I have feelings about them. After initially tweeting my reactions as I was pouring through the tales a couple of days ago, I’m now ready to go back for a more in-depth appraisal of each of them, and perhaps how they function when viewed as a unified project.

I would of course recommend you first read them for yourself here.

January’s tale made for a thrilling start. I expected we’d ease into these stories, but the response about a veteran and a new recruit that answered the prompt “Why is January so dangerous?” led to a piece on soldiers embodying the years themselves—a very nice little twist—fighting off extra-dimensional beings that want to creep into our reality. It’s the sort of visceral action that Neil rarely indulges in, but here he does so while keeping it distinctly his own.

That applies to all of these tales, by the way—they scream “Neil Gaiman” to a one, and this is not at all a bad thing. In fact there’s a lot of variation going on here, but never did it feel like anyone else could have written them. And why would I want that? It’s like an ice cream sampler. The flavors are all different, but there’s no denying it’s all ice cream. And it’s delicious.

Yet I admit the next tale didn’t stick with me that much. The answer selected for the strangest thing that ever happened to someone in February was intriguing, but practically a story in itself, so that Neil mostly just elaborates on it and adds some fantastical elements that I found a bit too confusing for their own good. Not that it wasn’t good—I enjoyed all of these—merely that it wasn’t stellar.

March, though, has pirates. Neil chose Anne Bonny as the historical figure to center this tale around, and it’s quite nice indeed. Jumps around a bit, and maybe it loses something in tying itself to a real person, but when that person is a female scourge of the seven seas I’m not exactly upset. And the stark tone here is wonderful. You can smell the salt in the wind.

April is the funniest. The request for a happy memory received an account of duck feeding that Neil transformed into a father/son con team fleecing the poor mallards until they reveal themselves not so helpless after all and turn the tables. This one’s a punchy good time, and a suitable tale for my own birth month. My favorite whimsical story in the calendar.

May revels in its own nonsense, and isn’t at all what I would have thought I’d be reading after the request for the weirdest gifts people had ever been given turned up an anonymous Mother’s Day card. But this tale doesn’t stay confined to May, instead detailing a bunch of glitches in the matrix suffered by a poor soul over an entire year. Some great, irreverent imagery.

The wittiest of them all is June. Looking back over these three I was disappointed that they were all such light fare, but now I see the (likely unintentional) progression, with a more mature sense of humor each time. As such, the parents’ disagreements in this one are very clever, but in the end I prefer it when Neil takes things a tad more seriously.

He proceeds to do so again starting with July, which turns a suggested igloo of books into a beautiful journey across a paper and ink tundra that conjures up more vivid imagery in two pages than many works manage in their entirety. It’s easy to understand why Neil’s claimed this as his favorite—it’s a story about stories, imagination fueling imagination. What he does best, in other words.

Then August turns the temperature right back up with the best of the chosen responses. What would August say if it could speak? “August would speak of its empire lasting forever whilst glancing, warily, at the leaves cooking on the trees.” Gorgeous. And the fire imagery mixed with biting hubris in the following tale more than does it justice.

September might be the shortest of them all, telling of a ring that doesn’t stay lost. The concept is fine, but it turns dreadful and dark at the end in a way I didn’t find that compelling. A bit too slight to justify it, perhaps?

October is my favorite of the lot. Neil asked for a mythical creature to meet, and it’s no surprise he went with a djinn. That’s the role he’s fulfilling in this project, in a way, bringing to life the wishes of a lucky dozen twitter followers (and likely not in the ways they expected, taking their words and twisting them for his own ends). This tale reminded me of his short story “Chivalry,” in which a kind old woman stumbles upon the Holy Grail. Understated reactions to fantastic circumstances are great, and the romance angle here makes it all the better. A perfect little piece of wonder.

The next month’s prompt is the most personal, expressing a desire to burn medical records, “but only if that would make it all go away.” So Neil grants that wish as would be expected, with a brazier that burns away reality. Couldn’t help thinking about whatever real life sorrows afflict the person who inspired this one, and wondering at the mix of catharsis and pain this tale brought them.

The calendar ends with a woman meeting her younger self as a runaway. That premise is so powerful that it led me to brace for something more heart-wrenching almost out of a sense of masochism. C’mon Neil, make me cry. It wasn’t that intense, but worked well all the same. And I suppose it makes sense that he would want the calendar to end on a hopeful note. It was a fitting December tale.

As a whole, I loved these stories. There was never really a chance that I wouldn’t. And even though I didn’t adore every last one, keep in mind I’m holding them to the standard of my favorite author. Even those I criticized still appealed to me more than almost anything else would.

This was a splendid way to whet my appetite for Neil’s upcoming Doctor Who episode and, more importantly, his first novel since I became such a tremendously devoted fan. I’m not quite sure how I’ll handle it. But for now we’ve got a great collection of stories that’s going to be turned into some kind of calendar. Here’s hoping it’s a physical thing, because I for one would love a copy.

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