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British Godlings: On Neil Gaiman’s Novellas


The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog are two of the four titles in Headline’s re-release of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods quartet, timed to raise interest in the television adaption of American Gods, due for release early in 2017. The two novellas (or short stories — the length is difficult to judge with all the artwork) have been published with American Gods itself and with Anansi Boys, a second novel set in the same universe, in hardback editions illustrated by Daniel Egnéus. American Gods (the novel as opposed to the quartet) was first published in 2001 and then re-published in an expanded tenth-anniversary edition. The latter — which has been available as a full cast audiobook since 2012 — is a literal “author’s cut,” i.e. Gaiman’s original, published without the considerable editorial redactions of the published version and therefore substantially longer.

I thought American Gods was deserving of its critical and popular success although I was disappointed that Gaiman failed to integrate the monotheistic religions into his universe, a strategy which was obviously expedient, but nonetheless inconsistent. The audiobook (but not the tenth anniversary edition) contains a deleted passage in which the protagonist, Shadow, meets Christ, offering a tantalizing taste of how Gaiman might have treated the monotheistic gods, but the encounter raises more questions than it answers. The scene has apparently been included in the STARZ original series and it will be interesting to see if it is developed in any detail.

The novellas The Monarch of the Glen and Black Dog share not only the world of American Gods, but also its protagonist, Shadow, who may or may not be an incarnation of Baldr (or Baldur or Balder), who may or may not be a god. The Monarch of the Glen was first published in Legends II, a 2003 collection of speculative fiction edited by Robert Silverberg. The novella takes place in the north-west of the Scottish Highlands two years after the conclusion of American Gods. Shadow has spent the interim backpacking across Europe and North Africa and finds himself in an unnamed village somewhere between Thurso and Cape Wrath. The plot begins when, in quick succession, he is offered a weekend job as a bouncer at a local country house and meets an unconventional barmaid who regales him with stories of the local lore, particularly those pertaining to the strong Norse influence in what is usually assumed to be a hyper-Celtic culture. The suspense is generated first by a mysterious party, then by its mysterious guests, and finally by the real reason for Shadow’s employment.

Much like my monotheistic quibble with American Gods, my criticism of the novella is very minor, namely the opacity of the title. The “Monarch of the Glen” is a painting of a red deer stag by Edwin Landseer and has become one of the exemplary and archetypal images of the Highlands specifically and Scotland more generally. Landseer was famous for contributing to the Victorian image of an idyllic Scotland that never existed, and for representing anthropomorphic animals in savage struggles for survival against one another, man, and nature. The painting itself — or rather, Landseer’s copy of his own painting — appears in the story, the property of Mr Alice, the host of the party. Its significance is neither explained nor suggested; the only commentary is offered by Alice on its popularity and Shadow’s silent appraisal of the stag as “haughty, and superior”.

My understanding of the painting’s significance is that the shared title is a reference to Shadow, who has been hired to take part in a struggle even more savage than those portrayed by Landseer. In this struggle, Shadow is the symbol of both man against monster and Scotland against its (Norse) invaders. But just like the criticism that Landseer created a false image of Scotland, Shadow is being set up as a false symbol. He is, like the English Landseer in the Highlands, a foreigner, and also, as the opening dialogue of the narrative reminds readers, a monster himself — not quite man and not quite god.

Of course, Gaiman is far too sophisticated a writer to allow the simple dichotomies of man/monster, Celtic/Norse, and the relation between them to remain unchallenged. The result is that the explosive climax at the country house does not turn out as expected for any of the participants, as Shadow is measured against his own judgement of Landseer’s stag. The tale concludes with him on a train, heading south with the ultimate aim of bringing his wandering to an end in Chicago.

Black Dog was first published in Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, Gaiman’s fourth collection of short stories (excluding his fiction for children), in 2015. The novella’s temporal setting is either several weeks or a few months after The Monarch of the Glen, but the spatial setting is the first mystery Gaiman presents. Somewhere between the Scottish border and London, Shadow has gone off the rails. The many clues provided are no more provocative than when they are contradictory: the blurb labels a “rural northern village”; it is not too remote from London; it might bfe near Glossop; it is surrounded by hills and valleys; it features plenty of drystone walls; and it has its own ghost dog, called Black Shuck. Black Shuck is the name of East Anglia’s version of the old English legend, but East Anglia is notoriously flat and the name ‘The Gateway to Hell’ seems decisive, identifying Eldon Hole in the Peak Forest and the Peak District (also known as the Derbyshire Dales) more generally. This relocation of Black Shuck to one of the few regions of England that does not have its own ghost dog is the first indication of the categorical originality of Gaiman’s re-invention of the legend.

Gaiman very quickly provides a series of reflections on and allusions to many of the linguistic and conceptual associations with dogs that are such a prominent part of English culture: the love of dogs as pets,; the eternal conflict between cats and dogs and consequent division of human beings into “cat-people” and “dog-people”; “black dog” as a description of depression (made famous by Winston Churchill); “black dog” as a favored name for brands of ale; and the curiosity of a ghost dog that portends or causes death without possessing any corporeality. As the tale develops, he adds the conceptions of prehistoric dire wolves, Odin’s wolves (although Odin’s nemesis Fenrir would have been more appropriate), and the myth of the Wild Hunt. There are also explicit references to Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles and implicit references to Stephen Booth’s Cooper and Fry crime series, which is set in the Peak District and was initiated with the novel Black Dog, published the same year as American Gods. The combination of these references also serves as a clue that this is as much a mystery as it is a work of speculative fiction.

The story starts with Shadow in a public house, where there is much spooky talk of big black dogs and cats walled up in buildings. The village has no accommodation available and a local couple, Ollie and Moira, offer him a room for the night. As the three of them walk home, Ollie thinks he sees Black Shuck and falls into a narcoleptic state. This introduces the natural dimension of Gaiman’s take on the black dog, as a manifestation of depression, which grounds the narrative in reality: depressed people recognize their own despair, exemplified by the ghost dog, and either try to kill themselves or simply lose the will to live. Following this motif, Ollie self-harms as soon as he emerges from his semi-conscious state, setting the scene for Shadow remaining in the village for a few days to help Moira look after him.

What raises Gaiman’s contribution to the black dog legend from the original to the exceptional is the way he not only offers a rationalization of its continued existence, but binds the supernatural explanation to its own special logic. The relationship between the villain and the ghost dog and between Shadow and a benevolent ghost is explained by the metaphor of flame and moth. Human beings, warm with their life blood coursing through them, are the flames that attract the attention of moth-like ghosts, which clarifies the reciprocal relation between corporeal and non-corporeal: the moth flying too close to the flame can either extinguish that flame or be destroyed by it. If there is a weakness in the work it is that Black Dog does not stand alone as well as The Monarch of the Glen, requiring knowledge of Shadow’s encounter with Bast in American Gods for full appreciation.

There is a subtle play of similarity and difference in the two novellas. Both, for example, begin with Shadow sitting in a bar, a new arrival in a strange place. Both include a mysterious woman who initiates Shadow into the secrets of the locality, Jennie in the Highlands and Cassie in the Dales. Both include a disguised antagonist who appears very early on before revealing savagery in one case and banality in the other. Both narratives are works of fantasy, firmly rooted in the American Gods universe, but the most profound difference is their emphasis within this genre: the combination of fantasy with horror in The Monarch of the Glen and fantasy with mystery in Black Dog.

This difference in intention is exquisitely expressed in the subtle variation of Egnéus’ artwork. He cites his influences as Arthur Rackham and Gustave Doré, displaying the former’s flair for line and the latter’s ability to represent the otherworldly, and there is also a strong surrealist sense of the fluidity of shape, reality, and reason in his depictions. The interior illustrations are black and white, with Egnéus employing the full range of tint and shade from white to black to produce images that surprise, puzzle, and haunt. In The Monarch of the Glen, he leaves no doubt that Shadow has arrived in a vital, visceral, and volatile place where the trappings of modernity conceal a primitive and unchanged way of life. In Black Dog, he represents a more hospitable locale, where an evening on a hilltop is an experience to be enjoyed rather than a death sentence — or should be. The drawings in the latter novella lack the violence of those in the former and with a few exceptions evoke wonder rather than fear while retaining a decidedly disturbing quality. The strengths of the two tales are also distinct: the complexity of character and depth of symbolism explored in the Scottish Highlands versus the faultless internal logic and meticulous supervenience of contemporary banality on ancient malignancy in the Derbyshire Dales. They are nonetheless both atmospheric and intriguing, both intellectually stimulating and unpredictable.

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