Smoke and Mirrors: A jack-in-the-box, trolls, vampires, and twisted fairytales

Neil Gaiman’s Smoke and Mirrors is a book of short stories written over the course of several decades, and the stories, while all carrying some element of sci fi, also span various genres from horror, to romance, to corrupted manipulations of childhood fairy tales and figures. In only 100 words, Gaiman obliterates our childhood perceptions of Santa Claus in “Nicholas Was.” He permanently corrupts the fairytale of Snow White in “Snow, Glass, Apples,” and makes us pity a life-stealing troll in “Troll Bridge.” There are other tales of werewolves fighting against powers that would bring Armageddon, and characters that question where the magic in stories come from, and a new character: the sweeper of dreams. A couple of poems revisit the childhood tale of Mr. Fox and another tells of a man who lost his heart to a  mermaid. Gaiman also references H. P. Lovecraft’s eloquent words using two obsessed fans in a bar in Innsmouth in the story “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar.” This book of short stories can be quite dark and disturbing at times, and hilarious or introspective at others. Readers beware, it is not for the unimaginative, or those who do not desire to ponder great questions delicately wrapped in fairy tales.


For another book of short stories by a fantasy author, read Patricia McKillip’s Wonders of the Invisible World which tells tales of mermaids and unknown, otherworldly creatures and lands, and, occasionally, of how they cross our world.

The Gods of Chaos and Lords of Order are very similar to elements in several of Stephen King’s novels which talk about Low Men, and agents of the Purpose and the Random, in the novels Insomnia, The Stand, Hearts in Atlantis (also a collection of short stories), and The Dark Tower Series, which begins with The Gunslinger.

As two characters in one of Gaiman’s stories suggest, you could try reading the short stories of H. P. Lovecraft in one of his collected works.

Neil Gaiman has also written many novels including American Gods, Anansi Boys, Stardust, and another book of short stories, Fragile Things. His most recent publishing is a wonderfully creative children’s fantasy novel called The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

The Recipe:

Ploughman’s Muffins by Marie at The English Kitchen

By Maria at The English Kitchen
By Maria at The English Kitchen

This recipe was chosen to represent the short story “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar,” in which a traveler to England visits a small city called Innsmouth and meets a couple of unique fans and believers in the writings of H.P. Lovecraft as fact. In the bar, Ben tries for the first time a common English lunch, called a Ploughman.This is the muffin version of that meal.

By Maria at The English Kitchen
By Maria at The English Kitchen
Makes 12


2 ounces butter, melted

1 large egg

250ml of milk

1 tsp English Mustard

3 TBSP chutney or French mustard

( I like to use an apricot and ginger chutney)

6 ounces strong cheddar cheese, grated and divided

1 TBS baking powder

11 ounces plain flour

pinch salt
Pre-heat the oven to 190*C/375*F.  Butter a 12 hole muffin tin very well. Set aside.

Combine the butter, egg, milk, mustard and chutney in a beaker. Sift the flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Stir in the 5 ounces of the cheese. Add the wet ingredients all at once.  Combine only until just mixed.  Spoon into the prepared muffin cups. Sprinkle the remaining ounce of cheese evenly over top.  Bake for 15 to 20 minutes until well risen and firm. Leave in the pan to cool for several minutes before loosening and placing on a wire rack to finish cooling. Serve warm for a real taste treat. These are also very good cold for lunch.


Discussion Questions:

1. In “The Wedding Present” in the Introduction, bad things happen to the couple in the story, instead of the actual live couple, until the end, when Belinda chose a man who didn’t love her over a man who was dead. Why do you think she made that choice? What would you have chosen?

2. In “Chivalry,” Mrs. Whitaker chooses a novel to read instead of a lamp that could lead to another adventure. Why wouldn’t she want a possible genie who could grant three wishes, especially when most of us would?

3. At the end of “The Price,” the husband and father in the story wondered what his family had done to deserve the Black Cat, and who had sent him. What possible actions or aspects of their particular family could have led to the Black Cat protecting them, or even the Devil targeting them to attack? Who do you think might have sent the Cat, or was it perhaps his own decision?

4. What made Jack in “The Troll Bridge” decide to be merciful on the next passerby and not come out from under the bridge to pass on the curse to another? Was this an act of cowardice or nobility?

5. The Jack-in-the-box in “Don’t ask Jack,” can wait forever. what exactly, or who, do you think he is waiting for? Is there something he wishes to do, or is it just the malice of an evil toy that desires to inspire fear? Was he effective? Did you find this story to be frightening? Why?

6. Are they any books you’ve read that turned out to be very different from the film interpretations, like in the story The Goldfish Pool”? Why do you think that happens so often, especially in the short story, when the title and vision for the film was changed numerous times? On the other hand, is it ever possible for a film to stay completely true to its book?

7. In “The White Road,” Mister Fox thinks a beautiful line about his betrothed, “There are no rose petals, save for her cheeks.” Does it turn out that he is truly the fox, or is his intended? Why?

8. In the “Queen of Knives,” do you think the grandmother disappeared of her own volition, or was she kidnapped? Or could she have died, or, in Neil Gaiman style, been transported to another world?

9. What reasons of desire, curiosity, or escape could you think of for people taking the drug “Reboot” in “Changes”? Do you think a drug with such side effects would have more terrible or wonderful repercussions in the real world? Why will there always be a black market for drugs, not just legal ones like Reboot was?

10. Was Ben’s unusual encounter with the two strange barmen more a by-product of strong alcoholic drink in “Sloggoth’s Old Peculiar,” or did it have more to do with the connections with H.P. Lovecraft? do you think Ben was living in the Strange Aeons of which they spoke, and the men were taken by the Great Cthulu, or was the whole thing perhaps a drunken dream? What makes you think so?

11. How accurate do you think the following statement was, given by the fat man in “Only the End of the World Again”: “we look about in puzzlement at our world, with a sense of unease and disquiet…there are things in the darkness beneath that wish us harm.” This is a concept that comes up in several of Gaiman’s stories, also including the “The Price,” and “Bsy Wolf.” Why do you think the author returns to this theme frequently? Do you think it also true that “Armageddon is averted by small actions”? If so, who ultimately controls those actions?

12. What are some of the similarities between Gaiman’s “Bay Wolf” and the legend of Beowulf (think of Grendel’s mother)? The differences? Do you think them similar enough that one could have been the inspiration for the other, at least partially? What do you think happened between the wolf and the creature’s mother? Why? Or does it not matter, as the author suggests?

13. In “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale,” Peter arranges for the death of the world, by ones who “had been ready for a long time, but they had to be asked.” What other mythological creatures have to be asked or invited in to do evil? Do you think these beings are actually of that same kind? Why?

14. Have you ever felt as Richard Grey did in “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock,” that you have had an emotion, “so specific that he was surprised, later, to realize that it did not have its own name: a feeling of disgust and regret at having to return to something he had thought long since done with and abandoned”? Are there certain words or phrases for human emotions that are missing in language? Have you ever found one in another language to describe an emotion you didn’t have words for? Is there a word or phrase that could better describe Richard’s feeling?

15. Because Richard had seen the temple, he believed this was probably where his favorite author got his inspiration. He didn’t believe that writer’s ideas came only out of their heads, but do they really? Don’t all artists look to their “muses” and other sources for inspiration? What examples can you think of (there are several mentioned in the introduction of this book)?

16. How would you or anyone be able to tell if anyone’s parts, or entire self, were replaced by another, as in the story “Foreign Parts”? How would they then be able to make anyone believe them about the “foreign parts”? Have you ever felt as if a body part was unfamiliar to you, and if so, what was the cause?

17. What do you think the mermaid said or did to the man in “The Sea Change” to make him desire her still so badly, that he wouldn’t mind dying to be with her? Does that make her malicious, or is it possible she is cursed? How is this similar to or different from other mermaid legends?

18. What did you think of the differences between this story of Snow White and the film or original story versions? Which do you like best? Why? What do you think of reinterpretations of fairy tales? Have you tried reading others and comparing them with remakes?


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