English expatriate Neil Gaiman has arguably received the most attention for fantasy novels like American Gods and Anansi Boys, whose success raised him from genre obscurity to a space on the bestseller lists near Stephen King and J.K. Rowling. But he's had a knack for the short story ever since his work on the Sandman comic series–a format that rewards the ability to say everything that needs to be said in 24 pages of large illustrated panels and short word balloons.
Fragile Things, Gaiman's third short-story collection, is probably best viewed as a collection of B-sides rather than any kind of unified artistic statement. The works here include short poems, a novella-length American Gods sequel, and stories compiled from far-flung anthologies, including one written to illustrate a photograph of a sock monkey. So it's understandable that some pieces are more consequential than others. Still, even the trifles are engagingly written, such as "Strange Little Girls," a set of brief character sketches written for his friend Tori Amos, as liner notes to her 2001 album of the same name. The similar "Fifteen Painted Cards From A Vampire Tarot" seems even more like a warm-up writing exercise published prematurely, especially since Gaiman admits there are seven more cards yet to be written about.
That isn't to say that the 31 pieces here (32, counting one tucked away in Gaiman's introduction) are all oddments. The Hugo-winning "A Study In Emerald" cleverly interweaves the worlds of Arthur Conan Doyle and H.P. Lovecraft by re-imagining Sherlock Holmes' debut mystery in a Victorian England ruled by Cthulhu and its brethren. Another Lovecraft-inspired gem plants a character inspired by P.G. Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster in a world of wittily overstuffed gothic horror, and follows his frustrated attempts to write "serious" fiction to a satisfyingly logical conclusion. And it might seem odd that one of the best stories here, "Goliath," was written for-hire to help promote the first Matrix movie, but Gaiman has a facility for putting his own twist on other people's invented worlds, especially when he's given the freedom to explore on his own terms. Though Fragile Things' odds-and-ends nature inevitably makes it disjointed, it's also a good showcase for the breadth of Gaiman's darkly whimsical imagination, wry humor, and penchant for elegantly creepy horror.