Sunday, September 24, 2023

Neil Gaiman's Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch (1998).

Neil Gaiman still doesn't need much of in the way of an introduction, at least as of this writing.  Experience has taught me that's the sort of thing that can always change, and sometimes faster than any of us fans might like.  The reputation of even the best stories, and their writers, has always been a precarious thing.  And it wouldn't surprise me to learn that it has always been a fragile minority of readers and viewers who have kept the reputations of even seeming titans like Shakespeare alive in a world that might otherwise consign him and every other artist to the dust bin of history.  For the moment, though, it does seem as if both Gaiman and Shakespeare can count on the continued goodwill of a sufficient enough minority of audience members to know who they are, and tell others that they were or are still here. 

For the vast majority of readers and viewers, Gaiman's reputation seems as if it can be boiled down to just two touchstone points in what is and remains an otherwise sprawling literary career.  The two works of his that everybody seems to remember is either his graphic novel series, Sandman.  Or else a smaller yet vocally substantial number will point to what looks like a simple children's novel on the surface, when in reality, it's a dark Gothic fantasy by the name of Coraline.  These are the twin poles around which Gaiman's current reputation continues to oscillate.  With either party eager to claim their preferred text as the superior product from the pen of the author.  While I'll admit I fall into the latter camp that favor's the adventures of Coraline Jones over the exploits of the Dream Kingdom and its Dominions, I'd also like to think I'm smart enough to realize both texts are also not the whole story.  In addition to one warped kids book, and a series of very influential graphic novels, Gaiman has had an otherwise vibrant and artistic career as a fantasy novelist.  It's an example, or specimen of this other career, the one that doesn't get as much exposure, or recognition that I'd like to shine a spotlight on.

Aside from giving the neglected side of Gaiman's career a day in the Sun, focusing on an otherwise unremarked upon short story such as "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch" is helpful in serving another purpose.  One of the goals of this article is to help answer the question, "What's the next best place to start for introducing new or still novice readers to the literary magic of Gaiman's work outside of either the Dreaming or the Button House"?  I think that's where an underrated, easy to digest story like this one can come in handy.  So let's take our tickets and see how wild the ride gets.

The "Facts" of the Case.

This is one of those stories that begins at the end, or rather in its aftermath.  It's the kind of scene that doesn't get used often in creative writing, yet it can still happen every now and again.  Gaiman's work even adheres to a lot of the conventions that come attached with this type of narrative opening at the close.  We're given a brief cast list.  Which includes both the narrator (who's name we never find out) and his two friends: Jane, and her husband, Jonathan.  We then get a brief discussion about the title character, the lately departed Miss Finch.  It's not her real name.  As the narrator explains, "I'm changing names here to disguise the guilty (133)".  This is a good place for Gaiman to demonstrate his skill at narrative construction.  Everything about the opening conversation between the characters is meant to establish a proper sense of dramatic expectation.  We learn that we're catching up with the main cast in the aftermath of something bad.  There's been a happening in which one of their number has dwindled, somehow.  Leaving the other three in state of shocked disbelief.  The writing lays out all of this information in just the right ominous tone, leaving us wondering what terrors we're in store for.

This entire opening functions very much like an in-story version of what would otherwise be the host segment of one of those old Horror anthology shows like Tales from the Crypt.  The major difference is that here Gaiman lets the story's cast fill in for the Crypt Keeper's role.  It's not as iconic, or darkly sardonic and in your face as our favorite EC Comics master of ceremonies.  However, the good news is that Gaiman's writing doesn't have to function in such over the top fashion in order to work.  Instead, I think what he's done is show both readers and future writers another way in which to set up the audience's expectations for the narrative to come.  We're not told right away exactly what happened to Miss Finch (if that really is her name), merely that something has gone wrong, and she appears to have been a victim of whatever calamity has befallen the group of shocked and mystified survivors.  It's all a very well written example of narrative indirection.  It all be telegraphs to the reader that we're witnessing the survivors of some fantastical occurrence that has claimed one of their own.  And now, with this setup in place, the audience is geared up to ask the most important question: what happened?

From here, the story jumps back to it's proper beginning, and the train of events begins to unfold.  "In retrospect," the narrator says, "I think the whole thing might have been the fault of the late Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.  I had read an article the previous month, in which Ian Fleming had advised any would-be writer who had a book to get done that wasn't getting written to go to a hotel to write it.  I had, not a novel, but a film script that wasn't getting written; so I bought a plane ticket to London, promised the film company that they'd have a finished script in three weeks' time, and took a room in an eccentric hotel in Little Venice.  I told no one in England that I was there.  Had people known, my days and nights would have been spent seeing them, not staring at a computer screen and, sometimes, writing.  Truth to tell, I was bored half out of my mind and ready to welcome any interruption(135-36)".

The narrator's opening situation almost makes things sound like one of those "Be careful what you wish for" type deals.  Because it doesn't take long before two friends of our nameless chronicler phone him up to make him an offer.  "Listen, if Jane and I were to offer to feed you sushi...and if we offered to take you to the theater before we fed you, what would you say (134)"?  The writer naturally enough wants to know what's the catch?  The answer is that Jane and Jonathan have reached out to him for what sounds like a pretty thankless task on the face of it.  They wonder if he'd be willing to act as an unofficial third chaperon while the couple are stuck having to sort of babysit a friend of some friends.  That would be the titular Miss Finch.  Jane describes her as "something we're sort of lumbered with.  She's not in the country for very long, and I wound up agreeing to entertain her and look after her tomorrow night.  She's pretty frightful, actually.  And Jonathan heard that you were in town from someone at your film company, and we thought you might be perfect to make it all less awful, so please say yes (135)". 

I'm kind of surprised Gaiman didn't have his narrator at least mention the fact that the film company and the script that won't allow itself to be written count as the burdens that he finds himself saddled with, at the moment.  All of it points to the fictional teller of this story as one of those classic, Literary Romantic types who finds himself stuck in a metaphorical "relationship" that has turned sour pretty fast.  So now he's seizing the chance to escape from a bad affair by busying himself with those of others.  At least this is the buried subtext I get from the narrator's description.  It's also perhaps the true reason for why he winds up saying yes to Jane and Jonathan's request.  It's all of these factors that wind up leading the storyteller to meet up with Jane and Jonathan at their house at the appointed time.  He's hardly given a moment to breath, or the space to get oriented before the guest of honor arrives.

Here is how Gaiman describes Miss Finch. "She wore a black leather cap, and black leather coat, and had black, black hair, pulled tightly back into a small bun, done up with a pottery tie.  She wore makeup expertly applied to give an impression of severity that a professional dominatrix might have envied.  Her lips were tight together, and she glared at the world through a pair of definite black-rimmed spectacles - they punctuated her face much too definitely to ever be mere glasses.  "So," she said, as if she were pronouncing a death sentence, "we're going to the theater, then."  "Well, yes and no," said Jonathan.  I mean, yes, we are still going out, but we're not going to be able to see The Romans in Britain."  "Good," said Miss Finch.  In poor taste anyway.  Why anyone would have thought that nonsense would make a musical I do not know (137)".  There are a number of things going on in this little moment of introduction and the bit of the dialogue that follow it that make it worth a comment.

In the first place, the title character works as an interesting study in contrast.  On our first impression of her, we begin to see why the writer's friends might have wanted someone along on their evening out together.  A surface level description of Miss Finch (even down to her avian inspired name) might leave the impression that we've just met the English Nanny from hell.  Everything about the woman shouts out the word "Prim" and "Proper through a bullhorn, in bold, capital letters.  It's in her way of dismissing popular theater as "bad taste".  Or even in the throwaway detail of the way she does up her hair.  Everything is tight, and corseted in a way that mirror's her emotions.  Whatever little scraps of genuine feeling Miss Finch might be wiling to spare for her fellow human beings is expressed with a sense of general disapproval.  This is the kind of person who can't even manage the rueful, biting humor of a Jon Swift, much less the skeptical conviviality of Mark Twain.  One gets the sense that whoever Miss Finch is, she'd be the kind who would dismiss a book like Huck Finn as yet another example of "bad taste".  Never mind whether or not it's got anything like a valuable thematic lesson to teach.

This then is the first, and most highlighted aspect of the character.  The trick in Gaiman's description of her seems to rest in the quick, glancing remark about how her looks could also rest at home the kind of bohemian lifestyle that we know for a fact she would either dismiss outright and walk away from if anyone so much as brought it up even casually in a conversation.  For the record, it's also a mistake to claim that Finch is the kind of girl who keeps a copy of Fifty Shades stashed away in secret somewhere.  If Gaiman's quick detail points to even the merest hint of unconventionality in the title character, then it's core seems to rest somewhere else.  This is the key narrative clue, or crucial detail that slowly gets built upon as the story goes on.  For the moment, all the narrator and his friends can see is just another Victorian prude that's somehow become "unstuck" out of her own timeline.  It's the kind of character flaw that Miss Finch seems happy to demonstrate on the ride to the evening's alternate destination.  On the way, she seems to take a curious delight in describing the kind of stomach parasites that can lie in wait for people in a lot of the foods we consume on a daily basis.  Or "elaborating on the symptoms of elephantitis as proudly as if she had invented them herself (138)".  It's in these moments that Gaiman gives his readers the second character note that singles Miss Finch out in this drama.

To put it bluntly, she comes off as the kind of person with not all that much of an imagination.  Rather, let's say that if there is any imaginative capacity to this character, then it is so stifled as to be next to nonexistent.  Here's the place where Gaiman's narrative falls into somewhat familiar thematic territory.  It signals that one of the core conflicts of the short story is going to be a long, ongoing battle between Romanticism and Realism.  I've been reading this kind of story long enough to know that this theme is not original or particular with Gaiman.  It's almost more like the constant, interconnected back-beat rhythm playing out in various fantasy writings from the Victorian Era up to our own.  The simple fact is that most fantasy writers seem to be Romantics at heart, and a lot of their fiction tends to reflect this shared belief.  This also seems to be the collective reason why so many storytellers like to pit their Romanticism up against staunch seeming realists like Miss Finch.  Now if this is the kind of setup we've got going on here, then it is possible to claim that Gaiman is guilty of a straw man argument.

Some may jump in here and claim that the writer (the real life composer behind this story, and not the fictional narrator) is in danger of falling back on the kind of stereotypes that tend to flatten out the more three dimensional realities of real life people.  My response is that either Gaiman or (what seems more probable) the story itself seems to have anticipated this charge, and provided its own response within the confines of the narrative.  It's an answer that might just stave off any hint of bias in this story.  However, in order to make it's full meaning plain, it helps if the reader knows the rest of the story of Miss Finch and her fateful night on the town in full.  Without it, then it just doesn't seem possible to grasp the full thematic import of the story Gaiman is telling.  For now, let's just recall that one interesting flicker of unconventionality that the narrator threw out in passing about the story's title character, and keep that one important plot point in the back of our minds as we reach the destination.

Another important plot point is the one Jonathan mentions, also in passing.  He and Jane had tickets for themselves, Miss Finch, and the narrator to what ostensibly was supposed to be an evening of theater in the West End.  Instead, however, there's been one of those ambiguous fortuned twists of fate that means Jane and her husband have had to cancel their theater appointment, and choose another destination.  This leads up to the story's main setting, the Theater of Night's Dreaming.  If I had to find the right words to describe just what kind of venue this Theater is, then I suppose there are a number of options available.  Jane refers to it at one point as a kind of traveling "circus (138)".  The best useful information Jonathan is able to give on the matter is that the so-called circus "contacted us about being on" some upcoming TV Christmas special event that Jonathan is working in his professional talk show capacity; or something like that; the details remain vague.  "I tried to pay for tonight's show, but they insisted on comping us in (ibid)".  And that seems to be about all anyone knows about the whole affair.

My own terms for it is that it seems to operate as a combination carnival mashed together with a traveling theater troupe.  However the bill of fair is less Shakespeare, and more like how the narrator describes it once the show begins.  "The people came out.  Some of them rode motorbikes and dune buggies.  They ran and they laughed and they swung and they cackled.  Whoever had dressed them had been reading too many comics, I thought, or watched Mad Max too many times.  There were punks and nuns and vampires and monsters and strippers and the living dead.  They danced and capered around us while the ringmaster - identifiable by his top hat - sang Alice Copper's "Welcome to My Nightmare", and sang it very badly.  "I know Alice Cooper," I muttered to myself, misquoting something half-remembered, "and you, sir, are no Alice Cooper."  "It's pretty naff," Jonathan agreed (140)".  While this might not sound like much, there is plenty to recommend it on the level narrative setup and plotting.

In fact, I almost want to apologize for quoting from the story so much, though not for the reasons you may think.  It's less because of spoilers, and more in the way taking quotations from these moments causes the events to lose the sense of droll and knowing humor that Gaiman imparts to these moments.  There's a world of difference, in other words, between the way the characters in the story experience their circumstance versus how Gaiman relates it all to us as an audience.  Looked at from the proper dramatic angle, the story is able to build the proper sense of narrative intrigue and suspense.  We're curious to know that all important question of what happens next, coupled with a good dose of low key foreboding.  By this point, we're interested in what the characters will experience.  At the same time, we've both read and seen this kind of scenario before, and our imaginations are prepped for someone or something to come shambling out of the shadows.    In many ways it's almost as if Gaiman has wound up playing the role of an unintentional, yet also very welcome pioneer in these key moments.

The narrative he's busy setting up almost sounds (and even reads) like the current internet phenomenon known as the Creepypasta.  In this case, it's the familiar setup where a group of ordinary travelers come upon what looks like an ordinary, if slightly used and rundown fun fair or the like, only to wind up discovering that the entire fairground amounts to its very own house of horrors.  The basic concept may fit the description of a hoary old trope by this point, yet if it didn't still have some good levels of mileage left in it's gas tank, then audiences and artists wouldn't bother with coming back to have a drink from this particular well.  It's the kind of scenario that the creator of the Dreaming seems to be both familiar with, and fond of, as well.  You can tell Gaiman knows how to wind up this particular piece of literary watch work.  The mechanism behind it may be as old as the hills (perhaps even as old as carnivals, in fact), yet the author knows that it can be dependable if you wind it up just right.  Let's take, for instance, the way Gaiman describes the dank and dreary underground where the story takes place.

It's located somewhere "in the neighborhood of Southwark Cathedral (138)".  And once the main cast is lead into the place where the carnival is setup for the night is when Gaiman knows it time to hit the switch that sets the clockwork behind his narrative in motion.  Here is how he does it once the narrator has managed to get his bearings.  "It smelled of wet bricks and of decay.  I knew then where we were: there are networks of old cellars that run beneath some of the overground train tracks - vast, empty, linked rooms of various sizes and shapes.  Some of them are used for storage by wine merchants and used-car sellers; some are squatted in, until the lack of light and facilities drives the squatters back into the daylight; most of them stand empty, waiting for the inevitable arrival of the wrecking ball and the open air and the time when all their secrets and mysteries will be no more (139 -140)".

Now that is a lot more like it.  Not only does Gaiman manage to set the proper tone of lonely foreboding before any of the main action starts up.  He's also able to do it in a way that both plays to his strengths, and utilizes the familiar terrain of this type of narrative to his own creative advantages.  The astute reader can hear the familiar sound the plot's inner mechanism starting up, and getting ready to kick into high gear, and yet that's just fine.  Welcome, in fact.  It's okay if you can hear the gears of the story turning just off somewhere in the background or under our feet, because you can tell by the way it runs so smooth and fine, even after all these years, that all of that hoary old clockwork is in good hands.  The stage is now more or less set.  We have our cast, an event which looks thrown together, yet somehow conveys the sense that there is something more mysterious to it than appears on the surface.  Most of all, we have just the right kind of setting for all of this to unfold in.  The Theater of Night's Dreaming couldn't have chosen a better venue in which to showcase its secrets, and now Gaiman has us wondering the same question.  What is waiting to come shambling out of the dark to confront us all.

Conclusion: A Good Place to Start.

Like I said, the formula that Gaiman has to work with here is by now so familiar that it qualifies as something of a modern, expected trope.  What's interesting about it is that if you go through the back pages of literature, you'll discover that the author of the Dream Family might also be dealing one of those almost folkloric creative ideas with a surprising amount of literary pedigree to them.  The imaginative concept of the "Freaky Attraction", either a ride or else an entire carnival that serves as the haunt of some particular horror lurking behind the scenes, has now become one of the most familiar types of artistic currency within the modern Gothic genre.  In fact, it seems to have held on long enough to the point where it's most famous iterations right now seem to be in the realms of Creepypastas Whimsywood, Abandoned by Disney, or the undeniable popularity of the Five Nights at Freddy's franchise.  The thing is, if this is an example of a particular type of story setup persisting for so long through the passing of not just years, but seeming centuries, then where does it all come from?

If you should ever get the urge (this is something that applies to bookworms and English Majors, for the most part; strictly a hobby for enthusiasts, in other words) to try and hunt down the possible origin source for the the idea of the Haunted Amusement Park/Ride, then it's surprising what just a little digging can turn up.  It's probably one of those creative concepts whose true source, or wellspring is libel to vanish into history's dark abysm of time.  Something who's literary roots go so far underground that it's at a point beyond the reach of excavation.  If I had to take as educated a guess as I can muster.  The whole idea probably began to take a more familiar shape sometime around the Middle Ages, and perhaps even further back than that.  Though it's impossible to say what kind of form this story idea would have taken in a time before humans learned how to conceive the very notion of a carnival.

As best I can tell, it's at or around the era of Chaucer and the Gawain Poet where the most likely "modern" face of the concept began to take its familiar shape.  It's the setup of a traveling fair making its way through the countryside, hawking its wares, shows, and exhibitions for nothing more than the seeming amusement of whatever village or town it passes through.  In the medieval variant of this idea, the carnival would sooner or later be revealed as a literal conceit of the devil, or one of his minions as they make their way through the world, on a never-ending tour of "soul harvesting".  The scenario becomes pretty familiar by this point.  The carnival sets up shop in its newest locale.  All the villagers flock to see the newest attraction and are enchanted, at first, by the skills of the actors, tumblers, and magicians.  Because this is back when we all lived in the forest, and no one could ever live anywhere else, such chance encounters were likely to be the closest thing to novelty that a simple peasant life could hope to expect.  At least that's how it starts out, anyway.  It doesn't take long, however, for this sort of narrative to have a much darker turn.  It happens in slow-building fits, glances, and starts.

First it'll be something innocuous like strange noises in the night.  Maybe the local town drunkard will claim to have seen something that's driven him mad.  From there, events escalate.  The noises get more loud and violent, the people of the village wake up one morning to discover signs of mysterious activity left all over the town and its surroundings.  Such as strange footprints on the roof that look like they were made by goats or pigs.  Or else a local farmer will discover his crops have been trampled into eerie, ritualistic sigils.  It doesn't stop there, however.  The next time, this same farmer goes to tend his livestock, only to come upon the mutilated remains of his cows.  Then the final straw is added, as people in the village start to go missing, and pretty soon more bloodied remains are found, this time with tell-tale signs that they are, or at least they once belonged to living, breathing human beings.

At last, the villagers put two and two together; anger and wrath grows.  The townsfolk descend on the recently arrived carnival as they realize it is the source of all their troubles.  Once they get there is when the true pyrotechnic showdown occurs, and the true, dark nature of the traveling fair is unmasked at last.  It's the point at which the narrative brings out the works.  This type of setup would end with fire and thunder, and the next morning would dawn on either an empty town which has either been reduced to ashes, or in which every dwelling remains intact, except that all of the villagers have vanished into thin air.  It's through the mental spinning of such imaginative webs, or scenarios like the one I've just outlined that seems the closest bet for how we've wound up with the notion of the Haunted Carnival.

It's beginnings are out there, somewhere, in the mists of folklore.  However, with the advent of books and the printing press, it's no surprise that the Freaky Attraction trope sooner or later made its way into literature proper.  It may be possible to point to fictional characters such as Dr. Johannes Faustus, or the enigmatic figure known simply as Cagliostro as two literary creations that more or less helped add fuel to the trope of the wicked carnival.  At the very least, it's easy see how the infamous renown of either character could have metamorphosed over time into the kind of twisted ringmasters who preside over these devious cabinets of curiosities.  There's a bit more tell about the slow development of this particular Gothic notion, however it's not extensive beyond a certain point.  It seems like the first major development of the fairground of otherworldly enchantments got its first modern creative expression somewhere in 1935.  With the publication of Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr. Lao.  Much like Gaiman's narrative of the Theater of Night's Dreaming, Finney's work seems to operate either a very similar, or else the exact same basic conceit.  Each example relates what happens when a group of thrill seekers spend a night on the town taking in the sights and sounds of a fantastic traveling menagerie.

All that Finney does is take things to a novel length extent, and broaden the scope into an even more ambiguous realm of make-believe.  Gaiman's canvas may be much smaller than Finney's yet that's not meant as a sleight of any kind.  Each accomplishes their respective goals with the canvas they're given.  Finney just seems to have been the first artist to give the fantasy carnival it's first major sense of identity.  However, with that said, while Finney be accurately described as the one who created a space for the fantasy traveling fair, he is far from being the writer who has given it its permanent modern stamp.  That honor belongs to some hayseed from Illinois, who goes by the name of Ray Bradbury.  He's the one who seems mainly responsible for the idea of the Dark Carnival as we've come to know it.  In both a collection of short stories gathered together under a book of the same name, along with later iterations found in The October Country, Bradbury seems to have found the definitive artistic expression of this trope, and all of it reached its apotheosis in Something Wicked This Way Comes.

What's interesting about all this in terms of Gaiman's story is that it seems as if the author of "Miss Finch" is well aware of this history of the trope he has to work with.  With this in mind, it almost reads like Gaiman was having fun trying to find ways of playing with this idea.  The Theater of Night's Dreaming is clearly Finney's Circus of Dr. Lao, or Bradbury's traveling Shadow Show under a different guise and nationality.  However, because the writer seems aware of the storied history of the trope he's working with, he kind of decides to play around with the formula that comes with it.  In all of its earlier iterations, the Dark Carnival is always portrayed as this assorted menagerie of fantastical characters, each with their own twisted histories and menaces.  It's clear the main cast in each of these stories is facing off against a very competent threat.  Here, however, they're portrayed almost as if they were inept.  We don't get the sense that we're dealing with the spirits of lost souls, demons from the underworld, or even fantastical creatures who have banded together to cause mischief.  Instead, it's like the British equivalent of Ted Mack's Amateur Hour.  Rather than presenting the circus folk as clear, non-human beings in the thinnest of masks, the story goes out of its way to show their incompetence.

There's even a nice bit of narrative self-awareness to the whole thing in the way the story both sets up, lamp-shades, and then neatly undercuts its own history.  Once the main action gets going, the rest of the story is a tour through ten "rooms" hidden away beneath the surface of London.  It's a subtle Gothic touch, combined with a clever reshuffling of the layout and pattern of descent in Dante's Inferno.  And yet here's how the story satirizes its own main trope.  One room has,"a smiling blond woman wearing  a spangled bikini, with needle tracks down her arms...chained by a hunchback and Uncle Fester to a large wheel...and a fat man in a red cardinal's costume threw knives at the woman, outlining her body (141)".  There's a bit more bit of business to the routine in this first room, however you've just heard the basic gist of all there is.  Another chamber features an actor dressed up as the Frankenstein Monster.

The whole routine here is little more than a weight lift display.  "The Frankenstein's monster makeup was less than convincing", we're told, "but the Creature lifted a stone block with fat Uncle Fester sitting on it and he held back" a dune buggy being driven by a girl made up to look like your typical Goth vampire, and all with one hand.  "For his piece de resistance he blew up a hot water bottle, then popped it.  "Roll on the sushi, I muttered to Jonathan (142)".  The narrator's comment is a good single sentence description of the what spectacle seems destined to be like.  The fact that he can't even be bothered to make the comment about the quality of evening's entertainment is sort of all the reader needs to know about what the nameless protagonist thinks about it.  Still, it's not that bad.  There are one or two moments where it seems as if the carnival folk know what they're doing, such as the surprise that awaits the audience in the "Theater's" third display room.  All of which begins in a state of utter darkness.

"The room buzzed at the corners of vision with the blue-purple of ultraviolet light.  Teeth and shirts and flecks of lint began to glow in the darkness.  A low, throbbing music began.  We looked up to see, high above us, a skeleton, an alien, a werewolf, and an angel.  Their costumes fluoresced in the UV, and they glowed like old dreams...on trapezes.  They swung back and forth, in time with the music...We realized that they were attached to the roof by rubber cords, invisible in the darkness, and they bounced and dove and swam through the air above us while we clapped and...watched in happy silence (ibid)".  

The truth, however, is that such moments are the exception, instead of the rule for the evening.  By and large, the whole affair comes off like the act of a group of college level novices whose ideas about theater and performance art is too vague and derivative to be of use to anyone, even as mere rehearsal exercises for a real show.  The punchline, of course, is that the entire joke plays out within the confines of the same, familiar carnival trope that Bradbury made famous.  Nor is this in any way out of the norm for Gaiman.  If it makes any sense at all to call him something of an inheritor of a lot of older fantasy tropes, then one of the things that marks his art out as unique is the way he presents it in the vast majority of his writings.  One of Gaiman's most interesting skills is the ability he has of often bringing the fantastic down to life size, while somehow always managing to never really diminish it.  If a lot of his characters are figures straight out of myth, then the author tends to make sure that they never lose that older sense of epic grandeur. Instead, Gaiman seems to like showing how the ways of the modern age has begun to take it's tole on the classic archetypal characters of fairy tales from bygone days.

This conceit of a myth brought low is one that continues to fascinate Gaiman as a myth maker.  Hence, you'll find Sir Galahad getting stuck out in the modern English countryside as he looks for the Grail.  Or else an average, slightly tired looking, yet still attractive young girl reveals herself to be a variation of the Fair Folk.  It's just that these days she's having to struggle along economically, just like the rest of us mere mortals.  It doesn't do much for her disposition, that's for sure.  Yet the curious thing about this repeated narrative strategy is how Gaiman never really lets these figures ever lose sight or hold of their ancient, mythical dignity.  Whenever the situation gets real serious, or else these characters feel like the it's right to assert the old powers, whether just for themselves, or often to help out another, then when the time comes for these displaced myths to display their full glory, Gaiman shows no hesitation in switching at the drop of a hat from his typical sardonic musings right back into a tone more accustomed in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, or the like.  It's become one of the most notable, quirky, and yet somehow endearing, and most successful and identifiable aspects of all his work up to this date.

This also turns out to be the gimmick at play in the Theater of Night's Dreaming.  Bradbury's "October People" have definitely fallen on hard times, yet they are still capable of a trick or two up the sleeve.  This time, it comes in the form of the titular Miss Finch.  It all goes back to what I said about that flicker of unconventionality that seems to run through her character.  Like an underground stream whose current is still audible, faint, yet steady underneath the surface of an otherwise impregnable mountain.  It's a clue to the secret heart of where this character lives, and at one point, she lets her guard down just a bit to the narrator.  In doing so, she also reaches the heart of Gaiman's narrative.

This happens in the Theater's Fifth Room, which is really a break and rest stop area in the middle of all the other "attractions", complete with concession stands serving  drinks, souvenir booths, and lavatories.  While Jonathan avails himself of the latter, and Jane goes to get everyone something for the former, the narrator is left having to babysit Miss Finch, and winds up making an interesting discovery about the "Guest of the Evening"."So," I said, "I understand you've not been back in England long."  "I've been in Komodo," she told me, "Studying the dragons.  Do you know why they grow so big?"  "Er..." "They adapted to prey upon the pygmy elephants?"  I was interested.  This was much more fun than being lectured on sushi flukes (143-44)".  It's not just the first interesting turn of events, so far.  It's also the first time we the glacial implacability of the title character begin to soften.  "As Miss Finch talked her face became more animated, and I found myself warming to her as she explained why and how some animals grew while others shrank (144)".  Then comes the remark that kicks off the finale.

It's more like a number of interesting facts that Miss Finch rolls off about her favorite subject, really.  Turns out she's a bit of a geek girl when it comes to the prehistoric past of this planet, and all the curious, ancient wildlife that sounds fantastical on paper, and even still looks that way when their bones and remains are displayed in museums.  However, they're still true for all that.  Perhaps it's all in the way they were made.  There's something about dinosaur, mammoth, and saber tooth bones that always strikes one as a bit fanciful.  They are (or were) real creatures who always look like they shouldn't be.  Perhaps its in the way their basic shapes put us in mind of the type of creatures you can only expect to see on the other side of a Wardrobe door.  And even then, you'd only expect such a land to exist solely within the pages of a book, or as film set for either the big or small screen.  That's the funny thing about prehistory, when you think about it.  If you look at the fossil record long enough, you can perhaps begin to understand why our ancestors once believed dragons and manticores used to walk upon the Earth.

This at least seems to be the underlying idea animating Miss Finch's train of thought as she rattles off a number of quaint and curious forgotten lore about these ancient animals.  Such as how the "last aepyornises were killed off by Portuguese sailors on Madagascar about three hundred years ago.  And there are fairly reliable accounts of a pygmy mammoth being presented at the Russian court in the sixteenth century, and a band of something which from the descriptions we have were almost definitely some kind of saber-tooth - the Smilodon - brought in from North Africa by Vespasian to die in the circus.  So these things aren't all prehistoric.  Often they're historic (144-45)".  It's then that Jane asks Miss Finch the crucial question that sets up the ending.  Whether she believes there could still be such animals roaming around out there?  "I wish with all my heart that there were some left today.  But there aren't.  We know the world too well (145)".  I think that's got to be the most significant line in the entire story.  It's the first genuinely Romantic statement that the title character has ever spoken in the drama.

It may also prove to be significant in what happens next.  Over the loud-speaker, a voice from the Midnight Carnival chimes in with a peculiar announcement.  Almost as if the shadow's were lying in wait for someone in the audience to make such a remark,"the lights were flicked on and off, and a ghastly, disembodied voice told us to walk to the next room, that the latter half of the show was not for the faint of heart, and that later tonight, for one night only, the Theater of Night's Dreaming would be proud to present the Cabinet of Wishes Fulfill'd (ibid)".  What happens next is best left for the reader to discover for themselves.  I'll just say here that it does involve Miss Finch.  Whether or not her own wishes are fulfilled is something others will have to make up their minds about.  Beyond this, what I can say for sure is that not only is this story entertaining, it's also a good place to start with Gaiman's fiction.

Like I've said before, sometimes when an artist is able to carve out as big a name for themselves like the author of Sandman, one of the potential pitfalls is how sometimes you're best work is what gets you pigeonholed by audience expectations.  It's happened countless of times, and not just in the field of literature.  These days, Steven Spielberg is probably just that Indiana Jones guy.  Didn't he also do a film about a little alien, or something like it?  Likewise, all people seem to remember Stephen King for is The Shining and The Stand.  Trick question: are those two books, or films?  That seems to be the current extent of pop culture awareness at the moment, and it's something I've begun to find myself kind of fighting against.  It makes no sense to me that an artist as talented as Gaiman can spend a lifetime churning out one great book after another, and yet the vast majority will turn right around and focusing in on just one or two of his offerings, and leave it at that.  What's galling about such rush judgements is the implicit statement that the author has never done anything else of value.  With all due respect, that's an absolute garbage take, and it's also one of the reasons why this blog even exists.

If I can wake up at least a goodish enough number faces in the crowd to the availability and sometimes even the artistry of obscure works like this, then I'll consider that time well spent.  When it comes to a story like "The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch, what the author has done amounts to little more than providing his readers with a genuine favor.  This is one of those neat little pulp magazine style stories whose ease and accessibility serves as the best possible introduction to the literary career of Neil Gaiman.  The whole thing acts as a catalogue of many of the tropes that the author has gone on to utilize in most of his other fiction.  Perhaps the most immediately noticeable aspect of the story is its ability to both portray and enter into the realm of what is (or used to be) the modern Goth culture.  This may or might not be an aspect that dates the story.  Such things like this always depend on what is considered the major cultural trend.  However, what can't be denied is that it was this initial engagement with the sort of Goth Punk culture of the 80s that lent Gaiman his start.

He seems to have been the first writer to directly engage with this cultural sub-set in a way that made clear he at least understood both its language and its own terms in a way that was, at the very least, somewhat empathic.  As a result, it was kind of no surprise that this was the first major audience for his stories, and they helped launch the writer onto the public stage.  "Miss Finch" sees Gaiman returning to that well, and putting it to good use, along with the story's other elements.  Another one of these is the modern day setting which looks normal on the surface.  While the always implied truth is that it acts as the thinnest veneer over a far greater, enchanted reality.  This has become perhaps the most common setup in modern fantastic fiction, going perhaps as far back as the Victorian era, and it makes Gaiman something of an inheritor.  He was never the first to play this particular tune (that honor goes to the likes of Ray Bradbury, Edith Nesbit, and perhaps even Charles Dickens), yet the good news is that Gaiman has proven himself time and again to be a worthy heir, and this trope seems to be his home.

That's certainly the case with the tale of the Theater of Night's Dreaming.  It's the kind of place that looks like a dilapidated, rundown and worn out idea.  The truth, however, is that Gaiman's skill in illustrating this setting and its cast shows not just how well aware the writer is with the trope he's using, but also just how much fun he's having in using it to play his style of conjuring trick on the audience.  While the Night's Dreaming show might seem like the work of a bunch of amateurs with little talent, and not much promise at first glance, when it comes time for the story to pull off it's final magic trick, it does so with a confidence and craft that is seamless.  When this happens, the reader starts to realize what sort of game is being played here, and this is the final element in the story of Miss Finch.  The truth is we've been guests of the same Midnight Carnival that folks like Bradbury and maybe even Christopher Marlowe wrote about as far back as the age of Queen Elizabeth.  Much like its earlier incarnations, the final trick of Gaiman's Theater of Night's Dreaming is one that momentarily pulls aside the veil of the everyday to show the greater reality lying in wait underneath.  It's one that goes all the way back into prehistoric times, when great beasts, and other things used to walk the Earth.  

Like I said, this is the kind of narrative that showcases the writer playing to all of his strengths.  In this short story, it's as if Gaiman has found the perfect way to showcase these elements in an introductory primer fashion.  I suppose that's the best reason I have for saying this is probably the closest candidate I'll ever have for the best place to introduce new readers to the Sandman's creator.  It features a nice beginner's entre of the writer's style, main tropes, and just the first hint of one of his main themes.  It's a mistake, of course, to claim that this is all or the only type of way that Gaiman writers any of his stories.  There's a lot more to this writer's secondary worlds than just Goth characters, and a riff on Bradbury's Dark Carnival.  If that were the case (if the author really was just a one trick pony, in other words) then the variety, and inspirations in all of his work wouldn't have managed to capture the imaginations of several generations of readers, with no signs of that momentum slowing down anytime soon.  Instead "The Facts in the Case of Miss Finch" works as a good way to start with Neil Gaiman. 


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