31 Days of Halloween: Examining a Neil Gaiman Short Story

A Look at a Gaiman Short Story

Gaiman’s short story reads like a master class in horror fiction. The story revolves around a child being watched by his older sister’s boyfriend for the first time, and, as children seem to require before going to sleep, he asks for a final bedtime story. The boy is as adamant about needing this story as he is about needing to be taken to bed, for, “ ‘…I am a bit scared. Not very scared. Just a bit. But it is a very big house, and lots of times the lights don’t work and its sort of dark” (109).

This short exchange at the beginning of the story reveals a lot to the reader.

1) The relationship between the boy and his babysitter
2) The setting, a big old house, and more importantly …

3) How THE BOY views the big house.

Why is this important? Understanding the dynamic between characters is integral to our understanding the piece. Here we have two characters in a classical relationship. We have the older, responsible, mature adult (or adult-like figure, for while we’re given hints as to the ages we aren’t given exact ages – the boy is in school because he talks of completing his homework, and because his sister is moving into this house with roommates, the reader could assume that, if her boyfriend is of a similar age, then he would probably be somewhere in his twenties) and the child who demands protection.

This is a classic setup in literature, especially in horror literature, but with Gaiman this doesn’t feel stale.

Next, we have the house, another classic setup. But what is emphasized here is not just that this is a big house, but it is how the boy sees the house and the dark places that really defines what happens through the rest of the story.

The precociousness of the child thins as they pass into the darkness of the house, and smaller fingers intertwine with larger as they begin to move up the stairs and they keep talking about a story the child has heard but the man hasn’t: Click-clack the Rattlebag.

What is great about this story is this child, asking for a story, maybe even a scary story, but not too scary, is the storyteller about these monsters that come from the dark. That are made of the dark. But what we get in the end is a specific sound the man hears and the child’s final request, that maybe the man can tell him a story of what happened that night.

THE MOMENT OF HORROR:

For the man, it is the realization that he’s been lured into danger, and is delayed till the last line of the story, nearly. But the character ignored all the warning signs, and the moment of horror is left for the astute reader, who must assemble the clues and who must realize that, by the end, the boy is not the frightened, precocious, weak thing.

What Gaiman does, and he’s not the first person to do this, is turn the trope on its head. The kid as monster. The clues that this is happening are subtler than in other works. We don’t have Linda Blair spewing pea soup or a child actor playing an adult pretending to be a child so as to destroy a family – we aren’t shown, in other words, a kid acting creepy. We have a kid that, till the very last paragraph (minus a few well-placed hints scattered about the story), seems like a normal, everyday child who needs exactly what every normal, everyday child needs: a (not too) scary bedtime story and an adult to tuck them in.

The man regrets it. This story made me think about such innocent requests, and after reading it, I’m going to think twice about offering to tell some brat a bedtime story, even if it’s my own.

What is great about this story is what is left unsaid. We aren’t told – ANYWHERE – anything that I’ve conjectured from the previous few paragraphs. Not explicitly. But this story, a good story, is a puzzle that the reader must put together. What did this character say? How did that character respond? What could that noise be?

Character interactions drive a story, and this story is a masterclass in how to make your characters interact.

 

Jones, Stephen Ed. “Click-clack the Rattlebag.” Best New Horror 25. NY, New York: Skyhorse Publishing. 2014. Print.

 

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