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Neil Gaiman: Using Dreams to Crack Your Head Open

Neil Gaiman

The next stop on the survey of my Not-A-Top-5 for Science Fiction/Fantasy/Horror Novelists That Use Dreams to Crack Your Head Open In All the Right Ways…

Previous stops include the works of Caitlin R. Kiernan and Mark Z. Danielewski.

Despite all evidence to the contrary, Neil Gaiman is Not, in fact, the King of Dreams, the Prince of Stories, His Honour, Morpheus, Lord Dream of the Endless. Neil just Works for him. Now, don’t get me wrong, he does a Fantastic job of it, and even managed to get people to read Real and True Factual History by dressing it up as a so-called “Comic Book.” This is no mean feat. And sure, the job has its perks–like being able to tell stories that are true, but which never actually “happened” per se; or writing down such fantastical tales that happen every day but which people hardly ever believe. Or (of course) telling Dreams. And I don’t just mean dreams like you’re naked in class and it’s the day of the big test, or you’re locked in a submarine with the Queen of All Rock-Topia. I mean Your dreams, Our dreams, dreams that matter, Stories that teach us things. You know…Dreams.

[ad#longpost]But if you’re here as a regular reader, then I really don’t need to tell you about The Neil, now do I? I mean, you’ll by now no doubt have read The Graveyard Book, memorised Stardust, lost yourself in Neverwhere, and lived the countless, endless stories and lives encompassed in his 2,000+ page opus, The Sandman. Right? Of course. So I don’t need to tell You, dear reader, that Neil Gaiman is to mind-blowing stories as a faucet is to water. But why not do it, anyway? Because, if we’re going to talk about the stories that use dreams to break us open, if we’re going to talk about the Novels which do so, we cannot fail to discuss the skull-shattering, road-tripping-through-the-Dreamtime, Kerouac-on-Peyote-and-Gin adventure that is American Gods. In its pages we find a man called Shadow–his “real” name doesn’t matter, or maybe it’s completely integral–who’s just been given compassionate early release from prison, due to the death of his wife. Upon making his way back home, Shadow encounters a man named Mr. Wednesday, who makes him an offer: if Shadow will work for Wednesday, be his driver and bodyguard–nothing illegal–Shadow will be rewarded handsomely. Shadow, being numb and without purpose in the face of his wife’s death, accepts. But he needs to go to his wife’s funeral first.

As you might’ve guessed, from the title, the book takes place in America, and concerns the different gods one can find in that country. The basic idea here is that the complex concepts that people bring with them in worship and reverence, in secret prayer and love, from far-flung shores, take up residence in the new land of their followers. Gods, you understand, are the dreams and hopes of their worshippers, and when those worshippers move, those dreams and hopes get transplanted. But context is important, and America is not Africa is not Ireland is not Cornwall is not Norway. Each god brought to this new land is necessarily changed and moulded by the shape of the land itself; each god must adapt to the intersection of the new mentality of its devotees–that mentality having been necessarily changed by the very act of coming to a new place–and the existing complexities of the land’s concepts. The land, they learn, has its own way of thinking and dreaming about itself, and the land does not take well to new gods pushing themselves into place. Shadow experiences all of the various pantheons the country has to offer as he travels across it with Wednesday, as Wednesday seeks to consolidate the old gods together, to help him brace against an ever-evolving, ever-growing America, and the way it thinks of itself. New Gods have begun to assert themselves in the land, and this is the point at which Shadow begins encountering the land on its own terms.

Before Shadow first dreams of himself in the earth, with the Buffalo-headed man, he dreams of a trek through a literal pantheon—a museum hall of statues of half-forgotten gods, concepts and icons and conglomerations of fur, hide, and bone. These things represent the awe people have had for various concepts and symbols, over the millennia, and which they have turned into the gods of their tribes, their cities, and their empires. A precise, fussy voice tells him that they have all fallen, in their time, and Shadow must walk through them, experience them, and experience the terror that is the prospect of being truly and fully lost and unremembered. A wind and a consuming fear sweeps through him, shaking him, forcing him up and out of the dream. He wakes up. And his dead wife is sitting on the edge of his bed. When Shadow does finally dream of himself “in the earth and under the earth,” he meets the voice of the Land, the soul of the Fire: a figure with the body of a man, the head of a Buffalo, with fire in his lungs and in his hands.

The Buffalo-Headed Man tells Shadow that a storm is coming, and he has to make certain choices. Shadow dreams this place again and again, and in his dreams he must crawl up through the earth, which crushes him, breaks him, reforms him, and he finds himself climbing up and out, onto a plain, up from the plain onto a sheer cliff of strange rock, eventually climbing over a mountain of the skulls of his own dead selves to understand the truth of his situation. In each dream, Shadow is broken, killed, transformed in some way, and each time he wakes up to some new situation, some new person and revelation, and each time he wakes, he receives a gift. The motif of death in each of Shadow’s dreams should be an omen, warning of what’s to come to him, but, in the way of dreams, he loses the ability to convey the terror, the awe, the mystery of the experience, as he wakes. This is made doubly true by the fact that each time he wakes up, he’s thrust into a new, stranger situation.

American Gods

And here we have what is one of Gaiman’s many gifts: to convey the full nature of dreams in their experience and in their wake; to show what it is that we feel in dreams, what it’s like when we can’t explain why that feeling matters so much, and why it’s so important that we express what we can. Our dreams, Gaiman understands, shape our days, influence the ways in which we interact with people, and colour the whole of what we experience after we wake from them. If people can’t understand them, then a part of us feels that they’re fundamentally misunderstanding Us. People who don’t understand our dreams don’t get us, and they can’t get what we’re experiencing on a visceral, deeply meaningful level. So we feel alone, and, in Shadow’s case, this is a near constant feeling. Every once in a while, though, we share our dreams with someone who understands us, and they feel what we feel, and tremble at what terrifies us.

This is one of Gaiman’s most important lessons to us in American Gods, one of the things that made it “what kind of book this was”: Our dreams resonate throughout our lives, and the lives of everyone we meet. Be they the dreams of gods, powers, and principle concepts, the dreams of hope and wealth and gold for ourselves and our families and tribes, or the dreams of riding the lightning after we sacrifice the thing most important to us to learn the trick to save the world…our dreams are communicable, and we infect those closest to us with their power and meaning. They take those dreams into themselves and they hold them, live them, change them into something more, and you share those dreams together and create something larger than all of you. And, depending on who you are and what you believe, maybe you take that shared dream back into yourself and you become it fully, and every time anyone dreams that dream, they dream You. But there’s something to be said for not being a shared collective dream: if nothing else, when everyone wakes up, you don’t stop existing and disappear, forgotten and alone. People, as Shadow tells us, “just keep going anyhow.”

And this, here at the end, is the thing we need to learn about dreams: they allow us to keep going, they teach us how to make ourselves different and better. Dreams, in the proper context, break us open, give us the tools to reshape ourselves, and communicate deep, important information, from one mind to another, even when we don’t remember the full details of their content. They are brain-salad and emanations from Spiritus Mundi and omens and the remains of the day. Dreams are sublimely meaningful and completely meaningless, and the people who can write them well, who can show these facets are rare and important creatures. Their stories about dreams which are so much like and yet some very different from our own dreams help us to make ourselves something more than we are, show us how to reform and enhance ourselves, and place our experiences and thoughts at right angles to our so-called “normal” reality. And if we are very lucky, those dreams become our dreams, and our dreams become our own stories, and our stories unfold and expand into the world around us, with everyone we know becoming their host. And that way we can break each other open, every day.


  • I really do resonate with Gaiman’s work in the dream world. He’s the only writer I know that deals with All of the different types of dreams–from those where you’re riding a train with some random guy from some show on TV and a clown walks down the aisle, to the crisp, clear, dear gods this must be happening right now dreams in which you’re standing on a cliff, looking out over the surf, thousands of feet down, where your feet are cold because they’re bare and you can feel every grit and jagged edge of the cliff, and you think about your mother’s death, even though she’s still alive in the waking world. I love how he can go and accept the entire spectrum of dreams, and gives value to each type.

  • It’s one of his gifts, absolutely. He gives each dream a life and reality it might not have, in the hands of someone who didn’t care, so very much, for telling and understanding good stories, and living good dreams.