From children's books to superhero comics to last year's unusually concrete novel American Gods, Neil Gaiman's archetype-mining work strikes universal, mythopoeic chords that resonate pleasantly (and often eerily) with old traditions and older stories. In two recent books, Murder Mysteries and Coraline, Gaiman works his usual alchemy, mixing a detective story with a creation myth in the former case, and—among many other things—a ghost story with a traditional cautionary fairy tale in the latter. Artist P. Craig Russell scripted and illustrated the graphic-novel version of Murder Mysteries, sticking closely to Gaiman's 1992 short story of the same name. The book begins as a weary Englishman with a patchy memory wanders Los Angeles, encountering a shabby older man who seems cut from the same cloth as Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Ancient Mariner. The newcomer tells the first-person story of the angel Raguel, "the Vengeance of the Lord," and his assignment to avenge a murder that took place in heaven when the universe was still being designed. Ultimately, of course, the inner story and its outer shell are linked into a single chilling tale, somewhere between apocryphal fable and secret history. Russell's meticulous, thin-lined art occasionally approaches photo-realism, but he has an admirable knack for alternating detail with evocative abstractions. He shows similar skill in adapting the story, generally using Gaiman's exact words, mostly eliding the text where his own illustrations neatly fill in the ellipses. Gaiman's flowery but precise verbiage shows similar restraint in sketching out a pair of chilling, nested stories that each contain their own subtle shock. Coraline is even more restrained linguistically; it runs to more elaborate imagery, but keeps the sentences and the vocabulary simple. The short children's novel is written primarily in a clipped, declarative tone that conveys the businesslike inner life of a child who deals with the mundane and the bizarre on the same straightforward level. The title character is a young girl of indeterminate age, bored by her distracted, work-at-home parents and the confines of their eccentric new house. While exploring, she finds a mysterious door that leads to a house almost exactly like her own, occupied by her "other mother" and her "other father," who feed her sumptuous meals instead of microwaved food, lavish her with loving attention, and offer her living toys and singing rats for playmates. But the "other parents" have paper-white skin and black buttons for eyes, and want to replace her eyes in a similar fashion. And when Coraline returns to her own house, her real parents are missing. Her story is a more traditional type of fairy tale than Murder Mysteries; talking animals and magic charms aside, Coraline is a modern version of any number of traditional story-warnings about being grateful for what you have. Coraline evokes a long-ago, pre-Tinkerbell age when fairies were dark metaphors for the ancient, dangerous unknown, while Murder Mysteries goes even further back in time to put a concrete face on a theological question. Both stories are hauntingly familiar, intriguingly fresh, and absorbingly told.
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