SSM Guest Review: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains by Neil Gaiman from N. R. Alexander

Title: The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains
Author: Neil Gaiman
CollectionStories – All New Tales Edited by Neil Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio
Publisher: Headline
Release Date: Out 15 Jun 2010 in Hardback

The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a remarkable short story that stands out from even the prestigious company it keeps in Stories: All-New Tales. Gav kicked off SSM in great style by telling you all about Roddy Doyle’s Blood, the stomach-churning dark comedy with which this anthology begins, but for me, the best tale of the bunch is Neil Gaiman’s aforementioned contribution.

Which comes as no great shakes: I’ve been a fan of the author since his Black Orchid days – a hot botanical superhero that sadly didn’t quite catch on in the way The Sandman did shortly thereafter – and it’s a real treat to see him returning to more adult fare after the likes of Odd and the Frost Giants and The Graveyard Book. Fine fictions in their own right, you’ll hear no argument from me, but however much I enjoy the all-ages fare Gaiman dreams up, I can’t help but wish he’d remember his older fans more often.

In many sense, it feels like he wrote The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains specifically for me. To begin with, it’s a step away from the whimsy he’s become so renowned for. Add to that the fact that it takes place in the barren highlands of Scotland hundreds of years ago and you’ll begin to see what I mean. I’m a Scotsman born and bred – a speculative one at that, as no doubt some of you already know – and the landscape hereabouts is spectacular. With ominous grey skies, vertiginous cliffs, verdant grassy inclines speckled with the lurid yellows and vibrant purples of gorse and heather growing wild, Scotland is a beautiful country, truly (it’s people often rather less so), with such an inherent sense of isolation that few places in the modern world can match it. It’s a perfect setting for fantasy or horror or what have you, ready and waiting for one writer or another to take advantage of its qualities, but wouldn’t you know it: practically no-one does.

Neil Gaiman does. In his lengthy contribution to Stories: All-New Tales, which he also co-edits, the author introduces us to a man, short, secretive and never named, who seeks “a certain cave on the Misty Isle” where it is rumoured a deathly spectre awaits to grant his heart’s desire, and a guide to take him to it. He comes upon Calum MacInnes in “a house that sat like a square of white sky against the green of the grass,” and after some bargaining, they venture forth into the ethereal landscape together. Having spent some time in the region himself, Gaiman does the highlands and islands justice, his exposition just florid enough to evoke their timeless attraction, yet retaining that essential component of such stories as this: an ever-present sense of mystery, of the unknown and the unknowable.

In fact, it is the unknown which elevates The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains above the other wonderful stories which grace this sumptuous anthology. Gaiman obscures much from the outset, yet his obfuscation never intrudes on the narrative, nor does it seem at all calculated – until an icy breath of revelation in the last act gives chilling context to all that has come before. This is a tale to be read and re-read immediately, so delicate is its construction, its climax so surprising and satisfying.

Neil Gaiman is a storyteller with nary a peer in this field, and though he’s been absent from adult fiction too long, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is such a tremendous read that Scotsman or not, you’ll be left chomping at the bit for the long-awaited successor to Anansi Boys.

N. R. Alexander is better known as @nailalot on twitter and for the blog The Speculative Scotsman, which sets itself apart from other like-minded blogs primarily by being Scottish and therefore sarcastic.

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