Creatures of the Night
by Neil Gaiman, Michael Zulli
(Dark Horse, 2004)

Creatures of the Night features two stories by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Michael Zulli. "The Price" and "Daughter of Owls" draw heavily on Neil's passion for drawing on the magic and mystery of folk tales, not to mention his love of animals.

Gaiman has a gift for making the ordinary fantastic, such as making a sleepy home in the country the scene of a visitation by the Devil, and of making the fantastic ordinary; he makes that same visitation, once it's discovered, a seemingly regularly occurring event, albeit one that takes place below the range of everyday radar.

Gaiman also loves cats, and the warmth of that affection shines from every page of "The Price," an engaging little tale about an enigmatic black cat who turns up on the doorstep of a writer's country home. The mysterious, almost human-like fellow, who has the family in the palm of his charming paw, positions himself outside the door of the family home each night, acting as a sort of guardian. As each morning dawns, however, the cat becomes steadily the worse for wear, covered with injuries from which he can barely recover, each morning worse than the last. It's clear that he's been fighting with something but no tracks or signs of any other creature leaves his adopted family with a mystery on their hands.

Bewildered, the writer takes up observation in the attic late one evening, trying to see for himself just what the black cat has been battling night after night -- and soon wishes he hadn't. The quiet farmhouse, tucked way in the country, isn't nearly as safe as it seems. Suffice to say that Gaiman explores, to very chilling effect and with his usual insight and deftness, the ancient role of the cat as guardian of the home against evil spirits.

The modern setting of what feels like an ancient tale lends a surreal quality that bolsters the sense of unreality, whereas the second tale, "The Daughter of Owls," is set in the mythical past. It recounts the "true" story of an infant girl who is found abandoned on the steps of a church. Sent to live with a reclusive nun in a crumbling monastery, she grows into a beauty that stirs the men of the village into violence. Once again the theme is one of protective spirits in a sort of animus form, but its message, while clear, is not as compelling as "The Price."

Gaiman's charm as a storyteller lies in the delivery as much as the content. That's why weaker stories like "Daughter of Owls," which runs neatly alongside "The Price" in tone and message, but can't quite match its charm and sense of otherworldly suspense, are still quite palatable, if rather forgettable. It's like following a shot of tequila with a dose of warm milk; yes, it's scary but it's still a bit simple. But Gaiman's ability to draw out the darkness behind familiarity, the hard truths behind commonly told tales, is considerable even in his less stellar material. He always entertains.

The book is worth having for Zulli's illustrations alone. A true feast for the eyes, the sharp, clear lines illuminate every dark, beautiful aspect of the stories, capturing pain and beauty in equal doses. Zulli uses dark spaces very well, contrasting them with pale swatches of color that make the story leap off the page. Gaiman fans won't be disappointed, and those interested in checking out his work could use Creatures of the Night as a decent introduction to Gaiman's work.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 30 April 2005

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