Where nothing is what it seems: A comparison of the themes at play in the works of Tori and Neil

Little Blue World vol.6 n°2 summer 2006

Saturday 3 May 2014, by Yvette Perez

It is quite well-known amongst Tori fans that she and Neil Gaiman have been friends for years. Perhaps it is easy for fans of both artists to think they are somehow connected in their artistic endeavors, and the assumption would in some ways be completely true. It is relatively well-known that Neil and Tori reference each other often in their work, giving each other little “shout outs” buried within song lyrics or lines of prose. From Neil setting Tori’s lyrics for “Tear in Your Hand” as the background music for the opening of Sandman issue #41 -the first issue in the series called “Brief Lives,” where the character of Delirium takes center stage and becomes increasingly Tori-like - to Tori singing in the very same song “Neil said hi by the way,” their cross-references are fairly easy to spot and, at least for a fan of both (as I am) incredibly fun to find. (None more so than when Tori sang, “Will you find me if Neil makes me a tree?” in “Horses” - and then, when Neil proceeded to write the graphic novel Stardust, he did exactly that! Now, wasn’t that a great wink and nod to their mutual fans?)

As the years have gone on, Tori has grown increasingly obscure in her Neil references, no longer necessarily mentioning by name (though she obviously still does: “Get me Neil on the line/No can’t hold...” “Carbon”) but also referencing his creations, as in, “Where are the Velvets?” (“Hotel”) which refers to a warmth-sucking, vampire-like group of women who figure in Neil’s novel Neverwhere. Neil , too, has grown more obscure in his references to Tori, as where he explicitly quotes her lyrics to “Virginia” in his novel American Gods, chapter 4: “The children grew in the lush Virginia hills...” (emphasis added).

Still, I believe that Tori and Neil’s artistic kinship goes far beyond the simple fact of their referencing each other from time to time in their works. It even goes further than Tori writing the introduction to Neil’s Death: The High Cost of Living, or Neil including Tori’s daughter Tash in his dedication to Wolves in the Walls and writing the “biographies” of each of the girls in the Strange Little Girls Tour book. They are friends, after all, and both artists, so it is only to be expected that this give-and-take would occur naturally. However, although I would never go so far as to pretend to know why they became friends, I have the vaguest of inklings that the roots of their friendship might lay in some similarity of thought and idea. (For more on how they became friends, see our interview with Rantz Hoseley in Volume 4, Issue 1.)

In the years that I have spent both listening to Tori’s music and reading most of Gaiman’s works, I have begun to notice the increasing similaritie in their themes. At first, perhaps, it was easy to dismiss these similarities as Tori’s infamous -though not altogether real - “airy fairy” image playing off against Neil’s title as Well-Respected Fantasy Author. Tori talked about the fairies; Neil wrote them into his comic books. Tori sang about serial killer Charles Manson; Neil wrote about a serial killer’s convention in Sandman. I suppose there was fodder for anyone obsessed enough to find any and every possible connection, no matter how tenuous.

But I think there is a much deeper connection between their works. Tori has made it abundantly clear over the years - and nowhere more clearly than in the recent book Piece by Piece - that for her, it all comes down to archetypes - to the stories and myths that are at the core of human existence. And Neil has shown in his own work that his focus was not so much the truly “fantastic,” but the place where reality and myth overlap and coexist. Both Neil and Tori have touched on all manner of myth: the myth of gender, as in Neil’s short story “Changes” and just about any of Tori’s albums; the myth of creation (Tori’s “Original Sinsuality,” Neil’s Sandman comic series). Not to mention more standard types of myth: from Egyptian, Celtic, Norse, and Greco-Roman gods and goddesses to modern-day Judeo-Christian figures like Mary Magdalene, Jesus, Lucifer and Moses (this last most famously in Tori’s “Muhammad My Friend”) - as well as mythological entities, from Loki to Orpheus, from faeries to monsters - all of these have made an appearance in both Tori’s and Neil’s work.

In essence, I see both Tori and Neil as examining the existence of myth in our modern world. Myths are what define a culture. Myths tell us what we hold dear, the values and ideals that we live by. The United States, in particular, is a country made up of myths -the myths brought over by the myriad waves of immigrants that have peopled it, as well as our own American myths of self-creation -and yet the United States is a country that in essence has no true myth of its own, except what we ourselves have invented over the last 200 years, the so-called “American Dream.”

This is a theme both Neil and Tori have touched upon a few years back. Tori, with Scarlet’s Walk, took upon herself the concept of “America the Beautiful,” the modern myth of America -the land of plenty that at the same time is a land of emptiness and confusion. Neil took on the myth of America as well with his novel American Gods, where America is the location for a clash between the old myths that came with the immigrants that have made up this country and the modern myths we have created via technology and money. The gods of our past were nature-based, while our modern gods are financial and technological. In Scarlet’s Walk, Tori, too, deals with our modern American gods of money, power and sex.

Still, this obsession with myth goes far beyond just Scarlet’s Walk and American Gods. Myth is more than a set of stories. Myth is the fabric of a society. Myth helps us sort out who we are. Tori and Neil both inhabit a creative realm where myth and reality are not separate entities, but part of one cohesive, indescribable whole. Although they both deal with myriads of issues -from modern dilemmas like those of gender identity, politics and technology, to primordial issues like love, family and meaning -still a golden thread seems to run though all of their works, sometimes more visible than others: the thread of myth. And as with any myth, part of the beauty comes from how we listeners interject our own take on these old, old stories, brushed off and made shiny and new at the hands of these two unique, accomplished artists.

Yvette Perez