Neil Gaiman delicately picks up a book positioned on green felt, which had been held open by a little strip, and begins to read aloud a passage about crumbling flesh and eyeless sockets. “Beautiful,” he marvels. “Is there more?”
As luck would have it, yes. In this private tour of the special collections at the New York Public Library, curators have selected a variety of terror-tinged items for the author to peruse before his candle-lit Halloween talk — and Vulture was on hand to take in the view. Since the NYPL keeps not just rare books but also curios and artifacts in its archives, we were in for a treat — skull fragments from famous authors, hair from those authors’ corpses, death masks, and even a letter opener with a handle made from the paw of Charles Dickens’s dead cat are all on display. (“The story is that he had trained his cat to put out his night candle with his paw,” curator Isaac Gewirtz tells us.)
Gaiman, whose most recent work is a retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story, seems especially keen on looking at a scatological version of Little Red Riding Hood from the 1800s and the earliest incarnations of Frankenstein, a personal favorite. An opera Playbill from Presumption, or, the Fate of Frankenstein — the first dramatic telling of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, in 1827 — perks him up. “Strangely enough, I actually know what this is, as of three days ago!” Gaiman says. “It’s one of those weird coincidences — someone posted a picture of this to my Twitter feed.” (Actually, a depiction of the actor in costume from this production that later became the cover of an 1882 edition.) “Did they tell you he was painted blue?” curator Elizabeth Campbell Denlinger asks. “No!” Gaiman responds. “Like he was a Celt?” Gaiman asks. “I did know that [actor Thomas Potter Cooke] was a much better-looking monster, and he went on to become a leading man.”
Gaiman then perused the collection from Mary’s husband, Percy Shelley (including one of his drafts of Queen Mab, replete with cross-outs and doodles). “Those are some great faces!” Gaiman laughed at one of the drawings Shelley included. “And that’s his handwriting?” Denlinger tells us that Shelley was crossing out the atheist bits because he was afraid his children might be taken away in response. Gaiman nods, knowingly. “He was a notorious atheist at the time.” He flips through more pages. “I love things like this,” he adds. “I love that they were sitting around the fire, reading to each other and scaring each other.”
The typefaces from a few volumes of Tales of Terror also intrigue him, more so because he’s always wished to emulate them, but no publisher would oblige. “Even when I ask them to do this sort of barking-mad, use-every-font-you-have kind of thing, they’ll say yes, and then they won’t,” Gaiman laments. “Because they won’t actually go completely mad. But it’s beautiful.” He reads aloud, “And I only escaped alone to tell thee …” He pauses. “The Forest Fountain, or, the Golden Crucifix: A Romance. Sounds like [the author] couldn’t decide on the title!”
More treasures await in a separate room, where William Blake’s engravings of the damned beckon, including one that depicts a griffin-serpent consuming a poor soul. “It looks like he’s eating him!” Gaiman delights. A copy of the first edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven is inscribed to Elizabeth Barrett Browning (before she was Browning) sits alongside the letter she sent in response, including locks of hair from her corpse. (Something Poe would have appreciated.) More human remains of a sort are in the Kerouac collection, since the author smeared his own blood on the pages of a proto version of The Town and the City to write … the word blood. “He was going through a phase,” Gewirtz tells us. “Blood stains! Amazing,” Gaiman says.
For a ghost story, we’re presented with an 1847 performance copy of A Christmas Carol. “I did that here!” Gaiman exclaims. “It was absolutely fascinating because there were bits that I thought, Why would you keep that? And then I realized, Oh, you need a laugh at that point. Bring out the fat cousin, and everybody’s happy!” Apropos for this last exhibit, Gaiman’s costume for Halloween? Dead Charles Dickens. With this, he takes his leave to get into garb and makeup, and to delight a waiting crowd of some 500 people downstairs.