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Originally published Friday, October 6, 2006 at 12:00 AM

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Durable stories, poems of the occult and odd

"Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders" by Neil Gaiman Morrow, 360 pp., $26.95 Among the ephemeral items Neil Gaiman names in the introduction...

Special to The Seattle Times

Among the ephemeral items Neil Gaiman names in the introduction to his latest book are: hearts, eggs, the wings of butterflies, words.

Gaiman's own reputation should prove more durable, outshining that of many fantasy and science-fiction authors. Not only has he won three Hugos, two Nebulas and a host of other awards, but his work was recently celebrated in a tribute album featuring such notables as Tori Amos and Rasputina. Perhaps it's Gaiman's rock-starish good looks, or his brave ventures into other media (he's written songs, comic books, scripts and even directed a short film). Or perhaps it's simply that he's so good.

His second collection of short works, "Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders," includes six poems, maybe 22 outright stories, and three or four things that fall somewhere between, their nature making an exact count by category problematic.

"Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders"

by Neil Gaiman
Morrow, 360 pp., $26.95

The book's longest piece (and a definite story), "Monarch of the Glen," renews his fans' acquaintance with a character from Gaiman's bestselling novel "American Gods." Set in the Scottish Highlands, it captures that region's foreboding feel in all its grim gorgeousness, as the story's protagonist, a god manqué named Shadow, encounters monsters historical, mundane, fabulous or all of the above.

It also introduces us to "the unpleasant Mr. Smith," (to use Gaiman's description) and his mentor, Mr. Alice, who is one of the world's 10 richest men. The book's shortest piece, "In the End," reverses biblical legend in an account of the Last Days as they play out at the gates of Eden. Its most occult story, "A Study in Emerald," is its opening tale — at least "Study," which merrily confuses the imaginary worlds of H.P. Lovecraft and Arthur Conan Doyle.

"Shine" may appear first in the table of contents, but Gaiman's introduction contains another, unlisted story, "The Mapmaker": a fable that fits the definition of "occult" in its archaic sense of "hidden."

The most ambitious story is "Sunbird," an homage to Oklahoma author R.A. Lafferty (1914-2002), whose work Gaiman calls "unclassifiable and odd and inimitable."

But the best story in the book is "Bitter Grounds" which, as Gaiman points out, won no awards when first published. It deals with the walking dead: zombies, academics, ghosts, rejected lovers. The scenes set in New Orleans are particularly poignant, and the anthropology paper on magically enslaved coffee sellers re-creates typical ivory-tower jargon with timeless irony.

There's not one piece of prose or poetry in "Fragile Things" that won't repay re-reading. As Gaiman points out, our seemingly fragile hearts are our bodies' toughest muscles, eggs can remain intact when dropped from planes, a butterfly's wing beat can cause a hurricane.

And words, when they're as well-chosen and deftly arranged as those in this book, can perform miracles of strength, staying with their audience long after the breath and ink that gave them birth have vanished.

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