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Book Review: The Annotated American Gods

Neil Gaiman took the reader on a magical mystery tour when American Gods was first published in 2001. The prodigious novel displayed creatively dexterous literary prestidigitation and was greeted with accolades. A slew of genre Best Novel awards followed in 2002. Ten years after its initial printing, an anniversary edition American Gods Author’s Preferred Text was published. The Annotated American Gods reprints the 10th anniversary version’s expanded content, and as the saying goes, “But wait, there’s more.” The Annotated American Gods delves deep into the writing itself, explaining imagery and fleshing out characters. There’s a rapport in the symbiotic relationship between Gaiman and annotator-editor Leslie S. Klinger that is transparent. Simply put, Gaiman’s prose keeps the reader guessing about the supernatural and illusions, and Klinger deftly breaks down Gaiman’s allusions.

The plot concerns an ex-con known as Shadow making a uniquely American odyssey at the behest of a shadowy figure who has adopted the moniker of Wednesday. Along the way, Shadow encounters an array of beings who have tweaked their identities to conform with 21st Century modality. The entities are divided into two opposing camps: One is comprised of mythological, mystical, folkloric figures tenuously surviving the modern age. Klinger expertly explains their cultural identities in his annotations throughout the book. The other bloc’s members are personifications of industry, technology, and media who fashion themselves as the new au courant deities. While the elder faction has lost worshippers/believers, they continue to exist through conforming and morphing with the times. Their modern day rivals for idolatry exhibit bravado, but share the old sect’s fear of becoming obsolete: “They were afraid that unless they kept pace with a changing world, unless they remade and redrew and rebuilt the world in their image, their time would already be over.”

As Shadow traverses the country, he stops at folkloric and pop-culture landmarks and landscapes. There’s a communion between the unusual sites and the warring coalitions: Kitsch has its own cults and past occurrences have resonance. Gaiman delights in detail, describing the tastes, visuals, and smells that define an edifice or area. His warped wittiness embraces the off-kilter ambience. Klinger’s astute notations separates the fakelore from the folklore. His inclusion of photographs and illustrations enhance the sense of place, and the historical data he provides gives viability to the locales described.

While the depiction of atmosphere is praiseworthy, it’s Gaiman’s gift for writing extremely memorable characters that makes the narrative a treat. The denizens of the novel are multifaceted; their morality is fluid and their motivations questionable. Among them is an array of gods and monsters who try to adapt and maintain their heritage in a land that trumpets individualism…while it quietly favors assimilation. The supernatural entities’ frustration is displayed in varying ways, some more socially acceptable than others. One of the more arresting deities is Bast, the Egyptian cat goddess. In an epically hot sex scene, she beds Shadow. The specifics are positively purr-inducing. There are notes of kinky bestiality inherent in feline eroticism, and Gaiman has a lot of fun exploring their potential.

Two other females are wonderfully written. Samantha Black Crow is smart and opinionated. She befriends Shadow, covering for him when he’s on the lam and defending him when he is defamed. The ultimate defender of Shadow, however, is his dead wife Laura. Despite her infidelity while Shadow was serving a prison sentence, in death Laura becomes his protector. Courtesy of a magic coin that Shadow placed in her grave, she possesses the ability to eliminate obstructions to her spouse’s well-being. Her exchanges are hilarious, disgusting, and poignant–at times simultaneously.

It is interesting to note that in the author’s introduction to this book, he acknowledges his first wife and his current wife for their comments about American Gods. Gaiman goes on to write, “This book, then, is for both of them, and for anyone like them, people who read American Gods and dreamed of a version with useful footnotes. It’s also for people like me, who just love annotated books.”The Annotated American Gods, published by William Morrow, will delight Neil Gaiman’s legion of fans. Leslie S. Klinger’s notations enhance and expand the experience, giving the reader greater insight into the intricacy of the text. Whether coming to the novel as a novice or re-reading it for the umpteenth time, this is the ultimate rendering.

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About Sheila M. Merritt

Sheila Merritt wrote book reviews for Mystery Scene Magazine. Currently she writes essays for Scream Magazine. For several years, she had contributed reviews, articles and conducted interviews for the Hellnotes.com newsletter. She was friends with a British ghost hunter who happened to be the author of a biography of Boris Karloff. She’s had a brief and embarrassing conversation with Christopher Lee in a department store, but also had a much more relaxing exchange with director-writer Frank Darabont at a horror convention. She became enamored of horror films and dark fiction as a child. Mother didn't approve of them. The rest, as they say, is history.

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