The Monarch of the Glen
While American Gods is very much a standalone story, there’s plenty more background to get into for those who’d like to read more around it. The Monarch of the Glen was originally included with Gaiman’s spectacular 2006 short story collection, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders, but has since been made available as a standalone novella (with some beautiful illustrations by Daniel Egneus).
Where American Gods itself is a vast and sprawling narrative, interspersed with occasional self-contained stories, The Monarch of the Glen has a very different shape. Here again the protagonist is Shadow Moon, though in this instance he has long since left America behind to wander the wider world. In the course of that wandering, we find him stranded in the Scottish highlands. The narrative is along the same lines as Beowulf, if that helps push you in the right direction.
The mythologies evoked are slightly different (in keeping with the change in setting), but the overall tone will be very familiar to fans of American Gods. It’s also an opportunity to see Shadow a little further removed from the context we know and the pressures of the situation we see in American Gods.
For those with no interest in the illustrated edition of The Monarch of the Glen, Fragile Things remains an excellent collection of short stories with a gentle fantasy twist. Moreover, the book also includes another (very) short story titled “The Mapmaker,” which was originally written for inclusion in American Gods, but never quite made the cut.
At the very least, the fact that this book contains two more remnants of 2006 release date serves as a constant reminder that there was a time when people waited five years for a tiny slice more American Gods, so our one year wait seems a little less dismal.
If you’d like another follow-up, you’d do well to check out Gaiman’s later short story collection, Trigger Warning, which contains the short story “Black Dog.” Alternatively...
For those who prefer the approach of a nice novella presented with illustrations, Black Dog has also been issued as a standalone book (with illustrations once more provided by Daniel Egneus). Here again, we find Shadow Moon alone in the north of Britain, where he finds himself staying in a rural pub on a rainswept night.
If The Monarch of the Glen stands out for telling a story that feels smaller than that of American Gods, Black Dog is claustrophobic by comparison. Rather than being about the broad strokes of a particular mythology, it has the feel of a character we now know well interacting with small-scale local legend. As you can imagine, this changes the tone somewhat, and lends it a personal feel that’s all too easy to lose track of in the hubbub of the ‘big picture.’
We’ll avoid stepping fully away from Neil Gaiman by jumping to something he at least had a hand in with Good Omens. Co-written by fantasy legend Terry Pratchett, Good Omens is effectively a coming-of-age novel that happens to coincide with the apocalypse. The humour is just as you’d expect from the combination of Pratchett and Gaiman. There's a tendency toward the ridiculous, undercut by a tinge of bittersweet sadness. Sometimes that’s sadness for a misspent youth, sometimes just a romantic notion of a certain time or place, but it’s almost always buried in there as a soft burr.
Here, rather than the old gods of American Gods, the narrative is spurred on by the presence of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. It’s the story of the biblical end of the world, precipitated by the birth of Satan’s son. Opposing this armageddon are an angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley, each their respective side’s agent on earth. Both have grown so attached to their life on Earth that they view the prospect of the end of the world as a terrible eventuality.
The Night Watch
Stepping away from Gaiman altogether, Sergei Lukyanenko’s Night Watch is a spectacular blend of a recognisable modern world and a strange setting informed by folklore. Set in Moscow in the late 1990s, Night Watch plots the course of Anton Gorodetsky, a man who discovers relatively late in life that he is an "Other," capable of sensing the twilight world of the book’s magic.
The book splits the difference between urban fantasy novel, detective novel, and a series of short stories about a modern world in which mythological creatures are active agents. Like American Gods, it has the feel of a single broad narrative interspersed with smaller episodes that serve to flesh out the world in which it’s set. Moreover, it positions the forces of light and darkness (the Night Watch and Day Watch respectively) opposite one another in a kind of bureaucratic approach to good and evil that sees witches and wizards trading spells back and forth in a bid to squeeze as much as they can from every situation. It's a bizarre combination, but one that will appeal to those who enjoyed the gods of American Gods effectively hidden throughout a world that no longer wishes to see them.
Rivers of London
Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London, released in the US as Midnight Riot, is a detective novel, at least in the broadest terms. It follows the adventures of PC Peter Grant, whose dreams of being a detective are all but dashed when he finishes his probation only to immediately be saddled with a desk job miles from danger. Grant’s situation improves when he offers insight into a strange murder thanks to an eyewitness account he hears from a ghost. This sees him inducted into a division of the police that deals specifically with supernatural crimes.
From there, it’s got everything you could ask for in an urban fantasy. The human characters feel jaded, but real enough for us to be concerned about them as they’re tossed into a world they’re not wholly equipped to understand, the inhuman characters feel appropriately larger-than-life, and the world itself feels as though it’s been carefully injected into the gaps in a real city.
Part of the appeal of Rivers of London is that the London's rivers are personified as a series of river gods, including Old Father Thames himself. As you might suspect, this resonates well with American Gods’ gods.
The Last Wish
Sadly, The Last Wish remains criminally underread compared to the three videogames based on it (beginning with The Witcher). Less a novel than a collection of episodic encounters with monsters and mythical creatures, Andrej Sapkowski’s The Last Wish is the first of a series of books about Geralt of Rivia, a sort of mercenary monster hunter who roams the countryside looking for supernatural creatures to fight (or at least quell). It’s nothing too complicated, for the most part it reads like old adventure series, and that’s part of its charm.
Being set in a fantasy world, The Last Wish might seem like it’s a little further afield than most of the other books mentioned so far, but the similarities run deeper than you might expect. Part of what makes the whole series so appealing is its treatment of the various creatures that Geralt is hired to dispatch. Sometimes, those creatures are monstrous beasts that pose a threat to anyone living nearby, but almost as often they’re misunderstood mythical animals in a world that is moving on without them.
Where much of American Gods takes place in rural and out-of-the-way places, The Last Wish has the sense of a rapidly urbanising world that is encroaching on the territory of these near-mythological creatures. It’s a strange feeling, but given how often those encounters are fatal for one party or another, there is a sense of the inevitable march of progress gradually grinding some of the magic from the world.
Sin's Doorway and Other Ominous Entrances
Manly Wade Wellman forms the bridge here between the fiction and folk tales. Born in what is now Angola, Wellman spent much of his childhood steeped in folklore. After moving to America, his hunger for folk stories continued until he was made assistant director of the New York Folklore Project. All of this to say that Wellman’s fiction, though it fits well with much of the pulp writing of its time, was deeply informed by his intimacy with folk stories from two different continents.
Wellman is best remembered for his stories of the Appalachian mountains, many of which involve characters stumbling into supernatural situations that they can combat only thanks to their own knowledge and understanding of folklore.
While he did write novels, Wellman’s best work tends to be like the folk stories from which he draws inspiration; they are concise, poetic, and tend to linger in the mind of the reader for a few days afterward. This is as much a result of Wellman’s poetic use of language and his ability to draw on a vernacular that feels, above all else, true.
“Up these heights and down these hollows you’d best go expecting anything. Maybe everything. What’s long time ago left off happening outside still goes on here, and the tales the mountain folk tell sound truer here than outside.”
If the fact that The Monarch of the Glen is loosely based on Beowulf caught your attention, you may also be interested in John Gardner's 1971 novel, Grendel. Gardner's novel recontextualises some fundamental elements of the novel by presenting the reader with the world from Grendel's point of view.
It might sound like a relatively small shift, but as Grendel's life story is explained we begin to sympathise with him. We see Grendel less as a monster than as a character with his own agency trying to make his way in the world.
Here again we see the theme of the inevitable march of human progress beginning to encroach on the territory of fantastic beasts, and Grendel watches as civilisation rises, but his interactions with the world of men seem doomed. Grendel may sound bleak, but there is a magic to it that's difficult to describe.
Grimm tales - for young and old
Philip Pullman is better known for His Dark Materials, but it would be doing him an injustice not to mention his excellent selection of stories from the Brothers Grimm. For those who love the allusions to folk tales scattered throughout American Gods, the Grimm brothers were scholars and folklorists in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, so there’s a certain pedigree there.
As those of you who have read his other work will attest, Pullman’s style is both charming and engaging. While there are some classics here that people will already be largely familiar with (like “Cinderella,” “Rapunzel,” and “Hansel and Gretel”), there are also stories that are often overlooked, not least of which “The Boy Who Left Home to Find Out About the Shivers” and “The Three Snake Leaves.” As with American Gods, the gentle blend of the familiar and the obscure makes this an absolute joy to read. It’s a particular pleasure for those who haven’t given much time over to reading folk tales.