It’s an exciting time to be a Neil Gaiman fan. Although the American Gods TV series and the How To Talk To Girls At Parties film are still a little way off, you can get your fix of the author right now with Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories, a two-episode collection of four of the author’s most spine-tingling stories.
Written by Grabbers’ Kevin Lehane and directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard (the duo behind the superb Nick Cave documentary 20,000 Days On Earth), Likely Stories is beautifully atmospheric, compelling and skin-crawling. It’s an adaptation that captures the source material’s ability to feel firmly rooted in reality, but to be just one step away from something dangerous and unknown. These stories take place in doctors’ offices, in pubs, in all-night cafes, and they’ve been lovingly brought to life in a manner that deserves to be celebrated.
In ‘Foreign Parts,’ a young man (George MacKay) who has deliberately isolated himself contracts a mysterious and painful STD which begins to transform him from the inside out. ‘Feeders And Eaters’ is a chilling tale of a ladies’ man (Tom Hughes) who becomes the companion of his neighbour (Rita Tushingham), a much older woman who is strangely alluring but savagely hungry. ‘Closing Time’ finds a group of writers spinning ghost stories until one of them (Johnny Vegas) decides to really scare them all by telling the truth, and in ‘Looking For The Girl,’ (written by Forsyth and Pollard) a famous photographer (Kenneth Cranham) tells the story of his destructive search for his muse who seems to stay forever young and perpetually out of reach.
Interviews with Gaiman drift into each episode, allowing the author to act as a tour guide (more than a Rod Serling) to the tales. That’s a duty that’s almost shared by the inimitable Jarvis Cocker, whose breathy vocals occasionally drift into his lovely score to hint at what’s to come. This foregrounding of the act of storytelling is bolstered by the decision to use many of the same actors in each of the stories, as the brilliant Monica Dolan, Paul Ritter and Montserrat Lombard (among others) pop up again and again. We’re being spun a yarn, and they want us to know it.
Meanwhile, Forsyth and Pollard’s visuals shift between a warm nostalgic glow and clinical coldness, with a repeated use of a kaleidoscopic light effect giving the feel of watching these tales through a window, or observing an old friend tell their story through a whisky tumbler. Together with cinematographer Erik Wilson, they create a feeling as well as a mood, and they build to tension and fear so subtly that you barely even notice it happening. It’s worth noting that MacKay, Cranham and Vegas are also particularly good.
Each of the stories in this set combine sex and horror, whether it’s the sway that Effie Corvier holds over Eddie Barrow, or the crumpled porn mag that serves as young Daniel’s introduction to the sinister trio of kids and their playhouse in the woods, there’s a slightly sweaty mix of obsession, lust, shame and terror sprinkled throughout. Lehane does an excellent job of locating these tales in a world that’s definitely our own, and he also knows exactly when to stop. All of these stories are slightly open-ended; all of their protagonists are still living them.
One of the great things about Neil Gaiman’s short stories is that the great ones always feel a bit dangerous. It’s wonderful to see an adaptation that preserves that sense so beautifully, not by slavishly copying the text, but by taking chances to create something that feels genuinely different.
Some of the episodes are slightly better than others, but, frankly, they’re all excellent, and we highly recommend sitting down and letting this crew tell you a story.
Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories aired on Sky Arts. Keep up with the latest genre news with the new issue of SciFiNow.