Tuesday Terror! Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman

Twisted Grimms…


Fearie Tales is an anthology of short stories by various horror writers giving an updated twist to some of the folk tales of the Brothers Grimm. I’ve only read the first few so far, but have been very impressed by the quality and imagination – I’ll review it fully once I’ve finished it. Each of the new stories is preceded by the folk tale that inspired it. Like the originals, the new stories are more dark fantasies than straight horror, but none the less interesting for that. And that’s the case with the one I’ve chosen for this week’s…


fearie talesDown to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman is a take on the traditional tale of The Singing Bone. In the original, a king offers to give his daughter in marriage to any man who kills the wild boar that is terrorising his forest. Two brothers set off, and one is helped to kill the boar by a ‘little man’ who recognises his goodness. The other brother then kills the good one, buries him, and steals the boar, thus gaining the Princess. But the murder is discovered when one of the murdered brother’s bones is turned into a mouthpiece for a horn, and each time the horn is blown, it plays a song telling the truth of the crime. The evil brother is punished by being sewn up in a sack and drowned…and quite right too!

* * * * * * * * *

The Thames is a filthy beast: it winds through London like a snake, or a sea serpent. All the rivers flow into it, the Fleet and the Tyburn and the Neckinger, carrying all the filth and scum and waste, the bodies of cats and dogs and the bones of sheep and pigs down into the brown water of the Thames, which carries them east into the estuary and from there into the North Sea and oblivion.

Gaiman’s take on the story is quite different, and in many ways much darker. A woman wanders the Rotherhithe docks ‘as she has done for years, for decades.’ No-one knows her story, until during a deluge you take shelter under a canvas awning and find the woman there. Without prompting, she tells you the story of her young son who ran away to sea and signed on with a stormcrow ship – one cursed by ill luck. And as the ship made its way home from his first voyage, disaster struck and the crew abandoned ship – finding themselves adrift in a lifeboat with food supplies running low…

‘I told him not to go to sea. “I’m your mother,” I said. “The sea won’t love you like I love you; she’s cruel.” But he said, “Oh Mother, I need to see the world. I need to see the sun rise in the tropics, and watch the Northern Lights dance in the Arctic sky, and most of all I need to make my fortune and then, when it’s made, I will come back to you, and build you a house, and you will have servants, and we will dance, Mother, oh how we will dance…”

I may well be the only person on the planet who has never read anything by Neil Gaiman – an omission I intend to rectify. The writing in this story is quite superb, building atmosphere with the lightest touch. The story is very short, just a few pages, but leaves the reader with images of horror, sorrow and a touch of madness. Every word adds something – nothing is wasted. The use of the second person puts the reader right into the story, under the awning with this woman who is frightening in the intensity of her grief.  The connection to the original only comes at the end and would be a major spoiler, but it becomes very clear how Gaiman has used the Grimm tale as inspiration for his own, and the theme of family betrayal is present here too, though in a much different form.

To be honest, if this was the only good story in the book (which it isn’t), it would be worth it for this one alone. Not terrifying, but chilling, with emotional depth, and mesmerising in the way it is done, this is a rare example of how effective the short story format can be.

Fretful porpentine rating    😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating            😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

33 thoughts on “Tuesday Terror! Down to a Sunless Sea by Neil Gaiman

  1. FictionFan – This is another great example of the way a story can draw one in and keep one deeply engaged even if the FP rating isn’t high. There’s just something about the atmosphere in stories like this one isn’t there? And the old fairy tales – which never were as gentle as they’ve been presented to children – are good inspiration.


    • Although I say I’m searching for terror, in reality a good atmospheric story like this one appeals to me much more than schlock horror. So far I’ve been very impressed by the way the authors in this book have stamped their own interpretations onto the old tales – very imaginative.


  2. Gaiman’s story is great, I’ve read it a while back and enjoyed it a lot, but then I love his short stories so there’s no surprise here. 🙂 I didn’t know the original version, thanks for that.
    “Snow, Glass, Apples” – have you read it? It’s another one of Gaiman’s versions of a well-known fairy-tale, you can probably guess which one from the title.


    • Ah, I rushed back to my book to see if perhaps that one also came from this collection, but sadly not. I think I’ll look for a collection of Gaiman’s stories, if there is one – though from the quality of some of the other authors in this book, I feel I might be adding quite a few of them to the ‘must read more’ list… 🙂


      • If you’d like to try more of his short stories, another excellent one is “Fragile Things”, complete with facts about how each story came to be written – some were inspired by art, others by fairy-tales, it’s one of the things I love about Gaiman’s stories, the fact that he tells where each idea came from. And if you want some free stories, there are a few on his website: http://www.neilgaiman.com/p/Cool_Stuff/Short_Stories
        I’ve read American Gods (ok but not really great), Neverwhere (nice) and The Ocean at the End of the Lane (very, very good), and tried Good Omens, co-written with Terry Pratchett (gave up halfway).
        “Snow, Glass, Apples” is in another collection called “Smoke and Mirrors”, all Gaiman stories, some based on fairy-tales. It is an excellent story, I wish I could tell you more about it but I don’t want to spoil the surprise. 🙂 I hope you get to read it someday.
        I’m so glad to see you enjoy his stories, I think he’s a great storyteller.


        • Thanks, Delia – that’s great! 😀

          I think I might go for The Ocean at the End of the Lane, since I’ve seen loads of positive reviews of it, and your comment suggests they’re well deserved. And I’ll check the link to his website at the weekend, and read a few more of his short stories online.


  3. The professor likes the idea behind this. I think I’m a Grimm fan. Short Stories are awesome in my opinion, so I could really be tempted by this book!

    Always count on the professor: I’ve never read anything by Gaiman. I might blush.

    Having a sudden thought: Wouldn’t it be fun to swim in the Thames?


    • I didn’t know you were a short-story fan – I think you may well enjoy this book then, though I haven’t read enough of it yet to be really recommending the whole thing. Soon…

      😆 Good to know I’m not alone – and you should blush…I bet it would make you even more C&A!

      Would it?? Well, how about you swim in it and I’ll walk alongside shouting encouragement…


      • I love O. Henry’s short stories. I do think I’d like this one. When can I expect the full review, madam? 😉

        Ooo, I bet the “&” was meant to be an “I”. The professor is even more CIA–that’s cool.

        You wouldn’t go for a swim?


        • Don’t pressure me!! I’m reading four books at the same time – not easy when you’ve only got two eyes! Soon…

          Ah, a spy! that must be why it quite often seems as if you’re talking in code… 😉

          Now I know C-W-W is trying to get rid of me… 😥


          • I’ll sit back, fold my hands, and sit by the fire–waiting patiently.

            😆 That probably has more to do with my professorish mind. I’ve really been losing it. It’s alarming. Used to be athletic too. The professor has greatly deteriorated in the last few years.

            I didn’t know you were that bad of a swimmer!


            • You could be getting on with Bleak House and Laidlaw in the meantime… 😉

              Well, my timeless C-W-W, you just wait till you’re as young as FF, then you’ll know what deterioration really means. Oops! Did I say FF? Of course I meant BUS…

              Told you – vertical only. Head up, if I’m lucky…otherwise…


  4. So glad you enjoyed this. I am a big Gaiman fan, and was trying to think what to recommend next, but the answer is “anything, really”, tho’ if you fancy some added Pratchett, “Good Omens”” is a fun read.


    • I suspect some Gaiman might go too far over the fantasy line for me (which is why I’ve tended to avoid him in the past), but his writing is so good I’d be willing to go a bit further than my usual. I might see if I can get hold of some of his short stories since he impressed me with the way he worked in that format…


  5. I haven’t read this story yet, but I enjoy just about anything Gaiman writes, so I’ll have to get my hands on it.

    Neil is a writer who reads his own work beautifully; I’d recommend checking YouTube for readings of some of his short stories. The poem “Instructions” is also worth hearing/reading — and, as an added bonus, it’s fairy-tale-related. 🙂

    Have you read My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me? A fairly lengthy collection of retold fairy tales, but some are remarkable.


    • The whole book is looking good so far – I got it via NetGalley, if you’re a member. I think it’s still available.

      I’ll look those up on youtube – thanks! I always enjoy audio versions, especially of short stories – a good narrator can really add to the atmosphere.

      No, I haven’t read that one, though it sounds familiar – did you review it at some time? Great title! Again thanks – I’ll check it out…and you’ll see from the comment below from Lady Fancifull that you’ve already sold a copy of it! 🙂


  6. Sold to the woman who loves Gaiman, and Grimm, and especially Gaiman being Grimm And, oh, dear your commenter Kelly Woodward above may have sent me heavily and quickly footing to the buy tab again……checking out that tiltle My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me


    • I haven’t got very far in the book so far, but some of the other authors are coming up with pretty imaginative twists too – some darker, some lighter. Kelly was the one who sent us both after Aimee Bender, so I think you should trust her recommendation! 😉


  7. PS If there’s a chance you get on with Gaiman, I also really recommend my recent find Graham Joyce (reviewed a couple recently) – good, tight writing, burrowing into deeper darker spookier meanings of myth and faerie.


    • To be honest, it was partly the unexpected realism of this story that attracted me – in this one at least, Gaiman steered clear of myth and magic – like some of the old folk tales, this was a story of real people doing real things. It’s because of his reputation for the more fantastical that I’ve avoided reading him in the past. However, we shall see where he leads me – though who knows when I’ll ever get time to read more of his stuff!!


  8. Thanks for telling the story of The Singing Bone which I hadn’t heard. I like the sound of this, I have never read any Gaiman because I’m not keen on fantasy but I do like a story with some good atmosphere so…. I’m resisting for the moment before I become buried under my TBR 😉


    • I hadn’t heard that one either, so I figured it might not be very well known. That’s why I’ve avoided him too, and a lot of his stuff is probably too fantasy for me, but I think I’ll see if I can get some of his short stories and see if he keepes up the standard of this one…I’m very impressed with your willpower! 🙂


  9. My husband has read many a Neil Gaiman book. I tried to read one, and did not succeed. It’s a type of fantasty writing I don’t usually like. (Btw, really like your WP template.) I fear I have poor reading taste, in any case. Your review makes this partciular collection sound interesting though.


    • No, I’m not keen on fantasy either, but this one really intrigued me – it may well be that it turns out to be the only thing of his I ever like! What sort of stuff do you usually read?

      Thanks re the template. 🙂 I mainly like it because it’s got the best index system of any of the ones I’ve looked at – useful for a book review blog.


      • I read dense, hard to get through things (for me) in non-fiction, such as “The Looming Tower”, or one I’m currently reading “Spies Against Armageddon”.

        In fiction, I have enjoyed Reverte’s books, which I suppose qualify as “better reading”. And the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” trilogy (which has cured me of Swedish/Norweigan writers).

        But mostly I like Alexander McCall Smith, adventure stories, and thrillers. Pulp fiction. Right now I’m involved in those Game of Thrones books. The writing is lacking, but the story lines are fun. Let’s say it is nothing like Tolkien, but then the author isn’t trying to be.

        Wow. This is really disjointed. :/ Maybe I’ll be more coherent some other day.


        • ‘The Looming Tower’ looks interesting. I haven’t come across Reverte but again looking at the blurbs they sound like good reads. Hated the ‘Dragon Tattoo’ – I’ve been reading quite a lot of Nordic crime lately, but except for a couple of authors I’m not too impressed. I’m not planning on reading as many in future. Overall I’ve found I prefer the female Nordic writers to the males, which isn’t really the case for me with either British or American writers.

          I enjoy adventures and thrillers, but really prefer crime and mysteries on the whole. I read loads of McCall Smith a few years back but have kind of fallen behind with the series recently. Must catch up…

          Sounds to me like we’re both fairly eclectic! 🙂


    • I must listen to him on youtube. I suspect a lot of his stuff might be too fantasy for me, but I really loved his writing in this story – enough to go a bit out of my usual comfort zone for…


  10. You are not the only one on the planet…something I also intend to rectify! I love the sound of this book, I especially enjoyed the title’s swapped e and a to form fearie 😀 Definitely TBR


    • I’m really enjoying it so far and like you love the name…and the cover. Still only read the first few stories though, so I hope the standard is the same throughout. I should be reviewing it in two or three weeks…


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