American Gods is poised to become one of TV’s biggest hits later this month. Of course, fantasy readers already know that before it was a show packed to the gills with an impeccable cast, it was an elegant, creepy, haunting, wonderful novel by Neil Gaiman.
It’s arguably Gaiman’s best work, managing to balance fantasy and reality as it explores the American landscape as it unpacks the simple yet brilliant premise that immigrants brought literal manifestations of their gods with them to America, beings that subsist on their followers beliefs, beings that weakened as their followers acclimated to the New World. The gods are still here, getting by as best they can. But a storm is coming, new gods like television (oh, the irony) and technology hunting the old ones down. That’s where in steps our protagonist, Shadow Moon, and when everything begins to go sideways.
Before this blisteringly brilliant novel bursts onto our TV screens, we’d like to acquaint you with seven interesting secrets hidden in the pages of the novel.
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A special guest appearance
Before he wrote American Gods, Neil Gaiman penned the script for the staggering comic series The Sandman. It’s become one of the hallmarks of graphic novel storytelling, and a jewel of the genre. It only makes sense that Gaiman would slyly insert one of the characters from his early masterwork into this rambling novel. Pay close attention to the scene in which Shadow and his mercurial boss Mr. Wednesday visit Easter; Delirium and her dog show up briefly in the background:
A young girl, no older than fourteen, her hair dyed green and orange and pink, stared at them as they went by. She sat besides a dog, a mongrel, with a piece of string for a collar and a leash. She looked hungrier than the dog did. The dog yapped at them, then wagged it’s tail.
Shadow gave the girl a dollar bill. She stared at it as if she was not sure what it was. “Buy dog food with it,” Shadow suggested. She nodded and smiled.
There’s also an argument to be made that Death appears too, towards the end of the novel—a goth girl wearing a top hat is possessed by a voodoo spirit. Could it be Death? It’s up to interpretation, but it only makes sense for the Endless to be all over this book.
Other name drops include an “octopus-faced god.” Wonder who that could be… Cthulhu! Oh, excuse me. It’s chilly in here.
Crime Doesn’t Pay
In a standout scene in the book, Mr. Wednesday convinces Shadow to help him pull off a complicated two-man con: one man poses as a bumbling security guard standing by a bank’s night drop box. He claims the box is out of order and that he is collecting the deposit bags. When someone inevitably calls his “manager” to check on the story, the other man answers and says everything is okay. With everything on the level, they steal the night deposit bags and get the heck out of Dodge before anyone notices. It’s brilliant. Perhaps too brilliant. This scene inspired someone to go out and actually attempt the con. And it worked. Until they wound up in prison. Pro tip: don’t actually try the crimes you read in books. Sometimes life really is stranger than fiction; other times, you wind up doing hard time.
The continuing adventures of Shadow Moon
Neil Gaiman has previously claimed to be gestating a sequel to American Gods, but you don’t have to wait for that far off day to read more about Shadow. A few short stories have been released in various places, revealing what Shadow got up to after the events of the novel. They are just as wonderful and weird as you could hope for.
“The Monarch of The Glen” appears in Gaiman’s short fiction collection Fragile Things (and was originally published in the fantasy anthology edited called Legends II.) It details Shadow visiting Scotland and running into Beowulf’s Grendel. It’s a great little story that fleshes out some of Shadow’s feelings after the end of American Gods.
There’s also the short “Black Dog,” found in Gaiman’s latest collection, Trigger Warning. It involves Shadow’s adventures in rural England. It’s more of a ghost tale than anything else, and is both delightfully creepy and deceptively funny.
The elephant in the room
One god who seems conspicuously absent from American Gods is Jesus Christ. I’m still amazed Gaiman got through the entire book without really referencing him,save very briefly, and only in passing. I honestly think it was the right choice. Jesus would bring a lot of baggage into the story and, in a scene cut from the novel, Gaiman seems to have realized it.
In an early draft, Shadow met Jesus briefly, and finds this incarnation of the Son of God to be caught between worshipers, his peaceful roots at odds with what modern America is trying to force him to be. (He also makes terrible wine.) It’s a very good scene, but it feels a little strange, and highlights the conscious choice Gaiman made to excise him from the final book. I think he made the right call. Still, the scene is fascinating and the philosophy of faith it offers is intriguing.
“Have you thought about what it means to be a god?” asked the man. He had a beard and a baseball cap. “It means you give up your mortal existence to become a meme: something that lives forever in people’s minds, like the tune of a nursery rhyme. It means that everyone gets to re-create you in their own minds. You barely have your own identity any more. Instead, you’re a thousand aspects of what people need you to be. And everyone wants something different from you. Nothing is fixed, nothing is stable.”
You can read the scene for yourself in the back matter to most editions featuring the revised, expanded 10th Anniversary version of the text, which adds about 15,000 words to what was originally published.
We end at the beginning
American Gods ends with Shadow visiting Iceland, looking for meaning in his new life. It’s fitting, since Iceland is home to the original Norse gods. It’s also fitting because Iceland is where Neil Gaiman got the idea for the novel in the first place.
Wandering around Reykjavik, jetlagged and a bit out of it, Gaiman stumbled upon a museum that was still open. He went inside and stopped to gaze at a diorama of viking long boats, and wondered about the nature of ancient peoples who went to settle new lands. What did they take with them? Did they take their gods?
Gaiman had lived in America for some time at this point, and was wrestling with his own feelings of being an immigrant in a new land. Those feelings and this epiphany combined to spark one of the best fantasy novels of this young century.
We owe a lot to that little Icelandic museum.
On the road again
Touring American Gods was a strange beast, according to Gaiman. It was the early 2000s, and Neil Gaiman was an early adopter of online blogging. He’s faithfully kept up an online journal for over a decade and a half, a habit he began while on tour for the book. Later assembled into a hodge-podge, now sadly out-of-print non-fiction collection called Adventures in the Dream Trade, Gaiman’s blogs recount the process of getting the novel to press, having it come out, and the tour that followed. They also make note of songs he felt were significant, book intros he was working on, poems, and other ephemera. It’s an amazing look inside Gaiman’s mind and an interesting snapshot of the touring life of an author. It’s a real treasure if you can track it down. Some of it can still be read at Gaiman’s online journal, which he updates to this day.
Speaking of road trips, part of what makes American Gods feel so authentic is its verisimilitude; many of the absurd locations described in the book are actually real, including the completely bonkers House on the Rock (it really has a giant carousel). Gaiman went and visited most of them. Many of the towns are real too, including Cairo, Illinois. It’s possible, with some investigation and some luck, to retrace Shadow and Mr. Wednesdays’ steps, visiting where they visited.
What’s in a name?
This last point is rather spoiler-y. Turn back now if you haven’t read the book. I mean it.
Still here? Come closer, and listen.
Neil Gaiman revealed that Shadow is not the character’s real name. Of course not. In the short story mentioned above, “The Monarch of the Glen,” Shadow’s real name is revealed to be Balder. Balder is part of the Norse pantheon of gods, and Odin’s son. He’s beloved by all, said to be kind, and intelligent, and handsome. Loki orchestrates his death. All the things in the world are sworn to never harm Balder by his mother, but the small mistletoe is overlooked. This is Loki’s murder weapon. He fashions a bit of mistletoe into a spear and lets Balder’s blind brother throw it at him.
Shadow’s true identity is incredibly significant in American Gods. He was always meant to be a sacrifice. Loki saw to that. It also seems to explain why Shadow gets along so well with people. In Norse mythology, Balder is cherished and loved by all. It also explains why Loki is so hellbent on getting a certain stick at the end of the novel.
Can’t wait to see how American Gods gets translated to the small screen? The series begins on April 30th on Starz. The novel is available now. You have a week and change left to finish it before the TV show begins. I recommend it.
Want more Gaiman in your life? We’ve ranked all of his fiction books, from good to best, here.