Neil Gaiman confronts the horror inside us all—a review of his short story, “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” from his collection, Smoke and Mirrors. – By G.C. Ramey
In “We Can Get Them for you Wholesale” (from Smoke and Mirrors), Neil Gaiman—who is well known for works like American Gods, Coraline, Good Omens, and Neverwhere— suspends his usually overt themes of magic and fantasy to offer a more sinister look at the issues that arise from an unmanaged vice. To Gaiman though, the usual suspects of sex, drugs, and as the cliché goes, rock & roll, are of little consequence. The protagonist, Peter, is mild mannered and extremely moderate in all issues (yes, the statement is meant to be contradictory), except for one: the fact that he cannot resist a bargain. This subtle problem barely seems like a vice at all when compared with the conflict of infidelity that he faces from his fiancé, Gwendolyn, who has an affair with Archie from accounting. Gaiman makes it clear that “[the] love of a woman can do strange things to a man,” which explains why Peter’s sudden jealousy moves him away from his moderate demeanor and into the type of mindset that seeks tohave Archie killed. This turn may be somewhat understandable, considering the betrayal Peter feels, but what takes the reader by surprise is just how far into madness he is willing to go. Through ongoing consultations with a smooth talking salesperson named Kemble, the extent of Peter’s lack of control— in regards to his personal vice— becomes evidently clear, as his hit list continues to grow with each new offer of a better bargain. Unwilling to pass up the next great discount, Peter eventually abandons his pursuit of revenge altogether and instead, blindly helps to set into motion the events of the end of the world, simply to qualify for the best deal of all.
The notion that a person can be driven into complete insanity due to nothing more than the combination of a harmless personal weakness and lack of self control, is one that strikes at a very visceral human fear. While the usual villains of both horror and science fiction seem rather straight forward—driven by some perpetual vendetta or unhealthy personal or societal pursuit of control—the idea that the apocalypse can be thrust upon us due solely to one man’s inability to say no to something, which in itself seems benign, leaves readers feeling quite uneasy.
But why is that? Perhaps it is because traditional villains are so unlike us, or at least we like to believe that they are. A character like Freddy Krueger— whose backstory highlights acts of pure depravity— suggest that an antagonist’s effectiveness with audiences lies directly in the fact that they are evil and, through whatever clever rationalization that can be mustered, the audience is not. This premise allows for audiences to live vicariously through the villain, and even find their sinister acts thrilling, without feeling any accompanying guilt. Emperor Palpatine’s quest for complete galactic control (at the expense of innumerable lives) is something that would lead most to think, “I would never do such an evil thing like that,” but then turn right around and add,” but, oh how I love to witness it being done by someone who is very much unlike me!” This suggests that villains are enjoyable because we view them at a safe distance. A distance where we are in no way implicated in their madness.
But what happens when the lovable loser of a story, someone whom we typically relate to in shared normalcy, decides to have the entire world destroyed? What if the only reason for this destruction is to satisfy a selfish desire? And what if that desire is not some over-exaggerated and hyperbolic form of depravity, but instead something as modest as wanting to save a little money— and as Gaiman specifically asks, “which of us is entirely free from that?” Well, all of those things just might throw a wrench into the whole “enjoy at a distance” plan. The simple truth is that a character such as Peter forcibly removes us from the safety of our comfort zone, and when that happens, our preconceived notions of what constitutes evil, as well as what it should and shouldn’t look like, disappears completely. What is left is a sobering look at ourselves, and we see nothing more than our own vices, and since we as humans are just as prone to self-righteous fits of behavior as Peter, we are left terrified not just of the story itself, but of what it implies about us directly. Just as the protagonist of Gaiman’s story realizes that the destruction of everything includes him too— because he is a part of everything— we realize that our own mistakes are just as capable of bringing that horrible “thing” to knock on our door. And that, horror lovers, is real horror. The horror inside us all that doesn’t go away when the movie goes off or the book is shut for the night.
Overall, “We Can Get Them for You Wholesale” is a well-rounded short story that blurs the lines between horror and speculative fiction, with enough of each to satisfy avid readers of both. Although the premise is nearly silly at first glance, by the end, the grim implications of the story erases all hints of it, leaving behind only fear. Built upon a firm foundation that includes a solid didactic moral (which is a warning against the lesser vices, or even simply, anything can become a vice), interesting characters, and a plot that raises the stakes while increasing the tension with each additional paragraph, Gaiman’s work here is strong enough to entice readers who are typically turned off by his more whimsical works.