In his books for children, writer Neil Gaiman creates magical, often haunting worlds. He won the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book, which is about a boy raised by ghosts. In Coraline, a lonely girl discovers a door to a mysterious parallel world. And in his latest, Chu's Day, poor Chu the panda must watch out for dusty books and peppery food, because bad things happen whenever he sneezes.
As part of the occasional Morning Edition series Watch This, Gaiman spoke to NPR's Steve Inskeep about his favorite movies and television — beginning with an episode of The Muppet Show guest-starring Monty Python's John Cleese.
The Muppet Show
"The 1970s Muppet Show was one of the comedic glories of the human race," Gaiman says. And English viewers got an extra three minutes of Muppet in every show, because the English broadcast hour was that much longer — a gap usually filled in with surprisingly racy musical numbers. Gaiman remembers, in particular, Miss Piggy singing about being left at the altar, "and she has a pillow stuffed up her dress, to make it appear that she is pregnant ... and it's one of those glorious moments where I think they just thought, 'I think we can get away with this on English television; we couldn't get away with this on American television, but we will never show it on American television.' "
The Pythons make a second appearance in Gaiman's list, this time with Terry Gilliam's movie Time Bandits. It's "basically a film about a small boy who discovers that his bedroom is a hole leading to the rest of the universe, and as he is invaded by a number of dwarfs, escaping God with a map to everything ... it's a glorious feat of imagination." Terry Gilliam's work is "always about pushing the bounds of imagination," Gaiman says. "Going into the imagination is almost like being a hunter — you can come back with magical, wonderful things that make your world better."
Time Bandits bears some resemblance to the story of Alice going down the rabbit hole — and next on Gaiman's list is the 1988 movie Alice, by Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. "What I find fascinating about Alice is that on the one hand, it's profoundly nightmarish," Gaiman says of the film, in which a mostly live-action young girl wanders through a landscape of animated skulls, socks and pieces of meat. "But the film also, whatever it says about my family, I brought it home on video the moment it came out, and my then 3-year-old daughter, it became her favorite film ... I think, particularly in my daughter Holly's case, I forgot to mention to her that it was supposed to be scary, and she just saw it as a wonderful animation of Lewis Carroll's Alice."
Gaiman says that when it comes to writing horror for children, he trusts his young readers. "Kids are so much braver than adults, sometimes, and so much less easily disturbed," he says. "Kids will make their nightmares up out of anything, and the important thing in fiction, if you're giving them nightmares, is to demonstrate that nightmares are beatable."
The Twilight Zone: "The After Hours"
Viewers of all ages may end up with nightmares after watching Gaiman's last selection, an episode of The Twilight Zone called "The After Hours." It's the story of Marsha, a young woman who goes shopping at a department store ... and discovers much more than the gold thimble she meant to buy. "It's just a classic Twilight Zone, and the ones that work just sit there, in the back of your head, creeping you out and making the world a slightly more interesting place," Gaiman says. "One of the things that I love most about this episode is that creeping feeling that the world is not the world you think you're living in." (SPOILER ALERT: The mannequins in the department store have an arrangement whereby each of them occasionally gets to spend a day among the living. Marsha is a runaway mannequin; she's enjoyed her day of humanity so much that she's forgotten what she really is.) "And of course as a kid, and possibly even as an adult, I would eye department store mannequins, and wonder, sometimes, when I took my eyes off them, they might have moved, just a little."
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Next, let's get some movie and TV recommendations for our series Watch This. In his book for children, writer Neil Gaiman creates magical, often haunting worlds. His Newbery award-winning "The Graveyard Book," is about a boy raised by ghosts.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
"Coraline" is about a girl who discovers a mysterious door. And in his latest, "Chu's Day," is about a panda whose sneezes cause bad things to happen. Neil Gaiman's picks start with an episode of "The Muppet Show" guest starring John Cleese.
NEIL GAIMAN: The 1970s "Muppet Show" was one of the comedic glories of the human race. Being English, I always loved the three minutes of "Muppet Show" that we got that you never got, because in English television hour was two and a half, three minutes longer. And one of the things that they would do was these Muppet musical numbers. And one of the things I loved best about that John Cleese episode is Miss Piggy singing the old English musical song about being abandoned at the church.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE MUPPET SHOW")
GAIMAN: And she has a pillow stuffed up her dress to make it appear that she is pregnant.
INSKEEP: Like nine months or whatever it is for a pig. Yeah, like right at the end.
GAIMAN: Definitely ready to drop, although she does make it clear at the end, in batting eyes with Kermit, that this is definitely just a pillow.
INSKEEP: So this is pregnancy out of wedlock here, kind of racy for "The Muppet Show."
GAIMAN: And that was what I thought. And it's one of those glorious moments where I think they just thought, we can probably get away with this on English television. We couldn't get away with this on American television but we will never show it on American television. And it's marvelous.
INSKEEP: So you've included this Muppet episode that features John Cleese, of Monty Python, of course. And you have also sent us one of the many movies of Monty Python's Terry Gilliam, a very talented director in addition to everything else that he's done. This movie is "Time Bandits." What's it about?
GAIMAN: "Time Bandits" is basically a film about a small boy who discovers that his bedroom is a hole leading to the rest of the universe, and as he is invaded by a number of dwarfs, escaping God with a map to everything.
INSKEEP: Could happen to anybody.
GAIMAN: As it could happen. It's a glorious feat of imagination. And I won't tell you what it's a quest for - it would give too much away.
INSKEEP: There's more than Terry Gilliam film that pushes these kinds of themes. You've put a kid at the center of it. The kid is in jeopardy, in one or another, but going into a fantastic and amazing world.
GAIMAN: I think Gilliam is always about pushing the bounds of imagination. Going into the imagination is almost like being a hunter - you can come back with magical, wonderful things that make your world better.
INSKEEP: This is an "Alice in Wonderland" kind of story, which brings to mind that you have also sent us a Czech film, from 1988, that is called "Alice." And now, what is it?
GAIMAN: Jan Svankmajer is a remarkable filmmaker. "Alice" was his interpretation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." And what I find fascinating about "Alice" is that on the one hand, it's profoundly nightmarish. As Jan Svankmajer animates, you have a live-action girl - mostly live-action - wandering through this story, but he's animating skulls. He's animating pieces of meat with nails in them. At one point, there's something that shouldn't be nightmarish but is. He starts animating socks filled with sawdust. They come out to like weird sort of snakes or worms and they're absolutely terrifying.
But the film also, for whatever it says about my family, I brought it home on video the moment it came out. And my then three-year-old daughter, it became her favorite film.
GAIMAN: And she would just watch "Alice" over and over again - and strangely enough, has not grown up to murder anybody.
INSKEEP: We're getting close to some insight about adults and children in children's stories, because there is something beyond creepy, horrifying about it.
GAIMAN: It is the stuff of pure nightmare.
INSKEEP: But you're telling me, you put a kid in front of that and the kid's like, yeah, I'm comfortable with this.
GAIMAN: I think, particularly in my daughter Holly's case, I forgot to mention to her that it was meant to be scary, and she just saw it as a wonderful animation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice."
INSKEEP: How do you deal with that when you're writing for kids, that sense of horror?
GAIMAN: I trust them.
INSKEEP: You trust the kids?
GAIMAN: I trust the kids, because kids are so much braver than adults, sometimes, and so much less easily disturbed, which it sounds ridiculous. Anybody who's had to calm a kid screaming at night, down, would laugh at me. But then you start talking to kids about what they're crying about. And you say what was so upsetting. And they say, well, that commercial for the vacuum cleaner on TV, that can clean a king to life and it was after us.
And you go, actually, kids will make their nightmares up out of anything. The important thing, I think, in fiction: if you're giving them nightmares, is to demonstrate that nightmares are beatable.
INSKEEP: Let me ask about one more thing. While we're talking about nightmares here, I'm delighted that you have included an episode of "The Twilight Zone."
GAIMAN: The episode is "The After Hours" and it's just a classic "Twilight Zone." And the ones that work just sit there in the back of your head, creeping you out and making the world a slightly more interesting place. And in the case of "After Hours," Ann Francis is a runaway shop window dummy.
INSKEEP: She starts out. She's a young woman. She's very pretty. She's very symmetrical. She's walking through the department store and there's a ninth floor of the department store that no one seems to know about.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SERIES, "THE TWILIGHT ZONE")
GAIMAN: One of the things that I love most about this episode is that creeping feeling that the world is not the world that you think you're living in.
INSKEEP: It becomes apparent that she is a department store mannequin, who, according to some strange and unexplained arrangement, is allowed, sometimes, to become a real person, but then must return.
GAIMAN: And, of course, as a kid - and possibly even as an adult - I would eye department store mannequins and wonder if sometimes, when I took my eyes off them, they might have moved, just a little.
INSKEEP: Neil Gaiman, it's been a pleasure speaking with you.
GAIMAN: It has very much so.
(SOUNDBITE OF THEME MUSIC, "THE TWILIGHT ZONE")
INSKEEP: Neil Gaiman's new children's book is called "Chu's Day." He's part of our series Watch This on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
MONTAGNE: And I'm Renee Montagne. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.