The Old Switcheroo: A Study in Neil Gaiman's Use of Character Reversal

By Jason Erik Lundberg

There's an unwritten rule in fiction that says characters have to develop, to change. It can be as subtle as Tom Iremonger in Robert Cremins's A Sort of Homecoming accepting who he is, for better or worse, by proclaiming "Yes, I'm Tomás Iremonger." It can be as drastic as Yagharek in China Miéville's Perdido Street Station ripping the feathers from his body and choosing to adapt to his new wingless life by walking into New Crobuzon a man. But Neil Gaiman goes one step further in his fiction: his characters sometimes change so drastically that they become someone else.

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Gaiman is a writer who loves to play with his readers' expectations, often with sleight-of-hand subtlety or misdirection. It's what makes his fiction so enjoyable to read; you never quite know where you will be taken, like attending a Penn-and-Teller show. The story may be going one way, then abruptly spin 180 degrees without even missing a beat. But the changes are never jarring; they happen exactly as they should, as if they were there the whole time, like that coin behind your ear.

This article examines four of Gaiman's short stories—"Troll Bridge," "Other People," "Foreign Parts," and "Harlequin Valentine"—and his use of the character reversal in each one.

In "Troll Bridge," Jack starts off as a rambunctious seven-year-old, eager to shed his shoes and the other trappings of the school year and anxious to explore. One day, he discovers a path through the wood near his house and decides to follow it. It travels in a straight line, while the landscape around him changes as he walks, almost as if by magic. After a while, he comes to the bridge, and after he trip-traps over it, the troll who lives underneath comes out and bluntly states that he's going to eat Jack's life.

Thinking quickly, Jack explains that

You don't want to eat my life. Not yet. I—I'm only seven. I haven't lived at all yet. There are books I haven't read yet. I've never been on an aeroplane. I can't whistle yet—not really. Why don't you let me go? When I'm older and bigger and more of a meal I'll come back to you. [1]

The troll ponders this for a moment, then agrees. Jack runs home to the relative safety of his family.

Flash-forward to Jack at fifteen. He has just discovered punk rock and revels in this discovery with his best friend Louise, with whom he is madly in love. After one night of listening to the Stranglers on Louise's record player, she decides to walk him back to his house, a ten-minute stroll away. They get there and talk in the driveway, then he offers to escort her back to her house. After getting there, they decide to just keep on walking, and they find a path that rolls through the wood. They take the path down to an old brick bridge, and he starts to kiss her. But then she freezes, and the troll appears. They've taken the same path Jack took as a child, and love-stricken as he was, he didn't even realize it.

The troll again threatens to eat Jack's life and is glad to find out Jack has learned to whistle, since the troll never could. Jack again pleads for his life, stating that he's never even had sex yet or gone to America. In a desperate move, he offers Louise up to the troll to take his place, but the troll declines on the basis that she is an innocent, implying that Jack somehow is not. But the troll again reluctantly agrees to wait and disappears, Louise unfreezes, and Jack walks her home.

Flash-forward again to Jack at around thirty, now married (though not to Louise) and with a toddler. He lives in a house that was once a railway station and works at a major record company in London; consequently, he has to keep a flat there in order to hear the various bands who don't even start playing until midnight. This affords him the opportunity to cheat on his wife if he wants to, which he does. One winter's day, after getting back from a trip to New York, he finds the house cold and empty, a letter from his wife on the table explaining all the reasons she left, principal among them the fact that he never really loved her. Despondent and unsure of what to do next, he goes outside for a walk. He finds an unfamiliar path through the wood and takes it.

He soon comes to the troll bridge and realizes he has taken the same path as before, only approached from the other side. He nears the bridge and calls out for the troll, and after several moments of silence, he collapses into a sobbing heap, the combined hurt from all his lost chances flooding out in a torrent. He realizes he ruined any chance with Louise when he offered her up to the troll, though she never knew it; he ruined his chance at a normal life with a wife and a child by sleeping with other women; and he ruined his chance at a relationship with the troll, albeit a strange and perverse one, by constantly evading the troll's advances. But then the troll appears, touches his face, and quietly says, "Fol rol de ol rol." The troll trembles lightly, seeming tentative that the moment of truth is finally here, perhaps scared that thirty-odd years will be too much to eat. But Jack tells him it's okay, it's what he wants. So the troll gently lowers him to the ground like a lover—on top of a used condom, no less—and eats Jack's life with his big strong teeth.

What we don't realize until the very end of the story is that by "eating" Jack's life, the troll steals it from him, and the two end up switching bodies. The troll stands up in Jack's body and, after some parting words, walks back down the path through the wood, whistling away. Jack, who has now become the troll under the bridge, has resigned himself to his fate, never wishing to interact with humanity again, observing from under his bridge but never coming out.

"Other People" is a short-short story about a man's descent into Hell. The man arrives with his expensive clothes and arrogant attitude in a long grey room. Along the walls are 211 implements of torture; a demon stands at the far end. The man, who we can only assume was a high-powered businessman in life, who probably broke a few rules and lived more than a little dishonestly to deserve his fate, approaches the demon. The demon, who is deeply scarred, flayed, and missing its ears and its genitalia, takes down from the wall a cat-o'-nine-tails made of frayed wire and beats the businessman with it. The demon explains that time is fluid in this place, implying that the businessman will not be leaving anytime soon.

"In time," the demon tells him, "you will remember even this moment with fondness." [2]

The demon eventually uses all two hundred and eleven torture devices on the businessman, each one worse than the last, until the businessman is a shivering, gibbering wreck. The scars that have been left on his body are deep and painful and indelible. He hurts more than he has ever been hurt before.

But now, the torture really begins.

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The demon lays naked every lie the businessman ever told, everything he ever regretted, every hurt he ever inflicted on another. He draws each piece out of the businessman, displaying them for the man to see. This part is very similar to a section near the end of American Gods, where Shadow is met by the dark Egyptian god Anubis:

All of the things that Shadow had done in his life of which he was not proud, all the things he wished he had done otherwise or left undone, came at him then in a swirling storm of guilt and regret and shame, and he had nowhere to hide from them. He was as naked and as open as a corpse on a table, and dark Anubis the jackal god was his prosecutor and his persecutor. [3]

What Anubis does to Shadow, the demon does to the businessman, stripping him raw with his own life. It goes on for a hundred years, or perhaps a thousand—for time is fluid here—and when it is over, the businessman realizes the demon was right. The physical torture was far kinder.

Then it begins again, but with the businessman's sense of self-knowledge that wasn't there before, which makes it all the worse. When it's over, the demon says, "Again," and this time the businessman is exposed to the consequences of his actions, what happened to the people he interacted with after they left his presence. He sees all the ways he has affected other people's lives, and it leaves him with even more self-loathing than before. A thousand years later, he finishes. "Again," the demon says.

This time he experiences his life as he tells it, leaving nothing out, facing everything and everyone he ever hurt. He opens his heart completely. When he finishes, he expects to hear the demon say, "Again," but he is alone. He stands up and looks to the far side of the room, where the only door to the chamber has just opened and closed. A suited figure in expensive and familiar clothes stands there, fear and pride and arrogance in his eyes, and the businessman finally understands. As the suited figure approaches him, the businessman (who now looks an awful lot like a demon) tells the new arrival, "Time is fluid here."

In this instance, the switch isn't between two separate characters, as they appear to be at the beginning, but between two aspects of the same character. The character of the demon is forever the persecutor, inflicting pain and punishment, where the character of the businessman is forever the victim, punished again and again for his actions in life. But as soon as the victim realizes what his situation is, that not only is he being tortured but he is being tortured by himself, the victim becomes the persecutor, and the cyclical process begins again. This is a version of Hell that Gaiman has proposed in some of his other works, including the Sandman storyline Season of Mists, wherein the fallen angel Lucifer reveals that there is no torture that can be inflicted by others that is any worse than what we inflict upon our own minds and bodies. And though the title is a play on the words of Jean-Paul Sartre—"Hell is other people"—the story seems to imply that hell is also ourselves.

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In "Foreign Parts," Simon Powers has somehow contracted a venereal disease, though he hasn't had sex in almost three years. Every time he urinates, it feels as if he's pissing needles, so he goes to the doctor. His doctor refers him to a clinic that specializes in venereal diseases. That night, Simon masturbates, and the pain is so blindingly intense, it's "as if he were ejaculating a pin-cushion." [4] The clinic doctor, a Dr. Benham, diagnoses Simon with Non-Specific Urethritis, gives him antibiotics, and tells him to make an appointment for the following week.

Simon takes the pills, and the pain and corresponding discharge disappear, but something new is happening. Simon's penis doesn't feel like his own anymore, like it belongs to someone else. He tells this to Dr. Benham, who chalks it up to side effects from the antibiotics or as some kind of psychological reaction to developing NSU, manifesting as a disgust of one's own genitalia. He gives Simon more antibiotics and tells him to come back the following week.

At the next appointment, Simon still has the disease, and on an even more disturbing note, the nonpossessive feeling in his penis has spread throughout the entire lower half of his body. His legs still work and take him where he wants to go, but he has the sneaking suspicion that if they wanted, they could walk off the end of the earth, and he could do nothing except tag along for the ride. Dr. Benham tries to fix the situation the only way he knows how, by changing Simon's medication. Simon walks out of the office on legs that don't belong to him, passing a pretty Australian nurse who he knows is out of his league and certain that the new drugs will also prove absolutely worthless. He's right.

Later, as Simon lays in bed, unable to move any part of his body now, he feels a ghostly presence moving within him, taking over his body bit by bit. He can feel it brush his cheek, then his eyes cloud over and everything goes dark.

At the next appointment, Dr. Benham is astonished by how much better Simon looks. Free of the disease, he radiates a healthy glow and even looks taller. He is more sure of himself, less frail. In short, Simon seems like a completely new person. When Dr. Benham asks about the other problem, the feeling his body no longer belongs to him, the new Simon smiles and assures the doctor that all of this body belongs to him. Before leaving the office, Simon talks excitedly to the pretty Australian nurse, who makes no attempt to remove his hand from her arm. He wants to see everything, meet everyone, like someone who has just dropped in from outer space or lived through a life-changing disaster, eager to seize life by the reins.

In this instance, the switchover has occurred as a result of theft. Unlike "Troll Bridge," wherein Jack willingly gives up his life to the troll, or "Other People," in which it is presented as a natural process of Hellish punishment, Simon's life is involuntarily stolen from him. He is completely unaware that anything could happen to him until it already has, until it's too late.

Involuntary character theft also occurs in "Harlequin Valentine," which was written for Strange Attraction, an anthology of stories based on Crowded After Hours, the gigantic kinetic Ferris Wheel created by sculptor Lisa Snellings. This time, Gaiman chooses the character of Harlequin from the stock characters of the Commedia dell'arte and retells his story of unrequited love in a contemporary setting.

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Harlequin is smitten with Missy, a young woman who, he is convinced, is the latest incarnation of Columbine, his one true love. As a Valentine's Day present, he pins his heart to her door with his favorite hatpin, then vanishes into the shadows to spy on her reaction. Missy opens her door to find the heart, dripping blood in a steady trickle, and instead of screaming or yelling or calling 911, she goes into the kitchen and gets a plastic sandwich baggie. She puts the heart in the baggie, sticks the hatpin in her lapel, and wipes off the door with cleaning spray. Still nonchalant, as if this happens every day, she puts on her coat, places the baggie in her pocket, and leaves her apartment.

Missy walks down the road and Harlequin follows behind, sauntering and capering around her, unseen to Missy's eyes. They arrive at a pathologist's office, and Missy displays the heart for a fat man dissecting a dead body. Harlequin feels a stab of jealousy as the fat man smiles at Missy. "This is The Doctor," Harlequin decides, "for he is too big, too round, too magnificently well-fed to be Pierrot, too unselfconscious to be Pantaloon." [5] Vernon the pathologist examines the baggie and sees the heart for what it is. After asking if she should incinerate it, Missy bids goodbye to Vernon and heads back out onto the street, back into town.

Harlequin stops Missy on the road after disguising himself as an old beggar woman. He offers to tell her fortune for a little money, then explains to her that Harlequin has given her his heart, but she must find a way to make it beat. He then distracts her and resumes his invisible state. Missy continues down the road to a diner, where she asks for a plate of hash browns and a bottle of ketchup. Harlequin amuses himself by tripping the diner's owner, goosing a waitress, and switching the patrons' plates when they aren't looking. But his heart isn't in it; he feels strange. Then he looks at Missy.

She has dumped his heart onto the plate and poured a generous amount of ketchup over it. She slices the heart into bite-sized pieces with a steak knife, then begins to eat it. This has never happened to Harlequin before, and he doesn't know quite how to deal with it. When she finishes, she looks down at Harlequin, whom she can now see, and tells him to meet her outside. On a bench in front of the diner, she plucks the hat from his head and the wand from his hands. The diamonds begin to disappear from his motley, which transforms into the drab and colorless uniform of kitchen help. Missy kisses him full on the lips, then capers down the street and out of sight.

Charlene, the waitress Harlequin goosed earlier, opens the front door of the diner and says that his break is over, that he'd better get back inside. Now in his new life—one that seems as if he has always lived it, one in which he is in love with Charlene—he wrestles with the idea of telling her how he feels, but ends up not saying anything. He returns to the kitchen and scrapes off the plates, then notices one with a liver-colored piece of meat drenched in ketchup. He makes sure no one's looking, then pops the meat into his mouth. A spot of ketchup falls to the sleeve of his jacket and forms a perfect diamond. A bit of his old self infects him then. He smiles, tells Charlene "Happy Valentine's Day," then starts to whistle.

In this modern retelling of the Commedia dell'arte, the trickster character of Harlequin is outwitted by the woman he believes to be his one true love. Columbine becomes Harlequin, stealing all his magical abilities, swapping roles typically assigned in the Harlequinade, switching masks and personalities. Missy, through her strength and cunning, two big things that attract Harlequin to her in the first place, is able to outsmart the trickster, leaving him a pathetic mortal, a creature of mute longing. This switch is also interesting because it's so unexpected. Missy eats his heart and therefore eats his life. Fol rol de ol rol.

Gaiman's stories are often about loneliness, identity, and lost chances, the things that make our time on Earth seem more like a drudgery than something to be cherished. And it is often in reflection upon these things that we realize we must fundamentally change ourselves in order to keep living. There's an old expression that says you can't possibly know how someone else feels until you walk a mile in their shoes. Gaiman takes this a step further by saying we can't really even know ourselves until we walk in someone else's shoes, until we can see ourselves as we really are, from the outside.

Works Cited

[1] Neil Gaiman, "Troll Bridge," Angels and Visitations: A Miscellany (Minneapolis: DreamHaven Books, 1993) 32. First published in Snow White, Blood Red, ed. Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (New York: Morrow/AvoNova, 1993).

[2] Neil Gaiman, "Other People," The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction October/November 2001: 169.

[3] Neil Gaiman, American Gods, (New York: Morrow, 2001) 376-377.

[4] Neil Gaiman, "Foreign Parts," Angels and Visitations: A Miscellany (Minneapolis: DreamHaven Books, 1993) 63. First published in Words Without Pictures, ed. Stephen Niles (Arcane/Eclipse: 1990).

[5] Neil Gaiman, "Harlequin Valentine," Strange Attraction, ed. Edward E. Kramer (Centreville: Shadowlands Press, 2000) 58. First published in the 1999 World Horror Convention Program Book.


Jason Erik Lundberg's work is upcoming in The Third Alternative, Electric Velocipede, Infinity Plus, and The Virtuous Medlar Circle. His short fiction has been nominated for the Fountain Award and honorably mentioned in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. With his wife, artist-writer Janet Chui, he runs Two Cranes Press, a critically acclaimed small press out of North Carolina. His books Four Seasons in One Day and Scattered, Covered, Smothered are available through twocranespress.com. You can email him at jelundberg@nc.rr.com. You may also see his previous appearances in Strange Horizons in our archive.