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We caution you against taking these so called reviews to heed. Some reviewers obviously have never been to The Shambles or openly scoff at its existence. We pray they are right, for if they ever stumble into Meat Street...
There are times when a trifle is more satisfying than a full meal. If this weren't the case, Godiva wouldn't have a store in every upscale mall in the country. And so it is with A Walking Tour of the Shambles, a slight volume that nevertheless manages to pack more entertainment into its mere 57 pages than most full-length novels cram into their hundreds.
Purporting to be a travel guide to a little-visited area of Chicago, A Walking Tour runs down the historical attractions, local color and unique architecture of "The Shambles," offering droll detail and handy information (in many cases, this can be summed up as "run, and don't look back") that the adventuresome tourist will find useful. Why is the entrance to the Saunders Park Petting Zoo shaped like the open mouth of a python? What strange noise does the legendary Meat Clock make at regular intervals? When is it safe to trust one of the ghosts haunting the subterranean Chinese Burial Temple? (Answer: When he's holding one of the Little Walks guidebooks, of course.)
All of these questions and more are answered in rib-tickling fashion, as Gaiman and Wolfe take turns riffing on their basic theme. Their mythical Shambles is a little slice of Arkham slammed down in the center of Chicago, seasoned with true Chicago flavor and then allowed to marinate in the juices of those two gentlemen's extraordinary imaginations. What is most clear, though, is that Gaiman and Wolfe are having scads of fun. They riff on one another's creations outrageously, each upping the ante as often as they can. Think Eden Flamm's Blind House is demented? Wait until you check out the House of Clocks (which, of course, is not quite so absurd as Saunders Park, which in turn has nothing on Molly Graw's, which, well, you get the idea).
The book's illustrations, done by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier, provide suitably gleeful accompaniment to the macabre text. Even better is the cover illustration by the legendary Gahan Wilson, which depicts the authors mid-Shambles, as crocodiles, angry clocks and characters out of Lewis Carroll menace them.
The volume rounds out with a selection of "recipes" from noted Shambles eating establishment Molly Graw's, a short FAQ, and a bibliography. All are, of course, completely fictional (as is The Shambles itself, just in case you were wondering, and you know you were, just a little bit), and completely hilarious. I highly recommend the recipe for the Arctic horseradish (rumored to have finished several expeditions), though you might want to warn the local branch of the EPA before you try putting it into practice. Trust me, it's that sort of book.
While the relative hefty price ($15.00) might scare some off from such a slender volume, the pleasure derived from reading it makes the book well worth the price. If you can find it, get it. If you can't, beat the bushes and bribe your local bookseller until you can.
Under no circumstances should you even think of setting foot in the Shambles without this invaluable resource. Neither the management nor the authors will be responsible for what happens if you do.
If H.P. Lovecraft and Charles Addams were to collaborate on a travel guide, Little Walks for Sightseers #16: A Walking Tour of the Shambles might well have been the result. Instead, it is the result of a collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe, with numerous illustrations by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier, which is an highly entertaining and humorously skewed look at an entire neighborhood which is akin to the vanishing magic shop which has featured in so many works of fantasy.
Gaiman and Wolfe have set the Shambles in Chicago, although they have made only the slightest use of that city's history and lore in creating the streets of the region. For all practical purposes, the neighborhood they describe could be set in just about any large city. In fact, some of their ties to Chicago are somewhat jarring, such as referring to Kate O'Leary as Molly O'Leary. While it would have been nice to have seen a greater tie to the host city, by specifically not linking the Shambles to Chicago, the book becomes much more universal in scope.
As the authors lead the reader down Old Street, Meat Street and Canal Street, they create a vibrant, if not lively, neighborhood which both sends chills up the reader's spine and a chuckle to the reader's throat. The sites of the Shambles are described in such a manner that the reader's curiosity is piqued in a way that makes him wish the Shambles were a place which could be visited, despite the frequent warnings included in the book.
One of A Walking Tour of the Shambles's strengths is that the authors rarely describe the heinous acts and mysterious occurrences which have taken place in the neighborhood, instead merely providing hints and whispers about them as would probably be available to anyone who listed to the street gossip. The intimation of the supernatural causes more horror than any amount of descriptive blood-letting could.
While Gahan Wilson's comic cover art includes caricatures of the authors doing research being led by a guide into the non-existent world, the inter illustrations by Broecker and Geier perfectly capture the grotesque horror Gaiman and Wolfe are describing. These illustrations add to the enjoyability of the text without overcoming the narrative. The only illustration which is missing is a map of the region described, although the authors note that maps have been "omitted. . . on legal advice." (p.47). The authors could just as easily have made the claim that the streets of the Shambles are shifting in such as way that maps would quickly become worthless.constantly?
A Walking Tour of the Shambles has neither plot nor characters in the conventional sense. It is almost completely a work which relies on atmosphere to provide both a sense of horror and a sense of humor. In this, Gaiman and Wolfe are entirely successful. A Walking Tour of the Shambles ensures the reader an all too brief visit to a world which is, but exists throughout the world in urban legend.? It is an expansion and updating of the classic haunted house.
American Fantasy's publication of A Walking Tour of the Shambles by Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman is the most hilarious small offering I've seen since Kim Newman's Quetzalcon Programme Booklet (designed by Michael Marshall Smith and published by Stephen Jones.) Quetzalcon was produced in conjunction with the 1997 World Fantasy Convention and American Fantasy brought the whimsical Walking Tour out for World Horror 2002 in Chicago.
The authors take the reader on a visit to a very odd historic Chicago neighborhood, the Shambles, a place Fodor would fear to tread. Despite the fact that more rational types claim the area doesn't exist, Mssrs. Wolfe and Gaiman provide a thorough guide to a neighborhood where both Sweeney Todd and the Addams family would feel right at home. They're chock-full of handy advice of what not to miss as well as what to avoid at all costs on your excursion into the eerie environs. Written with punnish glee and an eye for the most demented details of travel tomes (even to the inclusion of recipes and "Further Reading"), this one is a little gem. With illustrations by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier and a cover by the incomparably weird Gahan Wilson, it's all done up in a well-designed tradepaper. Do buy a copy, but first promise not to divulge the existence of #16 or the whereabouts of anyone involved with it to any law enforcement agencies, the Chicago Tourist Commission, or the Brotherhood of Meatworkers. Otherwise there's no hope we'll ever see Little Walks for Sightseers #17 or possibly anything else other than the bottom of Lake Michigan.
Paula Guran (Originally appeared in CEMETERY DANCE #40)
Should you ever find yourself inside the borders of the Shambles, be warned. Walk as quickly as you can, without stopping, looking around too much or speaking to any of the odd inhabitants of the place until you obtain a copy of this indispensable guide. In it, you will discover the best defensive maneuvers against a crocodile, how to avoid being attacked by the denizens of the House of Clocks, and how to keep yourself from being robbed, poisoned or otherwise incapacitated and sold as a treat to fellow unfortunates.
Actually, I'm only joking about the very last part. Just because there's a place called Abattoir Alley, or that there's a barber shop oddly reminiscent of good old Sweeney Todd's doesn't mean you should fear for your life. Really.
Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman teamed up to create this humorously creepy look into The Shambles for a recent (April 2002) World Horror Convention. Now available to the general public, A Walking Tour of the Shambles provides some wonderfully pleasant, light reading that manages to give you a tiny bit of a chill now and then. The styles of these two wonderful writers blend so well that you can't tell who is writing which bit, and the tone of the helpful, ever cheerful guidebook writer is wonderfully atmospheric. I loved many of the pieces of advice, such as "In general, distrust anyone you meet whose teeth are sharper than your own." Come to think of it, such things could be applied to any sightseeing adventure.
The humor is very well done, dead-pan and slightly off-hand, never going for the easy jokes. The cover is drawn by Gahan Wilson, with appropriately creepy interior pen and ink drawings by Randy Broecker and Earl Greir. I really enjoyed some of the drawings, which were just like the writing -- clever, the horror hidden just slightly so that you often discover it out of the corner of your eye. From first page to last, they take every opportunity possible to create the atmosphere of a guide book (check out the list of books that Gaiman and Wolfe also wrote -- I'd love to read I Was a Werewolf for the CIA.)
Along with a useful appendix of books for further information and a list of questions and answers (such as "Do I still have all my credit cards?") and a list of several... umm... interesting recipes (dandelion and road kill salad, anyone?), I feel A Walking Tour of the Shambles is dead essential for anyone needing to risk their lives by going to the Shambles, or for someone who is trying to decide whether to date a member of the meat worker's union, or to anyone who is a fan of the off-kilter humor of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey. By the way, there actually is a website at PreserveUsFromTheHouseOfClocks.com and, according to Books in Print and other such reliable sources, none of the books attributed to the authors in the book exist on this plane of reality. Drat.
SF Site / Copyright © 2002 Cindy Lynn Speer
What a Shambles!
Our final short book this month is not a story, it is a travel guide. It gets in here for two very obvious reasons: firstly it is a fictional travel guide, and secondly it is by two of my favorite writers: Neil Gaiman and Gene Wolfe. I mean, what a pairing!
A Walking Tour of The Shambles is purportedly volume #16 in the Little Walks for Sightseers series. But the publishers preface states that the volume is out of print in the original series, and is suspected of having been suppressed by the Chicago Tourist Commission and the International Brotherhood of Meatworkers. Furthermore, the publishers say, Mr. Gaiman and Mr. Wolfe, both of whom have wives and families that they are very fond of and would not wish to see come to harm, now deny all knowledge of the book.
The Shambles, it seems, is an ancient part of Chicago that was spared by the Great Fire and is now home to all sorts of strange people and is shunned by fearful members of the Chicago Police Department. It is, without doubt, the sort of place that tourists interested in living to see the next dawn should avoid, but it is a place that anyone with a taste for seriously black humor will love reading about.
From Alex Irvine's recomplicated anxieties to this attractively illustrated 57-page romp is quite a jump, but the small press thrives on variety. Subtitled "Little Walks for Sightseers #16", A Walking Tour is a spoof traveler's guide to a small, preternaturally nasty, and quite nonexistent area of Chicago. When Gene Wolfe finally got around to this sort of concrete writing, so at odds with his customary Nabokovian numinousness, one could have hoped for a step-by-step tour of the Matachin Tower (including detailed technical disquisitions on Master Gurloes's torture apparatus), or of Tzadkiel's starship, or conceivably of the Grand Manteion in Viron; but whimsy does as whimsy dictates (or as Neil Gaiman commands), and the Shambles will do very well in a pinch. It has wonders of its own, like Molly Graw's grisly restaurant, and carnivorous ambulatory clocks, and a church whose parishioners are apparently baptized by means of drowning
Gahan Wilson's cover cartoon ably summarizes the spirit of the enterprise. Wolfe (jowls and whiskers) and Gaiman (long nose, full head of hair) consider their guide books with a sort of studied unease, against a background of tottering Gothic buildings, windings of gangrenous mist, and threatening entities of unnatural aspect. Their companions, Alice and her watch-consulting White Rabbit, look puzzled in a harrowed fashion, and with good reason. Brilliantly, sinisterly, banteringly, the authors of A Walking Tour mingle light jest with gallows humor in their descriptions of haunted structures taller than the Sears Tower, hostelries for immigrants from Ultima Thule, immortal lake-pent gondoliers, and a petting zoo from hell. The style is impeccable modern Baedekerese, with unsettling winks and sidewise talon-crammed grins; the interior art by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier gives the game away a bit with its literalism, but it's easy to forgive such amiable, even ingenuous, ghoulishness. A Walking Tour may lack literary seriousness, but it is a worthy and agreeable minor work, and quite possibly that Grail of cultural psychoanalysts, a snapshot glimpse of two of speculative fiction's more mysterious or guarded psyches.
Finally, one "reviewer" appreciated this indispensible guide for what it is:
Intrepid adventurers Gene Wolfe and Neil Gaiman are credited with A Walking Tour of the Shambles, the 16th in the series of "Little Walks for Sightseers," a service for windy-city visitors provided by Chicago promotional bureaus and the International Brotherhood of Meatworkers. Though not as easily found today as they were in the dim past, the first 15 volumes can still occasionally be discovered lurking among outdated Fodors in the travel sections of used bookstores. All are essential reference guides for the discerning tourist.
For those unfamiliar with the Shambles, it's an historic area offering a peek back into Chicago's illustrious and sometimes eccentric history. It was not through mere providence that the Shambles survived the Great Chicago Fire untouched.
Messrs. Wolfe and Gaiman have provided here a detailed guide to some of the more colorful--and indeed safer--attractions of a three-block area. It is clear that within these three blocks, there are more than enough distractions to keep even the most peripatetic visitor occupied for quite some time.
After encountering this volume as presented at the recent World Horror Convention, I made some attempt to visit sights such as the House of Clocks at Number Twelve, Meat Street. Unfortunately I could never find quite the proper El stop at which to exit. Thus I've had to depend upon the guidebook's evocative prose to animate for me such attractions as the Meat Clock, "...a donation in 1967 from the International Brotherhood of Meatworkers, [which] is no longer on public display, although the soft and melodious hum of the flies it attracts is omnipresent, and some claim that it may be heard howling, like a wolf, on the hour and half-hour."
Fortunately for the more diligent visitor, there are on more accessible public display such attractions as the Rogue's Gallery of clocks, the selection of timepieces "...including a clock that belonged to either Burke or Hare, the mantel-clock Elizabeth Borden inherited from her papa, the clocks of Albert Fish, Edward Gein, and of Renwick Williams (the original `West End Monster'). All of these clocks remain, for good reasons, unwound and silent."
Despite the clear glamour of the above, this heaven for horolophiles remains but the smallest (though still highly significant) attraction of the Shambles. There is insufficient space here to do justice to the fast and feral crocodile in Saunders Park, the First Church of the Sailor Return'd (with its unique Cthulhuloid sculpture jealously guarding its cursed giant emerald), and Gavagan's Irish Saloon (featuring an exciting backroom selection of world-class rat-baiting).
Though Wolfe and Gaiman's photographically detailed prose is perfectly adequate for the job of stimulating tourism, interior illustrations by Randy Broecker and Earl Geier add a lustrous, corpse-shine patina to the proceedings. Gahan Wilson's excellent cover does justice to picturing the authors and a selection of their colleagues in lifelike photographic detail. Lagniappe is provided by three pages of recipe selections from Molly McGraw's Restaurant on Canal Street. I will look forward on a return visit to trying such delicacies as Arctic Horseradish, a selection that begins with "...1/2 barrel whipping cream, one large or two small horses grated, ten to twenty radishes grated," and then takes more exotic turns. It's obviously not a specialty that can be obtained at Applebee's.
American Fantasy Press must be congratulated for making this guide available to an adventurous public audience. A Walking Tour of the Shambles might indeed be the last reference any tourist would possibly need to find Chicago's less overly explored attractions. Heed the tarnished sign outside the Giant Moray Museum on Lakeshore Drive: "See Chicago and die."
Copyright 2009 American Fantasy Press