If you have seen the television show, 'American Gods', you may remember a very long scene at the end of episode 2 (season 1), where the main character, Shadow, arrives at a house of rather odd strangers in Chicago, has dinner, and then plays a long game of checkers with the man of the house.
That’s it. Seriously.
Oh, and they talk and stuff.
This man of the house, named Czernobog, is shown to be an absolutely terrifying individual, just seeping menace and brutality, all done using only dialogue. (And okay, one scene where his hammer starts bleeding a bit, but whatever).
I liked this scene so very much in the show, that I wanted to revisit the book to review how this same scene is written there. Is this same feeling of tension and atmosphere developed using only words, instead of music and imagery?
Well, kind of.
To be honest, the scene reads a bit differently in the book. Not in how it flows or what is said, but maybe because of the approach.
Neil Gaimen’s descriptions of this same interchange are very interesting. He basically relies almost entirely on dialogue to set this scene, the banter between Shadow, Mr Wednesday and Czernobog natural and almost mundane.
And then towards the end of a very long scene with massive amounts of dialogue exchanged, Neil Gaiman just slips the point of the conversation right into the dialogue, as if to shock the reader into realising that what we have just read is actually not so mundane after all.
It is an interesting choice, don't you think?
The decision to have the character of Czernobog just state his plan for murder so casually, as if it is normal, instead of having him scream about his power and threaten Shadow loudly with death. This scene is almost entirely played down, almost entirely without menace, until Czernobog says something that paints some of the earlier conversation about killing cows in a different light...
Here are some interesting examples from this collection of scenes, all excerpts taken from Neil Gaiman’s novel:
"-You know what I did when I got to Chicago?"
"No," said Shadow.
"I get a job in the meat business. On the kill floor. When the steer comes up the ramp, I was a knocker. You know why we are called knockers? Is because we take the sledgehammer and we knock the cow down with it. Bam! It takes strength in the arms. Yes? Then the shackler chains the beef up, hauls it up, then they cut the throat. They drain the blood first before they cut the head off. We were the strongest, the knockers." He pushed up the sleeve of his bathrobe, flexed his upper arm to display the muscles still visible under the old skin. "Is not just strong though. There was an art to it. To the blow. Otherwise the cow is just stunned, or angry. Then, in the fifties, they give us the bolt gun. You put it to the forehead, bam! bam! Now you think, anybody can kill. Not so." He mimed putting a metal bolt through a cow's head. "It still takes skill." He smiled at the memory, displaying an iron-colored tooth.
"Don't tell them cow-killing stories." Zorya Utrennyaya carried in their coffee on a red wooden tray, in small brightly enameled cups. She gave them each a cup, then sat beside Czernobog.
So. Much. Dialogue!
And another excerpt within the same scene:
Czernobog shook his head. He looked up at Shadow. "Do you have a brother?"
"No," said Shadow. "Not that I know of."
"I have a brother. They say, you put us together, we are like one person, you know? When we are young, his hair, it is very blond, very light, his eyes are blue, and people say, he is the good one. And my hair it is very dark, darker than yours even, and people say I am the rogue, you know? I am the bad one. And now time passes, and my hair is gray. His hair, too, I think, is gray. And you look at us, you would not know who was light, who was dark."
"Were you close?" asked Shadow.
"Close?" asked Czernobog. "No. How could we be? We cared about such different things."
And finally, the whole point of the conversation, just slipped in there so casually:
(Shadow says:) "You want to bet? Okay. If I win, you come with us."
The old man pursed his lips. "Perhaps," he said. "But only if you take my forfeit, when you lose."
"And that would be?"
There was no change in Czernobog's expression. "If I win, I get to knock your brains out. With the sledgehammer. First you go down on your knees. Then I hit you a blow with it, so you don't get up again." Shadow looked at the man's old face, trying to read him. He was not joking, Shadow was certain of that: there was a hunger there for something, for pain, or death, or retribution.
So the feel of this scene in the book is quite different to the show, which I think is just about using your medium to your best advantage. The show has music and imagery to push the tension skyhigh, whilst in the book Neil Gaiman, interestingly enough, relies almost entirely on dialogue to paint this scene.
I think its a pretty interesting technique. Not sure if anyone would have learned something from this post though... not sure its a lesson exactly.... maybe I'm just harping on about a thing that I like....
So there's that.