"I know it's crooked, but it's the only game in town."
— Canada Bill Jones
After a three-year prison term following an assault conviction, a man known only as Shadow is ready to be released back into society. He is not a bad man and wants little more than to go back to his beloved wife Laura, get a job at his friend's gym and live a quiet, simple life. Unfortunately, things are not that simple: Shortly before being released, Shadow discovers that Laura was killed in a car accident alongside the aforementioned friend and gets out early. At loose ends in the world, Shadow finds himself sharing a flight with a seedy old con man who asks to be called Mr. Wednesday. Wednesday is strangely interested in Shadow, and offers to hire him on as a bodyguard and accomplice; Shadow, with nothing left of his old life and nothing better to do, agrees.Shadow runs errands for Wednesday and travels into the very heart of America, visiting its small towns and meeting its people and its old, forgotten gods, struggling to stay relevant in the modern era. But unbeknownst to him, he has a much larger role in the oncoming conflict than he thinks...A novel by Neil Gaiman, interesting for its examination of the intersection between myth and Americana. It is interspersed at various points with stories of immigrants who brought their gods and their beliefs to America with them, and the gods themselves have integrated just as well as their former worshipers. The novel elevates the ordinary and the everyday to mythic status, finding significance in the smallest of things. This quality is exemplified by its protagonist, Shadow, who is both the eternal everyman and something more, something special.There is a spinoff sequel, Anansi Boys, focusing on Anansi's son(s) in the wake of Anansi's "death".The novel directly inspired White Wolf's tabletop roleplaying game Scion.Various television adaptations have been announced. A TV miniseries written by Gaiman was announced and abandoned by HBO and a fantasy drama series is currently scheduled by Fremantle Media with Bryan Fuller and Michael Green as showrunners and Gaiman as Executive Producer.
Aluminum Christmas Trees: The House on the Rock is a real place in southern Wisconsin and is, if anything, even weirder then described in the book.
Ambiguously Brown: Shadow is asked on several occasions what his ethnicity is, with other characters guessing him to be Hispanic, Native American, or part African American. Shadow himself has very little knowledge of his heritage, but his mother died of sickle-cell anemia and is described as dark, so she is almost certainly African-American; his father is a Norse god. His skin colour is finally described as 'coffee and cream' some 450 pages into the novel. Neil Gaiman sees him asThe Rock.
Double Subverted by the case of Jacquel and Ibis, two ancient Egyptians who used to be able to pass for either white or black...until the Civil War, whereafter they were always seen as black.
Anthropomorphic Personification: Lots of 'em. For example, all the new gods, and the buffalo man (who seems to be the Anthropomorphic Personification of America itself).
Arc Words: "Storm's on the way" and "I know it's crooked, but it's the only game in town."
Artistic License - Economics / Literal-Minded: The narration is dismissive of the term "Information Age" and insists that all of history could be accurately described as an Information Age since information has always been one of the most important resources. But most of what that term actually refers to is a rise in the availability of information, not its value (and where the rising value of the latter is merely symptomatic of the rise of the former).
Asshole Victim: Bilquis is one of the first victims of the war between the Old Gods and the New, overlapping with a certain other death trope. But the reader is unlikely to have much sympathy considering she murdered a man in cold blood in her very first scene.
Basement-Dweller: Technical Boy, the personification of the internet, is a fat, sweaty, smelly, rich kid with no social skills. The other characters all treat him like an Internet Tough Guy.
The Spookshow agents are not authorized by the US Government, but acting like they are to play on Government Conspiracy fears is enough to convince the local authorities to cooperate without showing any credentials whatsoever.
Butch Lesbian: In one of the Coming to America flashbacks, Kalanu the scout who walks and dresses like a man, and took a girl to be her wife.
Came Back Wrong: Laura's a zombie. She could speak normally and still had her human memories and intelligence, and she never tried eating anyone, but she was a zombie nevertheless. She had already been embalmed when she was raised, so she rotted slowly over many months.
Canon Name: Shadow is very clearly stated to be a nickname, and although the book drops hints, it never reveals the character's real name. It is eventually revealed to be Baldur in the follow-up novella The Monarch of the Glen.
The Casanova: Mr. Wednesday, in addition to conning men, loves the art of seducing females (especially virgins) via something as simple as asking for Christmas gifts. He uses spells to seal the deal once his natural charms have the subject warmed up to him.
Cat Girl: Bast. Does not have cat ears, sure, but a rough tongue and feline eyes.
Chekhov's Gun: The apparently throwaway line about a few hitchhikers and kids going missing and never coming back in regards to the small town Shadow stays in. As well as the Notes from Lakeside City Council book that Shadow buys at a Library sale. And the klunker, mentioned many times before it comes apparent what it's function to the story is.
Contrived Coincidence: Sam, a random hitchhiker, and Audrey, one of the few people who knows Shadow's real identity, somehow both have connections to the sleepy little town Shadow moves to, and somehow both come to town on the same night?It was all the will of Hinzelmann.
Country Matters: The "C word" is dropped a number of times, most notably by Sam to Audrey.
Crossover Cosmology: Most Gods and Goddesses are there, with figures hailing from most continents and the majority of known religions. Jesus is mentioned, but is not a character encountered in the story. In the Author's Preferred Text, a man appears in a scene cut from wide release (prior to the 10th Anniversary Edition) that has Shadow talking with a man in a villa mentioned to have something like Moorish or Moroccan influences; he wears a baseball cap, a suit, jokes about turning water into wine, and is indubitably American Jesus.
Day of the Week Name: Mr. Wednesday. The day name is derived from "Wotan's Day," which was another name for "Odin" in early Germanic Paganism. He goes so far as to point out during his introduction that "seeing as today certainly is my day..." and comments on the stormy weather with "Although it may as well be Thursday" (Thursday being Thor's Day).
My brother... when we are young, everyone says he is fair-haired, he must be good, and I am dark-haired, so I must be the rogue. Now, the years have passed, we are both old and grey. Now, who can tell which brother is which?
In one of Shadow's dreams, the people who had been hung in sacrifice to Odin smelled of the alcohol they had drunk beforehand. Mr. Wednesday's corpse smelled of Jack Daniels, hinting that he was basically a sacrifice to himself - which is actually accurate to Norse Mythology.
Wednesday tells Shadow that he reminds him of Thor, who is a son of Odin. Guess who's Shadow's father is? Additionally there are many associations of Shadow with thunder and lightning.
Towards the end of the book, Loki makes a comment about sticking a spear of mistletoe into Shadow's eye. In the Norse myths, Loki killed Baldur, another son of Odin, with mistletoe; the follow-up novella reveals that Shadow's birth name is Baldur.
Genre Savvy: At lease one of the kids from Lakeside is getting out of the town before she too 'disappears'
Gods Need Prayer Badly: The reason why the old Gods are dying, and the new Gods have arisen. Wednesday is very disdainful of Neo-Pagans in general considering them pretenders, strongly implying their worship is inadequate. It hit Easter hard when Wednesday showed her a self-proclaimed Pagan that did not even know Easter was originally a Pagan holiday, labeling it as "Christian" instead. In their world, Pagans without traditional rituals and well-defined gods and goddesses might as well be Atheist or Agnostic.
Hell Hotel: The hotel at the center of the United States. Literally, for the Technical Boy, as it sits in a deadzone. In the night, Shadow hears him throwing himself against the walls as the unaccustomed isolation causes him to have a breakdown.
Late to the Tragedy: Shadow arrives at Rock City only after the war between the gods had already begun. Thankfully, he manages to end it just in time to keep Loki and Wednesday from achieving the power levels they craved.
Let's You and Him Fight: Trope Namer, although the paragraph from which the name comes is merely foreshadowing for the real thing later on; Wednesday and Loki pitting the new American gods against the immigrant gods so they themselves can gain power.
Living Forever Is Awesome: Maybe not as awesome when your followers are dwindling, but the gods we see are all determined to survive even though their lives have gotten far less glamorous over the centuries or millennia. Except for Thor, who is mentioned to have committed suicide.
Or Was It a Dream?: Shadow has a wet dream involving Bast, while staying with Jaquel and Ibis. At least, he's pretty sure it was a dream, but he wakes to see Jaquel and Ibis's (female) cat slip out his door, which puzzles him, as he's sure he closed the door firmly before he went to bed. Also, most of the cuts and and bruises he had are gone or at least much better than they were, except for the deep scratches on his back, which he hadn't had yesterday.
Minnesota Nice: The community of Lakeside deconstructs this, taking inspiration from famous portrayals of Minnesota Nice such as Fargo (extremely friendly police) and A Prairie Home Companion (everyone being above average), before revealing itself to be a Town with a Dark Secret. Hinzelmann is a small god who sacrifices children in order to maintain the town's prosperity.
Near Villain Victory: The villains manage to begin their war and dedicate the battle to Odin/Mr. Wednesday, but Shadow manages to thwart them soon after by telling all of the assorted old and new gods what the plan actually was and convince them to just go home. While Mr. Wednesday manages to return as a ghost, Loki appears to die due to the injuries inflicted upon him, and neither of them manage to achieve the obscene amounts of power that they were aiming for with their Kansas City Shuffle as a result.
Nerd in Evil's Helmet: The "technology kid" acts tough, but other characters see it as rehearsed and kind of pitiful. The book narration describes him as somebody trying too hard and performing actions that should be threatening, but fall short because of his execution.
Not Distracted by the Sexy: Media tries to sway Shadow, as Lucy, with the offer of nudity. It doesn't work, to the point that it colors the rest of his encounters with her, and he goes so far as to avoid watching television whenever possible.
Our Zombies Are Different: Laura is a little bit more like a Lich (an undead spirit bound to its own former rotting corpse) than a zombie, in that she retains her free will, but has little sensation and deadened emotions. She's also gradually decomposing as the embalming chemicals she's preserved with are only partially effective.
Physical God: All of them, at least part time (who knows what was up with Media).
Place of Power: In the Old World people built temples on top of them, in America they built roadside attractions. Prominently featured examples include the House on the Rock and Rock City.
Inverted with the Center of America. It's a place so devoid of power normal people are driven away from it, and gods apparently are at their lowest power here. Which is exactly the reason it's used as neutral ground.
Powered by a Forsaken Child: The real reason why Lakeside is prospering compared to the economically depressed surrounding towns is because Hinzelmann is an old god who keeps the town thriving through murdered children without the townspeople's knowledge.
This is also Hinzelmann's own backstory, as a cobold.
Wututu's chapter is largely about the experiences of African slaves in the Americas, and rape is a large part of that story.
It's revealed that Mr. Wednesday doesn't just "charm" young women. He casts a charm on them, specifically on teenaged virgins, making them magically attracted to him and destroying their ability to ever love anyone else for the rest of their lives.
Resurrective Immortality: A god is actually not that much harder to kill than a human. Under normal circumstances (as in, somewhere where people believe in them strongly) they simply come back to life or are replaced by something identical quite quickly. In a place that lacks belief like America, they don't have that fallback plan.
The Reveal: "It's a two man con. It's not a war at all."
In one of Shadow's dreams, a brief mention is given to an "octopus-faced" god.
When Shadow needs to fall asleep, he reads the most boring thing he can find: a pile of old Readers Digests. He reads an article called "I Am John's Pancreas"
Two of the towns Shadow passes through on the way to Cairo are Normal Ohionote the eponymous setting of a short-lived sitcom starring John Goodman and Lawndalenote this last may or may not count, though. There really is a place called Lawndale in Ohio, but it's just a suburb of Akron. Also, Word of God says the one in Daria is supposed to be in Maryland, but this was in an interview that came out after the book was written.
The Spookshow is named after the military intelligence project that created all the superheroes in Miracleman.
Serial Killer: Hinzelmann is behind the disappearing teenagers—he kills them and stuffs them in the current Klunker's trunk, and when the ice thaws the Klunker takes the body to the bottom of the lake. Being one of the old gods, Hinzelmann is technically taking human sacrifices that he needs, but he's still methodically killing one type of person.
Spanner in the Works: Shadow, naturally and to a lesser extent, Horus. Also Laura, although she is also partly Shadow's fault for accidentally reanimating her.
Town with a Dark Secret: Lakeside—the only reason why it has continued to prosper in tough economic times was because Shadow's neighbor turns out to be a kobold that has sacrificed a child every year since the town was founded in a ritual to ensure the town stayed healthy and prosperous. Only the kobold actually knew the secret—all of the other townspeople seemed to have had no idea, many assuming the missing children were simply runaways or, in at least one case, kidnapped by their noncustodial parent from out of town.
Wednesday looked at him with amusement and something else—irritation perhaps. Or pride. "Why don't you argue?" asked Wednesday. "Why don't you exclaim that it's all impossible? Why the hell do you just do what I say and take it all so fucking calmly?"
Wututu claims to have them to deter a rapist on board the slave ship.
Bilquis the Fertility-goddess, who swallows people.
The Verse: Shared with Stardust, although you would only know it by reading Wall: A Prologue, and with "Anansi Boys" since Mr. Nancy not only appears in both, but even dresses the same. There is also a minor crossover with The Sandman, since Delirium makes a brief appearance in San Francisco.
Virtual Danger Denial: Shadow expresses lack of faith in his electronic plane ticket - where he doesn't have a physical ticket, just a number to give at check-in - because it just doesn't seem real to him. It's nice foreshadowing of his siding with the old gods against the new, technology-based ones.
Wannabe Diss: Wednesday speaks with particular disgust of a waitress who serves him and Shadow; he quizzes her about her religion, and she claims to be pagan, but when further quizzed about the particular flavor of paganism, she spits out some pseudo-mystical bullshit and acts offended when Wednesday brings up some of the more hedonistic aspects. Wednesday says she "doesn't have the faith and won't have the fun," with the implication that he could at least respect her if she enjoyed herself. He goes on to name her sins, which, from the petty to the actively criminal, show a similar propensity for half-measures and lack of commitment, with further implication that for this she is worse than the actively evil. The line about "does not have the faith and will not have the fun" is taken from a poem by G. K. Chesterton, about how dreary modern unbelievers are compared to ancient pagans.
Not made a big deal of at the time (because the person thinking it doesn't realize the significance), but "It had amused [Mr World] to play chauffeur, in Kansas, after all" pretty much confirms the Foreshadowed identity of a major player in the game.