When spooky author Neil Gaiman was an 11-year-old boy in Portchester, England, he saw the great Welsh actor and dramatist Emlyn Williams do a one-man show as Charles Dickens, based on the author's tours of America.
"He recited from Dickens' works, told bits of his stories about going from town to town, Philadelphia included - very dramatic," Gaiman says. "At the end, the audience felt - truly felt - as if Dickens had come alive and into focus for them in a way that was really enjoyable. So much so that when I became a writer and discovered I had the facility to read my own stuff effectively, that is what I knew I wanted to do: bring stories dramatically."
So Gaiman, 54, "will bring stories dramatically" to Philadelphia's Tower Theater on Saturday: theatrically staged readings with improvisational sweep and audience interaction, from much-loved works - his dark comics series The Sandman, fantastical novels such as American Gods, children's horror novellas such as "Coraline" - and those not yet familiar, such as his recently released collection Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. The new volume's title is a reference to the tool that aims to prevent potentially damaging emotional responses (e.g., PTSD or rape flashbacks) to possibly hurtful information.
"The idea of putting warnings on things that can be upsetting is an incredibly smart thing to do," Gaiman says, "especially on the Web, where anyone executing an innocent Google search can come up with images they'll never get out of their head."
Some of Trigger Warning's shorts, such as "The Return of the Thin White Duke," are darkly fairy tale-ish. Others - "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury" is one - are poignant soliloquies touching upon genuine horrors, such as losing one's memory, through either daily forgetfulness or the torture of Alzheimer's. Gaiman points to elder members of his family and to his friend Terry Pratchett, the British fantasy author who succumbed to the disease in March.
"I've been around it. There is that fear. I am a person who can't remember which pocket my pen is in," he says.
That story began when Gaiman was unable to remember the name of a dear author friend. Others, such as "Click Clack the Rattle Bag," are deep sensory exercises. "My hope with their likes is something not unlike turning out the lights and running an ice cube down someone's spine in the dark" - an image book, spooky and sexy. That's Gaiman, a sensualist's scary writer.
"I was easily spook-able as a kid by such stuff and that's why I began writing it. I don't write scary stuff often now, but when I do, I sincerely hope it works."
It is that tactile vibe, more scary than carnal, that Gaiman brings to his readings.
Cagily, he won't say exactly what he'll do at the Tower, first because he loves to surprise, second because he doesn't quite know all the details, and third because he refuses to do the same show twice. "Aren't you disappointed when you see comedians doing the same joke before you that you've watched him do on television the night before?"
Asked about the night's staging, props, and whether he'll hang really nice curtains (the last makes him laugh quite hard), Gaiman alludes to their possible presence, but won't commit to employing drapery or furnishings, things he's done when touring with his wife, musician, provocateur, and fellow author Amanda Palmer.
"Actually, though, those were her ideas and my initial protest," he chuckles, noting that Palmer crowd-sourced on Twitter ("and got it all") everything from comfy leather chairs to stuffed animals. Something will be staged Saturday, but he's not telling.
"I feel like a bit of a fraud having to fill a place as illustrious as the Tower. I know that what I do has to be big enough to fill that stage - and I shall," he says. But no matter what sort of staging he uses, it mustn't impede his interaction of the audience, because "I like taking questions and answers that can change the course of the evening."
Such transgressive authors as William S. Burroughs and Kathy Acker were wildly different from their written-word personas than they were on stage. What will an audience get from the staged Gaiman that isn't available on the page? "I've heard immediately from those who've seen me that when they got home, they quickly surveyed their rooms and left the lights on when they slept. I don't think you would have those sensations just from reading my work. "
And there's another thing: Adults simply aren't read to anymore.
"When you get to be about 12, nobody reads to you as they did when you were a child. Shame that. You forget that you like it, which makes about as much sense as forgetting you like ice cream and how enjoyable that it is."
What Gaiman likes best is taking a roomful of adults who haven't been read to in decades, unfurling his deep, mellifluous voice, and watching.
"The first couple of minutes are awkward - the audience doesn't really know what to do or how to cope. Twenty minutes later, into the more exciting bits, and the entire room is silent. People are holding their breath and the pin-drop cliché comes true. Everyone is in such rapt attention because nobody wants to miss a thing. That's why I do this: the joy of being here and celebrating stories."
8 p.m. Saturday at the Tower Theater, 69th and Ludlow Streets, Upper Darby.