The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains
by Neil Gaiman
Published June 2014, by William Morrow. First published in Gaiman’s short story collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances
On the surface, The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is a story about a small man who enlists the aid of another, Calum MacInnes, to guide him to a cave on the Misty Isle. The one who finds this cave can leave with as much gold as they can carry, though there is a cost to finding this gold. Nevertheless, the narrator wishes to find the cave and is willing to pay Calum MacInnes to lead him there. And so the two men trek across the Scottish wilderness in search of the Misty Isle. Whether or not they will reach the Isle is in question. The Isle is a mystical place and does not always appear when wanted.
And what they may find if they reach the Isle is another story entirely.
The outward story is one thing. The mystical island with its cave of gold is another. But Neil Gaiman wrote this story, so what lies beneath the surface is a different beast altogether.
“I thought about it. ‘Sometimes I think that truth is a place. In my mind, it is like a city: there can be a hundred roads, a thousand paths that will all take you, eventually, to the same place. It does not matter where you come from. If you walk toward the truth, you will reach it whatever path you take.”‘
Throughout this relatively short story, Gaiman plays with the notion of expectations. The narrator is a small man, so others assume that he is a child or harmless. He has used that to his advantage many times and does so repeatedly in this story. Calum MacInnes assumes this, too, though he learns otherwise as the story progresses.
Calum makes other assumptions, too. He assumes that everyone would be in search of the gold in the cave in the Black Mountains. And many people would be, regardless of the price the cave demands.
The landscape is the only assured thing, and even that can blur in and out of reality. Gaiman was haunted by the landscape of the Isle of Skye in Scotland, and he read a book by Otta F. Swire about the region, and in that book he found a story about a cave in the Black Cuillins you could visit, if you were brave, and take all the gold you could carry at no cost. But the more you visited the cave, the more it would rot your soul until it was empty and evil. And this story and the landscape of the Isle of Skye remained on Gaiman’s mind. So he set pen to paper and wrote a story that summons Scotland like a witch’s spell. Not the Scotland of tourism brochures, but the hard and untamed reaches where the mist lingers in spite of the sunlight and where a person of sound mind could easily believe in ghosts, faeries, and magical caves filled with gold.
The characters match their landscape. They are hard and hardy people. Calum MacInnes and the narrator are not good men. They have committed crimes, and yet they love their wives and children. They help each other when required, harm no one on their journey, and yet there is a dangerous edge to their alliance. One might save the other’s life, but they are not friends.
Though The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains is short, it packs a thousand things into its brief page count. Characters who appear for half a page have a life of their own. Danger lies just over every hill. It feels as though the narrator has told his entire life story, though only the necessary details are on the page. Or maybe they aren’t necessary. Perhaps certain stories are only there so the narrator can justify his actions. He wants you to believe that he is not an evil man. Whether or not he is is a question left up to the reader.