Some Good, Some Bland, But Always Wrapped in the Beautiful – A Review of Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

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Some years ago, I learned about something called “trigger warnings”. I first encountered it during my ramblings through Tumblr, but I saw them rarely; I was far more familiar with “spoiler warnings”, since I’m all too aware of what spilling spoilers can do to the people around me if I’m not careful. But through osmosis (and after an explanation from Hope), I learned that trigger warnings are important, in that they can help give people a heads up about content that might trigger serious psychological reactions—reactions that can lead to setbacks in recovery, occasionally with serious physical consequences. Issuing trigger warnings, I’ve learned, isn’t only polite: it can be potentially life-saving.

Neil Gaiman discusses his take on the issue in the Introduction of his latest short story collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. Immersed more deeply in the debate about trigger warnings, Gaiman asks: is fiction a safe place? Should it be a safe place? Those are valid questions, even though they’re the wrong ones, in my opinion (fiction—stories—don’t have to be safe; a better question would be whether or not the spaces in which those stories are created and discussed are safe). Nevertheless, Gaiman has parleyed the questions into a collection of short stories and a few poems that are sharp around the edges, and dark, and are quite likely to trigger any number of readers for any number of reasons.

But really, what would Gaiman’s writing be if it wasn’t sharp around the edges, and dark, and, yes, likely to trigger his readers?

True to form, every story and every poem in this book is a lovely, lethal thing, though not always in the same way, nor in the best of ways. Gaiman’s language has always been exquisite, and has improved with time; he’s gotten extremely good at making profound (and easily quotable) statements, like the one below, which comes from the Introduction:

We are all wearing masks. That is what makes us interesting.

However, for all that his language has gotten more beautiful over time, the quality of his stories and his poems…well, that’s my sticking point, really. I love his language, I really do, and it has been used to great effect in some of the stories, but the others are rather bland, no matter how well they’ve been wrapped in Gaiman’s exquisite turn of phrase. But since there are twenty-four pieces in this book, I will focus solely on the ones that I found most disappointing, and most enjoyable.

Shadder

Some creatures hunt. Some creatures forage. The Shadder lurk. Sometimes, admittedly, they skulk. But mostly, they just lurk.

This story appears in the Introduction as Gaiman’s “apology” for the general lack of unity in the collection. It’s a nifty little tale, with echoes of the very best campfire or sleepover horror stories: just long enough not to get boring, and creepy enough to make everybody huddle together a little closer. Had I not read this in broad daylight I think I might have been checking under my bed, just to make sure things are safe. I also think this would make an excellent little audio tale, mostly because the cadence of the piece lends itself very well to being read aloud.

Down to a Sunless Sea

You want to pull it from her neck, to toss it into the river for the mudlarks to find or to lose. But instead you stumble out from under the canvas awning, and the water of the rain runs down your face like someone else’s tears.

It’s not easy to pull off second person point-of-view, but Gaiman manages to do it very deftly in this eerie little tale. If managed right, second person perspective can bring an immediacy to a story that works great for horror, and that’s precisely how Gaiman uses it here. Quick readers will pick up almost immediately that the story isn’t set in the here-and-now, but that won’t matter, because the story told is guaranteed to creep the reader out. This is one of those stories that’s most affecting when read with appropriate weather conditions: stormy, with howling winds. If one can manage to be on a boat or near the water when reading this, then all the better.

’The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’

I would say that I found him by accident, but I do not believe in accidents. If you walk the path, eventually, you must arrive at the cave.

I love a good folklore-style story, and this fits perfectly into that category. Gaiman borrows the language of folklore to tell a tale of vengeance—which isn’t all that surprising, since many folktales are about vengeance anyway. What makes this different is Gaiman’s own unique voice, spinning the story in such a way that makes it seem timeless, as if it were part of a body of stories from a place and time long since lost to living memory.

This is the first story in the entire collection that really, truly pleased me, not only because of its setting and style, but also because of the way it played out. It’s not often that a writer can portray vengeance as cold, but Gaiman manages to make vengeance very, very cold indeed in this story.

My Last Landlady

You strike me as a kind person. I hope your world is kind.
By which I mean, I’ve heard we see the world not as it is
but as we are. …

This one is a poem, and a rather long, narrative one at that. I’m not entirely sure about the meter, because e-format ruins the line breaks something fierce, but I liked this one because it tells a story, and because said story is a really good one. It’s not the sort to send chills down a reader’s spine—at least, it didn’t do so for me—but it’s got a nice, slow reveal, and it’s easy to get lost in the details and miss the crucial clues that tell the reader just what’s coming.

However, because this came hot on the heels of “‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’” it loses some of its shine. I think this should have come before “Down to a Sunless Sea”; it would have been a nice segue into the material of that story, and from there to “‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…’”.

Adventure Story

And then I said, ‘What’s that?’

‘Oh,’ said my mother. ‘That’s something that your father brought back from Germany when he was in the army.’ It was carved out of mottled red stone, the size of my thumb. It was a person, a hero or perhaps a god, with a pained expression on its rough-carved face.

As someone who grew up with an enormous fondness for Hergé’s Tintin adventure comics, this story offers an interesting look at what might have happened if Tintin (or someone like him) had settled down to a normal life after so many years of adventuring. It’s something of a love letter to all the great (and problematic) adventure stories and their protagonists, and I really like it because of that. I also like it because it’s a love letter to the people in our lives who have passed on, and whose true stories we only found out when they were gone: people who did great and wondrous things in their time, but whom we never imagined had such amazing stories to tell. When they go, their stories go, too, and the world becomes a little dimmer for the loss.

Orange

12. I don’t know. Nerys used to be pretty normal. When she turned thirteen she started reading these magazines and putting pictures of these strange bimbo women up on her wall like Britney Spears and so on. … The whole orange thing didn’t start until last year.

This is, possibly, the most unusual story in the book in terms of structure: basically a list of responses to a questionnaire—but without the questions they’re supposed to respond to. This can be either annoying, or amusing, depending on the reader, or even the reader’s mood at the moment they encounter this story. My feelings for it, though, are mostly positive—especially because the story itself is quite funny. I do hope that Gaiman doesn’t try that sort of structure with another story again, though; I think once was more than enough.

The Case of Death and Honey

I do not, and did not, believe in empires. But I believed in Mycroft.

I’ve loved the Sherlock Holmes stories since I first read “The Hound of the Baskervilles” when I was ten, but I’m the very last thing anyone would call a “purist”; I love a well-done Holmes pastiche about as much as I love the original material. This short story is certainly one of those well-done pastiches—probably one of the better ones I’ve come across in a while. It isn’t, however, what one might call a “traditional” Holmes story: it’s got nothing to do with any sort of crime—except, perhaps, something that someone like Sherlock would consider the greatest crime of all. What “crime” that is, I’ll leave to the reader to find out, but it’s an elegantly-written tale, more meditative than might be expected from a Holmes story, but interesting precisely because it doesn’t fit expectations.

The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury

I am losing words, although I am not losing concepts. I hope that I am not losing concepts. If I am losing concepts, I am not aware of it. If I am losing concepts, how would I know?

One of my greatest fears is the fear of forgetting, and this story focuses on that. It plays with the process of forgetting, and what happens to us when we realise we forget something, and the ways we try to remember what we’ve lost; more often than not, though, what we retrieve is incomplete. Gaiman meant this as an homage to author Ray Bradbury, and I suppose a Bradbury fan would have more to gain from this story than I did. Still, I think readers who aren’t familiar with Bradbury will still enjoy it; there’s a touch of poignancy to it that I think readers of all stripes will pick up and understand.

Click-Clack the Rattlebag

The boy looked up at me from the shadows by the door, where he was waiting. ‘Do you know any stories about Click-Clack the Rattlebag?’

‘I don’t think so.’

‘Those are the best sorts of stories.’

‘Do they tell them at your school?’

He shrugged. ‘Sometimes.’

I first heard of this story when it was released as an audio book, just in time for Halloween, back in 2013. I hadn’t had the time to listen to it back then, but judging from the reactions online, it must have been very well done, because everyone seemed to think it was scary. Reading it now, though, I think whatever scare factor this story has works best in audio format, because in text format, it nicely creepy, but not outright terrifying. It’s also just short enough to work very well in audio, and the pacing and the cadence make it feel like it’s really meant to be read aloud. I suppose if one is able to create ideal conditions, it might scare the reader, but as it stands, it’s not all that scary.

’And Weep, Like Alexander’

… ‘Can you hear it?’

‘What?’ I said.

‘A sort of background whispering white noise that actually becomes whatever song you wish to hear when you sort of half-concentrate upon it?’

I listened. ‘No,’ I said.

‘Exactly!’ said the man, extraordinarily pleased with himself. ‘Isn’t it wonderful? …’

It’s not often that a character in a story can make me muster up enough emotion to want to reach into the text and strangle them, but this story succeeds handily. I mean that, by the way, as a compliment, not least because this is a short story and it usually takes longer than a few pages to create that much emotion in me. I read it as a jab at and a tribute to inventors and innovators, who can create annoying things, but who also create some very marvellous and helpful things. too. In the Introduction, Gaiman says that this is a “very silly” story, but I don’t. It points out that technology can be both good and bad, but dismissing all the bad is like dismissing all the good, and one can’t do that, not when it comes to technology. One just learns to live with it—and if one can’t, then one gets left behind.

Nothing O’Clock

As long as the Time Lords existed, the Kin would be in their prison, and the rest of the Universe would be safe. That was how it was, and how it always would be.

They had planned for everything, except the possibility that one day there would be no Time Lords, and no Gallifrey. No Time Lords in the Universe, except for one.

The inclusion of a Doctor Who story shouldn’t come as any surprise to readers who have assiduously followed Gaiman’s career outside of his books: he’s written quite a few episodes for the show’s current iteration, and is likely to do more, in the future. Fortunately, knowing the show inside-out isn’t necessary for understanding this story. Fans will be able to pick up on enough details to figure out which Doctor Gaiman is writing about based on his companion, his fashion sense, and his speech patterns, but none of that will interfere with the non-fan’s comprehension of the story itself. Actually enjoying the story, though, is another thing entirely. On it’s own it’s not all that bad, but I never did like the Doctor Gaiman writes about; this story doesn’t do much to change my opinion of him. Readers who go into it as firm fans, or knowing absolutely nothing, might find it more enjoyable.

Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale

Once upon the olden times, when the trees walked and the stars danced, there was a girl whose mother died, and a new mother came and married her father, bringing her own daughter with her. Soon enough the father followed his first wife to the grave, leaving his daughter behind him.

Gaiman is a master at reshaping fairytales for various purposes, and most of the time he pulls it off very well, but this one just falls flat. I suppose it’s because it runs a touch too close to the original for my taste, that not even the updated setting could make me enjoy it—because really, what’s the point of rewriting a fairytale if one can’t get it to say anything new? I keep comparing it to Ursula Vernon’s take on the same fairytale, titled “Toad Words”, and find that I like Vernon’s version much, much more. It’s not often that Gaiman falls flat like this, but when he does, he falls really flat, and it’s very disappointing.

“Toad Words” can be found here: http://ursulavernon.tumblr.com/post/89980094313/toad-words

Feminine Endings

There is time. There is always time. It is the gift I took from being a statue – one of the gifts, I should say.

This one creeps me out, probably a lot more than it should. I’m the sort of person who doesn’t enjoy being in the limelight; who prefers to blend into a crowd rather than stand out in it; who would rather observe than be observed. I also don’t like “living statues”, though I understand why other people do, and why the performers who choose to go that route do what they do. But when I think of being watched when I think no one’s watching, I get the chills, which is why the content of this story gives me the chills, too. I’m not sure if this piece was meant to be romantic, or creepy, but I read it as creepy, and it’s likely other people will, too.

The Sleeper and the Spindle

It would not have occurred to the dwarfs to give the young queen anything they had dug themselves from beneath the earth. That would have been too easy, too routine. It’s the distance that makes a gift magical, so the dwarfs believed.

This is a lovely retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale, a la “Snow, Glass, Apples”, but not as creepy. It does have its creepy moments, sure, but it’s mostly dreamy and eerie, as opposed to creepy. It’s also got the kind of unexpected ending that Gaiman does so well in his other short stories; even better, it’s an empowering one.

This short story is also available as an illustrated standalone book, with art by Chris Riddell.

In Relig Odhráin

While Saint Oran’s name continues,
Martyred heretic, his bones still hold the chapel stones together.
And we join them, kings and princes, in his graveyard, in his chapel,
For it’s Oran’s name they carry. He’s embraced in his damnation
By the simple words he uttered. …

As with the other poems in the collection, it’s hard to figure out where the line cuts go, but even if I could figure out where the lines cuts go I’m not sure I’d understand the rhythm of this one. There’s something slightly off-kilter about it that makes me wonder if Gaiman was trying to follow the rhythm of an old style of Irish poetry, one that probably works better in Gaelic than it does in English. Despite that, though, I really liked the story of this one, as well as its theme of questioning “established facts,” particularly if they’ve got anything to do with religion. It’s another theme Gaiman’s good at playing with, and he does so quite well in this poem. I also think this would make a short story, so hopefully Gaiman will return to this piece and give it the treatment it deserves.

Black Dog

Shadow was still not entirely convinced that he was in a pub. True, there was a tiny bar at the back of the room, with bottles behind it and a couple of the huge taps you pulled, and there were several high tables and people were drinking at the tables, but it all felt like a room in somebody’s house. The dogs helped reinforce that impression, It seemed to Shadow that everybody in the pub had a dog except for him.

If someone asked me which of all Gaiman’s work is my favourite, I’d say: American Gods. I think it was the first novel that introduced me to urban fantasy, that showed me such stories—where gods and monsters walked amongst us, and perhaps interacted with us—were possible, and above all, were out there, waiting to be read. Therefore, stories like this one, that tell of Shadow’s adventures after the events of the novel, make me very happy indeed. This one has all the things I like most about American Gods: old myths involving more blood and body parts than the cleaned-up versions talk about; unexpected villains; Shadow getting involved in things he doesn’t understand at first; and cats, lots of them.

The sequel to my favourite Gaiman novel may never happen, but I don’t particularly mind—especially if Gaiman writes stories like this on a semi-regular basis.

Overall, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is an interesting collection of Gaiman’s most recent poetry and short fiction, and the selected pieces certainly fit in with the theme of the title. However, the pieces aren’t consistently enjoyable. There are some pieces that make it clear Gaiman is treading old, familiar ground and not really doing anything new: pieces that feel bland, or fall flat. On the other hand, there are some pieces that are fun to read, that are rather marvellous; those are the pieces that show Gaiman can still pull up something fresh from time to time, even if he doesn’t necessarily tread anywhere new in terms of themes.

One thing that does stand out, though, is the quality of Gaiman’s prose, even when the story itself isn’t something to write home about. At the very least, reading his work is never a chore, and that is something anybody can be grateful for.

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