Trigger Warning: Some stand-out tales, and some bits and bobs

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsTrigger Warning by Neil Gaiman SFF book reviewsTrigger Warning: Short Fictions and Distrubances by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s latest collection of short fiction and poetry, Trigger Warning, begins, like his other collections, with a long, explanatory introduction. While the reader certainly doesn’t have to read this chapter, here entitled “Making a Chair,” I really enjoy this practice of Gaiman’s. These introductions not only forecast what the stories are about (you know, just in case I’d want to skip anything) but they also provide a window into Gaiman’s writerly process. I’ve always appreciated this about Gaiman in general; his online persona seems very humble, open, and interested in talking about the intersections between his life and his work. This feeling intensifies when he writes so candidly on the page.

As I do with most short story collections I review, I’m only going to talk about the stories that jumped out at me as I read Trigger Warning — the ones that dug themselves into my memory. Which is not to say that the others were not good, but I think there’s something to be said about gut instinct when you’re reading and reviewing. So here goes…

The first story, “A Lunar Labyrinth,” was a dark, eerie short story in which the narrator explores a labyrinth by the light of the moon, only to realize that something predatory lurks within. This story was ambiguous and layered; I re-read the end several times and am still not precisely sure who the villain is. Gaiman collaborated with a couple of theatre companies in Britain and the US to create a “multidisciplinary” performance involving music, puppetry, dance, and aerial performance.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”: This story has a long set-up but it pays off as we get to know the protagonist, a man who people underestimate because of his short stature, and his companion. They journey to the titular cave to find treasure. The cave isn’t guarded by anything tangible like a dragon or a troll; instead, when you freely gather the gold, you lose something intangible from within yourself. The end of the story leaves us wondering if the protagonist had already lost the most he could lose. This story is also available as a stand-alone graphic novel.

“My Last Landlady”: This poem is a chilling look at a Bristol boarding house and its frightening landlady. Like other stories in this collection, it has also been remediated into other art forms: it exists as a graphic short-story and Gaiman and his wife Amanda Palmer released a version set to music.

“Adventure Story”: A short fictional piece about the word “adventure.” A man’s mother reveals, obliquely, some tantalizing hints of the narrator’s father’s past. I liked this one: not only was the adventure something fun and cinematic, with echoes of Indiana Jones, but I also liked the prosaic, contented mother whose idea of adventure was going to the grocery store.

“Orange”: This story, written as a series of answers to an interview or questionnaire, was both wacky and touching. Through the answers, Gaiman reveals a story of divine possession, screw-ball inventions, sibling rivalry (and love) … and self-tanning. It was fun to see how much actual information Gaiman could get across using this structure, and remarkable how much he made me feel by the last answer: “Until the day I die.”

“Calendar of Tales”: This is a series of shorts, each written with a particular month in mind. A female pirate, a dimension-traveling being, a woman with incurable cancer — these shorts are evocative and tender. Gaiman started each of these by inviting his Twitter followers to respond to questions about the 12 months, and using their responses as a jumping-off point.

“The Case of Death and Honey”: This is (to my knowledge) Gaiman’s second Sherlock Holmes-themed story. The first, “A Study in Emerald,” was a pastiche of Holmes and Lovecraft and was featured in his collection Fragile Things. This story was based solely in the world and mythology surrounding Holmes; it finds an elderly Holmes in China, keeping bees for a surly beekeeper named Old Gao, and pursuing a quest set upon him by his dead brother Mycroft.

“An Invocation of Incuriosity”: This is a story within a story. The frame narrative is set in our world, while the other is set in a different world, or the same one, but a vastly different time. I enjoyed the story-within-a-story a lot; it’s about an unloved son named Farfal and his father’s magic window that opens onto different times. But I didn’t like the frame narrative as much, and I thought it wrapped up too neatly. I would love a whole novel of Farfal, though.

“The Sleeper and the Spindle”: Another story turned graphic novel, this is a beautiful mash-up of Snow White and Sleeping Beauty, and at its heart is a surprise. The Snow White character is adventurous, bold, and strong; the Sleeping Beauty character is not what you expect. I loved this; I’m going to have my fairy tales class read it in our “Witches” section, along with the poem that follows it, “Witch Work.”

“Black Dog”: This story follows Shadow, the main character from American Gods, away from Scotland where we last left him and on his way back to America. He stops in Derbyshire and makes friends with a local couple who tell him the story of Black Shuck, a black dog whose appearance portends death. Shadow is no stranger to death or to the darker, stronger forces that lie beneath myth; in this melancholy story, he encounters both.

There are lots of other stories in this collection: one inspired by David Bowie, one about Doctor Who, an homage to Ray Bradbury, etc. But they didn’t all capture my imagination. I like that Gaiman is willing to experiment with all kinds of forms, from poetry to short-short to novella to graphic novel. He’s really good at most of it, most of the time. But, while many of these stories had been featured somewhere else first, some of the ones I skipped over just felt like bits and bobs that had been knocking around his writer’s trunk for a while until he looked at them and thought, “Okay, I’ll throw that in, too.”

~Kate Lechler


Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman fantasy book reviewsIn Trigger Warning, his latest collection of what he calls “Short Fictions and Disturbances,” Neil Gaiman gathers together several short stories and poems which examine that most interesting of creatures: a person, or a small group of people, under pressure. How will they react to the unknown? What decisions will they make in a crisis? Whether it’s something seemingly innocuous, such as a child’s request for a bedtime story or a letter from a man to his beloved, or something far grander, on the scale of mystical doors between worlds or a cave which grants gold in exchange for a terrible price, each character must face a trial. Success is never guaranteed.

So what is a “trigger warning?” Dictionary.com defines it as “a stated warning that the content of a text, video, etc., may upset or offend some people, especially those who have experienced a related trauma.” The specific phrase began on the Internet as a way of letting others know that potentially upsetting material lay ahead, but it’s a concept which has its place in the non-digital world as well, long before the phrase itself saw casual usage. Newscasters are expected to forewarn their viewers that graphic images or video are about to be shown by saying something along the lines of, “Children or sensitive viewers may wish to look away.” It’s a necessary social courtesy, but does everything need a warning label? Gaiman argues that part of human life is its unpredictability, the impossibility of preparing for every possible situation, and thus do his protagonists find themselves face-to-face with their challenges. How they meet those challenges, and what happens after, are the impetus of Trigger Warning’s stories and poems.

Gaiman begins with a detailed and critical Introduction, examining literature and its role in the life of a reader or writer. Personally, I have found that one of the most rewarding aspects about being a reader is when an author tells you a little bit about their process: where and how a story was born, if it was difficult or easy to write, and if it was influenced by anything in particular or fell from the sky like an errant turtle. Knowing this information about these stories and poems in particular was useful on a number of occasions: The abrupt, odd ending of “Diamonds and Pearls” makes sense when its role as the background story for a photograph is explained, and Gaiman’s exceedingly kind tribute to Ray Bradbury makes “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” all the more poignant.

After a thoroughly good series of essays comes the first poem, “Making a Chair,” comparing the process of assembling a piece of furniture with writing. The poem itself feels extraneous, repeating much of what has already been said in the previous thirty-seven pages. In general, the poetry of Trigger Warning is fair-to-middling, containing the seeds of what could be interesting stories or personal essays. “In Relig Odhráin” has good imagery, but I wish it had been fleshed out into a story about the ancient practice of burying live people into a church’s foundational walls and the eerie, heretical words of the three-days-dead Oran.

Two of the vignettes, “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” and “Feminine Endings,” were excellently crafted despite their short length. They’re the type of horror story which creep up on you with ostensibly normal circumstances, slowly becoming sinister, building suspense in a way which doesn’t alert the reader to the real danger until it’s too late. (And then it is far, far too late.) They’re the type of stories which are perfect for telling around campfires or to a group of friends gathered around a fireplace. On the other hand, “Down to a Sunless Sea” and “Jerusalem” would have both benefitted from more details or some reworking to bring a sharper focus to their messages.

Of the longer tales, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,” “The Return of the Thin White Duke,” “The Sleeper and The Spindle,” and “Black Dog” stood out to me as being of the highest quality. Characters are solidly constructed, plots rise and fall in satisfying arcs, dialogue flows naturally, and — perhaps most importantly — the resolutions are always appropriate. These are tales which deserve multiple re-readings in order to thoroughly enjoy all that they have to offer. Less effective were “An Invocation of Incuriosity,” a story-within-a-story which seems disconnected from the framing narrative. Ultimately, it has a weak ending and doesn’t explore any of the promising details within the fantastical secondary narrative, so I wasn’t impressed.

“A Calendar of Tales” is a fascinating experiment with methods of storytelling and audience participation. Conceived as a social media project by BlackBerry, Gaiman proposed that he could write twelve stories, each provoked by tweets regarding the months of one year. Gaiman asked questions on Twitter, received thousands and thousands of answers, and picked his favorites to be the prompts. Some are too short for my liking (February, August), others seem to meander with no purpose (May, September), and others are wildly inventive (April, July, November). I do wish that the original questions and answers had been included as well, so that the beginning of the process would be present as well as the end result.

On the whole, Trigger Warning is a decent collection which I enjoyed reading. The good outweighs the bad, but I only see myself re-reading select stories rather than each and every piece. The benefit of reading a book like this is that if you aren’t too keen on a story or poem, the next one will be coming along in just a few pages, and you may find that you like it quite a bit more. An additional bonus for the reader is that you get to see an author experimenting with formats and genres, which gives hope that they will continue to work on their craft and — one hopes — not become stuck in one particular way of writing. So I do recommend it, both for pre-existing fans of Neil Gaiman or new readers who want to get an idea for his stylistic strengths and weaknesses.

~Jana Nyman

Publication Date: February 3, 2015. Multiple award winning, #1 New York Times bestselling author Neil Gaiman returns to dazzle, captivate, haunt, and entertain with this third collection of short fiction following Smoke and Mirrors and Fragile Things—which includes a never-before published American Gods story, “Black Dog,” written exclusively for this volume. In this new anthology, Neil Gaiman pierces the veil of reality to reveal the enigmatic, shadowy world that lies beneath. Trigger Warning includes previously published pieces of short fiction—stories, verse, and a very special Doctor Who story that was written for the fiftieth anniversary of the beloved series in 2013—as well “Black Dog,” a new tale that revisits the world of American Gods, exclusive to this collection. Trigger Warning explores the masks we all wear and the people we are beneath them to reveal our vulnerabilities and our truest selves. Here is a rich cornucopia of horror and ghosts stories, science fiction and fairy tales, fabulism and poetry that explore the realm of experience and emotion. In Adventure Story—a thematic companion to The Ocean at the End of the Lane—Gaiman ponders death and the way people take their stories with them when they die. His social media experience A Calendar of Tales are short takes inspired by replies to fan tweets about the months of the year—stories of pirates and the March winds, an igloo made of books, and a Mother’s Day card that portends disturbances in the universe. Gaiman offers his own ingenious spin on Sherlock Holmes in his award-nominated mystery tale The Case of Death and Honey. And Click-Clack the Rattlebag explains the creaks and clatter we hear when we’re all alone in the darkness. A sophisticated writer whose creative genius is unparalleled, Gaiman entrances with his literary alchemy, transporting us deep into the realm of imagination, where the fantastical becomes real and the everyday incandescent. Full of wonder and terror, surprises and amusements, Trigger Warning is a treasury of delights that engage the mind, stir the heart, and shake the soul from one of the most unique and popular literary artists of our day.

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KATE LECHLER, on our staff from May 2014 to January 2017, resides in Oxford, MS, where she divides her time between teaching early British literature at the University of Mississippi, writing fiction, and throwing the tennis ball for her insatiable terrier, Sam. She loves speculative fiction because of what it tells us about our past, present, and future. She particularly enjoys re-imagined fairy tales and myths, fabulism, magical realism, urban fantasy, and the New Weird. Just as in real life, she has no time for melodramatic protagonists with no sense of humor. The movie she quotes most often is Jurassic Park, and the TV show she obsessively re-watches (much to the chagrin of her husband) is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Her personal blog is The Rediscovered Country and she tweets @katelechler.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but now makes her home in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, Ann Leckie, N.K. Jemisin, and Seanan McGuire.

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