'Trigger Warning' Proves Once Again That Neil Gaiman Rarely Fails to Be Entertaining

by Andrew Gilstrap

11 May 2015

Trigger Warning collects 23 of Gaiman's recent stories and poems, and serves as a reminder of how he became such a phenomenon in the fantasy field.
 
cover art

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

Neil Gaiman

(William Morrow)
US: Feb 2015

One thing that strikes you over the course of a Neil Gaiman collection is his consistency of voice. Sure, there’s the occasional story where he tries some dialect on for size or adopts some other narrative trickery, but overall, there’s that Gaiman voice: clear, unadorned, and largely to the point.

Surprisingly, one of the best examples of this focus might be something that doesn’t appear in this collection, but rather on his website: the eulogy he wrote for his dog. Obviously torn up with grief, Gaiman wrote a clear and concise remembrance that did a remarkable job of balancing reportage and emotion. There were probably a million things he wanted to say about this companion, but it seemed like his journalist training and writerly instincts kicked in, keeping things in check.

It’s also a quality that runs throughout Trigger Warning. Granted, Gaiman’s fiction—apart from what felt like a wonderfully personal thread running through his most recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane—always feels removed from the man. You never forget that Gaiman is telling you the story, but if there’s personal experience in the mix, it’s well-hidden beneath a blanket of myth, folklore, and creepy crawly things in the dark.

Trigger Warning starts gently with “A Lunar Labyrinth”, which feels a little predictable because this is a Gaiman story, after all, so you’re already tuned in to its supernatural bent. The story’s dialogue, though, mixes clues and misdirection as the narrator and his guide trade pieces of folklore, feeling each other out a bit. It’s also a ticking clock of foreshadowing, as the guide describes the maze’s different purposes under different moons, and it feels like the reader is experiencing those phases as he talks. 

On the other hand, there’s “Down to a Sunless Sea”, which doesn’t play around at all, visiting the trope of a sea widow and telling a tale that quickly veers into brutal, unexpected territory. “The Case of Death and Honey” finds Gaiman exploring a popular angle of recent Sherlock Holmes stories—that of a bored master detective with no mysteries worth his intellect—by placing it in a rustic China that’s far from Holmes’s usual London haunts.  The case Holmes assigns himself, spurred by the death of his elder brother Mycroft, becomes his lone crusade for decades and to say too much about the reason behind Holmes’s single-minded devotion to beekeeping would spoil the story’s unique surprise.

The Doctor Who-based “Nothing O’Clock” is a lively story that hits the ground running towards a very Doctor-like solution to a time-bending problem. And somehow, after decades now of fairy tale reinventions, Gaiman finds a new tale to tell of two different princesses in “The Sleeper and the Spindle”.

In the book’s entertaining introduction, in which he explains the roots of each tale, at least two stories here didn’t originate as traditional printed short stories. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” first saw light as a free Audible download for Halloween. “A Calendar of Tales” was born when Blackberry invited Gaiman to solicit calendar-based ideas from fans via Twitter and then quickly write tales about them. The results are mixed. “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” is a top-shelf spooky campfire story, while the 12 very short stories in “A Calendar of Tales” offer an interesting diversion by covering all sorts of stylistic ground with varying degrees of resonance.

“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains”, one of the collection’s strongest (and longest) stories, takes its time to explore a story of cold revenge and secrets brought out into the open when a man shows up asking for a guide to a fabled cave.  One of the book’s greatest pleasures, though, comes in the form of “Black Dog”, a previously unpublished story featuring Shadow, the protagonist from Gaiman’s American Gods. The second of what will apparently be three freestanding Shadow tales (the first appeared in Gaiman’s Fragile Things collection), “Black Dog” masterfully combines British folklore and history with more than a touch of Hemingway’s “black dog” of depression.

Throughout Trigger Warnings, you’ll also become aware of a few other things about Gaiman that you might not have known before. For example, he is fond of small details such as salmon-colored sunsets or sunrises. He’s also quite taken with belief of various ancient peoples that burying a person alive in a building’s walls (immurement) would give it a stronger foundation. This strange phenomena shows up in at several places in Trigger Warning: most notably as the central conceit of the poem In Relig Odhrain in which a “three days dead You’ll be hard-pressed to find any extraneous information in his stories, and to reread some of the collection’s strongest stories is to feel like you’re watching the pieces of one deftly-constructed puzzle after another slide easily into place.  Gaiman, for the most part, is a fairly formal writer in that his characters’s actions and the whims of the universe conspire to bring each character to his or her fate.  There’s really no escaping your doom if you’re a Gaiman character.  Reading a story like “The Thing About Cassandra”, in which a young man meets his completely made-up girlfriend from his teenage years, you’re left with the feeling that of course it ends the way it does, impossible though the whole thing may be. Saint Oran mouths heresies before being buried for good, and as an important element of “Black Dog”. 

Above all, though, you realize how tightly plotted Gaiman’s stories are. In the same way that his clarity of voice doesn’t waver, neither does his sense of what the story needs.  You’ll be hard-pressed to find any extraneous information in his stories, and to reread some of the collection’s strongest stories is to feel like you’re watching the pieces of one deftly-constructed puzzle after another slide easily into place. Gaiman, for the most part, is a fairly formal writer in that his characters’s actions and the whims of the universe conspire to bring each character to his or her fate. There’s really no escaping your doom if you’re a Gaiman character. Reading a story like “The Thing About Cassandra”, in which a young man meets his completely made-up girlfriend from his teenage years, you’re left with the feeling that of course it ends the way it does, impossible though the whole thing may be.

At this point, Gaiman’s status as something of a phenomenon can threaten to overshadow the reason he attained that status: he writes a really good story. Equally at home writing fantasy, horror, or even light-hearted pieces of fancy, Gaiman rarely fails to be entertaining, a trait that’s prominently displayed in Trigger Warning.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances

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