Neil Gaiman’s latest collection of “short fictions and disturbances” is called Trigger Warning, inspired by the idea that we need to be warned when something shocking, disturbing, uncomfortable is coming our way. Gaiman has stories about little every day disturbances, larger fantastical horrors, unexpected everyday fears that creep up, and epic frights, passed on through the generations.
As Gaiman himself says in the introduction to this collection, short stories are an art form in themselves, a place to play and experiment. The purest thing a person can make; the best stories have not a word out of place, not a word wasted. “An author would wave her hand, and suddenly there was a world…”, telling you things you would not know, reshaping the inside of his head. Gaiman, as I have written before, does reshape my mind, the worlds his words create completely alter how I perceive the fabric of life but this collection, while wild and fun and interesting, did not shake my world.
So, I have high standards for Neil Gaiman; that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But that does mean the expectation levels were through the roof when I carefully cracked open the cover of Trigger Warning. First up: a massive introduction, talking about where the title is from, ideas around short stories, and providing a brief explanation of each of the chapters and this is prefaced with a general apology about the assemblage-nature of this collection, and his need to explain it. It feels like in spite of himself, he’s asking for indulgence, and not allowing his hodge-podge collection stand alone. I skipped the story-by-story breakdown, but found myself referencing back to it whenever I had finished a chapter that tantalised or intrigued.
And the stories? After all that introduction? Well. Gaiman can write. His mind: mad, wondrous, full of wanderings, inventions, references, questions, queries into whatever is more in this world, making your mind ask more as well. As The Guardian noted in their review of Trigger Warning, Gaiman is one of the best twist-writers at work today, creating vivid, readable tales with real moments of surprise and joy when the plot turns and reveals itself to us. He is a master of construction, each story neatly packaged, which may take some of the fright out, but allows you to relax into a master’s hands.
This collection has allowed Gaiman to indulge a little: in “The Case of Death and Honey”, Sherlock Holmes writes his own story, taking on the ‘crime’ of death itself; in “Nothing O’Clock”, a Matt Smith-era Doctor Who takes on a sinister kind with a warped childhood game, creating paradoxes into the time continuum itself. The stunning “Sleeper and the Spindle” has been oversimplified into the category of ‘feminist fairy tale’, but it is a magnificent adventure, overturning every expectation you have about bad, good, and how these stories are told. One of the deepest, darkest stories “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” reminded me of a Nordic epic, stark and unforgiving, brutal and creative: an act of revenge as two men hunt for cursed gold. Shadow, from American Gods, also appears in a new story, travelling across England on his way back home, eventually.
And Gaiman writes so well. In this layered, multi-influenced collection, he is forced to capture essences of moments, conveying a world in a sweep. It is masterly how carefully he reveals how big that world is, hinting at depths, distilling a moment of fright echoing into a lifetime of fears:
The rain redoubled, and a sudden flash of lightning burned the world into existence all around them: every grey rock in the drystone wall, every blade of grass, every puddle and every tree was perfectly illuminated, and then swallowed by a deeper darkness, leaving afterimages on Shadow’s night-blinded eyes.
Gaiman has interwoven David Bowie, childhood nightmares, fictional girlfriends, bedtime stories, literary figures, genres and different modes of story-telling into this exploration of short fictions.
Gaiman jokes, perhaps riskily, that short story collections are often seen as vanity projects, as not real, and like him I would disagree with idea because it doesn’t acknowledge short stories as their own craft. He uses them to experiment, adventure and play, which you can tell when reading Trigger Warning; while not always perfect or managed or polished, these experiments are wild and fun. The space Gaiman has built for himself is part indulgence, part pure magic creation, and totally interesting.