LitStack Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

by Sharon Browning
Trigger Warning:  Short Fictions and Disturbancestrigger
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow Publishers
Publication Date:
ISBN 978-0-06-233026-0

I freely admit it:  for me (as for many), Neil Gaiman can do no wrong.  He’s the perfect literary celebrity:  moved from the UK to live and work in my Midwestern neck of the woods, calm, unassuming, accessible, champion of alternative issues including independent bookstores and freedom of speech, he’s patient, kind, quirky, has a beautifully melodious voice, an impeccable taste in dogs, an unassuming hobby of raising bees, and a habit of being genuinely awesome.

His writing is wonderful, disturbing, magical, lyrical.  His novels, novellas, poems, graphic novels are uniquely his – often quite dark (not always!) and yet so very accessible, so very memorable.  Even his commencement speeches can bring one to tears.  And then there are his short stories.

He’s very generous with his short stories and poems.  He writes them for anthologies, collaborations, special occasions, for illustrated books (I particularly love Blueberry Girl) and even posters.  Trigger Warning is his sixth collection of short stories and poems, and like everything else he does, it’s diverse, spooky, intriguing and yes, lyrical.

The title Trigger Warning comes from the term given to various media offerings (digital and physical) where consumption could potentially trigger terror, high anxiety or flashbacks on the part of an unsuspecting public.  They are more than “things that upset us”.  But Mr. Gaiman, in the Introduction of Trigger Warning (which you absolutely should read), encourages adults to read fiction “at our own risk”.  He writes:

…what we learn about ourselves in those moments, where the trigger has been squeezed, is this:  the past is not dead.  There are things that wait for us, patiently, in the dark corridors of our lives.  We think we have moved on, put them out of mind, left them to desiccate and shrivel and blow away; but we are wrong.  They have been waiting there in the darkness, working out, practicing their most vicious blows, their sharp hard thoughtless punches into the gut, killing time until we came back that way.

And indeed, there is darkness in many of these stories.  Mr. Gaiman tells us that there are “things in this book, as in life, that may upset you,” such as death, pain, tears, discomfort, violence, cruelty and abuse, but also kindness, and even “a handful of happy endings.”  We have been warned!

But these stories are also wonderful.  Wonderfully dark, creepy, scary.  Never sensational, never gratuitous, no, not shocking for the mere sake of being shocking, not bloody simply to add to the gore.  Even at their darkest, they are wonderfully wrought stories, and they flow, and we are pulled along in that flow, even if we are not sure where we will end up, even if we are afraid of where it is we are being taken.

There are gothic horror tales (“My Last Landlady”) and ones that are deceptively frightening (“Click-Clack the Rattlebag”), ones that are gently disquieting (“The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”) and bizarrely disquieting (“A Lunar Labyrinth”), and ones that are just plain disquieting (“The Thing About Cassandra”).  There are text-only recountings of stories that have been previously released as gloriously illustrated stand alone books (“The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains…”, “The Sleeper and the Spindle”).  And there are stories that feature familiar characters, such as Sherlock Holmes in “The Case of Death and Honey”, and Shadow Moon (from Mr. Gaiman’s masterful American Gods) in “Black Dog.”  There is even a story full of stories (“A Calendar of Tales”), of which October’s Tale is my very favorite out of the entire book.  These stories encompass fairy tales, folk tales, ghost stories, science fiction, horror stories… “hodgepodge and willy-nilly”, as Mr. Gaiman again warns us.

But don’t let all the warnings put you off – this is a wonderfully entertaining book, even if it does leave you with chills.  Perhaps especially because of that.  Again – as always – Trigger Warning is Neil Gaiman at his best.

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