short fictions and disturbances

a review of neil gaiman’s trigger warning

There are few narrative devices that are as delightful as the well-executed plot twist. There simply isn’t anything like the thrill of turning the page and being smacked in the face with a game-changing revelation, of discovering that you’ve been duped, that the good guy is actually the bad guy, or that everything you’ve read is a figment of someone’s hallucination. Given its abrasiveness, however, a plausible and satisfying twist can be exceedingly hard to execute. It is no surprise that the most widely seen incarnation of the plot twist is the deus ex machina, aka the contrived introduction of a new plot element that suddenly solves an unsolvable problem, aka the refuge of the lazy writer.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, Neil Gaiman’s new book of short stories and poetry, makes it clear that he is no lazy writer. In this eclectic new collection, which brings together works written for a variety of anthologies, outlets, and media, the award-winning fantasy writer perfects the art of the twist in a variation that I shall call the “shift.” In every tale in Trigger Warning, there comes a point where the story quietly shapeshifts, much like the monsters and magical creatures that populate Gaiman’s oneiric universe. Sometimes dark secrets hitherto hidden (often in plain sight) are revealed, while at other times, you are gently reminded that things are not what they seem. But unlike the abrupt and abrasive plot twist, which often comes out of nowhere, the narrative “shift” seeps in through hints and clues, sly and unannounced like the dusk—until, all of a sudden, you realize that you’re dealing with a whole different beast of a story.

So it is in “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” an ingenious feminist spin (no pun intended) on the classic fairy tale, Sleeping Beauty. It is only when the three dwarves in the story and their queen set out burrowing through tunnels to rescue the sleeping princess, and it is casually mentioned that the queen “had lived with [the dwarves], when she was little more than a child, and she was not afraid,” that the “shift” occurs; all the slight references about the queen’s dark hair and fair skin, of how she had slept for a year once upon a time and then woken up, fall into place and you realize that you are in the presence of not just one fairy tale but two, colliding.

Perhaps these moments of transformation are the triggers of which the title speaks, because this book has hardly any triggers of the sort that Gaiman warns us of in his long, unnecessary prelude to an otherwise excellent collection. Not only is this introductory op-ed against trigger warnings written in an overly simple and occasionally mawkish style (“There are still things that profoundly upset me when I encounter them … but they teach me things, and they open my eyes, and if they hurt, they hurt in ways that make me think and grow and change”), it is also not entirely warranted by the tales that follow. Yes, in classic Gaiman style, these tales are dark and disturbing, overrun with witchcraft, vengeance and gruesome deaths. However, there is nothing here that is not a staple of the horror-mytho-fantasy genre. Much of it, even at its most depraved, is quite mild, especially when compared to the horrors that abound in Gaiman’s other works like American Gods, Sandman and even Coraline. I say this not to criticize Trigger Warning (which I loved) or trigger warnings (which are a whole other debate) but to make my case against an introduction that proudly claims a trigger warning—almost advertising the “upsetting” nature of the content—for a book that barely merits one.

Once you get past the introduction, however, there are treasures to be found. In an interview with Time in 2013, aptly titled “The Illusionist,” Gaiman was asked about his approach to the magical realism in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. In his response, he stressed “the importance of… treating unreal things the same way one would treat the real ones. ‘You don’t make a fuss about it.’” This unfussy brand of fabulism is one of Gaiman’s particular strengths. In the stories that lean towards realism, the magic lurks inconspicuously in the shadows of reality, blurring the edges of things. An example is the ruminative “Jerusalem”: after a visit to the Holy City, a woman is afflicted with the Jerusalem Syndrome (an actual psychological condition in which a visit to Jerusalem triggers religiously themed delusions), while her husband grapples with the deep pull of the city’s faith and time. On the other hand, in the more fantastical, zany stories—such as “An Invocation of Incuriosity” in which young Farfal and his father escape the end of the universe through a time-traveling doorway—the characters insist on being ordinary, even banal, in their conflicts and concerns, and imbue the fantasy with both humanity and wry irony.

Gaiman’s flair for distilling the extraordinary into the ordinary extends beyond themes and plots—it is evident even in his use of language. His style is elegant and clean, his constructions precise and simple; however, his words manage to capture complex, ineffable emotions. In “Feminine Endings,” a rather creepy story about a living statue who falls in love with a tourist, I stumbled upon a beautiful, uncannily accurate description of falling in love: “You smiled, and I was lost, like a small child in a great forest never to find its way home again.” “Down to a Sunless Sea,” one of the most unsettling stories of the collection, features a lonely woman on the seashore who tells you how her young son met his dreadful death at sea. It ends with a line that articulates poignantly how it feels to partake of another’s grief: “and the water of the rain runs down your face like someone else’s tears.”

While magical realism is Gaiman’s forte, he also has a Tolkien-like knack for creating intricate, fantastical universes with their own creatures and quests. “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains,” inspired by the author’s stay in the Isle of Skye, is one such tale that I enjoyed immensely. While some of the other, shorter stories can feel a little too unstructured and self-indulgent (there’s a little story about a house being attacked by a phoenix-ridden inferno that struck me as expendable), this one is an atmospheric, tightly-plotted revenge saga, with dwarves and gods and a quest for gold thrown into the mix.

Trigger Warning showcases Gaiman’s versatility and range—not that anyone needed any convincing, given that his oeuvre spans novels, children’s books, comic books, graphic novels, screenplays, and much more. However, Trigger Warning shows how versatile the author can be even within the narrow scope of short-form fiction. The collection features a number of very creative formal experiments. My favorite is the quirky piece titled “Orange,” which tells the story of a girl who grows obsessed with tanning cream and turns into an orange, all-powerful, alien-like being. Here’s the twist: the entire story is in the form of a questionnaire, filled out by the girl’s sister. Not only are the sister’s typical teenage responses hilarious (“The Rolling Stones? These little goat-men hopping around on stage pretending to be all rock-and-roll? Please.”), the story’s structure epitomizes Gaiman’s fiction: hints, clues, and answers are provided for you to piece together, but it’s always a little ambiguous. Another interesting experiment is “A Calendar of Tales”, which started out as a social media project sponsored by Blackberry. Gaiman asked his army of twitter followers a question for each of the twelve months, picked the best responses and wrote a story based on each response. The quality of the stories is a little uneven, but it is an admirable project nevertheless. It shows why Neil Gaiman enjoys the kind of celebrity he does: he is an internet-savvy writer who adapts his methods to the times.

“Writers live in houses other people built,” writes Gaiman in an introduction to a story inspired by Jack Vance, tipping his hat to the greats of speculative fiction who have influenced his work. It is in these houses built by other writers that Gaiman thrives. Trigger Warning has Gaiman paying homage to and pastiching many of his influences: Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Ray Bradbury, and Clark Ashton, to name a few. In these pieces, which are full of fun little Easter eggs and references for fans, he reveals himself to be not just a great writer of stories, but also a great lover of stories, literate in the work of his predecessors. “The Case of Death and Honey,” a delightful Sherlock Holmes story, suggests that Sherlock’s post-retirement beekeeping was actually a scientific quest for immortality—an investigation into the crimes of Death itself. Gaiman claims he just wasn’t convinced that a restless brain like Sherlock’s could be occupied by an activity as mundane as beekeeping. Trigger Warning also features a pitch-perfect Doctor Who story that has the Doctor trying to prevent a mysterious enemy, The Kin, from taking over the universe and all of time. Gaiman gives these stories the respectful treatment they deserve, effortlessly emulating the voice and tone of the borrowed characters. However, he also gently pushes their boundaries, imbuing them with a little bit of his trademark dark magic.

In his introduction, Gaiman writes of his love for short stories: “They seemed to me the purest and most perfect things people could make: not a word wasted, in the best of them.” The short stories in this book are not always pure or perfect, and some words may be wasted here and there. However, Gaiman’s stories never fail to be beautiful. From the lucidity of his language to the haunting poetry of his dark, dark worlds, there is much beauty to be found in this book. Most impressive of all is the transcendent beauty of Gaiman’s imagination.