“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,” writes Neil Gaiman in the introduction to his charming third anthology of short stories. The title, “Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances,” is rather appropriate for a writer of his literary reputation; Gaiman, famous for the “Sandman” comic book series and dark novels such as “American Gods” and “Coraline,” is an acknowledged master of worldbuilding. His fantastical constructions are shadowed by the omnipresent specter of Death. Gaiman’s obsession with mortality, coupled with his grotesque and often horrifying imagery, make strange bedfellows with his understated and whimsical narration—but this distinctive morbid optimism is what distinguishes him from other writers of the fantasy genre. Although “Trigger Warning” isn’t Gaiman at his absolute best, it’s certainly valuable as his most experimental work in fiction (with some droll interludes of poetry thrown in for good measure). Each short piece serves as an exciting foray into some macabre microcosm of his mind.
Certain stories, such as “‘The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains’” and “The Sleeper and the Spindle,” are immediately distinguishable as conventional Gaiman dark fantasy but are also refreshingly new. In “The Truth,” Gaiman slowly unravels the tale of a dwarf and his companion traveling to a misty island (based on the real-life Isle of Skye in Scotland, one of Gaiman’s favorite haunts). The dwarf ostensibly wants to claim some fantastic treasure from a cursed cave, but his fellow traveler soon realizes that more sinister motives are at play. “The Sleeper” is Gaiman’s mash-up of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Snow White” in which Snow White journeys to a neighboring kingdom to lift it from a mysterious sleeping curse, the source of which is a thorn-encrusted royal castle of sleeping victims guarded by a menacing old woman. In the hands of another writer, such stories might have turned out trite or derivative, but Gaiman manages to subvert fantasy tropes and conventional plot expectations, as he has before in “Stardust." He doesn’t hesitate to portray the graphic—in "The Truth," a character grimly recounts, “I saw it in my mind’s eye: her skeleton picked clean of clothes, picked clean of flesh, as naked and white as anyone would ever be, hanging like a child’s puppet against the thornbush, tied to a branch above it by its red-golden hair.” Elsewhere, in the seemingly traditional princess story of "The Sleeper," he makes progressive political statements: “She touched the pink lips to her own carmine lips and she kissed the sleeping girl long and hard.”
“Trigger Warning” is at its best when Gaiman renders perception untrustworthy and blurs the line between reality and fantasy, often to disturbing results. Two stories stand out as examples of this narrative unreliability: “Click-Clack the Rattlebag” reads as a surprisingly fast-paced children’s horror tale while “The Thing About Cassandra” takes a serious, adult perspective on modern romance. It’s a testament to Gaiman’s versatility that he exhibits so many different styles of writing in this single anthology, from the heavy dialogue of “Click-Clack” to the contemporary sensibilities of the narration in “Cassandra.” This flexibility wanders into experimental territory with stories such as “ORANGE” and “A Calendar of Tales.” The former is structured as a numbered list of answers to a police interrogation (questions helpfully omitted), while “Calendar” is a series of 12 vignettes about the months of the year, inspired by suggestions that Gaiman solicited over Twitter.
Gaiman is also good at blurring genre boundaries in his stories. Two of his more conventional stories—“The Case of Death and Honey” and “Nothing O’Clock”—deftly pay homage to pop culture icons. “Death and Honey” is a cleverly imagined Sherlock Holmes narrative that channels Gaiman’s obsession with death and immortality through the neurotic first-person narration of the famous detective. “As my face grew unfamiliar, and my finger-joints swelled and ached…and as Watson, dear, brave, obtuse Watson, faded with time and paled and shrank, his skin becoming grayer, his moustache becoming the same shade of gray as his skin, my resolve to conclude my researches did not diminish,” Holmes muses.One might think that similar worries preoccupy Gaiman given the pervasiveness of such themes throughout his body of work. In “Nothing O’Clock,” Gaiman tells the opposite story—one of an immortal alien known as The Doctor, a being for whom mortality is no question at all. Having previously written two episodes for the 2005 BBC revival of “Doctor Who,” Gaiman revisits the character of the Eleventh Doctor in this tale. Given his familiarity with the characters and experience writing for the television show, it's no surprise that Gaiman very accurately captures the idiosyncrasies of The Doctor and his companion Amy Pond, to the point where one can almost hear the voices of their respective actors reading the dialogue. This story alone, along with “An Invocation of Incuriosity” which ingeniously applies fantasy sensibilities to a science fiction story about time travel, could secure Gaiman in the upper echelons of contemporary science fiction and speculative fiction writers.
While “Trigger Warning” might disturb some with its everyday approach to the macabre, it crucially highlights Gaiman’s creative finesse in a medium that allows for more experimental and intellectually interesting exploration. Gaiman is a writer known for works that span many different mediums—most significantly long and dark fantasy novels—but this anthology, much like his first, allows him to employ unique ideas and styles that only function well in a short format. Perhaps no caution is necessary for those familiar with Gaiman’s work—though “Trigger Warning” will still find a way to catch the reader off guard.
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