Book Review: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

gaiman“Trigger Warning contains some of the best stories that this Gaiman has written.”

Neil Gaiman is a writer who needs no introduction, a writer whose work is as distinctive as any in speculative fiction. Most readers of his new collection, Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances, will come to it knowing roughly what to expect – clever, devious stories spanning numerous genres and styles. Trigger Warning contains science-fiction, horror, fantasy and poetry. But beneath this dazzling variety is the bedrock of Gaiman’s formidable skills as a stylist, allowing him to make each story his own.

And therein lies a problem…

The first story, ‘A Lunar Labyrinth’ seems to encapsulate some of the flaws of this collection as a whole. It’s a well-written homage to Gene Wolfe, a tale of rural magic and ritual. But Gaiman’s sparkling style can’t hide the fact that the plot itself seems all too predictable and underwhelming. It has the feel of a B-side by your favourite band: interesting enough to the fans but unlikely to win any new converts.

About a third of the contents of the book have a similar feel – the trademark Gaiman flair masking slight or predictable pieces. Perhaps this problem stems from how some of these were written: Trigger Warning contains stories that were experiments in social media (‘A Calendar Of Tales’), written to accompany an art show (‘Diamonds & Pearls’) or simply one-trick ponies not worthy of inclusion (‘Adventure Story’; ‘Orange’). There are also a few poems scattered throughout the book, which provide proof that just because an author is a fantastic prose stylist it doesn’t mean they are any good as a poet.

The shame is, these lesser pieces dilute the impact of the truly excellent work elsewhere in the book.

Fortunately, the good stuff is not long in coming: in fact the second story, ‘There’s Something About Cassandra’, is one of the best things Gaiman has ever written. It is about a man who, as a teenager, wrote the name ‘Cassandra’ on his schoolbooks to pretend that he had a girlfriend; he made up dates with her and claimed to lose his virginity, before inventing a fictitious breakup when she moves abroad. Years later, his friends inform him that Cassandra is in town and wants to get back in touch. A clever, creepy tale that showcases just what makes Gaiman so good, it’s a story the reader is likely to immediately reread upon finishing.

The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains…’ is the longest story here, a rambling, picaresque novella about a dwarf and his gruff companion searching for the titular cave and its treasure of gold. From such clichéd material Gaiman produces something wholly original, full of character and surety of purpose. Set on the Isle Of Skye, the author uses the setting and local folklore to create a rich backdrop, producing a story very much more than the sum of its parts.

‘Click Clack The Rattle Bag’ is one of the few out and out horror stories here; a young child asks his babysitter to tell him a scary story before bed. In a typical Gaiman reversal the babysitter (who is a writer) doesn’t know any scary stories, but as he leads the child to bed the boy tells him about the eponymous creature, which drinks your insides. The story is scary but “only a little bit” to quote the child, evoking chills almost pleasurable because they are so reminiscent of childhood fears.

By contrast ‘Feminine Endings’ is a fully grown up horror story, a disturbing tale of romantic and erotic obsession. The story is written as a love letter, thrilling personal and intimate as the writer–a human-statue–tells his love how he has observed her whilst standing completely still and unnoticed for hours on end. It’s in the nature of people not to notice people until they move, he writes, and he is very good at not moving and remaining unobserved. A fantastic piece of writing, it makes the reader wish Gaiman would be this dark and unnerving more often.

‘Nothing O’Clock’ is a Doctor Who story written for the show’s 50th anniversary, and it simultaneously manages to be both very Gaiman-esque and very Whovian. It tells the story of the Eleventh Doctor and Amy confronting a being called The Kin. A single entity, The Kin can travel in time and wants to populate the entire universe with nothing but versions of itself at different points in history. The Kin is also hideously ugly and wears masks to stop itself having to see its own face; because Gaiman’s story is set in the 80s these masks are of Thatcher and Reagan, and allow the author to make some subtle political points about capitalism and what it means when everything has a price. Scary and witty, this might be the best Who episode never filmed.

Only a Neil Gaiman collection could feature both the Doctor and Sherlock Holmes, and the illustrious detective appears in ‘A Case Of Death And Honey’. As ever, Gaiman makes the character his own whilst still keeping true to the original’s spirit: an elderly Holmes travels to China to learn the secrets of bee keeping. Whilst there is a mystery of sorts to be solved, the story is focussed on the obsessive character of Holmes himself, still fighting the odds long after friends (and foes) have died. And if you’ve ever wondered why the world’s greatest detective took up beekeeping in his retirement, Gaiman provides an answer to that as well.

‘And Weep Like Alexander’ is a comic science fiction piece, written for an anthology of tales in the style of Arthur C Clarke’s White Hart stories. Showcasing Gaiman’s gift for humour and ability to both use and poke fun at genre conventions, it finally answers that question about why we haven’t got jetpacks and other fabulous technology which we were promised.

It wouldn’t be a Gaiman collection without a story that rewrites a traditional fairy tale; ‘The Sleeper And The Spindle’ in fact rewrites two. Gaiman’s riff on both Sleeping Beauty and Snow White features two princesses, on opposite sides of a supposedly unpassable mountain range. However, one of the princesses defies both storytelling convention and gender stereotyping to make the crossing, and so into a different story all together. From this point, the plots of both tales deviate widely from the versions the reader might be familiar with.

Other highlights of Trigger Warning include ‘The Return Of The Thin White Duke’ (science fiction seguing into the life of David Bowie), ‘My Last Landlady’ (a short but vicious chiller), and the lovely, elegiac tribute of ‘The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury’. And for readers who skip the introductions to books, beware: Gaiman has hidden a story in there too.

The book ends with a story original to this collection, ‘Black Dog’, which features Shadow from American Gods. The animal of the title is part depression, part guilt, and part big black supernatural hound. Centred around a homely English village close to some ancient Roman ruins, this story uses rural folklore to its advantage–it’s everything that the first story in the book failed to be, a closing reminder of Gaiman’s unique gifts as a storyteller.

In summary, Trigger Warning is two thirds a great collection, let down only by the inclusion of pieces that seem to have only been published because Neil Gaiman wrote them. But it also contains some of the best stories that this unique author has ever written and the excellent stories outnumber the makeweight ones. Taken as a whole, it provides ample evidence of why Gaiman is one of the most loved writers of his generation.

JAMES EVERINGTON

Publisher: Headline
Ebook (352pp)
Release Date: 03 February 2014

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1 comment

  1. Actually I think Adventure Story and Orange are good. Experiments no doubt but satisfying.

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