Neil Gaiman Short Stories: Lots of Hit Targets and a Few Stray Bullets

Neil Gaiman
William Morrow, 308 pages, 978-0-06-233026-0.
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Trigger warnings are those small cautionary flags thrown up to warn that some sort of content (image, speech, written word) may induce discomfort for some listeners, viewers, or readers.  They are, depending upon one’s point of view, either polite warnings, excuses to present objectionable material, or a form of censorship aimed at further infantilizing American culture. (Full disclosure: I am in camp # 3.)  It’s a perfect title for a Neil Gaiman book, as few modern writers take readers as far from their comfort zones as he.

One of the things that makes Gaiman a great writer—as opposed to pulp hacks like Stephen King—is that he knows that “disturbances” are caused as much by the imagination as by any specific action or image. Like earlier writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft, his horrors often reside in dream worlds, random thoughts, imagined terrors, and mental meanderings; in essence, we fear the things that we can envision more than the unknown or unseen. In a new collection of short stories, Gaiman demonstrates another level of wisdom: the understanding that triggers are linked to more than simply raw fear­–they are highly individualized and they come in unexpected forms. Sometimes it’s an encounter with a man who might be a werewolf (“A Lunar Labyrinth”), but it might be a terror linked to faded memory  (“The Thing about Cassandra”), or even musing upon a David Bowie lyric (“The Thin White Duke").

Trigger Warning contains two dozen stories and original poems. Like all such collections, the quality varies from chapter to chapter. There is, frankly, some filler in the new book, the likes of which probably would never have seen the light of day if penned by an unknown. But when Gaiman is good, he’s very good. “The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountain” takes a familiar story—a mysterious traveler seeking a guide that will take him to a place locals claim is haunted—and uses Scotland’s Isle of Skye, a real-life dream world, as a creepy backdrop for a tale that grows more ominous by the paragraph. In “Orange,” he builds suspense through 70 out-of-context answers to an interviewer’s questions. He does something similar in “A Calendar of Tales,” which is true to its title: a dozen tales, one for each month—some of which are scary, some humorous, and others surreal. (Gaiman knows that for many people, nothing is more terrifying than a departure from that which is defined as “normal” or “real.”)

Those familiar with Gaiman’s work will recognize a few of his personal inspirations. He has written a tale of aged Sherlock Holmes (“The Case of Death and Honey”), a new Doctor Who episode (“Nothing O’ Clock”), and reworked fairy tales (Cinderella in the case of “The Sleeper and the Spindle”). He also reduxes his character Shadow from American Gods in “Black Dog”. One his more deft turns is using humor as a trigger warning, which he does to great effect in “And Weep, Like Alexander,” an offbeat tale about an odd little man whose profession is that of an Uninventor. That’s right—he uninvents things humankind creates that would simply cause more havoc than good. (Where was he when the Segway was manufactured?!) This tale is typical in that there is, in fact, nothing in the entire collection that would tempt you to sleep with the lights on. But make no mistake, triggers are repeatedly pulled.

To return to an earlier point, not every effort is a winner. As a poet, he reminds us that he’s a novelist, and a few stories simply trade on the unexplained to build bizarre scenarios that go nowhere. In “Adventure Story,” for example, he spins a tale of his father, World War II, Aztecs, and pterodactyls that is either supposed to highlight his dysfunctional family or suggest a paranormal experience, but nothing is more than mentioned within four scant pages, so who knows? A few others are something we seldom expect from Gaiman: obvious. But when Gaiman puts his finger on the trigger of the metaphorical gun that’s pointed at you, you feel the disturbance, even when it’s more frisson than fear.  Rob Weir

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