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


Newest Ellis Paul May be Best Release of the Decade

Chasing Beauty
Black Wolf
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Is Ellis Paul the hardest working musician in acoustic music? Damned if I've ever seen him leave anything behind in the green room. Any new Ellis Paul album is reason for celebration, but Chasing Beauty is triumphant even by his exalted standards. I do not exaggerate when I say this is was not only the album of the year for 2014, but it's quite possibly the best I've heard this decade. Paul is an American troubadour in the mold of Woody Guthrie, Ramblin' Jack Elliot, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan and he's a better singer than any of them—he of the impossibly high voice in which each syllable explodes with emotive energy.

Chasing Beauty is Paul's 19th album and it's a true roller coaster of moods, emotions, and images. The title song embodies the album's namesake theme: the promises, open wounds, and approach/flight dance involved in chasing beauty in its various guises. Where do we find it? Some times it's in simple things—moving in close, a train ride, a cathartic roller coaster ride–themes he explores in "Take Me to a Drive-in Movie." Sometimes it's something more complex, like the American spirit in times of adversity, which he reconnoiters in "Empire State," his love letter to New York City's iconic and indomitable skyscraper. Some times it's looking back ("Plastic Soldier"); other times it's being in the moment and seeing the world through the eyes of his daughter ("Hold Me, Scold Me"). Listen hard to Ellis Paul lyrics–they are filled with poetic wonder, and some times they just dispel simple wisdom: "If you ain't got nothing that you'd die for/Tell me is your life worth living after all." Paul can be as soft as a spring breeze ("One Kiss Could Do Me In"), but he offers precious few nostrums; as he suggests in another song, sometimes roses come in cages. Paul is usually pegged as a "folk" singer, but "acoustic rock" might be a better handle. Chasing Beauty has many quiet moments, but it also a highly polished studio work that sports rolling organ notes, electric breakouts, and rock steady drumming. And, in true Ellis Paul fashion, his guitar work dazzles with virtuosity one moment and sends percussive shock waves the next. Mainly Paul just lets it all hang out and defies conventional classifications. Take a listen to his crowd-pleasing "Kick Out the Lights (Johnny Cash)" and come up with you own label, but I'm going with "masterpiece." –Rob Weir      


New Blu-ray Reason Aplenty to Rediscover My Winnipeg

MY WINNIPEG (2007/15)
Directed by Guy Maddin
Buffalo Gal Productions
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This documentary created a small stir when it first came out in 2007. Earlier this year it was re-released in Blu-ray and, if your tastes run toward the offbeat and surrealistic, it’s well worth watching—even though parts of it are now outdated.

Winnipeg, Manitoba native Guy Maddin is the director/writer/narrator/central character of what he calls a “docu-fantasia.” That’s not a bad term, though “autobiographical tone-poem” might be an even better one. The film really is about Winnipeg—sort of. Maddin is from there, but his film’s central hook is the attempt to escape. To that end, Maddin imagines himself among a car full of disreputable passengers on a rail-less train hurtling down the city streets and speeding toward the outlying districts, but never quite making it into the surrounding prairie. It is filmed in black and white (at times with deliberately scratched emulsion) and most of the outside scenes are wintry—an effect he uses to add grit, and to blur the boundaries between past and present. (By washing out detail and rendering everything in the same tones, an old photograph has the same clarity and visual value as the present.)

Maddin’s Winnipeg is one weird place and he too has, in popular parlance, “issues.”  Among the strange revelations about Manitoba’s largest city: it is among the world’s coldest cities, it was once a hotbed for spiritualism, the city used to hold an annual treasure hunt whose winner got a one-way rail ticket out of town, and it has the highest measured level of sleepwalking of any known city. The latter is so pronounced that a local ordinance gives citizens the right to possess keys to former residences in case they wander there in a sleepy stupor. If that’s not weird enough for you, consider this factoid: a 1935 winter fire at a local racetrack allegedly sent horses rushing into the Red River, where the ice trapped them and preserved them. Locals strolled through upon the frozen river to visit grotesque monuments: the frozen heads of horses pushed through the ice with their faces captured in the final throes of death.

Maddin’s film is heavy on metaphors such as sleepwalking and frozen horse heads. His most powerful is that of the “Forks,” the place where the Red and Assiniboine rivers merge. At numerous junctures he juxtaposes the Forks with a woman’s torso—both a sexual and birth allusion—and uses these to explore his considerable disagreements with his stern mother (played by Ann Savage) and his deceased father. This film could occupy a Freudian for months! The thread that holds everything together is the reoccurring question, “What if…?”

Those what ifs apply to both Maddin and to Winnipeg. In a Michael Moore-like shift, Maddin also explores changes in the city: a provincial sports hall of fame that moves more often than someone in the witness protection program, the demolition of both the downtown Eaton’s Department Store and an iconic ice hockey arena, the loss of the Winnipeg Jets NHL franchise, the impending doom of The Bay…. In this guise, Winnipeg comes off as Flint-upon-the-Prairie and it underscores Maddin’s desperation to flee. 

Ever notice how people who make films about getting out often don’t? Maddin also plays on the metaphor of Winnipeg being the geographic center of North America. (Note to US residents: Take a look at how much of Canada lies to the north of Winnipeg.) Winnipeg might be weird, but it’s also defiant, a spirit represented by its 1919 general strike. In like fashion, people there must put down pretty deep roots if they hold onto door keys in case they sleepwalk into the parlor.

Maddin’s running commentary is, by turns, poetic, irreverent, wistful, and even hopeful. Since 2007, the Bay closed, but the Jets returned. Like frozen horse heads, Winnipeg’s cycles are marked by ephemeral monumentality yet signs of struggle and life.
--  Rob Weir