Should Fictions be Safe Places: Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman’s latest collection of short stories, Trigger Warning, primarily consists of work that has been published, seen or heard previously, in some form or the other. It includes one story that is original to the collection, but this is not a ‘best of’ collection, though you’d be forgiven for thinking so at many instances, since Gaiman is, as always, a skilled storyteller.

The stories in Trigger Warning range from straight-up horror to the charming, odd little fabulist narratives Gaiman is often known for. There are regular-length stories, flash-fiction based on tweets from strangers, narratives that were once part of a performance and even a TV show spin-off story. There is fantasy and science fiction, aliens from other planets and secret casements leading to other worlds, questing dukes who may be rock stars, warrior-hero queens, Shadow from American Gods, revenge, love and loss.

‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’ is one such story of revenge, love and loss. A strange, possibly magical man hires a guide to lead him to a legendary cave but he wants more than the riches the cave can offer. Darkness fills the story with an image of a young girl tied to a tree, ‘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 thorn bush, tied to a branch above by it’s red-golden hair’, an image that resonates much longer after the story is complete. This is a frightening, sombre tale, but it employs some stellar storytelling craftsmanship. One can only imagine how powerful it must have been as a live performance in collaboration with a string quartet and artist Eddie Campbell’s art displayed on screens on stage. Perhaps it might have been as if Neil Gaiman was reading you a lullaby, but one that led to a nightmare you didn’t want to wake from.

‘Nothing O’Clock’ is a Doctor Who story that is quite simply creep-tastic, even for those who only watch the Doctor Who television series and have never read any of the spin-off fiction. The Doctor and Amy Pond find themselves facing an entity that attempts to buy out all of earth from the humans in order to re-populate the planet, all the while playing a ghastly version of ‘What’s the time, Mr. Wolf?’. Obviously, the answer isn’t always the one you were hoping for.

‘Kether to Malkuth’ is named for a line in David Bowie’s song ‘Station to Station’, and is about a Duke who has stopped caring about anything until a new quest sparks his interest. It’s a strange, tricky quest and the Queen he attempts to rescue corrects him, ‘You are here to rescue yourself’, and in doing so, we find the Duke suddenly back in Beckenham, hauling his guitar into a pub on a cold night.

‘Orange’ is a fun, funny story told via answers to a questionnaire called the ‘Third Subject’s Responses to Investigator’s Written Questionnaire’. We aren’t told the questions (they aren’t really necessary to understand the story), and the answers themselves come via a teenage girl with a sister obsessed with self tanning. When their mother (who is an inventor attempting to create coloured bubble mixture) forgets to buy the tanning lotion and leaves her strange imported dyes lying around, something goes very wrong. The result is hilarious and strange, and includes a teenager becoming a god.

‘A Calendar of Tales’ are a set of mini-stories based on tweets sent to Gaiman by strangers for a project put together by Blackberry. For every month of the year, Gaiman wrote a short short story based on a tweet, and frankly it’s impressive how he came up with so many different ideas, so fast and fully. Each of these little stories is really quite whole and was conceived on a deadline, as it were. Not each may appeal to every reader, but this really is an admirable collection within the collection, spanning mutliple genres and tones.

The most emotional and heartfelt of the stories in Trigger Warning is probbaly ‘The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury’. Not just is it what Gaiman called a ‘love letter’ to one of the most celebrated of 20th century writers Ray Bradbury, but it is also a sensitive portrayal of ageing, memory loss and eventually loneliness. It isn’t the only tribute in the collection, however. ‘An Invocation of Incuriosity’, a Locus Award winning short story is written as a tribute to writer Jack Vance. ‘The Case of Death and Honey’ is an absolutely wonderful Sherlock Holmes story, very much a highlight of the collection. In it, Gaiman explores why Holmes took up beekeeping as a hobby in his retirement, given that beekeeping isn’t labour intensive and that ‘Sherlock Holmes was never happy unless he was working on a case: indolence and inactivity were death to him’. The story features an ageing Holmes travelling to China to examine bees on a remote mountain’s side. The bees, of course, have what humanity has searched for for centuries, and Holmes is determined to find out their secret.

(This story reminded me of a popular saying from my childhood, attributed to the Prophet Mohammad – if you seek knowledge, travel to China to find it if you must. Gaiman’s Holmes quite literally does.)

There are many instances in Trigger Warning that are clearly some form of tribute – either a direct one as in the case of Sherlock Holmes or Ray Bradbury or Jack Vance or Arthur C. Clarke, or sometimes indirect ones, perhaps such as the sharp little fairy story ‘Pearls’, written for a book of photographs of musician Amanda Palmer, or, indeed, the story of the thin white duke who turns out to be a rock star. Gaiman is open about his loves and his admiration, and points out that ‘Writers live in houses other people built’, and that ‘They were giants, the men and the women who made the houses we inhabit. They started with a barren place and they built Speculative Fiction, always leaving the building unfinished so the people who came by after they were gone could put on another room, or another story.’

Gaiman also adds another story to a house he himself built, the 2001 novel American Gods. Trigger Warning’s final offering is its most awaited – a story called ‘Black Dog’ which follows Shadow Moon, the protagonist of American Gods, as he travels through England. In a little village pub, he encounters some perfectly nice people, but soon realises that even nice people are sometimes plagued by ghosts. Shadow, of course, can see these ghosts and the darkness in the legend of the black dog that causes death, ‘squatting on the roof, cutting out all sunlight, all emotion, all feeling and truth’. ‘Black Dog’ is a fantastic story about jealousy, rage and depression, all told via myths, mummified cats and a much loved protagonist who knows that ‘in the midst of death…life keeps on happening’. It seems almost unnecessary to mention Gaiman’s mastery over language, but ‘Black Dog’ has some startling phrases, pitch perfect in tone: a mummified cat looks ‘as if it had been constructed out of tendons and agony’; a sycamore tree at a crossroads has only a few branches left, ’sticking up into the night like afterthoughts’. It’s the perfect language for a frightening, moody story, full of ancient legends, stormy weather and complex emotions.

Trigger Warning begins with a lengthy introduction – you know, the bit you stopped skipping when you grew up a bit and realised that it may hold information that could make your reading experience richer. And let’s face it, Gaiman is a storyteller through and through: even when he’s telling us a story about how he came to write a story, he’s telling it well. And since many of these stories have existed before in some shape or form, this introduction gives readers personal details about how the stories came to be, and helps in making the tales feel shiny and new, even to those who may have read or experienced them before.

‘We build stories in our heads’, writes Gaiman. ‘We take words, and we give them power, and we look out through other eyes, and we see, and experience, what they see. I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

They shouldn’t, of course, because comfort and complacency don’t provoke thought or stoke the imagination. But sometimes fictions can be places you want to stay a while, no matter how prickly they may feel. ‘Where there’s a monster’, quotes Gaiman, ‘there’s also a miracle.’

Trigger Warning is available now from HarperCollins.

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.


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