Review: Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning
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Neil Gaiman can’t help being a nice guy. He just can’t. And no matter how dark his stories get, his authorial voice is primarily one of wonder.
In the long introduction to Trigger Warning, his third collection of short stories, Gaiman explains his love for the medium: “I grew up loving and respecting short stories. They seemed to me to be the purest and most perfect things people could make: not a word wasted, in the best of them. An author would wave her hand and suddenly there was a world, and people in it, and ideas.” Gaiman’s great strength is his dexterity at imparting this sense of wonder to his readers. His stories, the best of them, are a contact high.
Like his previous two collections, Smoke And Mirrors and Fragile Things, the ordering principle here is in the subheading; they help theme the ragtag team of entries in each collection.
The stories in Smoke And Mirrors are illusory, primarily because they involve untrustworthy narrators who first show an empty box, and then pull out doves from them, so they are Short Fictions & Illusions. On the other hand, the stories of Fragile Things : Short Fictions & Wonders play with the idea that subjective points of view ultimately shape the world.
Trigger Warning’s theme is that we all wear masks. These masks are our idealized selves, and when unmasked, our worlds shatter and spin off the axis. At least, we’re never the same again. Thus, Short Fictions & Disturbances. The phrase “trigger warning” refers to an online concept—one is warned that the material one is about to view can trigger unpleasantness, even trauma.
In The Thing About Cassandra, an excellent story, this unmasking takes the form of a remarkable urban fairy tale in which a young and successful painter’s life literally dissolves when an imaginary girlfriend from his childhood comes to life. Or in the humorous Adventure Story, where a son comes face to incredulous face with his seemingly staid father’s fantastic secret history from World War II involving Nazis, Aztecs, Pterodactyls, and extraterrestrials. An obvious advantage of such conceptual thematic groupings is that they allow him all the wiggling room that he needs to do what he does best: hop from one genre to another.
Gaiman is a genre writer, first and foremost, at ease with the various strands of speculative fiction. He is also a fan of genre fiction, and his many nods at his heroes add layers of meta-narrative pleasure to his plots. Thus, in The Case Of Death And Honey, a gem of a Sherlock Holmes homage, he melds together immortality and beekeeping into a gripping story about the super sleuth’s idealized self-image as the ultimate problem solver. Similarly, An Invocation Of Incuriosity and Nothing O’Clock are masterful fan tributes to Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories and Doctor Who, respectively.
The beauty of these tributes, though, is that any reader approaching them without any previous knowledge of these other writers would still enjoy them immensely. In the tribute tales, Gaiman is also curating, sharing his love for writers and stories that he grew up with, like in the beautiful Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury.
But if he does homage well, Gaiman does originality even better. The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains is possibly the finest story he has ever written. In this incredibly dark, unsettling tale about a journey undertaken by two men, one of them a dwarf, to a cave of gold, Gaiman evokes an unrelenting atmosphere of menace and violence. A tale of revenge, greed and the nature of evil, the shocking denouement is worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.
Gaiman does have a talent for horror. The slow-burning otherness of A Lunar Labyrinth or the urban folk tale of Click Clack The Rattlebag bring out the Gaiman we first encountered in his Sandman days, uncompromisingly taking the story to whatever dark and terrible end might await.
Gaiman, like so many other writers in his field, leads a parallel life of contributing to, and editing, anthologies. These collections have been the lifeblood of speculative fiction since the days of pulp magazines, and almost every story collected here has appeared in specialized anthologies.
This ongoing process of creating literature on commission is a godsend for someone with Gaiman’s narrative restlessness. It allows him to be the postmodern Prometheus that he is: shifting shapes, voices and even medium (one story, A Calendar Of Tales, is actually a short story collection in itself, based on a Twitter-based social media project) in his quest to tell the effective story.
It’s less through his naming of the collection, and more through the stories themselves that Gaiman seems to argue that fiction can’t, and perhaps shouldn’t, be a hermetically sealed place. The title is a mere conceit, used somewhat flippantly—it is the stories themselves that probe experiences of deep trauma, and sometimes even seek salvation. Thus, Gaiman believes that fiction shouldn’t come with trigger warnings. He quotes Ogden Nash in his introduction: “Where there’s a monster, there’s also a miracle.” Great fiction, like Gaiman’s, gives you one, but also the other.
Bibek Bhattacharya is senior editor, Outlook Traveller.