‘Trigger Warning’ by Neil Gaiman: the literary version of a curiosity cabinet

gaiman-TriggerNeil Gaiman’s latest collection of short fiction is like a lucky dip containing excitingly obscure prizes: you literally have no idea what’s coming next, both from one tale to the next and within individual stories. Trigger Warning collates twenty four of Gaiman’s stories that have been published in various magazines and anthologies over the past twelve years and is a complete mixed bag in terms of genre and form, with some stories two pages long and some thirty; some hinting at sci-fi and others at spec-fic or folklore; and some written in metered rhyme, others in free verse, most in prose.

What unifies the stories is they way they seem to celebrate creativity – the sheer joy they take in showcasing just how far the power of imagination may take us. A story that seems to be about a stuffed cat in a pub in the English countryside turns into a crazy ghost-story/murder-mystery involving Pagan rites and depression. One about a wandering tourist turns into a pseudo-history of a long-lost and possibly magical rose-hedge maze lit only by the moon. The book also contains the story ‘Nothing O’Clock’ which Gaiman wrote for an anthology of stories about Doctor Who, and it’s brilliant – I put off reading it for ages as I was sure I’d be disappointed, but he captured the dialogue and vibe of the Doctor Who universe perfectly.

Other stories are particularly sinister: ‘Feminine Endings’ is written from the perspective of a human statue street performer who seems to have stalked one of his or her unwitting spectators; ‘Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale’ is a modern day version of Perrault’s ‘Diamonds and Toads,’ except the nice girl dies choking to death on the diamonds she can’t help throwing up (this story was part of Gaiman’s collaboration with Amanda Palmer on Palmer’s album, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?). I found ‘Black Dog’ the creepiest of the collection – it haunts me to this day – and it’s also one of the best short stories I’ve ever read.

I’m still not sure how I feel about Gaiman calling the collection Trigger Warning, even though almost all of the stories have a macabre bent. The phrase ‘trigger warning’ is usually used at the beginning of a text, film or news article to indicate that it contains potentially traumatic content (such rape or domestic abuse, racism, sexism and trans/homophobia). Whether or not trigger warnings are necessary or even productive is hotly debated, but whatever the case, they’re a tool originally intended to aid audiences in dealing with deeply serious and potentially distressing issues. ‘There are things in this book that might upset you,’ Gaiman explains in his introduction. ‘There is death and pain in here, tears and discomfort, violence of all kinds, cruelty, even abuse.’ This is true, but the thing about Gaiman is that his narrative voice is almost sing-song, in a British, jaunty sort of way. Sometimes this is really effective – reading about a man killing a bunch of people by hand when the narrative tone is so pleasant and matter of fact is really unsettling. At other times, though, the stories are on the verge of collapsing into twee, by which I mean that they read more like a literary version of a curiosity cabinet or magic shop – full of neat surprises, but not truly ever harmful. Of course this is what makes Gaiman’s writing in general so charming and endearing and strange (I admit I am a huge fan): I just wonder whether Trigger Warning was the most appropriate or politically sensitive term to choose for a title, since it’s usually deployed in contexts that may induce deep anxiety and distress whereas this book probably won’t to the same extent.

Title aside, this is a fabulous collection – in some ways it demonstrates Gaiman’s mind at its best, since he’s able to explore crazily absurd plotlines very succinctly through the short story medium. Even though all of the stories explore a range of themes, such as loyalty, friendship, familial networks, mental illness, and human greed, at the core, I think, is Gaiman’s ability to make his readers feel – inspired, grieved, moved – for even though I can’t remember specific details of the stories, the collection has remained lodged within me somewhere since I read it.

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