by Tyler Beckett
Neil Gaiman lets his novels take meandering paths, like the long road trips in American Gods, even as the stories move towards conflict and highly personal drama. The author’s wandering style lets him introduce many characters and topics, a generous approach that has contributed to my understanding the man primarily as a novelist. I was aware of the exceptions of course; Gaiman’s Sandman series and his children’s book Coraline have achieved enough critical and financial success to have entered the general consciousness. But when I began Gaiman’s newest collection of short stories, Trigger Warning, I assumed this book would be the work of a novelist who had made himself adapt to the short story’s constraints.
But of course Gaiman’s skill is not limited to the novel. The stories contained in Trigger Warning cover a period of seven to eight years’ worth of writing and put on display the author’s adept handling of genre and craft. Most of the work has been published elsewhere and therefore has been, in a sense, ‘proven’ elsewhere. In this collection, however, the reader goes through as if exploring Gaiman’s mind, discovering here and there familiar themes and all the while wondering how something so otherworldly can feel so familiar and true.
Stories like ‘The Thing About Cassandra’ are particularly exciting because, due to Gaiman’s speculative tendencies, you can never anticipate whether the supernatural is involved. A simple mystery springs out of a long-forgotten childhood lie, an old girlfriend asking to meet despite the fact the protagonist made her up. In another collection there may be no chance of supernatural events or, with a lesser author, the story would focus on the mystery rather than the lively cast of characters. But Gaiman’s prose works subtly enough that the reader can never quite convince themselves that they are reading about a simple misunderstanding, that there isn’t something marvelous at work here. The understated suspense and confusion propels the story forward, and by the time the young man sits down for a drink with Cassandra there is no doubt that the meeting ushers in a completely final, tender conclusion.
If ‘Cassandra’ is a display of quality craft and cautious storytelling then ‘Adventure Story’ and ‘Orange’ are examples of playful style and excellent sense of balance. Both read like concept pieces, something written to explore a fun idea. In the former an embarrassed old mother accidentally reveals her husband’s forgotten adventure days, fighting off pterodactyls and shapechangers to protect Oracles in true pulp fiction style. In the latter a teen puts on so much tanning lotion that she attracts an interdimensional entity, ‘the Orange,’ to her home. The concepts are perfectly suited for the short story and I found myself wishing I’d thought of ‘Adventure Story’ myself, it was such a well-executed idea. But the strength of the story came from the attention to the characters and the quick panache that Gaiman used to tell the story, and ‘Orange’ had at least one surprisingly touching moment from a brother who regretted his sister’s alien possession.
Trigger Warning is not perfect. The book contains a few poems that failed to engage me, even in one which dealt with a murderous and amorous landlady. The short story ‘The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains’ may treat its Celtic inspiration with all due respect but the human story completely outshines the supernatural one. I was left wondering why there was so much in the way of god-kings, wraiths, and cursed gold when the people were far more interesting. ‘Lunar Labyrinth’ starts with interesting characters and scene-setting and concludes with something of a twist, but one that doesn’t particularly thrill. None of these reading experiences were unpleasant, but they were let-downs.
It is perhaps the risk for the genre writer that, occasionally, the balance between realistic character and supernatural element is upset. But if these few deviations are less than excellent then it just highlights how high Gaiman’s art can reach. ‘The Man who Forgot Ray Bradbury’ is a terribly moving story that would appeal to anyone who has witnessed degenerative diseases or experienced the fear of death; it is a story I knew upon first reading that I would return to again. And Gaiman proves he does not exhaust his best ideas on single outings; Trigger Warning includes an attention-grabbing new follow-up to American Gods, titled ‘Black Dog’ that brings nonchalant hero Shadow back to the literary world. You’ll also find a new spin on Doctor Who with Gaiman’s ‘Nothing O’Clock’ and a Sherlock Holmes adventure, both of which deserve the credit they have received.
I only have one other suggestion to the reader, especially for one who enjoys the voice of Gaiman’s writing: consider hearing it in his speaking voice. Audible has an audiobook in which Mr. Gaiman reads each of the stories in ‘Trigger Warning,’ adding a new layer to the book he so lovingly crafted.