Fingers on Your Triggers
I have a confession to make: I am not a die-hard Gaiman fan. Though I read speculative fiction, though I love a well-turned phrase and a well-cast story as much as the next critic, my experience of Gaiman before reading Trigger Warning (consisting of his novel Anansi Boys and a lot of raving friends) hadn’t pushed me into the sort of adulation that leads Mary Robinette Kowal to call him ‘The Neil Gaiman.’
This book might have.
Equal parts poetic, horrific, and fantastic, Gaiman’s latest collection of speculative short stories is a knockout. Though there are soft moments (for me, the poetry, though the author warns in the introduction they are ‘free,’ only for those who appreciate such things), and some stories too imaginative (see most months in A Calendar of Tales) to count as stories, exactly, for the most part these tales nail that enchanting blend of horror, mystery, and mundane postmodernity that I suspect has earned Gaiman his notoriety.
That, and the man can turn a phrase. No words wasted, none unconsidered, he has the knack of writing beautifully without detracting from the story (even with such experimental forms as “Orange,” told as a series of answers to an unseen questionnaire), and somehow casting a spell of Tale and Atmosphere that sets his writing apart. Apologies to all other writers rated here to date—Gaiman takes the cake for wordsmithery.
He also makes a good grab at best storyteller—though it’s hard to compare these (mainly) brief tales to the longer and deeper novels I generally review, his stories draw you naturally on, surprise you with in-hindsight-inevitable twists, and reveal character in a delightfully tight way. Sometimes, there are even conclusions to be drawn, though usually we are left more with a taste of human nature, refined and distilled by Gaiman’s remarkable gray matter.
If there is a bone to be picked with Trigger Warning, it’s that some stories are too experimental to have much impact, or make much sense, or even really adhere to the beginning-middle-endness that usually marks a story. The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury is among these, like Ulysses for someone with early-onset Alzheimers; and An Invocation of Incuriosity, or A Calendar of Tales, contain beautiful images and haunting snatches of story, but don’t quite add up to a tale told or an emotion evoked.
Thus, perhaps, the title—the snippets and snatches mixed in with the beefier tales are more like stabs at our triggers—pokes at a keyboard of Big Red Buttons that may, occasionally, connect to our tender, darker places. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky when they fail—but rest (un)assured that the longer tales have enough loveable character, mundane evil, and dark twists to pull the big triggers every time. Best among these are “A Case of Death and Honey,” mixing Sherlock Holmes with Chinese apiculture; “Nothing O’Clock,” a quirky tale from the Dr. Who universe, and (especially) “Black Dog,” original to the collection, starring Shadow from Gaiman’s American Gods and previously seen in another novella, “The Monarch of the Glen.”
So let me revise my earlier statement: I was not a die-hard Gaiman fan before reading this book. But now… something may have been triggered.