Trigger Warning is a collection of short stories (with some poems and fairy tales lurking within, Gaiman warns), most of which “end badly for at least one person in them.”
Before I review the collection – which is very good — I feel I must say something about the title, and his explanation for the title in the introduction. Boiling it all down, Gaiman puts forth the idea that ideas can, and often should, be dangerous, and therefore trigger warnings blunt the edges of our own worldview. He’s saying that the whole book could “trigger” you because large portions of it are sinister and spooky, but it’s okay because being scared teaches you things about yourself.
It’s a great ponderance on the importance of uncomfortable fiction, but I disagree with this argument because I believe it is misguided at its foundation. It’s misguided because he’s not really talking about trigger warnings as I know them, and as a majority of Internet-savvy people of a certain age know them. He’s talking about a much broader, watered-down aversion to discomfort, which has made the term the butt of so many jokes and the cause for certain university officials to absolutely lose their chill.
The first time I encountered a trigger warning at the head of an entry was on LiveJournal, and its intention was singular: prevent self-harm. I would see it particularly on blog posts that might trigger survivors of sexual abuse or eating disorders. The warnings were not to prevent bad feelings, but self-destruction. This is a far cry from the way it is currently talked about, over a decade later. But I still see the importance of trigger warnings, and I see the inherent compassion in their existence. Gaiman pokes a little fun at the term to talk about horror stories, and it’s a fairly innocent example, but it falls into a larger trend of people dismissing the term because they themselves have not benefitted from it.
It’s a minor blip, but a blip nonetheless, and I still think he could have come up with a less tongue-in-cheek title.
Moving on to the stories themselves, they’re incredibly fun to read (or listen to, if you download the audiobook that Gaiman himself narrates)! I love short stories full stop, and his earlier collection Fragile Things stands out as one of my favorite things I read in 2014. (I still often think of “A Study in Emerald.”) This collection is actually pretty light, in spite of the aforementioned provocative title and a few well-timed character deaths. Loving tributes to Dr. Who, Sherlock Holmes, Ray Bradbury, and others fill the pages of this book. Even the scariest stories still have an “A-ha!” factor to them, campfire tales to make your friends shriek then break into recovering giggles.
One breathtaking exception is the novelette entitled, “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…,” a quasi-fantasy journey story about the dark magic found in a cave far from our hero’s home. Darker than even the legends surrounding it. I found myself very absorbed in the suspicious circumstances of this quest, and it is sure to stay with me for a long time.
I also enjoyed “Black Dog,” a story that reunites us with Shadow Moon from American Gods. Other great stories include “Orange” and “A Calendar of Tales,” among many other microfictions that read like village myths and lyrical fables.
I enjoy Neil Gaiman’s writing. He weaves cleverness and earnestness together in his stories that make them feel so large and real. (As real as a world of fairies, immortality, ghosts, robots, magical caves, and spectral visions can be; though much like the beloved sci-fi writers of his own childhood, Gaimain is light on the science and focuses instead on the people.)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 cups of fine English tea, served with unusual honey.