Tag Archives: short stories

#1. Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

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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.

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#5. Fragile Things & #6. Coraline by Neil Gaiman

FragileThingsShortFictionsandWondersPS_PaperbackPS_1213846460After reading American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane last year, I thought I might dive in to the other Gaiman books on my shelf.

Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things is a short story/poetry collection full of creepy vignettes and heartfelt nostalgia. I was blown away just by the first paragraph of the first story, a Sherlock Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft mashup of sorts called “A Study in Emerald.” What if the Old Ones…came? And then life continued as normal? It is ingeniously written, blending the narrative deftness of a detective story and the weighty gloom of supernatural horror, and got me excited for the remainder of the book. Some of my other favorites from this collection are “October in the Chair,” “Locks,” “Instructions,” “Feeders and Eaters,” “Goliath,” “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and “Sunbird.” Fairy tales, body horror, flying saucers, even a brief immersion into the Matrix universe — the creativity and diversity are so impressive!

Coraline is a delightful book, one I have been meaning to read for quite some time now. I thoroughly enjoyed the film that came out, and even had the very great privilege to talk to Henry Selick about it at SXSW in 2009. Coraline is a bright young girl who considers herself an expert explorer. Though she feels her parents and her life are fairly dull, she learns to be brave under some nightmarish circumstances that occur in her very own house. The edition I read was filled with amazing artwork, including some particularly frightening images of the Other Mother.

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Can you tell that I was a little bit into Coraline? Coraline/me, right. Flo the Progressive Lady/Delia, left.

Does anyone have any more Neil Gaiman recommendations for me?

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#19. The Lottery and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

ImageShirley Jackson creates a heavy, dreadful atmosphere in even the most mundane settings: a flower garden, a dentist’s office, the town square. Though her titular story is best-known for its cruel revelation in the end, her other stories create a more subtle ambiance of unease. Nearly all of her protagonists are lonely women; housewives or young professionals in the city who feel lost and trapped in busy streets or all-too-quiet country roads. There are several stories which incorporate a man of many roles named James Harris, the so-called Daemon Lover who leads others astray. Sometimes they are small manipulations, such as selling a much beloved book out from under a starry-eyed bookshop patron, other times more drastic, such as leaving his betrothed alone on their wedding day or luring a sleepy traveler into a dizzying frenzy of escape.

Shirley Jackson creates an impeccable world of sadness amid change, with several very short works (perhaps no more than five pages) devolving into frightening character rants about the newness of the world, the fast pace of daily life, and the unavoidable gaze of the many eyes around us. She uses this modern dread to examine the inner lives of women, the mechanizations of work, classism, and racism. This is a different kind of horror, a real one that manifests late at night when you feel out of place or right in the middle of the day when you can’t figure out how you got from Point A to Point B. 

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#11. The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories by Steven Millhauser

ImageThis is my first reread of the year, The Knife-Thrower and Other Stories. It was recommended to me by my good friend and then-roommate Colleen several years ago. At first we just read the title story (assigned for one of her classes) but in no time at all we had consumed the complete collection. It was unlike anything I had read before: it was whimsical while rooted in a reality I immediately recognized, heartfelt and chilling in equal measure.

A review printed on the back cover sums it up so well: “As Gothic as Poe and as imaginative as Fantasia, Millhauser’s deceptive fables are funny and warm. But they’re dark as dungeons, too…He bewitches you.” — Entertainment Weekly

The stories themselves have very diverse settings — quiet American suburbs, Old World cities of Germany, strange swampy houses left in ruin — while maintaining two strong themes. First, the overwhelming “moral” of each story seems to be, in one way or another, the dangerously dark thrill of excess and dreams. The secondary theme, the resounding question, is simply: what can we, as a society, be expected to do about it? Many of the stories are told in a collective voice, an entire town in outrage or a whole generation of people enthralled. This idea of unity in the face of strange realities, of enigmatically quiet young women and underground tunnels and flying carpets and robot theater, make these surreal tales all the more haunting.

My favorite stories are “The Sisterhood of the Night,” “Clair de Lune,” and “Paradise Park.” Cheeky, nostalgic, and mesmerizing. I cannot recommend this book more strongly!

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#9. Ghost Stories of an Antiquary by M.R. James

This collection is often heralded as the beginning of the modern ghost story. James, a meticulous professor with a penchant for scary tales, began writing ghost stories to read aloud to friends by spooky candlelight. He became highly influential for replacing Gothic tropes with antiquarian aspects, the theme of undying evil that waits for unwitting victims, and picturesque villages or seaside towns. (H.P. Lovecraft was heavily influenced by James.)

He sets a great atmosphere of suspenseful terror by introducing a reserved gentleman protagonist and plopping him in the middle of some mundane business such as sketching an ancient church or going on a golf vacation. From there, some suspicious artifact is uncovered and their day-to-day business becomes much more bizarre and disturbing. Though they all follow this pattern, each story is still uniquely frightening. “Number 13,” “The Mezzotint,” and “Oh, Whistle, and I’ll Come to You, My Lad” are my favorites.

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#7. Boys and Girls Like You and Me by Aryn Kyle

ImageI picked up this collection of short stories last weekend from op.cit. books on a whim. It is a pretty neat book. All but one of the stories center around a unique female protagonist: some are children, some are married, some are sisters, some are lonely. (In the one story with a young male protagonist, he is becoming increasingly infatuated with the sweet, outspoken girlfriend of his friend’s father.) There is a dark humor to quite a few  of the stories – such as a potentially embarrassing puppet show on an 8-year-old girl’s birthday – but most are just dark. Abandoned mothers, adolescent cruelty. Bad decisions heaped on top of bad decisions, only to see them delicately break apart. Despite all this, the theme seems to be one of rebellion rather than caution, though what kind of rebellion is a little difficult to say.

Each page is full of flawed yet savvy, yearning women who are smarter and more sensitive than the situations that present themselves to them. (Which, if we think about it, is probably how we all look back on most of the unpleasant moments in our own lives.) What is especially telling of the tone for these works is a reading group question in the back of my copy of Boys and Girls: “Are any of these characters actually happy?”

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#2. 20th Century Ghosts by Joe Hill

20th century ghostsA collection of short stories that range from ghost stories and paranormal oddities to father-son stories or peculiar tales of friendship that are more heartwarming than blood-chilling. It is an eclectic mix that reads very quickly — most of the stories are about 15-20 pages long, with one in the middle about the ghosts of trees (“Dead-Wood”) being only 2 pages and the final story “Voluntary Committal” being exceptionally long. If you like speculative fiction regarding movie theaters, baseball, superheroes, giant locusts, cardboard boxes that lead to other worlds, mind games in the middle of the woods, childhood, and horror movie cliches played to pitch perfect, you are sure to enjoy this book.

My favorite stories were “20th Century Ghost, “Pop Art,” “Better Than Home,” “My Father’s Mask,” and “Voluntary Committal.” “Voluntary Committal” is a haunting, haunting story. You may never listen to The Ants Go Marching 2 by 2 the same way again.

There is even a story hidden in the Acknowledgements at the end!

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