Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s introduction warns that “[t]here are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you. There is death and pain in here, tears and discomfort, violence of all kinds, cruelty, even abuse.”

With trigger warnings regularly applied to blog posts and even academic syllabi, Gaiman decided – in rounding up his mostly pre-published work – to apply trigger warnings to his work before anyone else could.

Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances is filled with stories that are coy, sharp, imaginative, at times tedious, and surely disturbing. But there was no need to present them with the kinds of caveats and warnings that accompany them here.

Depending on your tastes, various stories in Neil Gaiman’s new short fiction collection will captivate you in different ways. But any sort of warning is unnecessary.

In the introduction to his new collection of short fiction, Neil Gaiman reflects on how his Sandman graphic novel series covered its bases with a ‘Suggested for Mature Readers’ label that “suggests that if you are mature (whatever that happens to mean) you are on your own.”

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To be fair, I’m not Gaiman’s regular audience; aside from graphic novels like Sandman and Stardust, I haven’t read much of his stuff. (American Gods and Good Omens are on my eternal TBR list!)

I will say that I prefer his work in this bite-sized format; some stories are flash fiction inspired by tweets and written in less than a month. Some of his writing I find too whimsical or twee, so I was turned off by stories like “A Lunar Labyrinth” or “An Invocation of Incuriosity.” But the more grounded stories – where instances of magic flashed through otherwise normal circumstances like a bout of lightning – were much more compelling.

My two favorite stories are placed near the beginning and end of the collection. “The Truth About Cassandra” starts out creepy enough, as a young man doing fairly well for himself finds his first love brushing up against various aspects of his adult life – the problem is, he made her up. But the creator and the creation’s inevitable first meeting shifts the perspective so that you come out of it nicely discombobulated.

Then there’s “Feminine Endings,” which plays on similar themes of obsessive love. But what makes it much more disturbing is the absence of any supernatural elements, just a slow burn that brings to mind the Weeping Angels from Doctor Who (fitting, as Gaiman has a story about the Eleventh Doctor in this collection as well).

Despite Gaiman insisting in the introduction that the stories are not thematically connected, he must have subconsciously written in several motifs that crop up here and there. Many of his best stories in this collection have narrators who should not be able to keep narrating, whether they’ve died or been erased from reality. That this shift occurs as a surprise three or four different times is a testament to the effectiveness of the reversal.

Many of these stories’ characters eliminate their enemies or create entirely new worlds through sheer force of will. But sometimes they require physical objects, which is where various inherited trinkets – a brazier, a pendant, a casement – come in handy. As the first story, “Making a Chair” (Gaiman’s way around writer’s block) tells us, you often create with the tools you least expect.

But is anything in this collection actually triggering?

In “My Last Landlady,” one of Gaiman’s expectation-challenging narrators observes that “we see the world not as it is but as we are.” This is the closest instance of brushing up against a discussion of triggers – not of those who put out potentially offensive content, but those who are so defined by their traumas that they can’t help but view the world through this lens.

Gaiman’s introduction warns that “[t]here are things in this book, as in life, that might upset you. There is death and pain in here, tears and discomfort, violence of all kinds, cruelty, even abuse.”

The thing is, Gaiman’s depictions of these generalized ideas are too fantastical or too out-there to truly trouble or trigger readers. In this case, the wrong label was applied; new and old readers should have been left to (re)discover these stories on their own.

RIFers! Are you a sci-fi/fantasy/graphic novel reader? Tell us about your favorite authors in the comments!

About Kira Walton

KIRA WALTON has been stalking books all her life as a college English teacher, bookseller, book club consultant, author, and editor.

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