“Many of these stories end badly for at least one of the people in them. Consider yourself warned.” – Neil Gaiman, the introduction to Trigger Warning.
I recently – and finally! – read Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning, a collection of short stories (most of which have been published elsewhere, in other anthologies, but never before brought together in one volume).
I’m not normally a short-story person – it tends to bring back too many memories of having “BUT WHAT DOES IT MEAN??!!!” crammed down my throat – but Neil read two of the stories aloud when he was in Tulsa, and I adored them. And more to the point, I couldn’t get them out of my head. Especially one, whose title I couldn’t recall, about a genie who encounters what could be his worst nightmare – a woman who doesn’t want a darn thing more than she already has. It was funny and sweet and supernatural and I wanted more.
Like, I think, most collections of anything, there are some pieces here that are stronger than others. Of course, the stories I thought were not quite as good are probably the ones that plenty of others thought were the strongest. In particular, the rather longish “The Sleeper and the Spindle” was a bit, well, longish. You can guess from the title that it’s a reworking of Sleeping Beauty – and while it’s a clever one, it didn’t quite feel right as a short story, and I felt very removed from it.
But. There were others. Several others. Some that stayed with me, haunting my steps, for days and weeks after. Some that have come back to me slowly, as my subconscious processes them and tries to put them into a semblance of context.
But Gaiman, in his introduction, makes zero apology for this. “I wonder, Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places? There are stories I read as a child I wished, once I had read them, that I had never encountered . . . but they also taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.”
The one truth of all writers is this: if you want to write well, you need to read a lot. And writers can do far worse than to read Neil Gaiman. His sparseness with words, his ability to choose precisely the ones he wants to achieve the desired effect. The humor (in Tulsa, he read stories aloud, in that lovely British accent that says yes, I am talking about ducks playing poker and of course it is the truth because I am British and I am speaking with The Accent, and my dear, we all know The Accent cannot lie).
The way in which he lays down the bread crumbs, one at a time, so subtly and softly you don’t realize you’ve been led into a trap until it’s too late. As he did in the story “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.” Shades of Hitchcock creepy, that one.
Or the way in which he comes from so far out of left field, as in “Adventure Story.” Leaving the narrator just as befuddled and sideswiped as the reader.
Or how he makes the utterly ridiculous seem plausible (The Accent!!!) in “April Tale” – “You know you’ve been pushing the ducks too hard when they stop trusting you, and my father had been taking the ducks for everything he could since the previous summer.”
But I think my two favorites were “October Tale” (the one about the genie), and “Orange.” Seriously. If you want to study how to write something different, this is the one to read. It is written as the responses to a questionnaire. I mean, seriously. Instead of having to think out a traditional narrative and plot and dialogue and action . . . it’s one person’s incomplete observations, made to what must have been a very incredulous investigator! No need to spell out everything. No filling in all of those pesky blanks – or even most of the blanks. It’s the epitome of trusting the reader. And in Gaiman’s hands, it works, brilliantly. Here’s a very short sample of what I mean:
24.) Yes, it was stupid. But it wasn’t uniquely stupid, if you see what I mean. Which is to say, it was par-for-the-course Nerys stupid.
25.) That she was glowing.
26. A sort of pulsating orange.
27.) When she started to tell us that she was going to be worshiped like a god, as she was in the dawn times.
See what I mean? It’s just absolutely brilliant. It does what it’s supposed to do: it keeps the reader reading, because we keep asking ourselves what the freaking fruitbat?? We get just enough to keep us guessing, to see if we can put the dots together before the end – but of course, this is Neil Gaiman. We don’t. 🙂
So if you’re looking for a good short-story collection to study, love the supernatural and creepy (there are several ghost stories here, too), and a good dash of British humor, you can’t do much better than Trigger Warning.
Just remember: not everyone makes it out alive.
Here’s a review from NPR: