Neil Gaiman’s work has always leaned heavily on mythology and folklore. He gained fame writing The Sandman (1989-96, 2009, 2013-), a comic book series starring Morpheus, the god of dreams. His first hit novel was American Gods (2001), which brought its hero Shadow into contact with deities from a number of different mythological traditions. He also scored a hit as a screenwriter, co-writing the 2007 adaptation of Beowulf.
So it should come as no surprise that the shorter works appearing in Trigger Warning read very much like fairy tales. Like all fairy tales, the pieces here are (mostly) short, laden with symbolism and often end with a satisfying twist. Trigger Warning collects over 30 stories and poems originally published between 2004 and 2013, plus one new story. Like most collections, the quality is a little uneven, with some pieces clearly having taken up more of Gaiman’s time than others.
The collection opens with a 26-page introduction that provides the context for each of the pieces. This probably would have worked better as an afterward. I recommend reading the pieces first and then the introduction. In the introduction, Gaiman makes clear that many of these works are homages to some of his favorite authors—indeed six were originally written specifically for anthologies meant to honor past masters—although he never loses his distinct style. This is the essence of Gaiman’s success as a writer: his ability to draw upon source material to make truly unique works.
In “A Lunar Labyrinth,” Gaiman plays with Gene Wolfe’s “A Solar Labyrnith” (1983), matching Wolfe’s blend of the bizarre and the sinister. In “The Case of Death and Honey,” one of the collection’s better stories, Gaiman sends an aging Sherlock Holmes (the 1887 creation of Arthur Conan Doyle) into rural China in a bid for immortality. “Nothing O’Clock” is a playful (and officially-licensed) Dr. Who story that evokes “Little Red Riding Hood.”
Gaiman devotes three pages of his introduction to setting up the six-page story, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury,” which serves as more of a eulogy to a friend than a true story. The combined nine pages of nonfiction and fiction devoted to Bradbury reflect a uniquely writer-ly fear of becoming forgotten. The collection contains other tips of the hat to artists as varied as William Blake, Jack Vance, Arthur C. Clarke and David Bowie.
Although he’s most known for his prose, Gaiman is an able poet, particularly in “Witch Work,” which captures the haunting, sing-song melodies of children’s poems. “In Relig Odhrain” comes off a little clunkier and probably would have worked better as prose.
“A Calendar of Tales” is a collection of mini-stories, one for each month of the year, inspired by tweets from his fans. Although an interesting experiment, these tales don’t hold up as well as the others collected here. Trigger Warning ends with “Black Dog,” a sequel of sorts to American Gods, and the only story original to this collection. The story probably doesn’t stand alone to someone who hasn’t read American Gods, but those who have will enjoy seeing Shadow return in a story that draws equally from English folklore and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” (1846).
“’The Truth Is a Cave in the Black Mountains . . .’” won both the Shirley Jackson and Locus Awards for best novelette in 2010, and is the strongest piece collected here. In this story, two men with a mysteriously-shared past search for a hidden treasure in the black mountains of the Misty Isle, a place that is “there,” but “not there.”
Trigger Warning is an entertaining collection of stories of poems. While not all of them succeed, the best stories here rank amongst the better works of fantasy produced in the last decade. And as always, Neil Gaiman’s modern fairy tales evoke feelings of wonder and fear and amusement, just like the influences he draws upon.