I remember Icarus. He flew too close to the sun. In the stories, though, it’s worth it. Always worth it to have tried, even if you fail, even if you fall like a meteor forever. Better to have flamed in the darkness, to have inspired others, to have lived, than to have sat in the darkness, cursing the people who borrowed, but did not return, your candle.
Elizabeth and Kathryn bought this same book on the same day – to the surprise of absolutely no one – so we’ll be doing a joint review this week. It’s a twin thing.
Kathryn here. Remember last April, when I posted a review of Fragile Things and complained about the fact that it had been over eight years since Neil Gaiman (one of my favorite authors) had released a collection of short stories (one of my favorite literary formats)? You can imagine how happy I was last week to get my copy of Trigger Warning – Short Fictions and Disturbances. Neil went for a slightly grimmer tone for this book: twenty-five dark little stories of murders and obsessions, forbidden knowledge and technologies, and twisted fairy tales.
(Hey, Universe? As long as you’re granting wishes, I’d also like a pony.)
First of all, don’t skip the introduction. That goes for any of Neil Gaiman’s short-story collections; Gaiman writes the best introductions in the business. For this book he talks about why the short story format was always his favorite as a reader (a self-contained world in a tiny space, something I agree with wholeheartedly), discusses the phenomenon of the trigger warning and why he’s a little leery of the concept, and as usual he includes a tiny short story as a bonus inside the introduction itself! He also goes into detail about each of the stories: how he came up with the idea, what he was going for when he wrote it, and which of his favorite authors the story is an homage to. It’s fascinating stuff, and I always read every description before the story itself, since he’s never spoiled the ending of a story for me.
No spoilers is especially important for this book, because most of these stories (almost all of them, actually) have to be read a second time. At some point in the tale there will be a reveal that changes everything that you thought the story was telling you.
It’s hard to pick favorites in a book like this, but I really enjoyed “A Lunar Labyrinth” for it’s folksy, storytelling tone. Long ago, there was a labyrinth made of rosemary. The local townspeople would walk the maze at nighttime, and there was a different goal and a different result depending on what phase of the moon was lighting the way. There’s something…unsettling going on with the narrator here. It’s never completely explained, but you get the idea a lot more happened in his travels to local oddities than he’s saying.
Neil Gaiman is a master of re-told fairy tales, and “The Sleeper and the Spindle” is a lovely example of this. It’s also a great example of a story that changes on the second read-through; Gaiman wrote in his introduction that he started thinking about two different fairy tales, and wondered what it would be like if the princesses were active participants in the story, rather than just waiting around to be rescued. I had thought that this was going to be a simple gender swap, but it’s more complicated than that. The character’s history, the relationship with the dwarfs, the rescue of the beautiful princess, it’s much more than a simple “replace the handsome Prince with a Warrior Queen.”
“The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains…” has a very satisfying ending, or at the very least the main character’s final bit of dialog was exactly what I was hoping for. It’s not a happy story, in fact it’s the exact opposite of that, but I still liked the main character, and I was left hoping that the cave let him keep something that would let him be happy again, one day. (The answer to the mystery of the story bugged me though. I was left thinking “they couldn’t have gotten away?” But I read it in the illustrated book Neil mentions in the description, it’s possible the picture made the situation look more escapable than it really was. ~ Elizabeth)
“A Calendar of Tales” is one I’ve read before, and I still love the concept. Gaiman asked his Twitter followers random questions about the months of the year (“Why is January dangerous? “What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen in July?”) and he took the twelve answers he found the most interesting and wrote a mini story for each one. “May Tale” was probably the creepiest; the image of someone staring at the ceiling with the phrase “SECURE YOUR OWN MASK BEFORE HELPING OTHERS” dripping green paint on the floor stuck in my head for quite a while. Although I have to admit the igloo made of books and an arctic world made of literature in “July Tale” appeals to me in a big way. (September sticks out in my mind because after a funny set up, the ending took a very ominous turn that I hadn’t been expecting. And October is just adorable. That’s the only way I can describe it, it’s perfectly adorable. ~ Elizabeth)
I’ll go ahead and second Kathryn’s advice to read the introduction. You never know what beautiful, disturbing little jewel he’ll hide in there.
The house in the story is based on my friend Tori’s house in Kinsale, Ireland, which is obviously not actually haunted, and the sound of people upstairs moving wardrobes around when you are downstairs there and alone is probably just something that old houses do when they think they are unobserved.
One of the more mind-boggling stories in the collection was “Orange.” It’s the answers to some kind of government questionnaire. That’s it, just the answers. You have to figure out what the questions were on your own. And since it’s written by a girl who’s sister got into a batch of imported chemicals, thinking it was tanning spray, the answers are really really odd. (I love how I can figure out what the questions were for most of the answers, but not all of them. Like answers 69 and 70; still not sure what those could be a response to. And also, “imaginatively weirdo” is a perfectly Gaiman sort of description. ~ Kathryn)
“The Case of Death and Honey” is a Sherlock Holmes story, and it honestly makes me hope that someday Stephen Moffat will let Neil write an episode of BBC’s “Sherlock.” It’s a quiet, clever story, and Neil has really captured the feel of Holmes and what he’d be like if he “retired.” And if you imagine that it’s narrated by Benedict Cumberbatch, it’s absolutely lovely.
“And Weep, Like Alexander” explains exactly why it’s 2015 and we still don’t have flying cars and hoverboards: because someone took care of that kind of nonsense for our own good. (And he’s not done either.)
“Black Dog” reunites us with Shadow, the main character of American Gods. He still hasn’t made it back to America, and the longer he travels around England the more likely he is to run into an old god, or monster, or ghost, or whatever. He’s seen more than enough of them, so he’d honestly rather leave them alone and hope they don’t notice him. That rarely happens. Something about him is a magnet for otherworldly things, and he’s much too curious to stay out of trouble. (This one bugged me, just a little bit. It’s still an excellent story, beautifully written, and I’m all for seeing Shadow in as many stories as possible. It’s just that the reveal to the mystery, well, it’s been done before. A lot. ~ Kathryn)
Of course that isn’t even half of the stories in the book, but if you let us we’d write a review longer than the actual book itself. You’d be much better off going out and grabbing yourself a copy. And try to forgive us for being greedy: we’re already looking forward to his next book. We’re hoping it won’t be a long wait.
(Maybe it’ll be delivered by that pony.)