ShrieksOut: Trigger Warning (Neil Gaiman)

      I've been a Neil Gaiman fan since early adolescence, and to this day very few things excite me as much leaving the bookstore with his latest release. Whether his name is on the cover of a comic book, an illustrated story for children, a young adult novel, or, a rare gift, a full length fantasy epic, I'm always confident that I'm about to enjoy myself when I turn to the first page. However, despite being a success in all areas of fiction, there is no bigger thrill for me as a lover of the printed word than when I leave the store with a new collection of his short stories. Trigger Warning, Gaiman's third collected set of short fiction after 1998's Smoke and Mirrors and 2006's Fragile Things, fed my imagination and my heart in all the ways I hoped for and more.

     Although American Gods, his longest book, is widely believed to be his best work, I think Gaiman is at his strongest when it comes to short stories. It is here, in the realm of short fiction, that I feel like I get to experience the real sense of just how huge and varied his imagination really is. In Trigger Warning, he revisits a lot of familiar themes that have recurred throughout his body of work -- chief among these, the blending of classic myths and archetypes with contemporary language, locales, and storytelling -- but does so with a true mastery of prose that keeps things fresh and exciting for long term fans.

     Sometimes, this deep into a successful career, authors tend to stick to familiar styles and ways of storytelling, but Gaiman experiments and plays around in Trigger Warning in ways that were really fun to read. In this collection, Gaiman pays tribute to those who came before and inspired him. Part of the charm of this set of stories is that it was clearly written by someone who, like us, is a fan of stories, albeit one who seems almost supernaturally gifted at creating his own in response. In his Harlan Ellison-inspired introduction, he says that "writers live in houses other people built", and while that's certainly true, Gaiman has moved in and done some major redecorating.

     In addition to Ellison, Gaiman pays tribute here to Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories in the trippy, Locus Award-winning "An Invocation of Curiosity". There is also a heartfelt tribute to one of his biggest inspirations in "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury", which also serves as a love letter to fans of that great man with a lot of fun references to his stories. Ray Bradbury taught many of us to dream, and it's encouraging to see that subsequent generations of writers have continued to dream of crisp Halloween nights and bittersweet dramas on Mars.

     There are also stories that, in lesser hands, could be considered fan-fiction. With Neil's genius, though, familiar tropes are completely reinvented. For instance, I never think of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories as being particularly beautiful. But here, in the wonderful "The Case of Death and Honey", Gaiman gives us Mr. Holmes's last case and made me cry in the process. The music of David Bowie and the beautiful art of Yoshitaka Amano give birth to the strange and beautiful "The Return of the Thin White Duke", which reads as a sort of mashup of Poe and Dunsany. Fans of Doctor Who -- there are many -- will be delighted to find a story about The Doctor here.

     Putting new twists on classic fairy tales is one of the things that Gaiman does best, and has done in the past with great success. I admit to being skeptical when I saw that he was revisiting Sleeping Beauty here, thinking it had been done before and had probably been done better by him with "Snow, Glass, Apples" and its terrifying twist on the Snow White story. "The Sleeper and the Spindle" made me shut up and stop whining when I was presented with a queen wearing armor and weapons instead of gowns and high heels. Sleeping Beauty has been told many ways, but never like this, and this story is a great feminist response to one of the most sexist Disneyfied myths we have. Fans of American Gods will also be pleased to see Shadow's return in "Black Dog", a great creepy ghost story in the classic British sense. With all respect to Shirley Jackson and Stephen King, I still maintain that there is no better setting for a ghost story than the English countryside.

     There is a lot to love in Trigger Warning. The pivotal piece of this collection, though, is "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...". I cannot say enough good things about this story. It has appeared twice previously, first in Stories, a 2010 collection edited by Gaiman and Al Sarrantonio (worth it for a great Joe Hill story, as well as contributions from Lawrence Block, Joyce Carol Oates, Chuck Palahniuk, Peter Straub, and others), and again on its own with gorgeous illustrations by Eddie Campbell. This story is one of my favorites by any author, and the one that I would probably offer up if I was trying to introduce someone to Gaiman for the first time. The narrator, a twist on the classic cunning, gold-seeking dwarf, is a perfect lens through which Gaiman can show us what he does best with his usurping of classic fairytale tropes. It's fascinating to experience a story from the point of view of a sort of character that generally only appears as a one dimensional demon, and to be given glimpses of the kind of inner monologue such a creature might have.

"I am old now, or at least, I am no longer young, and everything I see reminds me of something else I've seen, such that I see nothing for the first time. A bonny girl, her hair fiery red, reminds me only of another hundred such lasses, and their mothers, and what they were as they grew, and what they looked like when they died. It is the curse of age, that all things are reflections of other things."

     This short but wonderful story not only showcase Gaiman at his best, but also show us what fiction at its best can do: allow us to see the world through completely different eyes and perspectives. If you're skeptical about giving this collection a try, or haven't read Neil Gaiman before, seek this one story out and give it a shot. Chances are you'll be hooked.

      Each story in this collection -- the longest reaching around 30 pages, with some as short as a couple of paragraphs -- creates its own self contained miniature world and shows how great the short story as an art form can be in the right hands. With the publishing world in a transitional state right now, the short story, long relegated to the realm of "lesser" fiction compared to its bigger and more attention grabbing cousin, The Novel, is making a comeback. With Alice Munro winning the Nobel Prize in 2013 and the ability to self-publish quickly and cheaply on electronic devices, I'm happy to see the short story being given more appreciation as a valid and valuable art form in its own right, and if you're looking for a set to take your imagination to wonderful new places, Trigger Warning is the best I've seen in many years. Rating: A

@robrussin