Neil Gaiman’s third volume of short stories, Trigger Warning is a strange, eclectic collection that fails to follow one of Gaiman’s own tests by assembling stories ‘hodgepodge and willy-nilly’ but nevertheless still feels totally appropriate for a book of Gaiman stories. There’s a little bit of everything in here – poetry, stories both long (ish) and (very) short, ghosts, Doctor Who, Sherlock Holmes, saints, dogs, David Bowie, and all sorts of captivatingly strange goings-on. They range in length, style, structure, genre, each one standing separate but contributing to a whole that’s occasionally confusing but always interesting, and very, very appropriate to Neil Gaiman.
A book like this does its best to defy reviewing, lacking as it is in theme or ongoing narrative, but there’s plenty to talk about. Putting all thoughts of length and structure aside, it’s clear throughout that to get the best of this book you do need to be, if not already familiar with Gaiman’s style, at least inclined to enjoy the strange and the unsettling. There’s very little here that isn’t at least a little bit odd, which means that there is still a theme of sorts – Gaiman talks about it in his introduction, referring to the choice of title and its reflection that each of us have our own triggers, things which push our buttons and make us feel uncomfortable. Chances are that in amongst these stories there’s something which at least comes close to your own trigger.
Certainly existing fans of Gaiman are likely to get the most out of this. There’s the Doctor Who story, clearly written as a Matt Smith-era story and drawing on Gaiman’s well-publicised love of the franchise, which transcends the TV show’s creaky graphics and over-acting (yes yes, personal preference of course) to deliver a suitably timey-wimey tale of quick thinking and genuinely creepy baddies. There’s also an American Gods tale, in which Shadow finds himself in rural Derbyshire getting caught up in some unexpected unfinished business, and which provides a delightful return to a much-loved character. Serious fans may in fact have come across some or most of these stories elsewhere, with all but one having been previously published either in other anthologies or, in the case of The Sleeper and the Spindle and Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains as standalone volumes.
So it’s weird, but good. It’s not perfect though – even accounting for each individual reader’s tolerance for tie-in stories or peculiar poems or stories which don’t really have a start, middle and end, there’s a question mark over the order in which the stories appear. It’s hard not to feel that the first couple are the weakest of the lot, which makes it a little tough to get into, but once past those early obstacles it opens up into a fascinating window into the brain of one of our bravest and most imaginative authors. It may well prove a little too brave for some, while others might argue that it could benefit from a little less imagination and a little more focus, but that’s sort of the point of it. You can imagine Gaiman compiling these stories with a little smile on his face, thinking of all the different ways people might interpret them. You get the sense he’s happy whatever you think, as long as something’s made you think.