Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman

My role here is mostly superfluous -- if you happened to miss that Neil Gaiman had a new short-story collection in 2015 (despite all of William Morrow's most strenuous efforts), you've suddenly realized it now. I suppose it's not precisely impossible that someone may be reading this blog on the Internet and not be familiar with Gaiman, but I find that unlikely on the raining-pennies-from-heaven level.

So, at this point, I'm talking to two audiences. First, the people who like Gaiman's work, and either have already read Trigger Warning or have it on that big shelf of things they fully intend to get to "someday." And, secondly, the people who just don't like Gaiman.

I won't try to characterize the second group, since taste is so subjective. There are writers I respect but never will warm to (that old dullard Henry James primary among them), and writers I haven't the least bit of respect for but will never say so in public. I'm sure it's the same way with Gaiman. He often has a tinge of horror to his work, especially in the shorter forms, and, as a reader who generally hates horror, I can see that turning off a number of readers. Maybe some people find him too twee, or two verbose, or too roundabout, or just too British. Or the opposite of all of those things, for all I know: we are all idiosyncratic.

Anyway: I doubt I'll convince you, folks in Group Two. I might suggest that you might not just have clicked, and a look at some of his best short stories ("Snow, Glass, Apples" is still my choice there, or "The Problem With Susan," though this book's "'The Truth Is a Cave In the Black Mountains...'" is very close) or graphic novels (Violent Cases with Dave McKean, or Black Orchid also with McKean) or novels (The Ocean at the End of the Lane or Coraline, both nicely compact) could perhaps show you something you actually do like.

But time is short and books are near-infinite. You have no obligation to give anyone a second chance -- or a first one, for that matter.

I do think you're missing something, though: Gaiman is that unicorn of the literary world, a subtle writer who is a regular bestseller. He's a writer's writer who somehow wrote himself into a reader's reader audience, and has maintained it for close to thirty years now, across two and a half media (comics and prose and somewhat movies). That's rare and worth celebrating; writers like Gaiman are usually the ones who their compatriots love and whose books appear in small editions from presses with strange names.

But Trigger Warning, despite being that very unfashionable thing, a collection of short stories --  containing a fair bit of poetry as well -- was a major bestseller a couple of years back, and is now a very respectable trade paperback with a book-club guide in the back and everything. (And Gaiman has another bestseller at the moment in his retelling of Norse Mythology; I begin to suspect he made a pact with an infernal power many years back for such success at unlikely writing projects.)

I should provide some consumer information here: Trigger Warning contains exactly two dozen works of prose and poetry -- much more of the former than the latter, for those of you allergic to verse -- all but one and a half of which were originally published between 2004 and 2013. (The American Gods-related novella "Black Dog" is completely original, and "The Return of the Thin White Duke" contains a first half published in V Magazine -- no, I've never heard of it, either -- and a second half only written when Gaiman assembled this collection in 2014.) Gaiman completists will likely have read much of this -- "'The Truth Is a Cave In the Black Mountains...'" and "The Sleeper and the Spindle" both appeared as individual, illustrated books in the past several years, for example. But much of it, particularly the poetry, is more obscure, and will be new to all but a few obsessives.

There are a number of quite short, mostly borderline-horror stories, including "A Calendar of Tales," which is twelve of them all together -- all well-done, but of necessity small things -- and a story about Gaiman's particular favorite Dr. Who incarnation, which is quite good for sharecropping work. The long stories -- "Nothing O'Clock," the Dr. Who piece, along with "Black Dog" and the two already published in illustrated form -- are the standouts here, as one would expect.

If you've never read any Gaiman short fiction, go to Smoke and Mirrors first. It's not so much that he was better when he was younger as that his time was spent more on short fiction then, so there's more strongly invested work there. But if you're keeping up with him, more or less, this is an excellent collection of work by a writer who is never satisfied with the almost-right word or a story that blatantly tells you what it's about.

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