Trigger Warning

Two articles ago, I stated that I have started reading short stories between full-length books. Now I have made a liar of myself because I just read the entirety of Neil Gaiman's short story collection Trigger Warning all at once. The fact that this book was loaned to me may have inspired the straight-on-til-morning approach. Too often will someone lend a book to me that I do not read immediately and it ends up sitting on the floor where I stack books I do not own until I grow tired of vacuuming around it at which point I move it to a shelf or table until I grow tired of dusting around it at which point I either read it in a huff or just return the poor thing to its owner, unread. I am trying to change that behavior and so started Trigger Warning straight away.

I had never read Neil Gaiman before, which sounds sacrilegious for a person who claims to be an avid reader, but seeing as how there are thousands of authors and millions of books, I grant myself a pass. One simply cannot read all the things, but Gaiman seems so beloved by so many that I felt I was missing out. This feeling has grown especially strong in recent months as the television series American Gods, based on Gaiman's novel of the same name, became appointment television and water cooler material for so many of my friends and colleagues. I have now read Gaiman and I am pleased to be able to say that, but after finishing Trigger Warning, I do not feel as though I understand the depth of the man's talent everyone else seems to recognize.

While some short story collections are a series of tales written in an author's established style and voice, other collections can serve as a sampler platter, allowing the author to experiment with styles and subjects. Trigger Warning is certainly the latter and Gaiman earns points for that. He peppers poetry throughout the book and presents original stories featuring other authors' characters such as Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Who. I particularly enjoyed the Doctor Who story "Nothing O'Clock" though I have no frame of reference because I have never seen a single episode of the television series, a fact my friends who number among the show's fans will not let me forget. Some of Gaiman's other stories are creepy ("Click-Clack the Rattlebag" made my hair stand on end), some fantastic ("The Thing About Cassandra" is one of those stories that makes you say whaaaaaat), some melancholy. "The Sleeper and the Spindle" is an excellent re-imagining of the two classic fairy tales "Sleeping Beauty" and "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs". Gaiman also revisits his American Gods protagonist Baldur "Shadow" Moon in a new, original story--and one of my favorites of the entire collection--"Black Dog" as an English countryside thunderstorm forces Shadow to take shelter in an English pub nestled in a picturesque town with a spooky secret.

The best story of the collection has to be the award-winning "The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains...", a revenge story of high caliber. The story is so good that Gaiman took it on tour. Beginning at the Opera House in the stunning Sydney, Australia--which is well worth the trip if you have ever had the urge to visit--and eventually traveling to the United States, England, and Scotland, Gaiman performed his story before sold-out concert halls backed by the Fourplay string quartet with original artwork by Eddie Williams projected on a screen above the stage. It sounds like it would have been a wonderful experience so I have been searching the Internet for a recording. All I have found is the audio version which lacks Williams's artwork, but I may spring for it if I cannot find a video recording.

These gems aside, I found many of the stories forgettable and it is disappointing that I have to say that. After I finished the last story, I flipped to the table of contents to review the story titles and discovered I had little to no memory of many of them and it took a skim to jog my memory. They can't all be winners, but I find myself wondering if this collection is a good representation of Neil Gaiman. I am going to have to find another volume of his works and give him a second try. I hear Good Omens is great, and American Gods. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to read this book. My favorable memory of the good stories far outweigh the unmemorable pieces so my overall experience was positive. That is the great trait of short story collections though, isn't it? If you do not care for the piece you are reading, there is another a few short pages away that you might enjoy.

Have you read Neil Gaiman? Do you have any recommendations for which of his works I should try next?



I do not often read short stories. There is no good reason for this other than I find myself picking up a full-length novel most of the time when I am in the mood for fiction. On rare occasion though, I find myself with a short story collection in my hands. I discovered Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams sitting on the New Science Fiction Releases shelf at my local bookstore… X number of years ago. Holy smokes, I just opened the book to the publisher page to check the book’s publication date and found the retail receipt, yellowing and so faded that the print is barely legible. February 23, 2008.  Okay, so I have owned this book for nearly ten years. Like I said, I do not often read short stories.

A couple of years ago, however, I decided to read a short story between each book or two. This would allow me to continue reading something while putting my thoughts together for my blog entry about the previous long-form work. The practice has worked rather well and I have read some excellent short stories recently, be they in short story collections like Wastelands or in literature magazines like Tin House or Analog.

Wastelands is an impressive anthology of post-apocalypse stories written by some literary stars like Stephen King, George R.R. Martin, and Octavia Butler. It also introduced me to several writers who may be known to more prolific readers than I but who are new to me. Discovering a new writer is such a treat and that is the greatest benefit of anthologies such as these. All of the stories in Wastelands are good and some are downright great. I read the book over the course of a few years and do not recall every story, but a few notables stand out in my memory. “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” by George R.R. Martin was the first story in the collection that elicited a palpable emotional reaction. Cory Doctorow’s “When SysAdmins Ruled the Earth” is funny, not in a comedic way but rather in its truth and plausibility. I suppose that makes it frightening as well, but all of the stories in Wastelands are frightening in one way or another. “The Last of the O-Forms” by James Van Pelt and “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus” by Neal Barrett Jr. follow resourceful wasteland entrepreneurs traveling from town to town with their carriages of curiosities, trading pleasure and fascination for another gallon of rare gas or a hot meal. I found myself amused that, when civilization falls and society reverts to tribalism, there may still be traveling showmen doing what they know how to do to, hoping the people they meet want what they have to offer enough to pay for it. “Killers” by Carol Emshwiller tells the story of a young woman struggling to survive in a remote town years after a domestic war has plunged her nation into a pre-industrial period. Maybe the war still wages. They do not know because the men who went off to fight it more than a decade ago have not returned and the modern society and infrastructure has collapsed so there is no news, no radio. Then a mysterious man appears at her window one night, filthy and starving. Who is he? Dale Bailey’s “The End of the World As We Know It” was a different kind of apocalypse story. It was deeply personal and the second story in the collection to cause some feels. I loved Bailey’s writing style and would like to read more from him. There are many more stories in this anthology, all of them well worth reading.

The most terrifying aspect of apocalypse fiction is that so many of the situations presented in the stories can actually happen. Perhaps these tales can serve to as a warning and help us prepare. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse is a great anthology, the first compiled by editor John Joseph Adams. He has opened my eyes to the true value of story anthologies and you can bet I will more willing to grab one off the shelf if I see his name on it. I highly recommend it for fans of the apocalypse subgenre, but I think any science fiction fan would enjoy it. Even readers of more mainstream novels like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road will find a lot to like in this collection even if they claim to not enjoy genre fiction.