First line (of the Introduction): "There are things that upset us."
A good book is always fun to read--I can't imagine not experiencing that pleasure regularly. But even beyond those good books, there are select books that become precious gifts. The words tumble from the pages to envelop you in magic and a giddy joy, even if they are also intended to scare or challenge you. Reading feels like eating a rich dessert you're trying desperately to stretch as far as possible, savoring each and every morsel as if it's the first bite. Neil Gaiman's Trigger Warnings: Short Fictions and Disturbances is just such a book.
This collection of short stories may not all be new to many long-time Gaiman fans, but I'm in the midst of experiencing his work for the first time and the adventure is nothing short of exhilarating to me. As many of you know, my introduction to his work was courtesy of a friend's recommendation that I listen to The Graveyard Book on audio. I was immediately hooked, so when I was offered the opportunity to read Trigger Warnings, I couldn't resist it.
I spread the stories out over three sittings and during each, I regularly wanted to stop and read the words aloud to someone else--my pets are learning a lot about Neil Gaiman by the way--because it wasn't enough to hear them in my head, I wanted to hear them in actual sound waves as well. In the midst of a horror story there could be such elegant beauty. For example, in "Feminine Endings," the eerie story of a human statue, Gaiman writes, "In my country we smile in bursts, like the sun coming out and illuminating the fields and then retreating again behind the a cloud too soon. Smiles are valuable here, and rare." This creepy love story works exactly that way. The reader can't help but smile in bursts at the gorgeous turn of phrase, imagery, sound and then feel chills at the scary thread of the plot.
Chuckle-worthy humor finds its way into the most unusual places, making what could have been mundane explode with colorful laughter. Another horror short called "Click-Clack the Rattlebag" involves discussion between a small boy and his sister's new boyfriend, as told from the perspective of the elder. In the midst of talking about evil creatures like vampires and "Click-Clacks":
"'Coke is very bad for you,' said the boy. 'If you put a tooth in Coke, in the morning, it will be dissolved into nothing. That's how bad Coke is for you and why you must always clean your teeth, every night.'
I'd heard the Coke story as a boy, and had been told, as an adult, that it wasn't true, but was certain a lie which promoted dental hygiene was a good lie, and I let it pass."
Gaiman writes from male and female perspectives, first and third person perspectives. His characters are young and old, dead and alive. And regardless of the approach he takes, the dialogue is stunning, sharp and engaging. He breaks so-called "writing rules" like avoiding adverbs, using only "said" for dialogue and avoiding adverbs with "said." The result is vivid imagery and soul-grabbing stories:
"'Well,' he said, sagely, soberly, a small voice from the darkness beside me, 'once you're just bones and skin, they hang you up on a hook, and you rattle in the wind.'"
--"Click-Clack the Rattlebag"
"'Then,' boomed Luthius Limn, decisively, 'we shall go through the wall.'"
--"An Invocation of Incuriousity"
"'You are here to rescue yourself,' she corrected him. Her voice was almost a whisper, like the breeze that shook the dead blossoms."
--"The Return of the Thin White Duke"
The poem selections bestrewn throughout the collection are almost hard to differentiate. Their physical composition (and sometimes meter) more than their content sets them apart. Imagery, story, and place abound in the poems as well as the shorts, one poem--"In Relig Odhráin"--even started out to be a short, but the meter worked its way in and the result is captivating. In his introduction, Gaiman refers to the poems as "bonuses." They are indeed.
While I loved reading each and every entry in this collection, and especially the Introduction--do NOT skip the introduction--among my favorites were three entries and each a favorite for different reasons.
"'And Weep, Like Alexander'" is a whimsical story of an uninventor. I conjured Dr. Seuss as I giggled along to why we don't have jet-packs or flying cars or the Mockett Telepathic Translator. Then re-read and read aloud parts like,
"'It's all about unpicking probability threads from the fabric of creation. Which is a bit like unpicking a needle from a haystack. But they tend to be long and tangled, like spaghetti. So it's rather like having to unpick a strand of spaghetti from a haystack.'"
And when the story ends with Obediah Polkinghorn envisioning his next uninvention, I couldn't help but start thinking about what I would want to uninvent.
"A Calendar of Tales" is made of up twelve tales, each named by the months of a year. January grabbed me immediately. While I'm a finicky science fiction reader, this short tale was everything I adore in the genre. The symbolism, the imagery, the energy of this story all made my heart speed up just a bit with enthusiasm and excitement.
Each month's tale has its own distinct flavor and color. There are pirates and ducks and the most wonderful igloo of books. There's science fiction and fantasy and adventure. It's kind of like the Hershey's Miniatures package of candy: whatever you want, it's in there. My heart fluttered as I read, "And then I crawled out, and I lay on my back on the ice and stared up at the unexpected colors of the shimmering Northern Lights, and listened to the cracks and snaps of the distant ice as an iceberg of fairy tales calved from a glacier of books on mythology."
Finally, the story that stood out to me above all others was "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury." This emotionally-charged tribute to the author, as well as literature in general, is brilliantly constructed to uncork a passion and exuberance in the reader, much the way a charismatic leader does in his/her followers. I silently--and then vocally--punched the words, accelerated pace, I orated the energy that pulsed from the words:
"He wrote a story about Poe, to stop Poe being forgotten, about a future where they burn books and they forget them, and in the story we are on Mars although we might as well be in Waukegan or Los Angeles, as critics, as those who would repress or forget books, as those who would take the words, all the words, dictionaries and radios full of words, as those people are walked through a house and murdered, one by one, by orangutan, by pit and pendulum, for the love of God, Montressor..."
And as the story calmly came to an end, I could think of nothing else but the fact that I would be honored, nay humbled, to be charged with remembering Neil Gaiman.
Trigger Warnings is a keeper collection. These are stories that can and should be explored and enjoyed over and over. They should be silently contemplated, read aloud and read to others. They should be coveted and shared. And they should above all be remembered.
I have often envied people discovering an author's work for the first time--the bliss that comes with reading their words and having them all be brand new. This time I'm the one experiencing that wonder and elation and I'm savoring every... single... morsel.
Trigger Warnings: Short Fictions and Disturbances is available from William Morrow tomorrow in hardcover (ISBN: 9780062330260). There is also an unabridged audio (ISBN: 9780062373687), narrated by Gaiman, from Harper Audio--I'm definitely going to seek this one out.