Trigger Warning: Short Stories & Disturbances by Neil Gaiman (book review).

As the back cover of this volume, ‘Trigger Warning: Short Stories & Disturbances’, shows, Neil Gaiman is a writer who gets rave reviews even in the quality press, a part of the fourth estate where fantasy and Science Fiction used to get short shrift. His novels top bestseller lists and win awards but short story collections by even the greatest are, alas, difficult to sell nowadays. Happily, he loves them and continues to produce them and this book is a nice mixture of short stories, shorter shorts, very short shorts indeed and poems.

I’ll start with a few of the longer shorts . . .


There’s always been a lot of pressure on teenage lads to get a girlfriend, now more than ever, so it’s not surprising that some might lie to impress their mates. ‘The Thing About Cassandra’ is based on a clever premise and proceeds with it quite nicely but I found the end a bit flat. It’s worth mentioning here that Gaiman portrays real, everyday life in modern England very accurately. A man chatting to his mum or mates out for a few pints, edgy first dates and so on. This is probably what makes the fantastic or horrific twist work so well when it happens. Stephen King does the same trick with carefully crafted mundane American life.

Another of the longer stories is ‘Black Dog’, about a traveller in the English countryside who falls in with an odd couple and discovers an ancient secret. It stands alone very well but is probably even better if you’ve read Gaiman’s ‘American Gods’ as it features Shadow Moon, a character from that novel.

A few of the tales are about other people’s characters. There’s a delightful Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Case Of Death And Honey’ which makes it clear why the great detective took up beekeeping in retirement. Set far from the foggy London underworld, it’s not at all what you would expect.

The ‘Doctor Who story,’ on the other hand, is what you would expect if you’re a fan of the show. It’s clever and involves big concepts and a bit of Time Lord history, too. ‘Nothing O’Clock’ was previously published in ‘Doctor Who: 11 Doctors, 11 Stories’ so if you’re a rabid Who fan who isn’t interested in the other stuff you don’t need to buy this book to get it, you can buy that one. Gaiman won’t mind. He’s a fan himself and sells quite a lot of books anyway.

‘The Thin White Duke’ is a fantasy that’s kind of about the Bowie character of that name but I should point out that ‘Diamonds And Pearls: A Fairy Tale’ has nothing to do with Prince, even though the late lamented had a name fit for such a story. He was still around when this was published.

‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains…’ is set in Scotland. A dwarf turns up at the house of Callum MacInnes and asks to be taken to the Misty Isle where there is a cave he seeks. The dwarf has secrets that are slowly revealed as the tale progresses. Gaiman tells it in gentle, rhythmic prose like a classic fairy tale but there is plenty of darkness here, not just in the cave. It won both the Shirley Jackson and Locus Awards for best novelette and it’s a treat. The book is worth buying if only for this.

There are, however, many other reasons to buy it. Some of the shorter tales are startlingly effective and Gaiman manages to get a lot of impact with few words. ‘Jerusalem’ is nicely evocative of the extreme atmosphere of that place and tells a story, too. ‘Click-Clack The Rattlebag’ has a nice young man putting his girlfriend’s little brother to bed because the little chap is scared then getting scared himself.

At his best, Gaiman can out-Bradbury Ray Bradbury. He pays homage to his predecessor with ‘The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury’. Not a particularly great yarn but does a nice job of referencing the best stuff from that classic author.

The sheer quantity of briefer works means that it would be tedious to mention them all individually so I’ll focus on the highlights. ’Down To A Sunless Sea’ is a shipwreck story with a nasty twist. ‘My Last Landlady’ is set in the seedy Brighton of old and laid out like a poem but that works in getting the story across. ‘A Calendar Of Tales’ consists of a dozen short shorts of varying quality. In general, these are quite good, given the limitations of the form, and even the poetry makes sense

The legions of would-be, amateur and semi-pro writers like a collection that has some words from the author about how the stories came to be. Gaiman admits in his introduction that he liked those sorts of collections, too, especially from his favourite writers like Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison. Therefore he gives us that kind of introduction with a bit of information on every story. It’s interesting.

It seems to me that the fantasists are better writers or at least better prose stylists, than Science Fiction writers. This may be because the latter are focused on new ideas and need clarity more than anything else while the fantasists are, let’s face it, recycling the same hoary old stuff about ghosts, goblins, vampires, werewolves and so forth and rely more on mood and character. The best writers I have read in my long reviewing career are Fred Chappell and Peter S. Beagle. Neil Gaiman is in their league. He doesn’t always hit the spot – what author does? – but work like ‘The Truth Is A Cave In The Black Mountains…’ puts him up there in the first division. His outpourings are recommended by Philip Pullman, A.S. Byatt, Hugo Rifkind and, for what it’s worth, me.

Eamonn Murphy

April 2016

(pub: Headline, 2015. 352 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £18.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-4722-1768-4)

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